Pioneering big-mountain skier Jamie Burge has never fit into any kind of box. Here, she talks about breaking down stereotypes in her sport and coming out as her true self.
Toward the end of a grainy 1998 ski flick called “Butter,” which was made in Tahoe on a VHS camera by filmer Constantine Papanicolaou, a girl with a long blond ponytail and skinny skis throws a floaty backflip off Extra Chute, in the Palisades, and stomps the landing. She skis away straight and fast, raising her arms toward the sky in what looks like surprised triumph. Turns out, that was actually the first backflip she’d ever stuck. The girl? Jamie Burge, a name that’s now synonymous with pioneering big-mountain freeskiing for women.
Burgie, as she’s known amongst her friends, never intended on breaking down glass ceilings in the ski industry, but stomping things has always been in her nature.
She was born in Tahoe as the only daughter of parents who’d moved out from the Midwest and bought a condo at Northstar when the ski resort first opened in the early 1970s. Burge was on skis by age two. As a kid, she realized from a very young age that she wasn’t like everyone else: “I knew I was gay in elementary school,” she says. “But I didn’t tell anyone for a very long time.”
When her parents split up, Burge moved with her mom to San Jose at age eight but continued to visit Tahoe on weekends to ski. “I didn’t realize I loved skiing until I moved away,” Burge says.
At 17, she was ripping around Northstar when ski coach Dirk Haas, now a legendary coach and instructor, told her she should join the race team. Burge raced for a few years and did well, winning a combined title. She graduated high school in 1995 and moved back to Tahoe, enrolling at the University of Nevada Reno to study health sciences. It wasn’t until she saw snowboarder Morgan LaFonte throw a backflip in a big-mountain competition off Granite Peak, at what’s now known as Palisades Tahoe, when Burge realized there was more to this sport. “I was like, ‘Wait, girls can do that?’”
That was 1997, and Burge quickly signed up for her first big-mountain competition at Kirkwood. She took second place, just a fraction of a point behind the winner, skier AJ Cargill. After the event, International Freeskiers Association founder Shane McConkey called Burge and told her that she’d qualified for the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska. It was Burge’s first time in Alaska and her first time in a helicopter.
Photos: Hank deVre’
After that, it was on. Burge, who waited tables by night and took eight years to finish her college degree, started winning big-mountain competitions and began shooting with well-known ski photographers and filmers. “The freeskiing industry was starting to blow up,” Burge recalls. “Skis were evolving and changing and getting better. I had all these amazing opportunities to travel. Snowboarders had created halfpipes and parks, and all of a sudden, the ski industry was like, we should make twin tips skis. Then it was, we should make fatter skis for the powder. It was an exciting time to be a skier.”
After her groundbreaking film segment in “Butter,” all the big ski movie companies of that era started calling. She fielded calls from Poor Boyz Productions, TGR, Matchstick, Warren Miller. “It was overwhelming,” she says. “All of a sudden, all these film companies wanted to get a shot, and I was being pulled in all these different directions.” In 2002, Burge landed on the cover of Powder magazine, a photo shot by David Reddick that made her the first woman on the cover of that magazine in a decade.
All of that media attention got Burge noticed, and the young women watching were way overdue for a strong female role model in the sport of freeskiing. “I remember seeing a movie with Jamie Burge in it—the one where she was jumping a train—when I was in a ski shop. I was like, “Whoa, that’s a girl?’” Ingrid Backstrom said recently. Backstrom went on to become one of the best women pro skiers of her generation. “And then she backflipped into the Palisades. She was right in the mix doing the same things as the guys, if not one-upping them. I was, like, ‘Holy cow, that’s possible?’ That’s what made me want to take a year off and pursue that.”
Ask some of the biggest names in women’s freeskiing who their inspiration was and they’ll all credit Burge. Pro skier Elyse Saugstad names Burge as a role model, as does fellow pro Rachael Burks. “Jamie Burge was always up there,” Burks has said. “She went huge, and I loved that. From the very beginning of my career, I wanted to show what women are capable of, too, and inspire them to do more.”
Photo: Hank deVre’
The men noticed too, of course. Olympic downhiller turned big-mountain skier Daron Rahlves has called Burge an energizer bunny, saying, “Good luck trying to keep up with Burgie.”
“There are so many incredible athletes and all the skiers [at Palisades Tahoe] —we push each other. Skiing gave me the confidence to realize who I was and realize the people I want to have around me.”Jamie Burge
Burge is a humble human, and she’s not one to credit herself with anything, but she is proud that she was able to motivate other women to get out there. “I’m honored and stoked that I was able to encourage those women,” she says. “They took it way beyond what I did, and I’m proud of them for that.”
By her late 20s, Burge had had a couple of knee injuries and it was her friend and Truckee-based physical therapist, Ladd Williams, who encouraged her to come out. “He knew I was gay and he gave me the courage to come out and say who I am,” Burge says. “I had hid it from my family and from the ski industry for a long time, and I was ready to not hide anymore.”
When she came out to friends in Tahoe and her fellow skiers, around the age of 29, she was worried about what people would think. “But when I finally came out, I felt nothing but love and support from everyone in the ski industry and everyone in the Tahoe community,” she says. “I’m lucky to live where I live and in the time that we live in.”
Photos: Annie Robilard
Burge met her now-wife in 2015 and the two married atop High Camp at Palisades Tahoe in 2019. Burge now works as a dental hygienist in Truckee, but on any given powder day, you can still find her charging down the steepest run at Palisades Tahoe, faster than everyone else. (Pro tip: You can even join her, if you’d like, by booking The North Face Guides Ski Lesson at Palisades and requesting Burge as your guide.)
She says the terrain and community at Palisades Tahoe are what shaped her into the skier—and person—she is today: “It’s an amazing training ground and playground,” she says. “There are so many incredible athletes and all the skiers there—we push each other. Skiing gave me the confidence to realize who I was and realize the people I want to have around me.”