Words by: Nina Zietman
Jeremy Jones doesn’t make plans. For someone who spends his life travelling to some of the wildest, most remote places on earth, this seems strange.
But for five months of the year, the world famous American snowboarder clears his diary and waits to see what happens.
“Expeditions happen when I get this feeling from a place, when I just can’t get it out of my head. I just let it come to me,” says Jones. No pistes, chairlifts or avalanche patrol. For Jones, snowboarding is about seeking the most far-flung mountain range and riding it in the most creative way possible.
After breaking into the snowboard scene as a slalom racer, he went on to become one of the early freeriding pioneers, seeking out spine walls and couloirs in the backcountry of Alaska, Antarctica and more recently the Himalayas. It’s no wonder he’s earned himself the title as the godfather of freeriding.
When we meet in the hip Ace Hotel in London, I’m struck by how small he is. Yes, he’s sturdy but no Mike Tyson. His voice – a mellow East Coast drawl – is recognisable from across the room. Even as we sit in the lobby sipping juice and politely discussing the weather, it sounds like he’s projecting his voice for a Hollywood movie trailer.
After all, he is here for the London premiere of his latest film, Higher, the third in Jones’ own epic movie trilogy, Deeper, Further, Higher, that’s dominated his life for the past six years. Each film shows Jones venturing further into even more desolate terrain and riding mountain faces no one has ever attempted before.
The Beginning of the End
Higher follows his whole snowboarding career from a little kid in Massachusetts to filming in the most remote backcountry terrains in the world. Instead of tackling forty lines like his previous films, Jones focuses on three major descents – the Teton Range in Wyoming, Alaska and the Himalayas in Nepal.
“It’s the unknown really, that’s what I love about going to places no one’s ever been to. I can have a great time in the mountains underneath the chair lift, but if there are guidebooks and you’re following other people’s tracks, it takes away the adventure.“
People have a tendency to look at pro riders and go, I don’t do that, so I’m not at risk. I think they’re kidding themselves…
One of the highlights of the film sees Jones tackle Shangri La in the Himalayas, a 68 degree, 2000ft spined monster which Jones famously described as “the hardest thing I’ve ever snowboarded down”.
“A lot of trips start with a photo,” he tells me. “One of my good friends was in a library in Jackson Hole and came across this photo. It was the most amazing spine wall we’d ever seen.” This was Shangri La, one of the few named peaks but previously untackled in the snow season.
“I’d just gotten back from filming the Tetons in Denali National Park. I was done thinking about snow, when we realised the best chance for soft snow in the Himalayas was September. That was just six weeks away,” says Jones.
In a matter of weeks, Jones pulled together his core team of filmmakers and recruited local mountain guides. It took two and a half weeks trekking to reach the valley where they would climb the behemoth.
“No one has ever tried to ride this face before,” says Jones. The trick is getting all the elements to line up – the weather and snow conditions have to be right, the cameraman has to be in the right place at the right time and Jones has to be able to climb to the top of the line safely.
“There’s like a half hour time when these lines are rideable for the day – when the line comes into light but not so long that the snow gets bad,” he says. “It’s got to be stable, but not rock hard, so it’s really tricky. Every line, I look back and I’m like, god I don’t think we could line up all these elements again.”
Jones explains that tackling three unconquered big mountain lines in one season is near impossible. “The movie is very intense, much more intense than I wanted it to be.” He admits there were some sketchy moments, including being caught in sluff [small loose snow avalanche] in the Himalayas and hitting some hard ice in Alaska and going into self arrest [stopping oneself sliding down the mountain using an ice axe or pressure on the hands and knees].
“Ironically, the line I thought would be the most intense – the Grand Teton, a big line over huge cliffs and multiple rappels – ended up being the most straight forward.”
He talks about these brushes with death in such a calm, matter-of-fact manner. For many, this would be a brilliant anecdote to tell down the pub. For Jones, it’s just part of the day job.
The Danger Zone
However, that’s not to say Jones takes big mountain snowboarding lightly. Exploring untouched peaks comes with its inherent dangers. In the past month alone, three high profile riders – skiers JP Auclair and Andreas and snowboarder Liz Daley – died in avalanches in Chile.
“It’s hard because Liz, JP and Andreas were three of my heroes,” says Jones when we touch on the topic. “They were in serious terrain and they all died. But if you look at all avalanche deaths from the year, most of those deaths were on intermediate terrain.”
Studies show that intermediate slopes between 35 and 45 degrees cause the vast majority of avalanche fatalities. The steepness of European pisted black runs often falls within this range, so intermediate skiiers and snowboarders are just at risk of being caught in an avalanche as pros hucking themselves off 30ft cliffs in the backcountry. “I think people have a tendency to look at pro athletes and go, they’re taking risks. I don’t do that, so I’m not at risk. I think they’re kidding themselves,” says Jones.
So how does he think we can prevent more avalanche fatalities? “You’ve got to get educated. I’d say probably more than half the deaths that happen in the mountains could have easily been avoided. I’m always taking courses and trying to learn more. You never have it all figured out.”
Saving The Mountains
Education is a big part of what Jeremy Jones is about. When he’s not making movies in the backcountry, he’s a big advocate for the environment. Back in 2007, he set up his own environmental charity, Protect Our Winters (POW).
“I could see change in the mountains over my lifetime. As a winter sports community, we’re on the front lines and we’re not doing enough about it.” Jones wanted to use his voice to bring about change and a greater understanding of the effects climate change is having on our world.
He shouted so loudly that President Obama heard and awarded him with the 2013 Champions of Change. But Jones was reluctant to start POW at first. “I didn’t want it to get political, but that’s where we need to move the needle now. In the US, we can’t have candidates winning elections that say climate change is a hoax.”
But what can the ordinary snowboarder do to help? “Use your voice,” says Jones. “That’s what elections, petitions and marches are for. Reduce your personal footprint. Take five minutes to look at company before you make a purchase and see what they’re all about. The little things are just as important as the biggest things.”
So, what’s next? When he’s not jetsetting across the world Jones spends most of his time – 90 per cent, in fact – riding his home range of Sierra Nevada in California. He tells me he’s got a mental list of dozens of peaks that he wants to ride but he’s in no rush to conquer them all at once.
Jones is already lined up to work on a foot-powered snowboarding trip with Travis Rice this winter, but aside from that there are no future plans to continue the Deeper, Further, Higher project. “I’m happy to show up on a project like Travis’ and just go back to being a pro snowboarder for a year, not a movie maker”.
That’s not to say Jones is leaving his cinematic production career behind. “I’d like to make some shorts before diving into a feature length again. It’s the same with the mountains. I’ll see what inspires me. I have many ideas, we’ll just see which one I just can’t get out of my head.”