Jackie Paaso didn’t even own a pair of powder skis when she started freeriding. Now with 10 seasons under her belt, the veteran freerider has become an integral component of the Freeride World Tour. Driven by progression and not results, Paaso is iconic for being a tenacious charger who scopes out the most daunting lines. Her relentless drive has pushed skiing, not just for herself, but as a whole to the next level.
30 minutes. That’s how long it took Jackie Paaso to hit her first cliff feature at Squaw Valley in 2006. Squirming with apprehension at the top of the feature, she peered down at her friends below who were eagerly watching.
Just a few years prior Paaso had her sights set on the Olympics for mogul skiing, but the combination of injuries, financial limitations, and loss of drive culminated to her retirement in 2001. Trying to find something to take its place, Paaso packed her bags and relocated to Lake Tahoe, California. Having previously worked as a freestyle and mogul skiing coach, she was able to snag a freeride coaching job from a friend at Alpine Meadows. She was completely unaware that this opportunity would open the door to her incredible career in big mountain skiing.
Finding Ease in Flight
Finally, after a few breaths, she went for it.
“It was more of a rock looking back,” she says with a chuckle. 13 years later, Paaso and I are catching up after her most recent competition in Kicking Horse, B.C, where she attempted a much bigger “rock”. There was no hesitation this time, she went for it instantly. What was supposed to be the grand finale for a beautiful line ended up being a bit bigger than she anticipated. In the air, she braced herself for a big impact, but when her skis hit the ground, it sent her forward, sending her chin straight into her knee. Unable to ski out of the heavy landing and the resulting broken tooth, Paaso ultimately crashed.
“I have to go to the dentist,” she says with a sigh. The crash hasn’t dampened her mood—if anything it might have amplified it. That day she wasn’t just skiing for points, she was skiing for herself. While she didn’t stomp it this time, she was close. And she’s certain she’ll get it next time. This willingness to charge is what keeps Paaso going and why she’s been a staple for the Tour since 2010.
Rare to back down from a challenge, Paaso is one of the most tenacious skiers on the tour. FWT Photo.
It didn’t take long for Paaso to feel comfortable in the air. Her background in mogul skiing had a hand with this. It taught her the proper way to jump off stuff regardless of its size. “I don’t know why, but I always wanted to find the biggest cliffs to jump off,” she explains. While she had a sturdy foundation, she needed experience. In 2006, she signed up for her first big mountain competition at Kirkwood. On a pair of borrowed skis, she ended up crashing during the finals, but it didn’t matter. She walked away realizing she wanted more.
In pursuit of progression, Paaso started pushing herself, which led to a few close calls. In Crested Butte, Colorado she was inspecting the course and a large cliff caught her eye. Again, without fear, she went for it—but midflight she noticed rocks she wouldn’t be able to clear. Kicking the air she tried to avert a crisis, and thankfully landed smoothly. Later she’d learn that it was meant to be hit as a double. Instead, she sent the air as one big cliff. “I had a lack of fear that I didn’t have in Mogul skiing,” she reflects but she knew she wasn’t invincible. What mogul skiing didn’t teach her was how to properly respect the mountain. There was so much to learn, but thankfully she had a community of people looking out for her. “During those first couple of years, there were a lot of people who saw my potential and helped me get where I needed to go,” she explains.
“I don’t know why, but I always wanted to find the biggest cliffs to jump off”
For example, her first ski sponsor, Moment Skis, was an instrumental aid in the beginning. On a ski trip with the crew in Jackson, Wyoming they were so impressed with Paaso’s skiing they offered to pay for her registration fees on the spot. This act of kindness was monumental when she was still trying to find her footing in the industry. She also had a community of incredible friends that offered up couches to her when she decided to make the leap from the East Coast to Lake Tahoe.
“I can’t say they were helping me realize my dreams because I hadn’t dreamed about big mountain skiing being an option before then,” she reflects, but as the pieces started to come together things became clear. This whole world of skiing was within her realm of possibility, she just needed to take things to the next level, and that meant securing a spot on the Freeride World Tour.
The Make it or Break it Moment
The Freeride World Tour rolled into Tahoe in 2010 with its only stop at Squaw Valley. This competition was pivotal because if Paaso could finagle a wildcard entry she’d be able to compete on the Tour. Luckily, a few of the competitors were bumming off her living room and they heckled her to ask for a wildcard spot. Nicolas Hale-Woods, the FWT director, was stubborn and repeatedly said no. Finally, the night before, Hale-Woods caved in.
But obtaining a wildcard spot was the easy part, now she needed to execute a solid run. By this point, she had been competing on and off for the last two years.
Looking at the venue, the snow was pretty thrashed from other lines and bomb holes. Keeping this in mind, Paaso veered away and took her line somewhere new. Catching everyone by surprise, she started things with 20-foot cliff and continued over to a 45-foot monster. For a second she stopped to pick her line, stoking the energy from the crowd. Accepting the challenge, Paaso launched through the air. Reuniting with the earth, the sheer force of the impact sent her backward. But backslapping was her savior, the momentum helped her pop up as if nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, the crowd went nuts. If you didn’t know who Jackie Paaso was, then you sure did now.
Head spinning from the win, she was catapulted to first in the rankings. She’d pack her bags for Verbier, the last stop of the Tour, with a golden bib. Things were looking promising because if she kept at this pace she’d land herself with another impressive victory. But Paaso’s sights were set past the podium, and when she saw a big feature too tempting to pass up in Verbier, she couldn’t turn a blind eye. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to find her landing this time around. “You could have had it all,” lamented JT Holmes, one of her frequent ski partners, about her crash. Paaso’s response was a simple shrug of the shoulders; winning wasn’t everything for her.
She skis to be the best skier that she can be. “For me, it’s not just the win, but how I win,” she says. Getting the check and the points you need feels nice and all, but what gets her excited is progression. Winning from a safe line doesn’t move the needle.
“I like to see what’s possible for myself. When I pick out a line I usually find a feature that would be really cool and try to figure out how I’d make it work,” she explains. An ideal line in her mind is something that’s fast and fluid with a stacked set of features—particularly a big cliff or double.
Sometimes these lines make her nervous, and other times she’s soaring with confidence, but it’s all done with the pursuit of taking the sport to the next level. She often draws a lot of inspiration from skiers like her husband, Reine Barkered, who competes alongside her. He’s acquired the nickname “Mayor of Stomptown” because he’s notorious of sticking the landings to his big tricks. “I watch the comments the people put on the live feed and it’s really frustrating when people say ‘Oh when does the men’s show start’ or ‘this is boring’, Paaso explains. “I want to show that women can put on a show as well, and more importantly to other ladies that we can do this.”
“As a competitor, in a way, I’ve failed,” she reflects, but that’s not saying she’s sitting idly by. Title or not, she’s held a spot in the top six ranking for the last eight years. Ultimately it’s taught her to chase after joy, instead of the podium. Because when she’s reversed it, the happiness is gone and it shows in her performance. She’d rather be disappointed by a crash than from not skiing from her full potential. This mentality rings especially true as she embarks on her final year of competing. Paaso is determined to end her FWT career on her own terms.
Writing the Next Chapter
Stepping away from the Tour feels right for Paaso. She’s not worried about the change of pace, in fact, she’s excited about the freedom.
Paaso wants to expand the narrative in skiing to more than just gnar. FWT Photo.
For one, leaving the rigid competition circuit will give her more time to pursue media projects. She got her first big taste of that world two winters ago when Eva Walkner and herself set out to create their first ski film - Evolution of Dreams. Walkner and Paaso had been wanting to make a ski movie for a while, but they didn’t want it to be like another generic ski edit. They saw this opportunity as their chance to tell a more meaningful story. “We wanted to tell the story of our lives—as seen through skiing,” she explains. “It has all these ups and downs. You might have the dreams that are the end all be all, but just because one door closes doesn’t mean another will open.”
“I want to show that women can put on a show as well, and more importantly to other ladies that we can do this.”
Pushing the narrative past stoke and gnar has become a priority for Paaso. As someone who has been vocal about her own personal struggles with depression, it was important to show all aspects of the sport: the highs and lows. That incredible win in 2010 didn’t come without a battle. Three months prior to competing she was in a mental hospital and even the day of the competition she was a meager 118 lbs. At that point, that 45-foot cliff was the least of her worries, and yet she still found the strength to push ahead. That’s a message she hopes share moving forward with projects like these.
Of course, there’s no shortage of good skiing in the film, but it emphasizes that there’s more going on behind the scenes. Her hope? That everyone, not just big mountain skiers, can find a piece of the story to relate with.
As for retirement, Paaso isn’t tempering her pace one bit. The Tour has been an experience that she wouldn’t trade for the world, but now she’s excited to play. Whether that be through big film projects or expeditions, it’ll give her a chance to rediscover a new part of skiing. That’s not saying that leaving isn’t bittersweet. Over the course of those ten years, Paaso has pushed her skiing to new heights, made lifelong friends, met her husband, and left an indelible mark on the tour. With this in mind, she’s ready to step away and watch the next generation of girls carry the torch onwards.