First published in Issue 17.3 of The Ski Journal.
Jack Kuenzle moves uphill at near-downhill speed. He’s recently carved a name for himself in the ski world by setting handfuls of fastest known times (FKTs) on mountains like Mount Rainier and Denali, after picking up skiing just a few years ago. The scariest part? It doesn’t seem like he plans to stop there, or ever for that matter.
Kuenzle has just polished off a three-hour run. A rest day, he calls it. The 27-year-old with no fixed address has always been driven, graduating Yale University with a degree in Middle Eastern studies, followed by Navy SEAL training in Coronado Beach, CA. It’s there that the track deviated slightly and put him on a path to higher ground. He first stepped into backcountry skis on a trip to Wyoming in 2019, saying that he only hoped to get down in one piece. But when he got to the bottom, he wasn’t just safe, he was alive. The Navy track followed in the steps of his father (a Navy commander). The mountains though? That was something he could truly call his own.
He’d fallen in love with the mental and physical strain of SEAL training yet saw a different way to utilize that skillset in the mountains. “You know how Alex Honnold has something within his brain where he just doesn’t feel fear?” he asks me. “I wonder if I have something that makes me perceive physical exertion differently.”
FKTs became a natural conduit for his type-2 genetics. “I began to wonder ‘How fast is possible?’” he says. “And why restrict our competition to ski resorts? Why not race our greatest mountains?”
He has already set FKTs for the ski ascent of Mount Shasta, as well as round-trip skiing on Mount Tallac, Mount Hood and, most recently, Denali in a time of 10 hours, 14 minutes and 57 seconds. And he’s done it his way, often rolling up to trailheads in his camper truck with beta, baseline gear and little else. He skied Mount Hood in just his boxers, Rainer in tights, and the better part of Denali in spandex—his answer to radiating less body heat, and a sure-fire way to break the ski internet, if only for an afternoon.
The young mountaineer is as charismatic as his wardrobe suggests, exuding an intoxicating confidence and positivity, and shunning the comforts of sponsorships and professional partnerships. “I feel as if sponsors run the show [for their athletes],” says Kuenzle. “I’m too independent to have some person or company control what I do or say.”
Embracing the vagabond lifestyle that popped up during COVID, Kuenzle funds his journey working remotely as a performance coach. He likes helping other people reach their goals and says the job keeps the road ahead of him wide open.
Asked about where exactly that road might lead him this year, he says that’s not really where his head is at. “I’m focused on my time, staying on top of speed, and not dying.”