How Freeskier Jess McMillan Stays in Shape All Year
The world's most successful freeskier and Warren Miller film star says big-mountain fitness starts at home
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Jess McMillan doesn’t love getting older. “Turning 40 was terrible,” she says. She’s worried that her day job, as the events coordinator at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, is eating into her ski time, and at 41, she knows she has to work a little harder to keep in shape for her annual big ski trips. But unlike her fellow age-adverse obsessives, McMillan is the most successful freeskier of all time. With a career that included transitioning from a traditional ski racer to a freeskiing champion, McMillan now travels the world to appear in videos by Warren Miller Entertainment. “My favorite thing is to always try something new,” McMillan says. “Explore a different part of skiing. Challenge yourself.”
McMillan grew up in Jackson Hole and found herself on the slopes out of necessity—the $100 season pass to the local hill, Snow King, was the cheapest day care her parents could find. “I’d eat horrible candy and rip around with my friends all day long,” McMillan says, describing her childhood. After racing downhill throughout college, McMillan was teaching ski racing in Jackson Hole when a friend told her about the Freeride World Tour, a series of events that has skiers tackle the most challenging alpine faces in the world, hucking cliffs, dropping couloirs, and screaming down steeps for points. “I was coaching and sitting on the sidelines, but I didn’t feel like I was done,” McMillan says. “I didn’t know what my next step should be, and traveling the world for the Freeride World Tour sounded perfect.”
She spent almost a decade competing on the tour, winning more competitions than any male or female skier before or since, including eight first-place finishes, a U.S. Freeskiing Championship, and a Freeskiing World Tour Championship. After retiring in 2012, McMillan set her sights on expedition skiing and filming, appearing in different movies and editorial projects. She’s probably best known for her appearances in Warren Miller’s perennial films and has worked with the world-famous production company for nine years in a row. “There’s nothing like standing on the top of a peak, knowing that you’re going to ski perfect powder, and it’s all on you,” McMillan says. “There’s this feeling of freedom and pressure and expectation and fear all in one moment.”
While the public only sees a few minutes of hard-charging, jaw-dropping lines from McMillan in these movies, the shoots are quite labor-intensive, demanding an incredible amount of physicality from the skier. For last year’s Face of Winter, McMillan took a bush plane deep into the backcountry of Alaska’s Denali National Park, where she skinned for hours to ski burly, big-mountain lines for the camera. “A lot of these expeditions now, you’re doing it all by foot, putting in 16-hour days in the mountains,” McMillan says. “You sleep in the cold, and you carry all your food and gear on your back. And you do it with a smile on your face, because you have to love it all. And I do. I like the suffering.”
“There’s nothing like standing on the top of a peak, knowing that you’re going to ski perfect powder, and it’s all on you.”
With her full-time job, McMillan has to work twice as hard to make sure she’s physically ready to suffer when the opportunity arises. “When I was competing, I was always out skiing, and climbing the Tetons, and skiing the backcountry off the tram at Jackson Hole,” McMillan says. “It was just part of my lifestyle, which made staying in shape easy.”
To make sure she’s still “expedition strong,” McMillan hits the gym two days a week with a trainer, walking through Olympic-style weight exercises. She incorporates explosive movements, like box jumps, to help keep her fast-twitch muscles firing. “If I were a marathoner, I’d still be in my prime, but I don’t want to run a marathon,” McMillan says. “I want to ski big mountains.” She also works in exercises like jumping rope and BOSU ball single-leg deadlifts to hone her reaction time and balance, which tend to diminish in aging athletes and are necessary for tackling tough lines. “I’m trying to make sure that I’m as strong as I can be,” she says. “There’s a huge mental aspect to these expeditions, because you’re dealing with snowpack and avalanche safety, but if something does go wrong, you have to know you are strong enough to help your team out.”
Staying strong also means hitting the Pilates studio once a week to focus on flexibility and strengthening stabilizing muscles. McMillan says the practice has been key to keeping her entire body in balance, something that’s difficult for most adventure athletes, where years of repetitive motions lead to muscular imbalances. “A lot of mountain athletes get quad heavy, while their glutes and hamstrings turn off altogether,” McMillan says. “Pilates focuses on one muscle at a time, so you can really zero in on any weak link and make sure those stabilizing muscles that surround the big muscles are strong and firing.”
But McMillan recognizes she can’t rely solely on the gym to get her into ski-expedition shape. Whether she’s prepping for a multi-day backcountry tour through Denali or a week of skiing powder in Summit County, Colorado, McMillan says she looks for mini epics in her own backyard as a measuring stick for her fitness level.
“I set big goals for myself every summer and winter—these little adventures around Jackson Hole that I know I need to tick off every season to stay at my best,” she says. “Maybe it’s a certain mountain-bike ride, or summiting every peak in the Tetons every summer, or skiing my five favorite backcountry lines in the winter.”
McMillan insists that pushing through a series of smaller adventures keeps your mind and body sharp. And you don’t have to live at the base of the Grand Tetons to find worthy goals to set for yourself. “Anywhere you live,” she says, “you can find those epics you love and check them off each season, so you’re ready when big adventure calls.”