On September 30, 2007, renowned telemark skier Max Mancini was cruising south on U.S. Highway 285 in a black BMW, headed toward Crested Butte; sitting next to him was his six-months-pregnant girlfriend, Molly Jackson. The couple was returning from a Denver prenatal appointment and housing hunt. Near Fairplay, though, something went wrong and the BMW drifted into the oncoming lane and crashed into an SUV and a pickup truck. Jackson and the couple’s unborn child were killed in the crash. Mancini barely survived; his skull was shattered, and he was left with no memory of the accident.

In the months that followed, Mancini underwent brain surgery and had a metal plate inserted next to his skull to support the crushed bone, but the emotional damage and guilt were far more difficult to fix. Mancini, a skiing prodigy who made his name charging Crested Butte’s steeps as a kid, was so devastated that his parents feared he’d commit suicide. Doctors warned him not to ski for six months because the slightest fall could kill him, but he couldn’t help himself.

Two and a half months after the accident, Mancini began skiing groomers from open to close, just to escape. “It was the only thing in my life that was normal, that I could cling to,” he says. About six months after the accident, he resumed skiing the way he knew best: dropping cliffs in Alaska. The return to form earned him a feature role—his fifth—in this year’s 60th anniversary Warren Miller film, Dynasty.

Today, Mancini, who’s 27 years old, preserves Jackson’s memory. “I have pictures of Molly all over my house,” he says. Inspired by her spirit, he founded Life Turns, a winter sports nonprofit for Colorado kids with health problems. “I know it’s something that’s going to be with me for the rest of my life,” he says of the accident. “I’m not scared to face it.”