John Egan Kulkea Extreme Skier

Aging to the Extreme with John Egan

Exclusive Interview: What’s on Tap?

On the cusp of his 60th birthday, legendary extreme skier John Egan doesn’t need to worry about his second childhood, for one very simple reason. He’s not done with his first.

“I feel really good, in great shape, ready to continue doing what I’m doing,” said the Vermont resident. “Maybe at a slower pace, but I still go out and train with the same guys I’ve been skiing with, and a lot of the up-and-coming coaches and instructors. I love it. I love the youth, I love the enthusiasm. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

With his impish grin, trademark scraggly beard, and bright eyes, Egan exudes as vitality that belies his age. At 5-foot-6 and 163 pounds, he still possesses the same lean bundle of quick-twitch muscle as when he and his brother Dan were “discovered” by iconic ski movie producer Warren Miller more than three decades ago.

“I was cleaning out the basement and found some of my old leathers from my motorcycle racing days,” he said, laughing. “And they all still fit.”

Miller once described Egan as “the A.T.V. of skiers – the boldest and most innovative to come along.” The filmmaker sent him and his brother Dan around the world to work in more than 14 ski films. Egan was rated one rated of the top 48 greatest skiers of our time and most influential people in the last 35 years by Powder magazine in 2006. Ten years later he was inducted alongside Dan into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.

“I was lucky enough to have a group of friends that were hard-charging since the day I was able to walk outside and ride my bike out of the driveway,” said Egan, a native of Massachusetts. “When those like-minded people get together, and train together, that’s the key to it. It’s hard to be a solo trainer and maintain the level where you can turn it on all the time.

“When you’re working together in a group, you can exceed your limits way more than you could if you’re doing it yourself,” he said. “It’s like jazz musicians. When they’re playing, different people take the lead and they all play in it, and it gets better.”

Today, as Sugarbush Resort’s chief recreation officer (or, as he’s affectionately known at the mountain, the “director of fun”), Egan maintains a schedule and a “To Do” list, that would wear out most people just reading it. After a spring spent skiing, skinning, and climbing “until there were no snowflakes left on the hill,” he’ll be running the resort’s semi-annual Abundance Leadership conference in late June. In August, he plans to jet off to Portillo, Chile, for some mid-summer turns, and in November he’ll ring in his 60th year by skiing on his sixth continent, Antarctica.

His full-time gig at Sugarbush, said Egan, helps keep him young, and young at heart.

“We have a group that meet every Saturday called the Bush Pilots,” said Egan. “There’s 30 in that group, men and women, probably more women these days. And it’s hard-charging, 10-2, every Saturday, no breaks.

“The rat pack that I have here, we’ve been playing together since the late ’70s,” he said. “I ski with guys who are 70 and still ripping it. And I ski with guys who are 30 and ripping it.”

A major reason why Egan has no trouble keeping pace with the young guns is that he’s never let himself slip out of shape. That commitment has resulted in a lifetime of exceptional fitness.

“I’ve never let it go,” he said. “In my heyday, when my brother and I were skiing 10 months a year, and people would ask ‘How do you get in shape for mountain climbing?’ But that’s all we did. We climbed day in, day out, all the time, everywhere. I’m busy all the time, I’ve always had active jobs. You need to stay active all the time. Like they say, ‘Sitting is the new smoking.’

“It doesn’t take long to lose all the hard work that you put into your body,” said Egan. “I’m a firm believer, whether you watch (fitness) videos and work out at home, or you’re a guy like me who needs to be outside, and working with his hands, or climbing something, you’ve got to keep doing it all the time. It helps you keep a clear mind. It helps mind and body.”

There’s an undeniable mental aspect that helps Egan stay motivated. His passion for the sport has never waned. And he sees that same passion among the members of his Saturday morning crew at Sugarbush.

“The mentality of the guy or the girl who is out there, every day, is so important,” he said. “They actually love the sport. Not because it happens to be their day off, and their buddies are going. They are going rain or shine, because they love the sport. So you get into this mentality. And your training partners are so important because they’ve got to get in the same mindset.”

Part of Egan’s mindset, and one of the reasons he’s seemed to discover the elusive “fountain of youth,” is that he refuses to be confined to local seasons.

“I’m tired of people thinking that skiing is just winter in North America,” said Egan. “There’s winter somewhere all the time. Get out there and enjoy it.”

Egan is following his own advice. In August, the month he turns 60, Egan will return to one of his favorite haunts south of the equator – Portillo, Chile.

“That’s a real pleasure cruise, if you will,” he said. “The service is impeccable. It’s a 500-person resort, and if they feel there’s not good enough snow to let outside people there, they’ll limit it. So there’s only 500 people some days skiing the entire resort.”

Portillo, said Egan, is an ideal setting for a wide range of skiers, since it allows for both lift-service and off-piste skiing.

“If you are a hiker, you should be prepared for a really interesting hike,” said Egan, adding that the narrow ridgelines access the area’s most stunning terrain. “Most people are riding the lifts and hitting powder and loving it. It’s pretty cool.

“It’s always different,” he said. “It changes throughout the day and the week, depending on where the wind blew last night, where the wind buff is, what’s in the shadows. It’s a great place to explore. It’s really fun. “

Less than three months later, while the rest of us are getting ready for the ski season by cueing up the ski videos and visiting ski shows, Egan will take his ski preparation to the next level by guiding true backcountry routes in Antarctica.

“It’s a 130-passenger cruise ship, and it’s sold out,” he said. “There’s probably 30 guides in there, and each guide is responsible for four or five people. We’ll head in on Zodiacs each day from the cruise ship, and climb on the part of the shore where we decide we want to ski that day.”

The continent, made famous by the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, provides the ultimate “ski to the sea” experience. There are few frills, but that fact is offset by the promise of plenty of thrills.

“You’re obviously starting at sea level,” said Egan. “You could get up 4,000-foot peaks on the coast there. Most of our clients will ski 1,000 and 2,000-foot peaks each day, and the hard-chargers will try to get a few of the higher ones. The biggest challenge down there is probably navigating the crevasses, not necessarily the amazing steep climbing. You can get some extreme steeps if you like. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and I can’t wait to experience it.”

“Every day you’re climbing the mountain that you’re going to ski,” he said. “You’re never going to just sit back, get on a lift and get to the top. You’re hard-charging every day to get every turn that you can.”

That approach is second nature for Egan.

“That’s how I’ve done it my whole career,” he said. “I’ve climbed all through the Arctic, and the Baffin Islands, and the Torngot Ranges (in Quebec and Labrador) … It’s the best way to go. You get to experience what the Inuit call ‘being on the land.’

“This is what man was meant to do,” said Egan. “We’re nomadic cavemen, when you think about it. And there’s a certain peacefulness about being out in such a desolate, remote area, and just making it happen.”

Which, of course, begs the question, what’s next? Egan answers, without hesitation.

“I’m not sure I have a Bucket List, or Woulda Coulda Shoulda List,” he said. “I really, really want to ski on all seven continents. We’re planning our African one shortly. That’ll be the last one.

“We had a great one planned back in the ’80s, and the first Ebola breakout happened, and we decided we didn’t need to play at that level,” he said. “So we’ll go there and get that done long before I’m 70, I hope.”

Expect Egan to check Africa off his list sooner rather than later.

Image: E. Krylov

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