Heavens Above

Originally published in Huck

Jim Rippey One

Exchanging YouTube clips of classic video sections by the legendary snowboarders that inspired us as kids is a hobby for myself and my close friend Spencer. It’s no surprise, then, to wake to an email with the subject heading ‘Jim Rippey’. Less expected is its content: a cryptic single line from Spencer (‘Please tell me this is a joke’), and a link to the website for Jim’s new role as minister of Grace Church in Reno, Nevada. The site boasts a photo of a besuited Jim smiling broadly in front of a highway billboard reading ‘Jesus: I Trust In You’, and links to various video blogs (‘Commitment’, ‘Conflict Resolution’, ‘Will I Go To Hell?’) in which he preaches effusively to the camera, a votive candle flickering on the table beside him.

I know straight away that I have to speak to him. It seems a matter of urgency to understand Rippey’s path from the chairlift to the church, to learn how God has come to define the life of someone who once displayed such a flippant attitude towards death. I should state at the outset that I’m an atheist, but that I’m not looking to pick Jim’s arguments apart; instead I’m driven by a fascination with how I’d chosen to remember one of my idols – suspended ageless at the apex of his infamous Alaskan backflip – while out in the real world his life was taking twists and turns that I couldn’t begin to imagine.

Jim’s response to my initial email is enthusiastic, and a few days later I find myself dialling the number to Grace Church. I’ve realised in my research that I know next to nothing about his upbringing, so the first task is to establish a little background, something Rippey – as affable on the phone as he is on film – is happy to provide.

Jim’s parents divorced when he was very young, after which he was raised by his schoolteacher father in the northern California mill town of Quincey, an hour and a half from Lake Tahoe. One of his Dad’s extra-curricular roles was to bus kids to and from the nearby resort of Johnsville every Saturday; Jim learned to love skiing from an early age, but his real hunger was for football, and following school he went to college to pursue a career as a putter. He dropped out soon after, returning to Quincey and taking on a soul-sapping job at Roundtable Pizza until a close friend – the only snowboarder in town – suggested they pair up on a season trip to Tahoe. Jim was 19 years old, and had still never stepped on a snowboard.

Jim Rippey Three

Rippey made snowboarding look effortless as well as extreme

This surprises me. In a sport where most kids now seem be stomping switch backside nines before their voices have broken, the idea of a rider strapping on a board for the first time aged 19 before going on to have a 15-year career seems the stuff of fantasy. But it’s as much a reflection of how rapidly the sport was evolving around those early pioneers as it is a testament to Jim’s unusual gift, managing as he did to infuse an easy, athletic grace into even the burliest tricks at a time when most were simply hanging on for dear life.

“A lot of the pros would wave their arms in the air, get a late grab in, make it look like they almost died and barely pulled it off,” says Jim, “and that’s what they believed generated the excitement. But I thought, no: that’s not how you want it to look. You want it to look like you’re floating through the air, get the grab in early and just hold it. Same with making turns: I wanted to make surf-style turns, not slashing and stopping but drawing things out, arcing down the face and kicking up fans of snow. If you look at my first video parts, I was just trying to get crazy air like everyone else, but after a couple of years I realised that I wanted it to look effortless as well as extreme.”

And it was his video parts that cemented Jim Rippey’s status as one of snowboarding’s first celebrities. A consummate professional – he was one of the most recognisable faces of the Burton dream team in the mid ’90s – Jim quickly realised that audiences seldom remembered more than two or three of the most insane tricks from a single 30-minute snowboard movie. Those were the shots to get, and it was this understanding that drove Jim to push the envelope in pursuit of his most memorable moments on film; including his unprecedented skidoo flip, his base jump off a bridge from the roof of a moving bus, and – most famously – his legendary backflip off a 40-foot cliff in Juno, Alaska, stomped second attempt on a 154. As a teenager, true to Rippey’s theory, these were moments of pure magic that stayed with me for years; as I speak to him on the phone, it becomes clear that they were also desperate attempts to cling on to the tail end of a career.

“Most pro snowboarders have a short shelf life – their sponsors tire of them pretty quickly, and they’re usually nudged out by the next talented kid after four or five years. The reason I had a longer career than most was because I was willing to go out and risk my life for these cutting edge shots. It was a scary way to make a living, but I knew that if I came up with the same video parts year after year, Burton would get bored of me and drop me from the team. It sounds cut throat, but that’s the way it was.”

As the risks became more serious, and the industry less reverential of its founding fathers, so Jim started to realise that he needed an exit strategy. It was around the turn of the millennium that Jim – then 30 years old, and with no religious upbringing to speak of – began to see what he calls “God’s imprint on everything”. It was a feeling that culminated in Valdez, Alaska, with Jim standing on top of a mountain and being flooded with such an unexpected and overwhelming sense of the divine that he found himself praying. On his return home, Jim began reading the Bible, and contacted his Burton team mate Dave Downing – himself a Christian – to ask the name of a good local church. A few days later Jim walked into the doors of Sierra Bible, unaware that he was about to have a moment of clarity intense enough to put his countless near death experiences in the shade.

“The preacher began reading the words of Jesus from the New Testament – and I’d never read the New Testament at this point, I was still working my way through the Old – but I knew every word as though I’d read it a thousand times. Right at that moment I remember closing my eyes and saying: God, you must be real, because I’ve never read this, but I know it word for word as thought it’s tattooed on my heart. And right at that moment I got nailed by the Holy Spirit. I felt my heart physically swell up with a joy and a contentment that I’d never experienced before, and I just started crying.”

Jim left the church that day born again, though at the time he didn’t know what the phrase meant. All he knew was that God’s word had become the most important thing in his life, and he began to spend more and more time in church and in Bible study groups to better understand his calling. Three years later, with a new team manager and a raft of money-saving measures in place at Burton, Jim was finally dropped from the team. Plunged into a state of financial uncertainty, he spent two years trying and failing to reignite his college hopes of a football career before deciding that God wanted him to be a preacher. He took a course at the Horizon School of Evangelism in San Diego before moving to Grace Church, where he’ll have been in full time ministry for three years this December. And he’s never been happier.

Jim Rippey Two

One of many death defying feats with which Jim sustained his career

“When you look at mankind as a whole, most people worship something. Surfers want to spend all their time in the water; snowboarders want to be constantly in the mountains. But for me it’s about worshiping the creator now, rather than the creation – I had a Squaw Valley pass last year, and we had record amounts of snow, but I only rode for three days. These days I’m more focussed on trying to share the gospel with as many people as possible, to be here for them and try to help them through life, because life is pretty hard.”

I ask Jim if he’s still in touch with the dons of the old days – I’ve long entertained images of the former Fall Line Films crew getting together for beers and barbecues, gracefully greying and laughing as they recall the madcap adventures that accompanied those trips. Jim tells me that they exchange occasional messages on Facebook, but that’s about it; he’s always been a loner, he says, and now more than ever he’s doing his own thing. Finally, I ask if he ever felt persecuted for his beliefs within the snowboard community. There’s a momentary pause before he answers in that same upbeat, infectiously enthusiastic voice.

“I’ve posed that question myself – I often wondered if my faith was the reason Burton finally let me go. But I’ve never been one to worry too much about that sort of thing. Jesus said: hey, I was persecuted, and if you choose to follow me then you’re going to be persecuted too. I don’t think I’ve made a lot of enemies, but I’m sure there are people out there thinking: ‘Rippey’s lost his mind, he’s this born again Jesus freak who tells people that the only way to heaven is through Christ.’ And that’s fine by me. I’m just going to keep loving on them, and trying to help them as best I can. The rest is up to them.”