The Story of Billy Poole

1-23-08

Photo courtesy of Black Diamond.

When Billy Poole – who died yesterday making a Warren Miller ski film in Big Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City – was 11 or 12, he made a home movie with his grandfather, Lou Erck of Missoula.

“It was a funny movie,” said Billy’s older sister Pennie Thompson. “He goes off this little jump, and Grampa made it look like Billy jumped onto the lift chair.”

Pennie wiped her eyes. She was sitting at the kitchen table of her grandparents’ house in the Rattlesnake neighborhood in Missoula. Her grandmother Ruby sat across from her. Billy had always told his Grandma that he was careful skiing, that he didn’t take chances.

Paul Jaroscak of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office said Billy had been skiing the canyon behind a few other skiers sometime before 10 a.m. Tuesday. He took another line on a jump off of a cliff and landed on rocks below. A helicopter ferried him to a hospital in Salt Lake City. A doctor there called Billy’s mother in Missoula shortly afterward, telling her that her son had died of his injuries.

“That’s no way to learn about a death, on the phone,” Billy’s Grandmother Ruby said.

“I hate to think it’s all on film, but it’s probably all on film,” Pennie said.

Skiing was in Billy’s blood. His mother, Phyllis Erck, skied when she was pregnant with him. He first skied himself when he was three. He would head straight down the hill at Marshall Ski Area near Missoula, frustrating his instructor, his sister said. He wanted to go fast. When his Grandmother asked him to please learn to turn, so he could ski on bigger runs with her and wouldn’t have to stay on little hill serviced by the rope tow. Billy said, “Oh, I love the rope tow.”

Billy didn’t just jump hundreds of feet. He jumped hundreds of feet, flipping slowly in the air over obstacles like power lines or railroad trestles.

“As Buzz Lightyear said, ‘He didn’t just fall, it’s falling with style,’” said brother-in-law Blaine Thompson.

Yet he wasn’t reckless, Pennie said. He would carefully scope out his landing, gauge the speed he would need and sometimes he would decide against a particular stunt, if it seemed too dangerous.

“It’s insanity, but he did as much as he could to test things,” Pennie said. “We see the end product (in the impossible photographs of a man tumbling through space, or the films of a redheaded skier seeming to levitate over chasms). There’s a lot that goes into it.”

When Billy was about five, he and his mother and sister moved to Cambridge, Mass. A few years later, the three of them went to Nashua, N.H., and then to Barre, Mass., where Billy graduated from Quabbin Regional High School. All through his childhood and early adulthood, he spent summers in Missoula. He was a phenomenal athlete. He went to state as a wrestler and played catcher in baseball. He also skateboarded and played hockey. At the University of New Hampshire, he earned a degree in civil engineering. He took his last semester at Montana State University in Bozeman, so he could ski the whole time. That’s when he launched his skiing career, working construction during the summers.

He made himself a name in freeride ski competitions in 2002, according to a February 2008 article on him in Powder Magazine, when he jumped 60 feet onto slushy snow. Over the last six years, he has been featured in almost every ski publication in North America. Two years ago he was sponsored by Black Diamond.

Billy earned himself plenty of glory, and unending respect as a no-holds-barred freeride skier, but it wasn’t a lush life, Pennie said. When his transmission went out on his car, he had to borrow money from his mom to fix it, she said.

This year was Billy’s. Aside from being in Warren Miller Entertainment’s latest extreme ski film, Billy was working with Black Diamond on the design and marketing of a new ski boot, said company spokesman Penn Newhard. Billy is on billboards all over Salt Lake City for the Snowsports Trade Show starting Jan. 29.

“Billy had really grown into his role as a very talented athlete, but more so he distinguished himself by his character. He was thoughtful, hardworking, prompt. He treated his job professionally. We are deeply saddened by this tragedy. This is a loss. He’ll be missed. It’s a little tough,” Newhard said. “He was an asset to Black Diamond and the ski community. He was bright, fun to be around. This is really tough.”

Yesterday morning, a bunch of employees of Black Diamond met at a local ski area early in the morning before work, said Black Diamond quality engineer Evan Bouchier, who had met Billy a few months ago. At the company’s headquarters, the lower floor houses the manufacturing center, and the upper floor has the marketers, engineers, developers and other offices. It’s a big space of low partitions between workstations. Gear is piled everywhere, Bouchier said.

“It’s a good atmosphere. We hang together. It’s nature of the deal. We’re all super into this stuff, trying to make a living and ski bottomless powder before work as often as we can,” he said.

When news about Billy went around the building, everyone was stunned, shaken. Everyone knows that the marquee skiers court danger. Still, it’s a little weird when a young man, seeming so invincible, dies doing what he does so well.

On Tuesday night about 50 of Billy’s friends held a wake at his place, his grandmother Ruby said. Billy’s mother was there, as was his grandfather, Lou. This afternoon, Pennie and Blaine planned to drive down to Salt Lake City for the memorial service. Another memorial is planned in Missoula, although the details have not yet been worked out, Pennie said.

“I’m his sister. I followed him around saying, ‘Billy, don’t do that. Billy, don’t do that,’” Pennie said. Billy was a risk taker, but very rarely did he get hurt, she said. When he skated on a pond with rotten ice, it was Pennie who fell through – when she was trying to get him to stop.

“I kept hoping he’d give this up and go into business,” said Ruby, who owns Ruby’s Inn in Missoula with her husband. And he did start a business. A year ago, he started a hat company called Discrete with Julian Carr, a fellow skier, Pennie said. But he didn’t stop skiing.

“Skiing was his mainstay,” Pennie said.

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