(Ed’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Howie’s daughters and firm plans for a memorial service—Sunday at 11 a.m. in Teton Village.)
By Matt Hansen
Unless you are a Swift.Silent.Deep. fan or a Jackson Hole local, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Howie “Hollywood” Henderson. Because to most people outside of this corner of Wyoming, Howie was just one of those older guys you see in the lift line that doesn’t attract much attention beyond his 6-foot-2 frame. You might think he’s just a linebacker-built man probably past his prime. A guy with bad knees out for a blue square and a burger.
And that assessment would be terribly wrong. Howie, who died of a heart attack Saturday night at the age of 53, was just the opposite.
This was a guy who would take out skiers half his age and pummel them into submission. A pioneer of out-of-bounds skiing at Jackson and co-founder of the Jackson Hole Air Force, Howie was such a part of Jackson ski culture that he has a run named after him—the Howie Chute. There is an entire category of skiing these days called “sidecountry” that wouldn’t be jack without Howie.
Howie was so strong that after Jackson Hole closed for the season, on April 3, he skinned up 4,000 vertical feet to ski his beloved Granite Canyon nearly every weekend, often by himself. “He was a solid, clean skier,” says fellow Air Forcer Paul Huser. “And he went to Granite Canyon religiously.”
He was so in love with the Jackson Hole ski area that in the summer of 2006 he hiked it 133 times, staking claim as Master of the Mountain. This season, he hiked it 75 times, and had summitted the day before he died.
The truth is that if you ever tried to snake a few powder lines under a rope, or if you ever thought about it but didn’t have the balls to go through with it, you can thank Howie for being that guy to make it happen. For being that guy to lead the charge. For being that guy who would go no matter what. Though a Jackson skier, his influence stretches far and wide.
“Howie was one of the most important catalysts in the history of Jackson Hole,” says Rick Armstrong, who moved to the valley in 1989 and sought to be part of Howie’s Air Force. “He was a no-BS, no-compromise powder skier. He encouraged and welcomed all who dared to follow. He was a legend in Granite Canyon, doing multiple laps daily. Everyone who goes through a backcountry gate anywhere has him to thank. A true legend.”
Henderson moved to Jackson from Michigan as a med student more than 30 years ago. In the 2009 film Swift.Silent.Deep., which chronicles the rise of the Jackson Hole Air Force, Henderson says, “I went to college, was going to be a doctor, and I go into my old man’s office and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to be a doctor, I’m going to be a ski bum. You got a problem with that, or what?’ And he said, ‘Not if you do it in Jackson Hole.’”
As a way to make a living on the hill, he started Teton Video, where he’d film tourists skiing and then edit their own ski video. Soon enough, he started pointing his camera at his friends like Benny Wilson, Tom Bartlett, Jon Hunt and Doug Coombs skiing Jackson’s legendary terrain and powder. As Henderson, who became known as “Hollywood,” explains in Swift.Silent.Deep., this is how the Air Force took shape, as the skiers continually tried to go bigger than each other. Eventually, the Air Force’s rebellious attack beyond the ropes led to the resort opening its backcountry gates in 1999, a move that is widely regarded as one of the most important policy decisions in skiing over the past few decades.
In 1998, Henderson started his own construction firm, and this past year was recently engaged to his girlfriend, Abigail Moore. He has two daughters, Garnet and Addie, from a previous marriage. Garnet, 20, is a junior at Columbia University studying dance and English literature, and Addie, 16, is a junior at Jackson Hole High School. “They were everything to him,” says Abigail. “They were the house surrounding his life.”
Wilson wrote of Henderson on his Facebook page: “Last night Howie Hollywood Henderson passed away and a huge hole opened up in the night sky. We will all remember him for every reason in the book but once again we are reminded that our time here on earth is short and sweet. Our hearts soar out to friends and family… (sic) so get out there today and do something… climb , ride, run, walk, hug, comfort the weary, send out good good vibes (sic).”
Troy Beauchamp, co-producer of Swift.Silent.Deep., had the opportunity to get to know Henderson during the making of the film, shooting and interviewing him. He says trying to keep up with Henderson in his favorite haunts were true highlights in his skiing career, and that Howie’s responses during interviews were poetic. “They were the best days of skiing in my life, following Howie through Granite Canyon,” Beauchamp says.
This past year, Powder magazine invited Henderson to be part of its annual ski demo in Jackson called Powder Week. While everyone in attendance was in awe of his skiing ability and endurance, he remained humble and gracious. Henderson repeatedly thanked the magazine staff for including him, when it should’ve been the other way around. We felt honored to be included in his world, where his commitment to skiing powder was unequaled. He was a true soul skier, a man of the mountains and a friend of many.
Powder extends its deepest condolences to all of Henderson’s family and friends. A celebration of his life is planned for this Sunday, Oct. 2, at 11 a.m., in Teton Village.