Warren Miller’s new film features the thrilling mix of paragliding and freeskiing

By Jennifer Rothman

Photo courtesy of Warren Miller

Photo courtesy of Warren Miller

Have you ever looked up at a massive, snowy mountain face that appeared to have the perfect run but was off limits due to one or more vertical cliffs interrupting your dream line? Legendary Tahoe freeskier and Warren Miller athlete JT Holmes brings a unique solution to the problem of cliffs on a big mountain line: speed riding.

Congratulations on your segment in Warren Miller Entertainment’s next film, No Turning Back, in which you and Ulei Kestenholz share your speed riding adventures in Switzerland. How would you describe speed riding to the layperson and how has it has developed as a sport over the last few years?
Speed riding is the ideal way of combining skiing and flying. One can transition from sliding on snow and gliding through the air at will. It really is like 3D skiing.

It seems extremely dangerous and requires specific conditions and a specific type of athlete. Tell us about the calculated risks and what you would tell someone who thinks he or she may have what it takes to pursue it.
Speed flying actually is not that dangerous. Everyone should try it!

Really? Not that dangerous? You have to qualify what you mean by “everyone” as I am sure my octogenarian grandmother wouldn’t constitute a viable candidate …
Here is the thing. If you approach speed riding with a risk aware mindset and a step by step approach to your learning curve it can be done safely. Like all airborne sports, there is the element of very real consequence. One must be very strict with oneself when it comes to conditions, be they snow conditions, elevation, or wind conditions. If you are strict and you are willing to say “no” and take the easy way down or go back to the cable car and down load, then you should be able to enjoy speed riding for a long time without injury. Now, should your octogenarian grandmother participate? Probably not, but I thank you very much for spurring me the occasion to look up what the word “octogenarian” means!

You’re welcome! Is the popularity of speed riding in Europe due mainly to the fact that Switzerland and Italy, for instance, possess the prime locations and potentially the ideal conditions? What are your thoughts on it taking flight, so to speak, in California and elsewhere in the US?
The popularity is due to the fact that they have ski resorts with more vertical feet and they have no rules banning this harmless sport. As far as it gaining popularity here in California and Nevada, the only thing inhibiting that is rules.

Photo courtesy of Warren Miller

Photo courtesy of Warren Miller

Are we looking at a large population of “illegal” speed riders taking to the slopes of Tahoe like we have with base jumping in major metropolitan cities due to the restrictive policies in place for these types of sports?
I do not believe that we are going to see rebel speed fliers poaching ski resorts left, right, and center. Why not? Well, most value their lift ticket/season pass enough and many are entertained enough by the best sport in the history of the world: skiing.

In 2009, you tragically lost your best friend, ski pioneer Shane McConkey, in a ski-base jumping accident in Italy. How was ski-base jumping the precursor to speed flying? Tell us what you’d imagine Shane would be doing these days and what he’d think of speed riding today?
Shane would be enjoying speed riding for sure, and he probably would have invented something that made it way better in one way or another. Ski base was the precursor to speed riding only in that it was the first way that Shane and I combined skiing and flying. We did it to be able to ski “close out lines” which are lines that are otherwise un-skiable due to a huge cliff. With speed riding, we are able to link multiple close out lines in one flight.

It’s likely that our readers are never going to experience speed flying. Can you take us on that ride with you for a moment? What goes through your mind? How do you get ready and stay focused?
Well, first off, nearly every time I launch one of those gliders I think to myself … oh boy, we are going fast. They do not call it slow riding for a reason. It is speed flying/speed riding because you are going fast. Then once it is open and pressurized it is all gravy. Super fun. Easy peezy. And really most of what I am thinking about is where the best snow is for skiing.

So what are you listening to/have running through your head music-wise? Do speed riders have their own version of AWOLNATION’s Sail? I want our readers to be able to come as close to what you feel as possible – music is a great way to experience that.
Speed riding is very James Bond … dun du dun dun dun dun dun duuun dun dun du do duh duh dun nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh … I run the theme song through my head all the time. www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUC8dJ0D6sA

I have the visual now … that’s awesome! Generally speaking, what are the distances of the runs you go on? How long of a stretch can you speed fly for?
About 2000 ft.

And how long does that take?
30- 45 seconds.
What is the scariest situation you’ve been in? How do you handle the fear?
Tough to say, but it is never fun to be airborne when you can’t see … then you feel like you are at the mercy of luck.

Good thing it’s a really safe sport, eh?
Alright, it is dangerous. But it is not as bad as wingsuit flying!

Compared to everything else you’ve done, does speed riding give you the biggest thrill?
Yes. Hands down. It is the most fun.

Why? You have experienced some of the most extreme sports situations possible and experienced them in quite possibly the most breathtaking parts of the world. So why is it that this relatively new sport pumps your blood the most? Is it the newness? Will this be old news in a couple of years when everyone is doing it? Does the apparent elitism of the sport add to the thrill?
It is the ability to ski on steroids. Suddenly I have landing gear, I have suspension, I have glide-ability. I can weight my skis at any amount of my body weight. If the snow is crusty for a traditional skier, I can ski at half weight and it feels blissful. It is the ability to never download a tram in good conditions when there is no snow on the lower half of a mountain. I can float down and sightsee the whole way. I once took my wing up the top of the Jungfraujoch (in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland) via a couple hours of trains and then flew about 8000 vertical feet down to the valley below in a matter of 6 minutes or so. It is a great mountain transportation tool four seasons of the year!

What’s in your future, JT? Which mountain will you conquer next?
I want to learn how to kiteboard so I can kite ski!

Warren Miller’s No Turning Back is coming to a city near you.  See their ad on the opposite page for dates and showtimes, or visit WarrenMiller.com