SECOND NATURE

January 12, 2021

By Megan Michelson | Photography by Jonathan Finch

Moonlight Basin pro skier Parkin Costain spends his winters in Big Sky because there’s no better training ground. 

While pushing a lawnmower over the summer, Parkin Costain visualized the double backflip into the narrow gully. He thought about the double while excavating a bike trail, taking a shower, going to sleep. It had been on his mind for months, a persistent thought that played on repeat. Was it doable? If so, how? 

In February 2020—a month before the skiing stopped due to Covid—Parkin stood atop Corbet’s Couloir, the famed elevator-shaft chute in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He was ready to turn his visualization into reality in a contest called the Kings & Queens of Corbet’s. The event challenges invited athletes to throw down their best line into and then down the couloir. Fellow competitors determine the winner. Parkin built a jump near the edge of the couloir’s dicey entrance. With the earth falling away beneath the entrance, it would be a blind takeoff.

At go time, Parkin pushed off, hit the lip of the jump, and backflipped twice, landing squarely on his skis 100 feet down the couloir. The crowd erupted. Parkin had just stomped the first double backflip into Corbet’s ever. He skied the rest of the line fast and smooth, throwing a few more tricks for good measure. His Instagram followers doubled overnight.

That evening, carefree and crowded into Jackson’s Pink Garter Theatre like you could only do pre-pandemic, the athletes picked Parkin as the men’s winner. “Parkin made a double backflip into one of the steepest, most technical runs in the world look effortless,” says Veronica Paulsen, the women’s winner of the 2020 Kings & Queens contest. “That’s why he won.”

Parkin has a knack for making hard things look easy. He has no idea how he does it. He says it’s primitive instinct, the kind of dreamy, flow-state mentality where your mind turns off and your body acts without thinking. “The minute I dropped in I couldn’t hear a thing. My mind went blank,” he says, now back home in Montana. 

At 21, Parkin has already established himself as one of the most promising young big-mountain skiers in the field. He grew up in Whitefish, but started spending winters in Big Sky three years ago. “Big Sky is obviously big,” he says. “It’s the exact kind of skiing I’m looking for when it comes to sustained vertical and sketchy zones. It’s a great training ground.”

If you’ve ever spotted him dropping into the rocky chutes off Headwaters, or tearing into the North Summit Snowfield at high speeds, you’ve see an inspirational skier so confident and at ease on his skis it looks like second nature. 

In many ways, it is. 

Parkin Wilds Costain is the product of two dyed-in-the-wool ski bums. His mom, Linda, and his dad, Pete, met at Mammoth Mountain, in California. On a road trip through Montana in the ’90s, they discovered Bridger Bowl, where Pete got a job as a snow reporter. A year later, they moved to Whitefish, where Pete worked as a snowmaker and Linda waited tables. 

Parkin was born in 1999, and his brother, Ladd, came two years later. Back then, you could carry babies in backpacks while skiing the resort, so that’s what his parents did until their kids could stand on 

their own two skis. As a toddler, Parkin, stuffed into a Kelty backpack, would squeal “wheeee!” every time his dad made a turn. By age six, he was skiing all over the mountain.

He won the first big-mountain competition he entered at Red Mountain Resort, BC., when he was nine years old. That was the same year his dad picked up a camcorder and started filming his sons at Parkin’s request. “I had this kid who was just begging to be filmed,” Pete says now. “He would ham it up for the camera.”

When Parkin was about 12, Pete was planning a ski trip with some hard-charging ski buddies to Kicking Horse, BC. Kids weren’t invited, but Parkin really wanted to go. On the chairlift with his dad and his dad’s friends, Parkin proposed a race down a sustained bump run under the lift. “If I can beat you down,” the preteen said, “I get to come on the trip.” They reluctantly agreed to the deal. Sure enough, Parkin beat the ripping mid-40s dads down the moguls. 

In Kicking Horse, the crew—a bunch of middle-aged guys, plus Parkin—found themselves in a cliff-scattered area called Suckers Go Left, where an exposed traverse crossed above a risky no-fall zone. Parkin slid across no problem. But then one of the other dads got stuck on the traverse, immobilized by fear. Guess who coached him out of the pickle? Yep, the 12-year-old kid who’d conned his way onto the trip. “He has incredible composure. Always has,” Pete says about his son.

At a parent-teacher conference once, Pete and Linda told his teachers, “If it snows more than six inches, Parkin won’t be at school.” That worked for a while, but by eighth grade his teachers were fed up with his absences due to his traveling competition schedule, so he switched to homeschooling through an online program. 

By then, Parkin was scoring free skis from local reps and winning junior freeskiing competitions all over North America. He and Pete would drive from ski town to ski town, sleeping at budget motels so Parkin could compete at places like Snowbird, Utah, or Whitewater, BC. By high school, Parkin bought proper camera equipment to film his exploits on skis, which he helped pay for by filming houses for a local real estate company. He also worked for the family business.

Pete, a former pro mountain biker, and Linda had started a trail building company in 2009 called TerraFlow Trails that constructs mountain bike parks at ski resorts and in towns, and builds trails for the likes of the U.S. Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. Parkin and Ladd worked for their parents’ company, driving bobcats and shoveling dirt before school, as well as testing out the trails, of course, by riding them as a family. 

The Costains were always out skiing, climbing, riding bikes. And on their own, too. The kids were free to explore from a young age—they built a pump track in their backyard and bike jumps all over town. 

As a competitive big-mountain skier through his teenage years, Parkin was always analytical. He studied the venue, mapped out his line, and narrowed his focus on competition day. Unlike most kids, he wasn’t distracted. After the contest, he’d do an almost forensic post-event analysis, sorting out in his head what worked and what didn’t so he could do it better next time. 

In 2015, at the age of 15, Parkin submitted an entry to the famed ski filmmaker Teton Gravity Research’s Grom Contest—it’s basically a next-gen talent search for under-18 skiers. His edit was shot mostly by his dad. Parkin was in the car in Bozeman, en route to buy rakes for trail building, when he got a call from legendary pro skier and TGR athlete Sage Cattabriga-Alosa telling him he’d won the contest. Parkin had officially become skiing’s next wunderkind.

Parkin Costain dons the crown as King of Corbet’s Couloir after sticking a monsterous double backflip (image right). Photograph by Amy Jimmerson

When Parkin declared he was going to become a pro skier, his parents didn’t flinch. They did tell him he had to finish high school first, though. “I straight up had no plan, but I knew I wanted to ski a lot,” Parkin says. 

Parkin put together an edit for an Instagram-based video contest sponsored by Quiksilver called Young Guns Ski. “People thought that edit was filmed by professionals,” Parkin says. “But it was just me and my dad in the backcountry.” When he won that contest and its $10,000 purse, he used the money to fly to Alaska and go heli-skiing for the first time, spending $7,000 on heli time and $3,000 on a new laptop and software to edit the footage he shot there. He was 17.  

The following year, he got the call from TGR that every rising pro skier dreams about: Did he want to go film in Terrace, BC, with pro skiers Tim Durtschi and Colter Hinchliffe for a segment in that year’s TGR movie? Um, yes. He definitely did. 

“Parkin’s a mountain man, Montana raised,” says Todd Jones, cofounder of TGR. “He’s one of those skiers who’s just totally versed at everything he does. I think he’ll continue to excel as an athlete. His is a name that we’re going to continue to hear a lot more about.”

After winning Kings & Queens last February, Parkin had big plans: He was headed to Alaska to fly with SEABA, a heli-ski outfitter in Haines that’s one of his current sponsors. He was going to film and ski the kind of steep spines you can only find in Alaska, that high-stress terrain he’s visualized in his mind on repeat. By then, it was mid-March 2020.

When he touched down at the airport in Haines, the scene was grim. Covid was rapidly shutting everything down around him. People told him airports might close. He might not be able to get back home. Nobody knew what would happen next. So, Parkin got off the plane, walked immediately to the ticket window, and booked the next return flight home to Montana. He never left the airport; didn’t ski a single turn. At least Montana’s not a bad place to spend time outdoors, he figured. 

He spent much of last spring, during the early phase of the pandemic, skiing in the backcountry with the one person he’s always skied with: his dad. “You just hope your kids will enjoy doing what you’re doing,” Pete says. 

“I’ve always looked up to my dad,” Parkin says. “He’s the reason I do what I do.”

Over the summer, Parkin worked for his parents’ company, building trails and driving excavators. Remember he’s only 21. He’s still figuring things out. —like time management skills, how to file his taxes, and why it’s sometimes worth it to wake up early. 

“He’s always thinking five things at once,” says Pete. “But when he’s focused on the task at hand—be it skiing or trail building—he’s at his best.”

This fall, Parkin appeared in his second TGR film, “Make Believe,” as well as the new movie from Warren Miller Entertainment, “Future Retro,” in a segment shot at Big Sky and Moonlight. “I remember sitting on my grandpa’s couch back in the day, watching old Warren Miller movies,” Parkin says. “It’s wild to be in one.” 

He and a film outfit called Benshi Creative also made their own short film, titled “Dollar Short,” a creative, slapstick clip about a couple of skiers who rob a bank in order to make a ski movie and go shredding. Most of it was filmed around Montana. The movie was selected to play at the 2020 Banff Mountain Film Festival. 

“I’m super fortunate that I get to call skiing my job,” says Parkin. “I’m just getting to the point where this is what I want. Anytime you can turn a passion into a career, I know that’s incredibly fortunate.”

Again, this doesn’t come as a surprise to his parents. There’s this oft-repeated story in the Costain family: Parkin is in the liftline as a preteen, skiing with his dad. He’d skipped school for the day. Someone asks him the classic adult interrogation: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Parkin pauses, then answers, completely straight-faced: “I’m just going to keep skiing.” 

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