The Legend of Billy Poole

Billy Poole, 28, died last January during the filming of Warren Miller Entertainment’s latest film, Children of Winter, Never Grow Old, which premiers Friday in Salt Lake City.

Phyllis Erck’s small office in downtown Missoula has a poster-sized photo of the smiling face of her son Billy Poole.

Last January 22nd, at 28, Billy skied a line down Big Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City, as a Warren Miller Entertainment film crew captured the scene. Billy jumped a cliff, something he had done many times before. This time he hit a small boulder. A short while later, he was dead—the first skier to die in the production of a Warren Miller ski film.

That moment has become a fulcrum in Phyllis’ life. There was the time before, and there is now. His death has tinted every moment, every conversation his mother can recall having had with her son, especially those times – usually when he talked to his mother via cell phone – after he had brushed against his own mortality in the pursuit of his dream to ski as a professional.

Not all those moments involved heli-skiing or exotic locales. Billy, who came from a working class background, often drove to competitions. Much less sexy, but no less real, than the film footage of him skiing down rugged terrain is that fact that those shots were possible because he hiked those peaks on foot. Each element—the road trips, the climbing and the skiing—offered a set of dangers.

“I don’t hold anyone responsible for what Billy decided to do,” Phyllis said. It seems to her that many people expect her to. Warren Miller, long since removed from the ski company that bears his name, recoiled from her, disclaiming his own involvement, when she introduced herself to him recently after he gave a speech at the business school at the University of Montana.

“Billy knew it was dangerous. He didn’t even like Warren Miller films,” she said. “They’re too boring. They didn’t push the envelope enough.”

The lure of Warren Miller Entertainment was its brand, many times more influential than its competitors. Billy and a friend, Julian Carr, had started a clothing company, Discrete, which would benefit from their appearance in a Warren Miller film.

Skiing, after all, is a big business, its attendant “lifestyle” a commodity. This is something Max Bervy Jr., head of Warren Miller Entertainment, has wrestled with since Billy’s death. After all, lingering behind Phyllis’ loss is the blunt reality of the ski film industry, in which skiers take on great personal risk to appear, for free, on film. The paychecks, if any materialize, are earned independently from sponsorships and product lines. There’s not even health insurance for athletes, as is the case with stuntmen in Hollywood films.

“There’s a consequence,” Bervy said in his office in Boulder, Colorado, last summer. “We walk the slippery slope, creating a persona—the O Wow moments.”

Papers littered the glass desktop in Bervy’s office. Billy’s movie segment was ready to play on his computer. The film itself is called Children of Winter. The subtitle is Never Grow Old. (The macabre interpretation of the title, Bervy said, was accidental and follows last year’s theme about winter playgrounds.) Bervy said the company has a carefully maintained safety ethic, that the no-holds-barred skiing is in truth as safe and controlled as possible. Still, he acknowledges that luck has played a role, too. During the film’s production, he and others talked about how to handle Billy’s death, in the film.

“The audience…,” Bervy began and paused. “This is so sensitive. It matters how we handle this. How are we going to make this part of an entertaining movie? We want the audience awed, respectful, not just walking away sad…. I hope we handled it OK. I hope we give a sense of who he was.”

Billy’s existence—and that of his mother and older sister Pennie—long held an element of the fantastical.

Consider his father, James Poole. A hockey player from Canada, he grew erratic with Phyllis when Billy was one. Pennie was three. When Phyllis tried to leave her husband, he tried to kill her. He remains in the Montana prison system.

Her former husband incarcerated, Phyllis drove with her two children to Massachusetts. After a short period of homelessness, she found work in the infant field of computer programming. She enrolled her children in sports to keep them busy. Each coach raved at Billy’s athleticism. He excelled at baseball, hockey and wrestling. All his life, too, he loved skiing. He earned a degree in engineering from Montana State University in Bozeman and then launched his professional career, working construction and other jobs in the off-season to pay for equipment, travel and lift tickets.

The technology boom didn’t make Phyllis rich, but it did make her comfortable, and her parents’ Missoula-based hotel and hotel management company has flourished. Its principle properties are the Ruby’s Inn in Missoula.

A scene in a short film, posted online by one of Billy’s close friends shortly after his death, features a segment only a few seconds long. In the scene Billy balances unsteadily on a slack line between a tree and a storage container in a snowy landscape. As he starts to fall, he gracefully launches into a full flip, landing on his feet. It’s an incredible bit of footage, almost more so because of its casualness, compared to the fluid, almost surreal magnificence of his descents down impossible mountains and over immense cliffs.

After his death, Billy lay on the medical examiner’s table in Salt Lake County. The report’s cool, clinical language notes his perfect physique and musculature. On the front of his naked body, only a speckled bruise and a scratch betrayed the existence of his fatal injuries, his crushed pelvis and ribs, and his lacerated lungs.

The report’s descriptions bring to mind a Robert Graves reference from an ancient Greek story about twin brothers, perfect specimens, who pulled their mother’s chariot after her horses perished. Seeing the strength and devotion of the two sons, the goddess Athena struck them into stone, on the spot, with them at the peak of their beauty, so they might endure, rather than age into perfection.

Aspects of the extreme snow-sport ethic echo a Hellenic pursuit of purity and form over the banalities of regular life. That goes right along with the rest of the freeskier scene, which has in seemingly equal parts privilege, grace and bravado, all of it tinged with a sweet cloud of marijuana smoke. The memorials and condolences on Web sites in Poole’s memory bring all these elements into a seamless narrative. It’s better to die on the mountain than to, God forbid, commute to a desk job somewhere. Billy Poole, R.I.P.

As for Phyllis, her entire life has been given over to the Billy Poole Ski Foundation, which has already raised some $15,000, which will be administered by the Utah-based nonprofit Park City Foundation. At least part of the fund’s mission will be to help at-risk children enjoy skiing and other physical activities in the outdoors. Phyllis and Pennie hope to give out a few small grants this year.

On Friday, Oct. 24, Billy’s film will premier in Salt Lake City. It features a short memorial at the beginning. The proceeds from the opening will go to Billy’s foundation. Phyllis has also enlisted a passel of resorts, including Alta Ski Area, and equipment and clothing companies, such as Black Diamond, to donate goods for a raffle.

“A lot of people say they have regrets about the things they didn’t do,” says Bervy of Warren Miller Entertainment. “Billy Poole threw it down. He lived it 100 percent, for sure.”

For Phyllis and the rest of her family, this larger idea of Billy can be reassuring at times, but also haunting and elusive. After all, Billy has gone, become a legend to his nephews, his presence reduced to photographs and stories and extreme skiing movies.

 

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