Snowboarding icon Jeremy Jones climbs his way to the top—and hopes others will follow
By Melissa Larsen
Photography by Dan Milner
When preparing for your first mid-winter snow-camping trip, it is prudent to remember a few key things. First, the only barriers between your sleeping bag and the ice will be the thin nylon floor of your tent and the air in your sleeping pad. A wise camper would do well to make sure that pad doesn't have a hole in it. Also advised: Bring a sleeping bag designed to keep you warm in negative temperatures, and trust not the well-meaning gear lender who swears, "It's all good, man," when you suggest checking to make sure the bag he hands you moments before you head off on your adventure is actually rated to minus 15 degrees, not plus 15.
If the purpose of your trip is to do some backcountry snowboarding, don't forget to stash your stinky, wet boot liners inside your sleeping bag with you when you turn in at night. Same goes for any other accoutrements, such as camera batteries, that you'll be counting on to not be frozen and functionless come morning. And finally, if your camping companions happen to be professional athletes with decades of mountaineering experience between them, remember that it's perfectly acceptable to shake your head no when they ask whether you'll be accompanying the team on a predawn traverse of a crevasse-riddled glacier in order to climb and ride steep mountain peaks. Just because they've made you bring a climbing harness, rope, and an ice screw doesn't mean you have to actually use them.
I'd reasoned that Jeremy Jones wouldn't have agreed to let me follow him into the Tantalus range in coastal British Columbia if he thought it was out of my league. A person who's spent more than 15 years honing his mountaineering skills in the world's biggest, wildest peaks—and has come to be widely regarded as the best big-mountain snowboarder on the planet—can generally be counted on to make intelligent decisions about backcountry travel. Still, when Jones suggested that a weeklong excursion into the Tantalus might be a trip I'd enjoy, I was hesitant.
At the time of our trip, Jones was at the tail end of his second and final year of filming for his newest snowboard movie, Deeper, which features him and a few select friends riding the kind of peaks typically accessed by helicopter. Only in this movie, they climb their way to the top. One of the main goals of the film is to show people that they don't need helicopters—or snowcats or snowmobiles—to reach world-class terrain. They just need to be willing to hike a little, well, deeper into the mountains.
Hike is the key word here, in case that wasn't clear. Being a fan of snowboard terrain one can reach via a wonderful invention known as a chairlift, I lack the stamina to survive the multi-hour death marches that Jones enjoys as a matter of routine. He and his partners also appear unburdened by the same kind of overactive imagination that I have—one that invariably kicks in during the most treacherous moments, where a minor misstep could result in a 1,000-foot tumble.
Then there's the issue of accommodations. Most trips with Jones involve snow camping in the middle of nowhere for weeks at a time. Tantalus was one of his wussiest trips in years. His normal excursions require either an all-day slog on a splitboard (a snowboard that splits into touring skis) while carrying camping gear or getting dropped off on some remote Alaskan glacier by a ski plane that's not scheduled to return for a month.
Tantalus, he said, would be a piece of cake—"car camping" were his exact words. But many years had passed since the last time I'd followed Jones on a supposedly innocuous romp into the backcountry, and my memory had conveniently fogged out one Jones-specific detail: If the smile on the lips that are uttering the words "you'll do fine" rocks up a little higher on one side, and the eyes betray a hint of mischief beneath the reassuring gaze, you are definitely coming home with a story to tell. And generally, the story will have a liberal sprinkling of cuss words attached directly to Jones's name.
And so it was that I found myself halfway through a ladderlike climb up a vertiginous chute, swinging from a tree branch with my snowboard strapped to my back, singing the Spider-Man theme song, trying not to cry.
Over the course of his career, Jeremy Jones has been featured in 45 ski and snowboard films. Images of Jones perched precariously on razor-thin apexes of 5,000-foot peaks, preparing to speed down avalanche-prone slopes, are so familiar to regular consumers of snowboard magazines and movies that they seem almost mundane.
It's hard for those of us located lower on the athletic-ability food chain to even understand what he's doing sometimes. But what really draws people into his movies, almost as much as the man himself, are the sweeping panoramas of the locations that Jones gets to ride. There is not a skier or snowboarder on Earth who has not stood in a gargantuan lift line at an overpriced ski resort and thought, Screw this. And then there's Jones atop some pristine peak in an untouched Alaskan range, with no other track or person in view. We may not always fully appreciate how hard it is to ride the places he rides, but the fact that he's up there alone, on a vast mountain playground covered with beautiful powder that won't be touched by anyone but him? That part is crystal clear.
Jones's filmed life is a dream, and a whole industry has grown around fueling the average snowboarder's desire to live that fantasy, if only for a moment. The irony of Deeper is that it's being promoted as an anti-machine manifesto while Jones is one of the stars who's helped glorify the decadent, fuel-hungry backcountry exploits the film rebels against.
At first glance, Jones's journey to enlightenment appears to be relatively seamless. Through the course of his travels, he noticed that some world-class destinations were getting significantly less snow than when he'd first started visiting them. The issue of climate change turned from an abstract idea to a tangible, personal reality.
In 2007, he founded Protect Our Winters (POW), a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness among skiers and snowboarders about the effect that climate change is having on snow accumulation worldwide. With the help of his brothers' ski-film company, Teton Gravity Research, Jones and POW made the short movie Generations, documenting the decreasing snowpack and the attendant threat to ski resorts and mountain culture.
Given Jones's new position in the winter-sports world as a kind of environmental-awareness guru, it made sense for him to abandon helis as a primary mode of backcountry transport. The typical heli-ski operation burns about 50 gallons of jet fuel and emits about 1,055 pounds of CO2 per hour. Add in the CO2 emissions of the plane ride to an operation's remote port, and that's one hell of a carbon footprint created by an excursion into nature.
But it turns out that Jones initially shunned helicopters for less-noble reasons: There are a lot of mountains out there, and heli-ski services have permits to land on only a fraction of them. Jones had carved down just about every big mountain a helicopter could get him to. In order to ride something new, he had to start walking. And once he did, he discovered he'd been missing something crucial all along.
"I realized I was getting home [from a day of filming] and I'd be mentally destroyed," Jones said. "We were moving through the mountains at such a high pace. I'd get to the bottom of a run and just try to digest it, but then the helicopter was already on its way. And maybe the day didn't end as good as it started, so I'd forget that earlier I had the best run of my life. I'd be stressed because I hadn't followed it up with eight more 'best runs of my life.' I really wanted to slow down and get a richer experience."
A helicopter (or chairlift, or snowcat, or snowmobile) is all about speed—the faster you get to the top, the more runs you get. But the new ideal Jones is pitching is about going slow, at least on the way up. This is a tough sell for those of us whose idea of fun does not involve hours of strenuous exercise to get to a downhill payoff that's over in a matter of seconds. But Jones's point is this: When you hike for just one run, you appreciate it more. The endorphin high created through exercise often makes it so you don't care how the run turns out in the end. Hiking also has the benefit of making you more attentive to terrain and to changing snow conditions that can kill you.
One of the costars of Jones's movie, Canadian snowboarder Jonaven Moore, almost lost one of his best friends to an avalanche in the Tantalus range. It is illegal to heli-ski here, but sometimes coastal fog prevents the people who enforce such rules from seeing what's going on in the peaks above. On one such day a few years ago, Moore and a movie crew took a renegade helicopter above the cloud bank to film for his part in an upcoming snowboard video.
"I knew it was going to happen," Moore told me at base camp, pointing to the site of the avalanche that nearly killed his friend. They'd been in a rush that day, trying to get the job done before the fog lifted, so they hadn't paused to accurately check the snow's stability. A 600-foot fracture line cracked open while they were preparing to make their first turns down one of their last runs. "The whole mountain slid," Moore said. His friend barely survived.
For Moore, who has lost almost half a dozen friends to the mountains, the moment was a turning point. "If this was what I had to do to be a professional snowboarder," he said, "I was over it."
Moore was walking away from his snowboard career when Jones talked him into doing Deeper. But however much Deeper might be Jones's movie, this trip to Tantalus was Moore's. He was looking for redemption.
Jones and Moore spent the first day exploring the little peaks close to base camp to see if they could trigger an avalanche. Confident that the conditions were solid, they awoke the next morning at 4 a.m. and traversed a glacier in the dark so they could summit a target peak by sunrise, when the light would be right for filming. (I, meanwhile, threw Jones's sleeping bag on top of my inadequate one and fell back asleep until the sky started changing colors—at which point I rose, swaddled in down, made a cup of French press coffee, and watched their stunning descent through binoculars.)
Later, Moore announced that he'd spotted his redemption line. He planned to climb it that afternoon, spend the night on top in a bivvy sack, and ride it the next morning. Alone.
It took him well over an hour to scale the thing, not including the two hours it took him to get to the bottom of the line from our base camp. (In a heli, he'd have reached the summit in about a minute.) At the top, the ridge was barely wide enough for him to dig out a little spot for his sleeping bag. On either side, the drop was nearly vertical, and he had to jam his ice ax in the snow by his feet to keep from slipping. But the moon was out, and he could see the ocean. It was glorious.
When he returned to base camp the next morning, glowing from a mission accomplished, I had to ask: What if it had seemed unsafe? After hiking all the way out there and partway up the slope he was so set on riding—to say nothing of the planning and preparation it took just to get us to the Tantalus in the first place—would he have abandoned the quest? "Of course," he said.
Moore's response echoed in my head a couple of days later as I made my Spider-Man trek up the long, steep stepladder that Jones had kicked into the snow ahead of me. The temperature was rising, which caused footholds and handholds to crumble. Aside from the sheer terror that comes from having nothing to grasp and a long way to fall, my gut was telling me that the snow was quickly growing too unstable for us to ride. I hoped Jones was having the same feeling.
He was. After congratulating me with a gently sarcastic "you made it" as I scrambled over the top of the chute, Jones confirmed that it had gotten too warm and we would have to turn back—immediately. And so it was that we trudged an hour back to base camp without doing any snowboarding at all. And I'm okay with that. I like living. I'd like to do it a little while longer.
The beauty of Deeper is that, while it features snowboarding that most of us will never do and accessing mountains in a way many of us aren't hearty enough to pull off, it is, at its core, a movie for the masses. In an era of zillion-dollar mega-resorts, $100 lift tickets, heli-trips that cost thousands a day, and magazines and videos full of backcountry dreamscapes accessed via expensive machines, snowboarding has largely become an elitist pursuit. Who else can afford it?
Almost anyone can hike, though. Jeremy Jones reminds us that the best way to get into the mountains is simply to grab your gear and go. And when you're out there, actually in the mountains, as opposed to rushing around trying to conquer them, you'll have time to notice the little things that make winter so special. The shade of pink the snow turns at dawn, and how it muffles sound. The sculptures that wind creates when it blows snow around trees. The way everything disappears in a blizzard except the 10-foot radius around you. And you'll remember why you fell in love with winter in the first place. Then you won't need Jones, or a magazine article, or an Internet petition to convince you that snow is worth fighting for. You'll just know.
Melissa Larsen divides her time between Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and New York City. She runs Espn.com's snowboarding site.
Watch a clip from the movie Deeper at tetongravity.com/deeper.