The Jump Builder
Tommy Ellingson coasts to a stop, looks back at his tracks and whoops back up the canyon. "That's so much fun!" he shouts. "I can't even tell you how much fun that is."
It's early summer, and we are in one of the numerous canyons lining the slopes of Mount Hood, Ore., and Ellingson -- the 32-year-old jump-building guru of Mount Hood -- is right in his element. These canyons are no strangers to backcountry jumpers; over the past few decades, they have hosted almost every ski and snowboard film crew in the business, thanks to their easy accessibility and a snowpack that lasts throughout the summer. Countless crews have passed through over the years, but nobody has built more jumps here than Ellingson.
Among skiers, Ellingson is well-known as one of the best jump builders in the business. Each spring, his creations appear among the windlips and cornices of the mountain as punctually as a wildflower blooms, reimagining the folds of the terrain as step-ups, step-downs, hips or quarterpipes. When out-of-town crews visit Mount Hood, their best chance at a successful backcountry session is to get Ellingson involved in the project.
"His jumps keep getting bigger, better and poppier," pro skier Phil Casabon says.
Casabon is in town with fellow pro skiers Henrik Harlaut, Paul Bergeron, Simon Ericsson, Taylor Seaton and Inspired Media filmer Emil Granöö to shoot backcountry jumps. Today they're collaborating with Ellingson on a unique double-jump feature, a hip and a step-down jump built nearly side by side, both using the same natural rollover as a landing. Today the crew has built both jumps and warmed up on the hip, and now crew members are watching Ellingson blast hits on the step-down.
Casabon and Harlaut know Ellingson from his days working with the Salomon Jib Academy, a traveling camp that coached kids in park skiing at stops across the country. Between tours with the Jib Academy and several years coaching at Windells Camp at Mount Hood, Ellingson has met and influenced a vast number of today's top freeskiers. When he rattles off a list of the kids he's coached and skied with over the years, it reads like a who's who of today's top talent: Torin Yater-Wallace, Alex Schlopy, Nick Goepper and Duncan Adams, just to name a few.
"I met him at the Jib Academy when I was 15, and he must have been like 25," Harlaut says. "And he just kept getting better and better every year."
One of Ellingson's earliest protégés was X Games slopestyle champ Sammy Carlson, who was 12 years old when he began skiing with Ellingson in the parks of Mount Hood.
When we met, that was the beginning of the future for me. I’ve never met someone that has the passion that Tommy has for skiing.Sammy Carlson
"When we met, that was the beginning of the future for me," Carlson says. "He showed me the atmosphere of the sport. I've never met someone who has the passion that Tommy has for skiing."
Ellingson comes from a skiing family.
Though he's known as a Mount Hood local, his roots are in Mount Baldy, Calif., a ski area just 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles, where his father owns the Mount Baldy Lodge and his brother is the mountain manager. Ellingson grew up working for his dad, skiing Baldy's steep terrain and watching his older brother's ski movies.
In 1993, extreme skiing pioneers Scot Schmidt and Tom Day visited Mount Baldy -- Powder magazine did an article on the trip called "LA's Hairy Backside" -- and Ellingson got his first chance to watch pro skiers at work.
"When [Schmidt] came in '93, it blew me away," Ellingson says. "It was cool to see how businesslike he was. He didn't just huck off of everything. He looked at stuff, knew what he was capable of and did it."
It was then that Ellingson had a vision for what he wanted to do in his future. "That's pretty much why I ski, right there," he says.
A few years later, Ellingson moved to the Mount Hood area, where he's been "blasting," as his style of skiing is aptly described, ever since.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Ellingson is again skiing with legends -- only this time, it's two young freestylers from Quebec and Sweden who wear tall T's and bump Wu-Tang while building a jump. And now Ellingson is the old hand, showing the next generation how it's done.
"He has a very high confidence level for what he builds and hits," Casabon says, watching Ellingson get ready to drop in again. "He's so on point. You can see his experience when he skis."
Ellingson clicks his poles together and rolls in to the step-down again. He tweaks a corked 720 with a blunt grab and lands perfectly in the punchy spring snow as the Inspired crew cheers on.
After several seasons of struggling with injury in the late 2000s, Ellingson came blasting back for Sammy Carlson's "On Top of The Hood" project, a movie filmed during the summer of 2010 at Mount Hood. Ellingson teamed up with Carlson, his old protégé and now one of freeskiing's top stars, to build and lap gargantuan features deep in the Mount Hood backcountry.
"Sammy had a lot to do with why I got hungry again," Ellingson says. "He was egging me on, saying 'Dude, you're a beast, don't worry about those injuries, you're strong now.'"
Ellingson got hungry indeed -- he has continued to build ever larger and more ambitious jumps each summer, spending winters blasting off of every imaginable natural feature at Mount Hood Meadows.
At age 30, he tried a triple front flip; at 31, he learned double cork 10s.
Late last fall, when even the die-hard summer skiers had called it quits for the year, Ellingson hiked to the summit of Hood and built a jump there, then backflipped over the notorious bergschrund, a gaping crevasse inside of the mountain's crater.
This spring, he made appearances at both the Tanner Hall Invitational (where he double-backflipped the feature right behind Candide Thovex) and the Sammy Carlson Invitational.
"He has the most energy I've seen from anyone from start to finish," longtime friend Josh Larkin says. "When he sets his mind to something, he usually gets it done."
Adds Carlson, "He used to tell me, 'You can do anything you want. If you feel it in your head, just do it.'"
Now, as the shadows lengthen in the canyon on this summer evening, Ellingson has bagged all of his standard tricks, boosted a huge double backflip and tried to dial in a rightside 720. He's the last one hiking the feature at the end of the day.
The crew slaps high-fives and agrees to continue the session tomorrow. Ellingson is already bristling with ideas on tricks he wants to do and how to improve the feature. As usual, he is just getting started.