How Waitsfield ski celebrity John Egan found fame by letting it slide
Catch John Egan at the end of a summer’s work day and you’ll probably see him pouring sawdust out of his boots, like any number of ski-town Joes who pound nails and squirrel away cash while waiting for the snow to fly. But come winter, when Egan trades his work boots for ski boots, the script changes considerably.
“You know how on WCAX they have those ‘Dream Jobs?’” asks Egan, with the trademark bad-boy grin on his chiseled face. “I’ve gotta dream job for you!” He nearly cackles with laughter.
Egan’s got good reason to be happy: He’s been living every ski bum’s dream since he moved to the Mad River Valley fresh out of high school in 1976. A Boston native who grew up in West Roxbury, the diminutive skier — he’s 5’7” — worked his way up from lowly dishwasher to a highflying extreme ski-film star. En route, he’s become something of a local legend, as much for the way he throws “helicopters” at Sugarbush as for an ability to spin off his talents into business.
“When I was a kid we used to go down to the gas station, where they had piles of snow from plowing, and we’d haul it up to my house on our sleds,” he recalls. “We’d pile this slimy stuff on the picnic table and ski down it onto our hill. It was great.”
After graduating from his backyard to the slopes of Sugarbush, hard work and good fortune helped propel Egan’s unlikely ski career. In addition to being featured in a dozen Warren Miller films, Egan is now a partner in a smorgasbord of ski-related businesses, including John Egan’s Big World Pub in Waitsfield. He was one the “Top 50 Skiers in North America” listed recently in Powder magazine.
One of Egan’s first lucky breaks was becoming friends with a prosperous farmer who wanted a ski partner on a trip out West. “I told him, ‘Are you crazy, I make $30 a week, I’m going nowhere, I’m skiing right here,’” Egan says. But the farmer agreed to cover the costs of the trip, and Egan agreed to work off his debt later. Soon, he was on the road to Grand Targhee, Wyo., and was heli-skiing in British Columbia and other cherished powder stashes. The trip helped refine his deep-snow technique, and nurtured Egan’s wanderlust.
When they returned to the East, the farmer tossed Egan the keys to his 18-wheeler and told him to practice driving it. “It was a Transtar Eagle, a pretty sweet rig,” Egan says. For the next five years Egan hauled lettuce and onions up and down the East Coast, logging 100,000 miles before stopping to get a trucker’s license. Besides giving him plenty of time to think, the seasonal job allowed Egan to focus on his passion: skiing.
Still, he might have remained an obscure denizen of Sugarbush’s double-black diamond Castlerock area if it hadn’t been for filmmaker Warren Miller. In 1979, when Miller came to the ‘Bush to film his now-classic Endless Winter, Egan was offered up as “local talent.” The filmmaker liked what he saw, calling Egan “the boldest, most innovative skier to come along.”
Getting his higher education in the mountains, Egan could see a good line of work as easily as he can pick the most outrageous line down a couloir. “Suddenly I realized I just skied for the day, showed off, had a blast and got a paycheck whether I fell or not,” he says of the difference between the Silver Screen and racing for dollars.
“He can bump and jump and wiggle like crazy,” says two-time Olympic downhiller Doug Lewis of Egan, “yet get him out there in a race course or on steeps and John’s one of the best. There’s not many who can do both.” High praise from a ski racer. In fact, before committing to the vertical world, Egan performed a rare double by competing on both the World Pro Mogul Tour and the Peugeot Pro Racing Circuit in the same year, 1981.
“The thing about my love of the sport was, I wanted to push my limits and try all aspects of it,” he explains.
Although “pushing the limits” is a part of Egan’s public persona — an image not hurt by his wild hair and lust for life — there’s a calmer, deeper side to the guy with a roguish smile and vertiginous work room, friends say. And for a fellow accustomed to throwing himself off 60-foot cliffs, he does seem remarkably well-grounded.
Inside the Moretown home he shares with his wife, Carolyn, and two-year old son, Johnny, the walls are adorned with classic European ski prints, an autographed picture from the legendary American racer Dick Durrance and a pair of antique 12-foot long boards. Unlike many extreme skiers, Egan appreciates the history of the sport.
“I love my roots,” Egan states unabashedly, referring equally to family, home and sport. Carolyn was one of his high school friends. His younger brother Dan, who’s also an extreme skier and his partner in the X-Team Advanced Ski Clinics, is his “Siamese twin joined at the soul.” And Egan is proud of his Roxbury days, though he tells everyone in the ski world he’s from Vermont because he’s “lived here for 23 years.”
The roots of Egan’s extremism, however, were really born in France, when Egan and another Vermonter, Tommy Day from Montpelier, extended a trip they made to ski for Warren Miller in the early ’80s. Hanging out in Chamonix, the mecca for adventure skiers, the two friends followed in the tracks of the great French alpinist Patrick Vallencant, who made the first ski descent down the Matterhorn.
“I was hitchhiking through the tunnel to Mont Blanc and Vallencant picked me up,” relates Egan. “I told him, ‘My buddy and I have been following you for weeks,’” he says, explaining that they were climbing and skiing all the routes that Vallencant had once pioneered. “And he said, ‘I know, we laugh, you have no rope.’ We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Now approaching elder-statesman status himself, the 41-year-old Egan extols the virtues of testing one’s mettle against Mother Nature, but it’s not just about the phat ride down the mountain. “If I go to challenge the mountain and I ski through hoar frost and then slush and then deep powder and then glare ice, and I make it down, then that’s a great run because I made it and I did that mountain and I’m psyched,” he says. “But if you went there just to have an awesome run, then you’re probably going for the wrong reason.”
Though his personal mountaineering ethic is somewhat “old school,” Egan is nonetheless comfortable with the rapid pace of change in the ski industry. “It’s a constant evolution of the sport and it’s got to be like that,” he says of the “free-riding” movement that snowboarding and extreme skiing helped spawn.
“I think there’s a lot of people in this industry — ‘the old guard’ — [who feel] that, whatever their era was, it was the greatest,” says Egan, “and they’re so afraid of the new ski or the shaped ski or the short ski or this or that.”
Not surprisingly, Egan’s interests have grown with his fame. Along with Lewis, he works as a Sugarbush ski ambassador; the X-Team has offered advanced ski clinics for the past nine years. The Egan Entertainment Network has made a dozen ski films and several television segments, with Egan and his brother as producers. He also guides for a Greenland-based heli-skiing business and, of course, there’s John Egan’s Big World Pub in Waitsfield, where you can get a glass of Extreme Ale brewed by Catamount.
Last year, Egan tried to build on the extreme ski-theme motif by buying into a chalet in Chamonix. “I’ve tried several different businesses throughout my career; obviously I’m not averse to taking a risk here and there,” he says. “It was with the wrong people. [Chamonix] didn’t work out, hence my construction schedule for this year.”
And though he’s not apt to admit it, Egan is beginning to grow up, if not slow down. While making his new film, The Great American Free Ride, on Baffin Island above the Arctic Circle, Egan acknowledged the risks of the remote location by donning a helmet for the first time. And maybe it’s little Johnny that’s inspired his next business plan — a John Egan Sports Camp in Waitsfield to train the next generation of renegade skiers.
“Teaching is the most rewarding thing for anybody,” Egan says. “I think I’ll stay in [skiing] for that reason, because I can share what I have with other people and pass it on. There’s a great little Tao saying: ‘If you choose to lead, make the path wide enough for others to follow.’ I think if you do that you never really tire of the sport.”