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Friends remember extreme skier Billy Poole

Billy Poole, known for high-risk skiing, died Tuesday after hitting rocks during a jump filmed in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Billy Poole, known for high-risk skiing, died Tuesday after hitting rocks during a jump filmed in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Bob Plumb, Deseret Morning News

As the video begins there is just snow, blue sky and two telephone poles at the top of a hill at Alta's Cardiff Pass. Then, out of nowhere, comes a skier — sailing over the telephone wires, twisting and turning, and finally landing in an explosion of powder. In the next frame we see Billy Poole, his beard covered in snow and his mouth a big "O" of surprise.

The video, available on YouTube, captures the crazy eloquence of extreme skiing. It's also, now, a way of remembering Poole, 28, who died Tuesday after a bad landing while being filmed doing a jump near the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, between Solitude and Brighton ski resorts.

His death comes at a high point of his relatively short career. He was excited about being filmed for a Warren Miller ski movie — his childhood dream, says friend Will Wissman — and is featured in the February issue of "Powder" magazine. The article, "Spring Board: Off the Deep End with Billy Poole," describes his gutsy exuberance.

This was Utah skier Julian Carr's introduction to Poole at the Crested Butte Extremes in 2005, as recounted in the "Powder" piece: "He crashed, got swept over a gnarly 40- to 50-footer with trees and rocks in the landing, and didn't hit any of them. He ripped off his helmet, and started punching the snow he was so mad he didn't finish the run. I thought, 'Dude, this guy is nuts!'" Soon Carr and Poole became friends, and last year started their own ski hat company, Discrete.

"He turned out to be the most friendly, nicest guy with the fiercest look, doing mind-blowing things on skis," Carr is quoted in the article.

Friend Will Wissman, an extreme skier and photographer, was taking still shots for the Warren Miller film on Tuesday and remembers the last thing Poole said as before he headed down the hill— "I feel really good about this." For 20 or 30 minutes before the drop he had scouted the hill from an opposing ridge, Wissman says.

Poole skied several turns down the slope and then jumped. It wasn't really what extreme skiers would call a cliff, says Wissman. "Fifteen or 20 feet isn't a cliff, it's air." The jump was about 70 feet in length, landing Poole on his feet at first.

"Then he tumbled in a big apron below the rocks," Wissman recalls. "On his left side was a protruding bluff of rocks, and when he was tumbling he hit that protruding bluff, the edge of it." After that his body looked limp.

Another skier was able to reach Poole in under a minute, Wissman says, freeing Poole from the slough that had partially buried him. "Billy was gasping for air but was conscious at that point," able to say his name and his phone number. "But he got less and less coherent as the minutes went by." He was flown by helicopter to University Hospital, where he died.

Poole started skiing at age 3 at Snowbowl in his hometown of Missoula, Mont. When his family moved to Massachusetts, he told Powder's Josh Rhea, the east coast skiing depressed him. "I'd go to the mountain and just scratch my head."

He skied recreationally during high school, but his real sport then was wrestling, says his mother, Phyllis Erck. It wasn't until his last semester in college — a brief respite at Montana State following three years at the University of New Hampshire — that he started doing extreme skiing. And that meant leaving behind a career in civil engineering to hang in the air over snow.

"He had a very intense approach to life," says Erck. "He lived life to the fullest. And he loved the outdoors and the mountains." Although Erck says she was terrified by his career choice, she knows he died doing the thing he loved most.

"All of our moms are always scared for us," says Wissman. "It's one of those things we talk about—'Well, what did your mom say?'"

In the summers, Poole worked as a carpenter, framing houses. In the winter he lived off his savings and several sponsorships, traveling in recent years to Japan, Argentina and Alaska to be filmed and photographed as he sailed through the air. Wissman, who has photographed Poole for five years, describes him as a superb athlete and a man who had a passion for every place he visited and every mountain he skied. "I've worked with the world's top skiers and snowboarders, and he was one of the best."

On the Net: YouTube video of Billy Poole