By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photography by Dan Milner
It’s while you’re watching the footage from the tenth day of a 12-day Alaskan snowstorm in the new snowboarding movie Deeper, that you realize Jeremy Jones is a bit of an eccentric. Jones and a crew (that includes fellow Adventure favorite Travis Rice) have been stuck in their tents for over a week straight, and they are slowly going bananas. Of course, they wouldn’t be there at all if Jones hadn’t decided that helicopter-accessed snowboarding was unfulfilling, so he dedicated himself to hiking and climbing all the mountains he rode.
At 35 years old, Jones is bringing a bit of maturity to snowboarding, a rare thing in the world of action sports. His ethos of hiking into the backcountry and spending days or weeks to get to a certain line that he wants to ride is in stark contrast to the hit-and-run missions that most professional riders employ, in part, to bring images of snowboarding to mass media outlets. You don’t need money, connections, or big name sponsors to ride like Jones. You just need a split snowboard (one that separates down the middle to become a pair of alpine touring skis), a bit of climbing know-how, and a lot of endurance. It’s not the fastest or most efficient way to get to the top of a slope, but if Deeper is anything to go by, it’s pretty near the most exciting thing to happen to snowboarding since the invention of bindings. Adventure caught up with Jones at the New York premiere of his movie to get some upfront views on the backcountry.
Where are you from?
Jeremy Jones: I live in Truckee, California, but I grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusettes. I grew up snowboarding a hundred percent on the East Coast. When I was 16, I went West for the first time on my way to my first professional contest. On the way, I stopped in Jackson Hole to see my brother, who had already moved there. He took me free-riding and my goals and perspectives changed pretty much instantly. My desire to be the best and win all the pro contests changed to: I want to be a dishwasher in Jackson Hole and ride powder.
Why do you think competition stopped interesting you?
JJ: I’ve never been the guy who wants to beat everyone and get on the podium. I’ve always had this strong connection with the mountains and when I went to contests it wasn’t that special place for me. And believe you me, I’ve done contests. I don’t want to downplay their importance for myself or the sport. But I just really love being away from everyone and pushing myself to my highest level, on my own terms, and on the right days.
A few years ago I heard you say in an interview that free-riding had lost direction a bit. What do you think of the state of the discipline now?
JJ: A writer for a back-country mag once asked me where I thought free-riding would be if Craig Kelly hadn’t died? [Editor's note: Craig Kelly was a backcountry snowboarding pioneer who died in an avalanche in 2003.] And looking back now i realize that Craig died and free-riding just lost it's direction, especially with regard to media presence. In the core it didn’t, there were always guys lined up at the meccas on the powder days. But I think today, we have finally found some direction, some identity, some momentum. There is evolution in products, companies are putting attention towards it, media is putting attention towards it…but up until about a year ago, it was almost flat-lined since Craig’s death.
What’s brought about this change?
JJ: I think the average snowboarder has gotten older and there are a lot of people like myself who’ve been in the sport for 20 years who are sick of riding the park. I must say, it’s sad. I’ve seen a lot of friends walk away from the sport and find skiing, or the beach, or motocross, but a lot of them are coming back now because they’ve found split-boarding and free-riding. That was the goal of Deeper, to show people that world-class free-riding can be done on foot for free.
What made you break away from the use of helicopters?
JJ: Backtrack 15 years. I was this kid camped in parking lots in Alaska just trying to get money to go ride a helicopter. I had success, I got enough money to go heli wherever I wanted, people would invite me to heli-lodges, and my season got to the point where I was going from one five-star heli-lodge to the next. It was cool, but it was also unfulfilling.
Unfulfilling in what way?
JJ: It was too fluffy, too easy. The pace was strange too. I’d go ride the best line of my life and two minutes later is was like: “Where’re we going next? Where’re we going next?” Also, it got to the point where there was so much money on the line that it clouded it. If it was a sunny day, we’d have to take a ton of pictures and get a ton of footage so everyone would get their money back. Then, one of the biggest factors was that you can only take a helicopter to about three percent of these mountain ranges due to laws and restrictions. It’s the same with snowmobiles. So back in the day, we would get in a helicopter and we could go wherever we wanted, so we were always checking out what was around the next corner.
After about eight years of that, around the year 2000, we started getting defined boundaries. Then we’d be in these defined boundaries with eight other film crews rushing to lines, riding the same ones over and over again. Meanwhile I’d be on the edge of the boundary looking at 90 percent of the range thinking to myself: Here I am, It’s the best day of the year, I’m looking at a line I rode three years ago, killed it three years ago. And yet out there there are no names on anything, no one’s ever been there, no one’s ever ridden there. I need to figure out how to get there.
It sounds like using a helicopter lost a sense of adventure for you.
JJ: It did. They turned it into trail maps. I could take a map of Alaska and write out 300 runs. It’s no different than a resort trail map with a red line on every little peak. This is where you land, this is where you get picked up, this is where you shoot it from. There is no unknown.
What does “having an adventure” mean to you?
JJ: Adventure, at least in its infancy, is going into the unknown, being out of your comfort zone.
Did you have to prepare for all the hiking you did in Deeper?
JJ: Hiking has always been a large part of my winter. But when I first started using helicopters, I used to be freaked to walk 25 feet from the helicopter to the start of my line. I eventually started to enjoy that. With the film, I knew that to achieve my goals I literally had to go out every day and hike. I can tell you that I’ve learned more in the last two years than I’ve learned in my last 25 years of snowboarding.
How did you decide where you wanted to ride in the movie?
JJ: It started with lines that I had seen when I was standing on the boundaries of heli areas and I’d looked out and taken a picture and said: “I want to ride that.” But the key is also to not have an agenda. Adapting to conditions, weather, the situation, is really important. The mountains always dictate.
Did you find yourself backing off a lot of lines?
JJ: I’ve never backed off so many lines in my life. On the day, it’s me and three or four really experienced backcountry guys who have been reading the snow for five days and have decided that the time is right to hit that line. We go out there at three in the morning and it might be the littlest thing, the wind comes up, it gets a little warm, and half the time we are coming back with nothing. Even on a very very dissected plan.
You are five to ten years older than a lot of athletes I talk to. Do you find that as you become older you become more cautious?
JJ: I’m definitely more cautious than I was 15 years ago. The first time I went to Alaska was 16 years ago, and I realized you could fly in, and push things, and rush out and…get away with shit. But I realized that I wanted to be up there six to eight weeks a year and to do that you can’t be taking a chance on one run. You have to get super educated and really listen to the mountains and take it slow.
If it’s high avalance danger, I sleep really good at night and I always have. It’s when it’s stable snow pack, two feet of powder, and it’s sunny—I don’t sleep those nights because the next day is the day to ride the best lines of your life.
Do you have any hard and fast rules regarding safety?
JJ: When I go into the mountains, I’m trying to find reasons to turn back. The mountains are guilty till proven innocent.
For your own safety?
JJ: And along with that, when I try to ride a line that I’ve wanted to do for years, and I get repeatedly turned back. I spend five days trying to do it and then have to go home without riding it. I hike home thinking: Cool, man, the story just got better—the drama continues.
Is that a view you developed as you’ve gotten older?
JJ: Yes. The other thing that I’ve learned over the last fifteen years is: leave the hype, leave the job, leave the money…leave all the outside pressures in the parking lot when you go into the mountains. When you eliminate all that sh*t and you go out and it feels right, then you ride. And you only worry about whether its good enough to make it into the movie in September when the movie comes out. There are a lot of notions — is Deeper going to be gnarly enough? Are people going to think that I’m an old man? — not to say that I don’t have them, but I don’t have them in the mountains.
Are you getting to an age where you are starting to think about your legacy?
JJ: A little bit, but I feel like I’m too busy looking forward. I mean, I’m already in “next winter” mode.
How long can you keep going?
JJ: I don’t know. You know, people have been asking me that for about eight years. But I will say that if you watch the film, the level I’m at now compared to two years ago is night and day. Which is not to say that it wasn’t a difficult process, especially mentally. During the two years making the film, I had a lot of things happen, friends died in the mountains, and I started saying to myself, You know, this would be the perfect time to…back down. But I decided to let the mountains make that decision because that’s where I clear my head. And I can tell you that I’ve been feeling really good lately and there is no way I’m taking a step back.
How does losing friends affect your outlook on the mountains?
JJ: Losing friends does a couple of things. One, it makes me work harder on what I call my homework—avalanche training medical training, time in the mountains, etc. I own a snowboard company, I have a non profit, I have two kids. I have to make sure that I’m not not putting in the preparation. Two, I probably back down easier on lines. But I also lost friends that didn’t die in the mountains recently and I’ve realized how fragile life is. You know, we are one bad checkup away from a death sentence. I’m really on this kick where I feel like you have to live every day like your last.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Has that changed how you ride?
JJ: Yes. You know, timing is everything in the mountains. One dangerous thing is if you are late, which is something you hear about with mountaineers: if they aren’t on the summit of Everest by two, the turn around point is X time. It’s the same with free-riding. I’ll think to myself, it’s going to take X amount of time, let’s start our hike at three in the morning. So I set my alarm clock for two and when it goes off and I don’t want to get out of bed, I think: “God, how fired up would my bros be right now?” Then I’m out of bed and walking up the mountain.
Your at the top of a line: what goes through your mind?
JJ: Fear is a huge part of the mountains and a very important emotion. But if I can’t turn my fear into confidence I don’t go. And I’ve been at the top, strapped in, then pulled the plug (backed down).
Just from fear?
JJ: Yea. Sometimes I just can’t get myself over the edge because something doesn’t feel right. My gut is off. That’s another huge rule: listen to your gut. That’s why all that outside stuff about getting a good shot or getting the cover of a magazine has to stay in the parking lot.
I don’t drop in scared. That’s not saying that, an hour ago I’m not dry heaving from fear. It’s just that I might be scared, then I hike down a ridge to check out this thing that was freaking me out and suddenly I’ve made it so it doesn’t freak me out. That’s the trick and the best part of it all: when I’m freaked out and thinking, “If I could just figure out what that roll is, or if I could just take another day to scout…” and then you go that one extra step that takes all the weight off.
It seems like a lot of it, for you, is problem solving.
JJ: Exactly. I always say that you need to turns 20 “nos” into 20 “yess” and if you get to 19 and you don’t have the 20. It doesn’t matter if you’re three weeks in, you're ten hours in, you woke up at two in the morning, you hiked all night, the mountains don’t give a sh•t. If you are at 19 and you don’t have that twentieth, your bailing. And I’ve learned that bailing feels good.
Do you ever get outside pressure to ride a line you don’t feel comfortable on?
JJ: I surround myself with cameramen and riders who are cautious. I’ve traveled with maybe one hundred cameramen over the years and I’ve had it all. I’ve had guys who, when I’m in that critical sizing up moment and I’m a little tweaked, they’ll come over the radio and go: “Man, this would make a sick shot.” That’s all it takes for me to never to into the mountains with that guy again. You want a cameraman to tell you not to force it, the consequences are too high.
What books are you reading?
JJ: I just finished the Dharma Bums, and I just started The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen.
My fingers and toes are always getting cold on the slopes, how do you keep them warm?
JJ: I never wear my snowboarding socks until I’m ready to go because I want them to be super dry. I will also baby powder my feet if it’s really cold to keep them from sweating in my boot. Here’s a little trick: If I can feel my feet going, I swing my feet—just did it the other day in fact. I skated up somewhere, lost one of my toes (to numbness) then just stopped and swung my foot for about two minute until it came back to me.