A big mountain snowboarding icon in the midst of a career comeback.
Three giant swords suited for a medieval castle hang on Julie Zell’s wall. Those first place accolades, from the King and Queen of the Hill competition in Alaska, did not come easy. The third time Zell competed in that big mountain snowboard competition, she did so with a sprained coccyx (the small bone at the end of the spinal cord). She fell snowboarding in the Hobacks at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort one week before the competition. It was one of the most painful injuries she’s suffered, but Zell refused to concede. She wanted to win alongside friend Steve Klassen, with whom she celebrated victory at the same event the year prior. Following that win, they also dominated at the Verbier Xtremes (now part of the Freeride World Tour). A repeat felt imminent in Valdez until they both got hurt.
At the competition, Zell ignored the fact that she couldn’t stand up straight. In between runs, she filled a plastic bag with snow and pressed it along her tender low back. As she waited for her turn, she thought of a quote from the book The Tao of Pooh: “A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.” In other words, success meant understanding her limitations; failure would be to ignore them. That day Zell and Klassen both worked within the limits of their injuries and chose lines that played to their strengths. It was a decision that resulted in a first place win, one that cemented Zell’s pioneering status in the freeride world.
Beyond her accomplishments in Valdez, Zell built her life around snowboarding, but it all began with dreams of surfing. “The first time I saw Gidget I was always sure that my soul landed in the wrong body and the wrong town,” she said. The 1966 sitcom depicted sand, palm trees and California beaches that were a continent away from her hometown of Syracuse, New York. So the next best thing to the crashing waves of the Pacific? Labrador Mountain, a modest ski hill of 700 vertical feet and roughly 250 acres just 30 minutes from Syracuse. Zell was ski racing there by the age of five. She saw possibility all over that mountain and also experimented with freestyle—ballet, moguls and aerials.
Zell kept at it earning a ski racing scholarship to University of Alaska in Juneau. The snow had hardly dried off her skis when the school cut its team. Zell looked for a different university to pay her way and found herself at Montana State. The situation repeated; the school cut its team and Zell found herself uncertain of a path forward. Instead of moving home, she decided to trade her skis for a surfboard in Hawaii. It was a whole new challenge and Zell’s daily scuffles with the ocean perhaps made it easier to listen to the words of her (now late) brother Jimmy. He told her of the incredible mountain haven where he lived. “You’ve got to get out here,” he said. And so she packed up her Ford Fiesta and joined her brothers Jimmy and Jeff in Jackson Hole.
That was it. The freedom of snowboarding had grabbed her.
The closest to her in age, Jimmy took her under his wing. He brought her to the Steak Pub where he worked and trained her (part of his ruse for her to pick up a shift he didn’t want). “Could you imagine just showing up with your little sister and announcing that she’s taking your Friday shifts?” Zell said with a laugh. Sibling antics aside, he had good intentions. The bar had a ski racing team and this would allow her a spot.
But powder skiing was laborious, especially on a pair of skinny 198-centimeter skis. As she struggled, Zell watched a small group of snowboarders effortlessly gliding through the fresh snow. It reminded her of surfing—except she wouldn’t have to worry about paddling. That was it. The freedom of snowboarding had grabbed her.
Making the transition, though, was rocky. At the time there weren’t many mentors, people to show her the ropes, but the gatekeepers she did meet left a lasting impression. During her second year in the Tetons, she connected with Robert Garrett, a.k.a. RG. His iconic surf style shaped Zell’s riding. Counting RG, Jackson had roughly 12 to 15 riders that comprised a tight-knit community. One other rider, Chris Pappas, heard about Zell’s racing career. With his encouragement, she returned back to the slalom gates, competing on the weekends and balancing three jobs. She wanted to go professional, but a crash in which she blew out her knee would derail that dream.
Determined to finish her best season, she strapped on a knee brace and competed anyway. It helped, but the damage was done. While one door closed, another opened with the King and Queen of the Hill competition in Alaska. If that wasn’t tempting enough, at the time Jimmy also happened to be in Alaska. Just as he wrangled her to come to Jackson, Jimmy prodded her to join him in some of the most daunting terrain in North America.
Colossal mountains loomed in the distance as Zell and Jimmy hitchhiked from Valdez to Thompson pass. On that drive, she excitedly tapped Jimmy’s shoulder while pointing at Meteorite Mountain. While Alaska was where she felt most at home, snowboarding took her all over the world: Uzbekistan, British Columbia, New Zealand, and the list goes on. At one point she connected with filmmakers Todd and Steve Jones of Teton Gravity Research. Her snowboarding is not only immortalized on the silver screen in TGR’s first film,The Continuum, but also in the TGR films Harvest, Uprising and The Big One.
A female in a male-dominated sport, Zell reported no shortage of challenges, and few people who understood her struggles. Prize money was incredibly disproportionate. She remembered a male snowboarder who was awarded $4,000 for a third place win at Verbier Xtremes in 1996. That was $1,000 more than what she won for first place. Meanwhile, the female third place winner won a basket of chocolate and a bottle of wine. Sponsors were ruthless then as well. If she couldn’t do big airs on her big mountain lines, they weren’t interested.
“On the whole it was brutal, I often felt unheard,” Zell said. Subtle things ate away at her too: instances in the backcountry where men ignored her perspective or snatched a line she scouted. Those experiences taught Zell to be careful with whom she rode and traveled. Women also had limited options when it came to equipment. Her men’s board was too wide, something she learned on a terrible crash in Corbet’s Couloir in which she shattered the bones in her right hand. Still, Zell kept riding.
Today Zell, 50, is busy raising her son Ronin. He is following in her footsteps and recently won the first freeride contest he entered at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s IFSA Junior Freeride event. He followed that win with a fifth place finish at the North American Junior Freeride Championships at Snowbird in Utah. Those victories made Zell one proud mama.
Ronin, meanwhile, is sharing in that familial pride as he watches his mother return to her mountain milieu. This year she stepped back into the competitive sphere with two impressive wins: at the Beartooth Basin freeride event in Montana and Jackson Hole’s Dick’s Ditch banked slalom. She was still basking in the glow from those wins when, months later, dozens of TGR athletes selected Zell for the Teton Gravity Research Hall of Fame. The first woman to be inducted, Zell joins legends Rick Armstrong, Micah Black, Doug Coombs and Kent Kreitler. That induction acknowledges a career of perseverance and defiance, one that holds water for women who are increasingly demanding equity in the outdoor sports world and beyond.
Katie Lozancich is a writer, photographer and artist. After spending one summer in a teepee near Grand Teton National Park, she left California for good and moved to Jackson.