60 Minutes teams are not easily rattled. Many have braved jungles, deserts or war zones to bring back their stories. But filming extreme athlete JT Holmes as he skied off the Eiger, a mountain in the Swiss Alps, was a nail-biter for everyone involved.
“You look at it, and you say, ‘Wow, there’s no way someone’s going to ski down that mountain,’” cameramen Dan Bussell explains in the Overtime video above. “’No way JT’s going to come off that mountain alive.’”
Correspondent Anderson Cooper was just as anxious. “No matter how many times Tom Anderson, the producer, told me, ‘This is what JT Holmes is doing,’ I didn’t quite get it,” he tells Overtime editor Ann Silvio. “The possibility of him dying -- it’s very real.”
The plan, as this week’s 60 Minutes story explains, was for Holmes to ski down part of the Eiger attached to a glider-like parachute called a speed wing, allowing him to sail over rocks and icy slopes too steep to ski. At a certain point, he would cut loose the speed wing and continue to ski at top speed off a cliff, dropping his skis and free-falling hundreds of feet before he opened his parachute and floated to the ground.
Filming the run was an adventure of its own. For one thing, the weather on the tempestuous Eiger had to be perfect. The 60 Minutes team waited patiently for years as Holmes cancelled two planned attempts because the wind had blown the snow off the top of the mountain. “I said, ‘When you’re ready, we’re ready,’” recounts producer Tom Anderson. “’But I want you to be careful.’”
Anderson estimates that there were at least a dozen cameras involved, including two mounted to Holmes’ helmet and a state-of-the-art Cineflex camera attached to the exterior of a helicopter circling overhead. As Holmes prepared to start, Anderson was in the helicopter, which didn’t even have space to land, and Bussell was perched on a peak across from the 13,000-foot Eiger summit.
“Your hands were shaking?” Silvio asks.
“Everything was shaking,” Bussell says.
When Holmes successfully achieved his feat, landing with shouts of joy, Tom Anderson was thrilled. “I was just sort of crying with elation,” he says. “That after all these years, that it had worked for him... It was like, whoa, he pulled this off. We’ve got the pictures. This is an amazing story. And I was so happy for him.”
The 60 Minutes team assumed Holmes would call it a day. But Holmes, a self-described “adrenaline enthusiast,” wanted to do it again. And this time, things didn’t go as planned. At a crucial moment, one of his skis wouldn’t detach, a potentially fatal problem.
“He had about two seconds, maybe, where he couldn’t get it off,” remembers Bussell. “And you know, I’m trying to film this. But inside, your heart’s like going, ‘Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Come on.’”
Ultimately, the ski came off and Holmes landed successfully. But producer Tom Anderson notes that some of Holmes’ friends and associates haven’t been so lucky; several have been killed attempting similar feats.
Holmes’ recent run down the Eiger was a nerve-wracking reunion of sorts for the producer and adventurer. In 2009, Tom Anderson traveled to Norway to film Holmes and a small band of daredevils jumping from cliffs wearing “wingsuits,” which allowed them to soar close to 140 miles per hour.
Anderson hopes Holmes will hang up his parachute soon, but worries that he might try something more daring instead. If so, Anderson says, he’d have to think carefully before producing another story on Holmes.
“You don’t have the stomach for it?” she asks.
“I don’t,” he says. “I don’t know if I do.”
Tragically, a few months after 60 Minutes filmed this story, the team’s worst fears were realized. Adrian Marti, an expert helicopter pilot who helped get many of the story’s stunning pictures, was killed when his chopper crashed on a nearby glacier. Adrian Marti was 51 years old, married and the father of four children.
The video above was originally published on November 29, 2015. It was produced by Ann Silvio and Will Croxton, and edited by Will Croxton and Sarah Shafer Prediger.