"Not all those who wander are lost."
- JRR Tolkien
He was like a big-mountain magician. He could find skiable lines where others only saw rock and ice. Didn't matter how steep or how exposed — how difficult or perilous the terrain — the kid always seemed to find his own quirky way down. And he brought an artist's sensitivity to his skiing that few others possessed.
Indeed, his lines were like narrative poems — colourful and bold and nervy and cool... a celebration, if you will, of all that is wild and sacred in the high country.
And yet most people only saw the "hucker" in Whistler's Jeff Holden. Of course that's what they wanted to see. After all, the whole freeride thing was still considered something of a fringe activity back at the turn of the century... especially the skiing version. Guys like Holden, went the mainstream babble, weren't "real" skiers. That's why they went for the big airs — it was their only way to gain attention.
Sigh... being an innovator is always hard. Envy is such an ugly thing. And yet it didn't faze Holden one bit. In his very first freeride contest — Whistler's inaugural World Cup of Freeskiing in January of 1998 — the then 22-year old took on the biggest names of that era (Shane McConkey, Brant Moles, Seth Morrisson and company)... and narrowly missed winning the whole dang thing! Still, the newcomer's second-place finish in the finals came as something of a revelation to members of the tight-knit freeride community. Who is this guy?
But something else happened at that contest. Rather than celebrating Jeff's incredible control and free-flowing creativity, everyone... spectators, judges, competitors... focused on the amplitude (and apparent madness) of Holden's jumps. The guy had no fear! He had brass where others had flesh and blood. And so the legend was born... Jeff Holden, Soulhucker Of The Impossible.
The next two years went by in a bit of a blur. Suddenly the erstwhile ski bum was travelling the world... competing in Colorado one weekend and in Switzerland the next. Photographers and filmmakers were lining up projects for him to headline. Meanwhile the young Whistlerite was still honing his technical skills — still learning the ins and outs of his newfound discipline.
And his progress was quick. By the spring of 1999, Holden had reached the pinnacle of the sport. Crowned overall World Cup freeski champion that season — and subject of one of the most dramatic cliff-jumping shots to ever grace the cover of Powder magazine — it seemed at the time like Jeff could do no wrong.
But the toll — physical, mental, spiritual — was beginning to have an impact. And yet the "Holden Legend" kept growing. His exploits were exaggerated, his brushes with disaster amplified. These stories had little to do with reality, of course. Like Hollywood gossip, they were spun to titillate. And yet...
The temptation to link Jeff's story with that of Icarus is almost too strong to resist. Remember Icarus? The guy whose honey-bonded wings melted when he flew too close to the sun? The hero who was thrown back down to earth because he had the temerity to want to fly with the gods?
It seems like such a perfect metaphor. I mean, Holden's "fall" was nearly as precipitous as the classical Greek hero's was. One year he was overall world champion... the freeskiing ingénue with the golden future. The next he was retired and moving to the Kootenays... already too banged up, it was reported at the time, to compete to his full potential.
It was all those jumps, right? All those impossible crazy cliff-drops that he performed almost on-demand... His body just couldn't sustain those kinds of impacts. His critics had been right all along. It was just a matter of time.
Hold on, says Jeff. "It's true that I hit some pretty big airs that winter. And I definitely jarred myself a few times." He stops talking. Sighs. "But I never really got hurt. My retirement from the sport had nothing to do with ski injuries."
It's a beautiful day and the two of us are skinning up one of my favourite zones in Whistler's backcountry. I can't remember the last time we skied together... 2004 maybe? And it's a pleasure to spend time on the mountain with my old friend. An even bigger pleasure for me is to see just how well his latest endeavour is progressing. But more on that later.
"My life definitely got out of balance that year," Jeff admits. "And by the spring of '99, I was doing some pretty crazy things." He smiles. "So your Icarus metaphor might still apply."
When it comes to back injuries, it's often hard to pinpoint the root cause. But Jeff insists he knows exactly what happened. First came a cliff-diving incident in the Kootenays in the summer of '99 — "It was a pretty big dive and I kinda scorpioned when I hit the water," he says ruefully — followed by two serious automobile accidents in short order. "That's what did it in the end," he says. "My back was never the same after those crashes."
But there was something else that was bugging him. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. Couldn't quite articulate what he was feeling. All he knew was that something was missing in his life — that he had a spiritual hole that desperately needed to be filled. And he knew he wouldn't find the answer by conventional means.
And so Jeff became a seeker, travelling the world, sitting at the feet of wise men (and women), taking courses and asking questions... tirelessly searching for answers that might fill the hungry void in his soul. And slowly, the once-champion skier began to heal... but this time, he was healing from the inside out. It was a vital moment in his personal development.
And in turn, the seeker became a healer — a trauma therapist and ceremonialist to be precise (which is worthy of a whole other story... but not today).
Did I mention that Jeff is also an accomplished spoken-word poet? An artist who can freestyle a rap at the drop of a hat? And do it so well that you'll be tapping to his beat despite yourself. I mean, this is one gifted individual.
Which makes his most recent project all the more interesting. Are you ready for it?
Jeff Holden — the quintessentially free-spirited artist, athlete and healer — is also the founder and president of the newly created Canadian Freeride Association (CFA), as well as the guiding light and energizing force behind Western Canada's thriving junior freeride circuit. "Can you believe it?" he says with a grin. And shakes his head. "I've worked nearly 100 events as a TD (technical director) or head judge now. The sport is growing fast and it feels important to hold a container to help educate and maintain consistency and integrity for these young minds. I learned a lot when I skied on the freeride circuit and I am doing my best to give these athletes what I never had: mental and physical boundaries."
And then he laughs. "I didn't really seek this out," he says. "It just kind of happened... I was called to be of service... so I embraced the opportunity."
In fact, that's why Jeff just spent the last week in Sea to Sky country. "This was Whistler's first big junior freeride contest," explains the event's head judge. "And it went off really well. Despite the hard-snow conditions, I think the competitors, parents and coaches really appreciated what we were able to pull off this week."
I'm sure they did. Patient, calm, eminently unflappable, Holden has exactly what it takes to wrangle this new sport into some semblance of normality — without sacrificing its unique spirit. His experience as a competitor and champion speaks for itself. But it's his personal style that wins the day. He has the respect of the coaches, the interest of the kids and the support of the parents.
And he understands exactly how high the stakes are at this level. "For me, the most important thing is safety. That's where it begins and ends. And I think we've developed a pretty strong progression system over the years... particularly in defining the comp sites for the different age groups." He shrugs. Let's a beat go by. "I want the kids to share and celebrate in the riding... So I try to encourage them not to get too hung up on the judges' marks. Sure, it's a competition, and there'll always be those who are there to 'win.' But that's only one small piece of the freeride whole."
He smiles. "That's why my focus is on community and keeping the stoke high."
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