One of the original Bridger Ridge Rats, Jungst chose not to become a guide like so many of his friends, jet-setting around the world to the steep and deep. Instead, he settled in Bozeman and found new ways to enjoy the mountains, making a living as an engineer and teacher. At 50, Jungst is five knee surgeries down the line and likes to say that he's semi-retired after selling his business two years ago. Lest people think he's out to pasture, Jungst plans to appear in a forthcoming Greg Stump ski film this winter. He talked with the Chronicle about his surprising fame and the all-important choice to back away.

On the bad knees

I had all the cartilage removed from my lateral meniscus in both kneeds. I've had five surgeries. No ACLs, just cartilage. That goes way back to soccer, when I was kid, when I had a lot of cortisone shots in my knees. I had it every three weeks, right into the joint. It was numbing but it deteriorates the cartilage and when you're growing it's not good. I was 17, 18, 20, and I had a lot of that removed. Back then they would take out massive chunks of it. They said, oh you won't use this. Well, they didn't know that I would be doing this until I was 50.

On what keeps him busy

Raising kids. They are now 13 and 16, Sean and Allan. With kids, it was a challenge when they were young. But now it's really rewarding to see them ski well and safely. Allan had done all the avalanche training when he was young. Allan did all the Team Extreme stuff. He learned a lot.

On becoming a snowbird

Maybe surprisingly, I like to head out of Bozeman in mid-February and do a rock-climbing trip in Utah or Joshua Tree. The winters are actually feeling pretty long. I've discovered that flights out of here to Vegas or Salt Lake Š you can be somewhere warm and I get a little bike trip or climbing trip in. My wife, Laurie, and I try to get away.

On Kristen Ulmer's Ski to Live

I think they spend some time in the morning doing yoga and then it's a lot of visualization. It's kind of a Zen approach to skiing. For me, it's being in the mountains, it's not a competitive thing. I'm really comfortable in the mountains, but her approach is to bring out what she sees in me naturally. I've done this thing so long that I'm comfortable in really exposed places and backing off of things. One of the reasons that I'm still skiing is that I've backed off of peaks and ski descents and you always wonder. You look at a slope and you decide not to do it. Maybe it would have been just fine.

On backing away from the big stuff

I skied the Grand Teton exactly 10 years ago, but when I lost my good friend Alex (Lowe), I went through a lot of soul-searching, a couple years there where I didn't climb or ski big things that much. I ski a lot slower, more cautious now. Eight years ago, I backed off of that chute where Doug (Coombs) died (in April 2006 at La Grave, France). I looked at it and you know Š multiple cliff exposures and all I could think about was my kids. There are couloirs in that area Š one of them I skied and this French guide said, "Oh, 35 people have died in that couloir. You did it very nicely." I said, 35 people died here? And he said, "Well, yeah, if you fall in this one place, you're going to fall 1,000 feet and hit this rock wall." And that kind of stuff is very possible.

On a return to the silver screen

Young people, they'll recognize me on the ski hill, and then I'll say, "How in the world can you know who I am? You're 20 or 21 or 23 years old." The answer is always: Well, our parents used to put on those videos right before we'd go skiing. I grew up watching your movies when I was little. It's flattering and then the other thing is that I'll end up on top of chutes and there will be three or four guys waiting for me and they'll want me to go first. Because one'll drop in and not make a turn and go straight down and launch off something. I was always much more into making my turns and tighter turns, pretty fast, but now, there's young, strong skiers and they just don't realize that I'm 50 years old.

On having a following

For quite a while, I loved having slide shows. I'd take my camera on every trip. But there was a time during the early '90s, when I realized that I would show a photo of a couloir in the Bridgers, or the Absarokas or the Crazies, kids would look at that and want to go do it. There are people who would say, "I've repeated everything you've done, except one descent." I was like, you're kidding. So I started saying in my slideshows that this one took me seven years before I skied it. I would back off that many times before I skied it. Now, young people say, yeah, well, I just went up there and I just skied it. Who would have thought? I think there's a danger in people not realizing how much work was going into it. A lot of work, a lot of study.

On one of Jungst's top 10 crashes

It was at Bridger a couple weeks ago. I was coming down the Bears, and I'd skied the Bears and I was 10 feet from the groomer and I hit a rock that was the size of a table. Just six inches under the powder. Both tips caught and I went end over end over end. It almost knocked me out. I was really dazed. My binding didn't release, but it ripped the heel off my alpine touring heel and my leg was crooked underneath and I thought I had broken my leg, there was so much pressure on it. I asked this lady to undo my binding. She was just skiing along and saw this happen. My ski was coming out at this really weird angle. I said, "Please, I think my leg is broken." She was staring at this boot in this crazy skewed angle and thought "Ooh, I'm not touching that." So unbelievable. Conrad (Anker) skis up and says, "Wow, that could've been the rock that took Tom Jungst out." I was like, "Ah, don't tell anybody that. It's on the groomer, you know."