I remember the swishing sound of skis as she pulled up in front of the camera. Blond hair, blue eye, a big smile.
“My name is Jill Kinmont, and I ski!” she announced, providing both an introduction and an implicit invitation to a 13-year-old girl: “How about if you join me?”
It was 1975, and I had just met skier Jill Kinmont, as played by the actress Marilyn Hassett in the television movie, My Side of the Mountain.
In 1955, Jill Kinmont was the premier woman skier in the U.S. and almost a sure bet for the Olympics. With her ever-present smile, good looks, and sunny personality, Jill was the darling of the ski world. On January 31, 1955, Sports Illustrated featured her on its cover, which in itself is pretty amazing. (Aside from its bathing suit issue, how often does SI feature a woman athlete on its cover today?)
But three days before the magazine hit newsstands, Jill’s Olympic dreams died at Alta, Utah, when she crashed into a tree during a race and broke her neck. Jill was paralyzed from the shoulders down, and would remain in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
In the mountains this spring, I’ve been thinking about Jill, almost 40 years after I “met” her through the television movie and an “as-told-to” book originally titled A Long Way Up: The Jill Kinmont Story (but later retitled The Other Side of the Mountain).
Even though Jill’s ski career ended with a terrible fall, she made skiing seem like something thrilling and liberating. Her passion for the sport was infectious. Like her, I wanted to fly down those slopes and feel the wind rushing through my hair. I didn’t want to lean in and become a corporate executive or president. I wanted to lean into the snow and become Jill Kinmont.
That winter, when our church began offering ski trips to Vermont, I was the first to sign up. Two or three times each season, forty teenagers and Father Brown packed into a rented school bus and pulled out of the parking lot at 6 a.m. for the three-hour trip to Mount Hogback, Vermont (now one of the many “Lost Ski Areas of New England”).
Very few of us knew how to ski. None had ever taken lessons. But, wearing our jeans and winter coats, we would snap into our rented skis and plummet down the trails at Hogback.
At least one kid came home from each trip wearing a cast or splint on an arm or leg. I think Father Brown must have spent most of his ski day at the first aid station or the emergency room in Brattleboro.
At our junior high, Mr. Hannigan and Mr. LeVangie organized a ski club that provided another opportunity for sailing down mountains, at places like the now-defunct Tenney Mountain. By high school, we were ready for the big leagues: overnight ventures to Mount Orford in Quebec and to Sugarloaf, Maine. By then, we had learned to ski (although usually not well), so the teachers could ski rather than take kids to the emergency room.
Skiing had an almost sacred appeal to many teenagers in our mostly blue-collar section of town. Families were large and houses small. Skiing was freedom, wild and uncluttered. We loved it, even when we broke our arms and legs. A cast was a badge of honor.
Lacking the required athletic ability as well as ready access to skiing, I never did become an Olympic skier. But today, forty years after my encounter with Jill, I still can’t wait to snap into my skis.
Still, every time I go to a ski area, I continue to be amazed that this industry exists: that thousands of people are willing to spend money to go to very cold places to sail down steep mountain slopes, with no seat belt. If skiing wasn’t already established, and you tried to sell the idea on Shark Tank, the sharks would laugh you out of the studio.
Some criticize skiing as elitist, expensive, and environmentally unfriendly. There is some truth to all of that, but anyone who skis on a regular basis knows that skiers come from all income brackets (although, admittedly, the crowds aren’t very racially or ethnically diverse). Skiers become minimum-wage ski bums to pursue their passion, or they sleuth out deals and brown-bag it. Like travelers, skiers will spend their last dime on a lift ticket and not regret it.
Today, when I read about Jill Kinomnt’s life, I am struck by how young she was — just 17 — when she was injured. Although she vowed to walk and ski again, it didn’t happen. I wonder what moments of sadness My Side of the Mountain overlooked, or if Jill mourned the loss of that freedom.
Jill Kinmont Boothe died at age 75 in February 2012, in Carson City, Nevada. Although she endured many losses in her life, she lived a rich full life. She became a reading teacher and an artist. She attended ski events at her “home” mountain, Mammoth, in southern California, and at other places. She continued to smile.
Some might view Jill’s accident as a cautionary tale of what happens to a girl when she pushes too close to the edge. I never did. Instead, Jill’s story was an invitation to pursue passions. Take risks. Dare to to do things.
She is my forgotten hero.
Read more about Jill in her 2012 obituary in the Los Angeles Times. Also, her one-time coach, and the founder/developer of Mammoth Mountain, Dave McCoy, has a wonderful collection of photos at his website, Dave McCoy Photography.