Tommy Moe is Still In the Zone
The two-time Olympic medalist talks about racing, backcountry guiding, owning a heli-skiing lodge, and the differences between eastern and western ski culture.
Tommy Moe knows triumph, from his multiple World Cup racing victories to Olympic glory at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, where he won a gold medal in Downhill and a silver medal in Super-G. He’s also known defeat, with a disappointing placing in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, and a debilitating knee injury in 2001 that might have ended the skiing career of a lesser athlete.
But the Montana native couldn’t imagine doing anything else with his life. He used the recovery time from his torn ACL to find a small plot of land just outside Jackson Hole, on which he built his dream home in the mountains. He then transitioned into instruction and guiding at his home mountain, where his expertise is highly-sought-after by skiers and riders who want to venture into Jackson Hole’s gnarly and intimidating side-country [or lift-accessed backcountry, as some prefer]. He is also a co-founder and co-owner of the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a high-end Alaskan high-mountain lodge – the longest operating heli lodge in the state—where guests can end days spent ripping bottomless powder by dining on fine cuisine and lounging in wood-fired copper hot tubs.
Tommy lives in Wilson, Wyoming, with his wife and two daughters. He was visiting Boston for the annual Ski and Snowboard Expo last weekend, where we sat down to talk over hot coffee and stale croissants in the lobby of the Seaport Hotel, with only slight interruptions from fellow Olympians Doug Lewis [’84, ‘88] and Donna Weinbrecht [‘92 gold medal, moguls], which we didn’t mind one bit and was actually kinda awesome.
[The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
ON HIS CAREER IN RACING AND BEING IN THE ZONE AT THE OLYMPICS
Take us back to your racing career. How did it progress, and what were some of the highlights?
I raced on the US Ski Team from ‘87-‘98, but ‘93 was my breakthrough season. In the six years prior to that I was just paying my dues. I started racing the world cup super-young at seventeen. I was racing with A.J. Kitt, Tiger Shaw, and Felix McGrath - all guys from the East Coast. All those years were so valuable because I was so young and naïve. It seemed like in my early twenties I started maturing physically. I was kind of a late bloomer. In ‘93, I got fifth place in Morioka, Japan, and that was a good result for me. I was like “Yeah! I made the award podium top five!” That was a game changer, because I went to Whistler right after that and got second place in the World Cup. That was my first time on the Downhill podium. Then I got third place at a Super-G in Val d’Isère, France. When January rolled around, I made the Olympic team, I went to Lillehammer and I knew, “Yeah, this is it. I’m gonna get a medal.”
How did you know? You’ve said you had a feeling it was going to happen. What was different?
My first Olympics I got, like, 28th in the Downhill and 20th in the Super-G. I was disappointed because I was convinced I was going to do better. But ‘94 rolled around and I was like, “This is it—either I’m gonna crash or I’m gonna win a medal.” That was my mindset.
It was just one of those out-of-body experiences where you’re in the zone. Baseball players talk about it where the ball looks like it’s a basketball when the pitcher throws it. I felt confident, and I just knew I was gonna do well. It wasn’t the most difficult course on the World Cup. It was super hard and icy but I really liked the rhythm of the course. It had a super nice flow. It was the kind of race course where you’re looking for speed. Some courses you go down and you’re terrified—you’re just holding on and trying to survive because it’s so intense. This one was more flowy with nice whoop-dee-doos and nice terrain.
I surprised myself when I came through the finish line and saw number one on the board. I was kind of in disbelief for a while. I beat [Norwegian and local favorite] Kjetil André Aamodt by 0.04 seconds. It was quiet when I crossed the finish line. Then I had to sit there and watch another fifty racers come down. You talk about being edgy! It was stressful.
The next morning, I woke up and I thought it was a dream. I was like “Oh my god, that was a good dream!” And then I went and looked on the windowsill and the medal was sitting there.
Then I got a silver in the Super-G on my birthday, four days later.
You’ve said you were much more relaxed on the Super-G run?
Yeah, it was icing on the cake. I could have won the Super-G too, because I was winning at the last interval by two tenths of a second, but I missed one late turn and I lost by .08 seconds. But it was cool to have the silver medal too.
What does it feel like to race on an Olympic downhill course?
It’s amazing. It’s like being your own race car because you’re so highly tuned. All of your equipment is so dialed in, and you’re so well trained on the speed. You spend so much time in your tuck at high speeds that you become super comfortable at speed. Any time that you have a skin suit on and you get in an aerodynamic position with a pair of 220cm skis on, you’re going seventy. It doesn’t need to be a steep slope to gain a lot of velocity.
It’s like race car driving because there are turns that you have to set up for. You have to start your turn wide to hit the apex. You have to have a good visualization of what the course will be like. It’s more mental than physical, especially Downhill. All of the athletes are so good now that any of the top fifty guys can win the race, but it comes down to whoever makes no mistakes. Any time your ski’s on edge and you’re carving that ski is just slicing through the snow, and any time you lose that edge and slide a little bit it’s like you’re braking. Anytime you’re going seventy and you’re in a tuck, and you put your hand out, you lose a tenth of a second.
It’s awesome, the sound of the wind in your ears and the feel of the wind in your face when you’re going seventy or eighty.
ON SHIFTING GEARS FROM PRO SKIER TO JACKSON HOLE GUIDE AND ALASKAN HELI SKI LODGE OWNER
Is it a rough transition to go from professional athlete to normal life?
It can be. You’ve gotta soul-search a bit and figure out what you’re gonna do. Like Doug Lewis who started [Utah-based sports camp] Eliteam or A.J. Kitt, who went into real estate and kite-boarding in Oregon. Everybody kinda goes their own way. I stayed in the ski business, working Jackson hole as a ski ambassador.
Then I started the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in 2004. I go up there and spend nine weeks per season guiding guests because I’m one of the co-founders and owners, so every spring I have to leave for Alaska. Too bad for me huh? [Laughs]. The only hard part about it is leaving my kids.
We host groups of twelve people and we have an amazing lodge in the outback of Alaska that’s unmatched. It’s so pretty. There’s millions of acres of ski terrain. It’s like having your own private ski resort. There are a lot of people who want fresh powder on every run, and they’re willing to pay for it. At ski resorts on certain days it’s hard to get fresh tracks because there are more people, but if you can get out to where there’s no people, there can be untracked powder for miles.
Which weeks are you in Alaska?
Last year, I went the last week in March until the 28th of April. Alaska in April is like March conditions elsewhere. It’s a month behind the Lower 48. A lot of times we’re skiing north-facing terrain. South-facing terrain gets sun baked, but the north-facing stays shadowed with consistent snow.
We have great summer activities too. Our lodge started with “Kings and Corn,” which was a fishing and skiing trip in ‘97. We went and skied the corn and then we’d throw these rafts in the river and go fishing for king salmon.
We actually discovered the mountain range on a hunting trip. We were doing a float down this river and hunting for caribou and sheep and we saw the mountains and we were like “Oh my god look at that place! We gotta come back.” And we did. A couple friends and I leased a helicopter, and we were the first heli-skiers in the mountain range. We have magnificent mountains. It’s like Himalayan ice—there’s just huge glaciers. And then the ravines and basins that come into the glaciers are perfect ski terrain because they’re steep at the top, then it gets mellower and you cruise to the bottom. They’re about 3,000-foot runs. We’ve got terrain for everybody. It’s not like you see in the movies where only experts can ski there. We have terrain for intermediates too.
ON GUIDING AT JACKSON HOLE
Do guests who want to visit the backcountry with you need AAIRE certification?
No, they just sign up. As long as they have a transceiver, shovel, and probe, and know how to use them, that’s the requirement. But often times if it snowed, it’s good to pick the low hanging fruit. We’ll hit the resort first, then head into the sidecountry.
What about people who don’t want to go into the sidecountry?
Often times I’ll just do regular ski school with families where they just want to ski in the resort, have a good time and be safe. If I do that, we’ll roll around the mountain to a lot of the mid-mountain lifts—Teton Lift, Casper. Some guides only do backcountry, but I’ll guide people down both the frontside and backside. Whatever people want to do.
How would you categorize your typical backcountry skier at Jackson Hole? Is it mostly experts?
Not really. We get a lot of kids and first timers. It’s a great place to sharpen your skills in the sidecountry. It’s backcountry to a lot of people, but I call it sidecountry because it’s just outside the resort gate. If you want real backcountry you’ve gotta go like ten miles deep into the mountains. A lot of people go into the sidecountry at Jackson who didn’t grow up in the mountains, and it’s a big place for them. Their eyes get really big. It’s cool there because all of the canyons are perfect setups. You can go from Rock Springs to Green River to No Name to Pinedale and Jensen’s. They’re all basins, so the fall line is right down the middle.
What do you enjoy skiing most these days?
I just like good snow and having a good time. I’ve skied a lot of steep and dangerous terrain in my life and I still enjoy dabbling in it. I like challenging terrain if I have the right group.
I love skiing sunny days. Or even stormy days. Storm skiing in Jackson is my favorite because you have the wind, and the tough visibility and the snow keeps building throughout the day and getting better as it keeps snowing. A lot of people just get cold and wet and they’re like “we’re out of here,” but if you’re dressed right—if you’ve got the wind buff on and good goggles and the right layers—you can enjoy the day.
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WESTERN AND EAST COAST SKIERS
You’re western born and raised - you grew up skiing in Montana and in Alaska. Would you say there’s a difference between skiers who grew up in the east versus those out west?
I’d say yes. Western skiers have a better touch. There’s a lot more terrain in the west where you learn to ski big open terrain and let your skis go. It’s a great training ground for Downhill racers. I think the East Coast breeds more Slalom and Giant Slalom skiers because you’re always making quick turns in hard snow. But there were guys from the east that were great downhillers like A.J. Kitt, who grew up in New York, or Doug Lewis, who grew up skiing in Vermont. It’s just a different style of skier.
What is your favorite place to race? An what’s your favorite place to ski in the east?
Favorite race is a split between Whistler, because it’s where I won the World Cup Super-G, or Kvitfjell, Norway, because that’s where I won the Olympic Downhill. My favorite place to ski in the east is Sugarloaf, because I won the US Nationals there in Downhill and Super-G.
So you like the places where you’ve won?
Exactly! [Laughs]. No, I really like Sugarloaf because it’s kind of like a pyramid, and it has really long, nice fall lines. When you’re up on the mountain you look down and the mountains are just beautiful – it’s pristine everywhere. I’ve skied all over the east—Stowe, Stratton, Killington, and some of the smaller ones. I always appreciate the East Coasters’ passion for skiing any weather, any time, any place.