Local Jackson Hole, Wyo., skiing legend Jimmy Zell died Tuesday after a two-year battle with ALS, or what is commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 48 years old.
Zell, brother of former Queen of The Hill, big-mountain snowboarding legend Julie Zell, pioneered many of the now-famous lines in the Jackson Hole backcountry during the days when it was illegal to ski out of resort boundaries. (Jackson Hole has an open-gate backcountry access policy today.)
Zell was a member of the legendary crew of pioneering extreme skiers known as the Jackson Hole Air Force who were notorious for flaunting resort rules, and local law, in an endless effort to get to the untracked powder that lay on the other side of the resort-boundary ropes.
In his heyday, Zell was one of skiing's greats. He was among the first wave to ski down lines in the Teton mountain range. In 1993 he placed second behind Doug Coombs in the World Extreme Skiing Championships. In 1996, a paragliding accident landed him in a wheelchair, paralyzing him from the waist down, and ending his ski career.
"He created the 'Silent' part of the 'Swift, Silent, Deep' credo of the Jackson Hole Air Force," wrote Mark "Big Wally" Wolling -- the ski patroller who died doing inbounds avalanche control at the resort in January -- in local Jackson magazine JH Skier. "Jimmy Zell [was] one of the best skiers to ever hit this area."
"To anybody who was in the inner circle of skiing in the '80s and '90s, he was an absolute icon," Rick Armstrong, big-mountain pro skier and longtime Jackson resident, said. " He skied right alongside Doug Coombs and was considered one of the very best. But he never chased sponsorships. He was a soul skier. He was skiing super technical lines -- we call them 'Zell lines' -- but he never talked about himself or the lines he skied. Not once. In the era of look at me, it's refreshing to look back at how Jimmy Zell did things."