Legendary US freeride snowboarder, Jeremy Jones meets Style Altitude Editor, Elaine Deed and Tech Editor, Gavin Baylis, in London where all of us are a long way from the office with a view of the mountains.
'How do you guys manage to have that lifestyle, live by the sea in the summer and in the mountains in the winter?' This is the start of our interview with Jeremy Jones, the freeride snowboard god, whose regular office is the mountains and who has the lifestyle that most recreational skiers and snowboarders dream about. But this is the question that he asks us, when we met in Shoreditch and, via introductory small talk, mentioned that we had travelled up from the South Coast to London but would be moving Style Altitude HQ to the Alps in December.
'I just haven’t figured out the ocean bit,' he sighs, as we sit down in the bar at the achingly on-trend Ace Hotel in Shoreditch that is cooler than an Alaskan iceberg. The Spine Master, as his crew calls him, looks relaxed drinking designer mineral water although I suspect he’d far rather be sipping lukewarm tea from a thermos at base camp in a howling snowstorm in the Alaskan wilderness. As he says, “I’m a train wreck out of the mountains; the wheels come off''.
For a giant in snow sports, he’s not as tall as you’d imagine. But, then, his wheels are off. He is incredibly fit looking – in the original meaning of the word ‘fit’ as in could climb mountains for hours without breaking a sweat. Yes, and, ok, and he’s ‘fit’ in the other way, too. In athletic- cut V-neck t-shirt and jeans with his tan, stubble and Hollywood smile, he’s disconcerting many of the surrounding hipster London girls tapping at their laptops on the long table in the hotel lobby area.
Of course, I don't think that any of them realise that they are in the presence of a living legend – and I don’t use that as one of those throw-away accolades, like a spare strap on a backpack. National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, 2013; Barack Obama’s Champion of Change last year; chief campaigner for the environment through Protect Our Winters; pioneer of professional big mountain riding; star of over 50 snowboard movies; founder and CEO of Jones Snowboards and creator of one of the most user friendly splitboard freeride mechanisms ever; yes, this guy is a god in our mountain world whom we should all bow down and worship.
To the Sherpas in the Himalayas of Nepal (where he shot the finale of his new film, Higher) who had never seen anyone snowboard in the mountains before, he must have seemed like a Messiah, riding on water - in fact, exceedingly steep water frozen into spines - and turning one plank into two (and back again).
He has a mass of disciples (he has over 31,000 followers on Twitter). In the backcountry regions of Alaska, The Tetons and The Himalayas - locations for Higher - he shuns modern environmentally unfriendly transport like helis and snowmobiles, to climb using his own foot power. He and his crew wander in the wilderness for days - no make that, weeks – in their mission to find the holy grail of unconquered spines, inaccessible ridges and untracked powder.
The day we meet, Jeremy is in London for the premiere of the final instalment of his holy trinity: Deeper, Further, Higher. Having seen his latest Teton Gravity extreme snowboarding adventure movie, I can’t help thinking that Higher should have been called Harder because it looks epic hard work when he’s bootpacking up with crampons and an ice axe or two - and no less easy coming down rappelling off an ice anchor from Grand Teton or oxygen-deprived, sliding down the 65 per cent spine wall of the 21,500 ft and not entirely happy-looking ridge called Shangri-La, in Nepal.
This is mountaineering meets snowboarding - or vice a versa
Even Jeremy Jones, catching his breath from high altitude and effort, after an insanely gnarly descent from the Shangri-La ridge, declares on film, ‘It was the hardest thing I’ve ever snowboarded down’. During his five week trip in Nepal he admits he only did four runs but it was also ‘one of the coolest things I’ve ever done’.
I, also, worry, as he rides with an ice axe to anchor his sliding descent for every big line in the film, that he might fall and stab himself. And there’s one time, when he’s jump-turning down a spine and falls engulfed in a cloud of sluff (the snow that is set into movement when snowboarding or skiing in steep terrain above 40 degrees) and you think it’s an avalanche and he’s a gonna. His poor wife must be a wreck - even though he says it’s the first time in years that he’s been “sluffed off' a face.
But, cool as ever, he doesn’t reach for the airbag handle.
Next year, 2015, Jeremy will be 40. So is he going to mellow, cut the risks, give his wife a break and, maybe, even take up skiing? And what’s the future for snowboarding?
We had 30 minutes, about the time it takes to skin up 300 metres backcountry, to ask:
Have you ever had to pull your airbag?
Not even when you were caught on film by Teton Gravity in what looks like a major slide in 2013?
That was a weird scenario. In fact it wasn’t that deep. We’d had three weeks of bullet proof snow. And then it snowed just a small amount so it looks like it’s a cracking avalanche (slab) but there was actually very little snow moving with me. It was one of those things.
(Judge for yourself, watch the video)
So what is the most dangerous situation you’ve been in?
Actually, the most dangerous situation I’ve experienced, when someone could have died, has been in intermediate terrain. When I’m going to ride something really serious, it’s more likely that I’m in the right head space. Intermediate freaks me out because my guard is down.
How would you feel if either of your two kids, aged 6 and 9, grows up to follow in your splitboard steps?
I love riding the mountain with my kids and I really hope that snowboarding will be a part of their lives. But my wife? My mother? Yes, there’s enough stress in the family. I wouldn’t choose for my kids to do what I do.
What makes you do it? Will you mellow with age? Or keep taking the risks?
Big clean rippable lines have always been part of my gig. I will see a mountain that grabs my attention and that consumes me - and at times that mountain may have a degree of danger to it. And then it’s kind of, God, I want to ride that but I want to do it safely. It might have something in it that makes it more dangerous that I wish wasn’t there. Like, unfortunately there’s a cliff I have to deal with. But, you know, not every single run I do, I have to be in the gnar. I love a lot of rolling powder.
When it comes to risk, how do you decide when and where it’s good to go?
It depends what we’re doing. In the Tetons section of Higher that’s a really complex snowpack; the lines were really super critical. In that scenario I’m going to find the best snow science guy I can to help make those calls. So we had bad ass mountain guides there. When I go to a place like La Grave in the Alps, I’m for sure tracking down, whether it’s a mountain guide of a local but I’m going to find the best guy I can because I can’t get off the plane and go to La Grave and start making snow calls.
Where’s the best powder you’ve ever ridden?
God, the best powder? It’s kind of like there’s no such thing as bad powder. When it comes to soft snow, I’m not picky. The main thing is not the snow fall it’s the amount of people you have to fight for the powder. Unlike Japan and the Alps where you can ride powder under the lifts, in the US you can’t do that any more. You can do it for a couple of runs but you’re not going to spend all day riding powder off the lifts. That’s more of the concern.
And so that’s why you splitboard?
Exactly. I don’t like waiting in line. So I’ll ride resorts not on the powder days. Splitboarding has made resort riding more fun for me because I do so much hiking.
Do you enjoy the climb as well as the descents?
I love climbing steeps. When I get to that point when it’s crampons, ice axes I could go on forever. I climb at a very slow steady pace because I don’t want to burn my legs off for the way down. I have the ability to move through the mountains for long periods of time, day after day after day. But I’m not like this guy who goes and does three or four thousand metres a day in’ x’ amount of time. I don’t give a shit how fast I climb something. I’m not competitive in that sense.
Will you ever go over to the dark side? Skiing?
I don’t consider skiing as the dark side! I grew up skiing. And if it’s a 20 degree powder run it’s more exciting for me to stay in ski mode on my split board than to snowboard. But I’m a sideways rider. A surfer. Whether it’s on concrete, waves, snow I see the world sideways.
How would you describe your snowboard style?
I would call myself a deprived surfer.
Have you changed your stance over the years?
My stance is always moving. If it’s hard pack I’m going a lot more duck stance because I’ll be riding switch at times. I’m probably riding a little bit narrower right now. I’m all over the map.
Did you ever do park? Do you?
Never seriously. We’re starting to get some cool parks now and hopefully over the years this trend can continue. I like riding the whole mountain and in doing so if you can hit the park on the way back to the woods, then I’ll do that.
Do you want to inspire kids to get out of the park? They can back flip but have never turned in powder?
My message to kids who snowboard or ski is that if you’re bored with it then go do a different part of the mountain and have a different experience. But if a kid is just totally obsessed with learning tricks on a rail, then go and learn as many tricks as you can on a rail. I don’t have a problem with that.
It can be quite a financial investment for a good splitboard set up. What if you don’t want to spend so much but still do backcountry?
Snowshoeing and bootpacking still works, if you want to get into the backcountry without investing in a splitboard. I still make a point of bootpacking. Especially in the Alps where there is so much accessible backcountry. I’d say, 80 per cent of my snowboarding is hiking off the lifts in the Alps.
You said that Liz Daley, (the US professional mountaineer killed by an avalanche in Patagonia in October) was a true trailblazer of snowboarding and was winning over the old guard of mountain men. What did you mean?
The old guard, whether Chamonix, Jackson Hole or where ever, looked down on snowboarders. They still do. It’s harder to get your guide certification as a snowboarder than as a skier. That’s because the guy that passes you has it in his head that a snowboard is not a proper tool in the mountains. It’s not the same everywhere. But, it’s like if you’re on trial with a judge, and you get the wrong judge, you’re screwed. If I have two friends who go to get their Level Three Avy deal, one’s a skier and ones a snowboarder. And the snowboarder doesn’t pass and everyone’s like what the fuck? It’s like robbery. Also, there’s the women’s prospective. I hate to say it but there’s a challenge before you even get into the mountains that the guy that’s passing you will look down on you because you’re a woman. Liz was up against both of those challenges.
How do you see snowboarding evolving?
We’ve made some massive improvements with snowboards. Now if I go on a trip that is half resort, half backcountry, I will just take a splitboard. In the past, the thought of riding splitboard in a resort, I was, like, I don’t want to touch that. From Jones Snowboards perspective, we have only just crossed the threshold. I work closely with the Karakoram guys and they would also answer this by saying what we’re going to be on in five years or 10 years will be quite a bit different. There’ll be things that will significantly improve the existing set up. For one thing, I have a boot coming out next year (in conjunction with ThirtyTwo) which will address the fact that there’re places where the boot needs to be stiff and places where it needs to be soft.
What’s your most essential piece of clothing kit?
The one thing that is with me in the mountains all the time is my O’Neill packable down puffa. I never leave home without it. Just because it doesn’t weigh anything, but it adds so much warmth. And, if there’s an injury in the mountains, warmth is so critical.
How have you managed to avoid major injury? Touch wood, by the way.
Avoid injury? I call it ride to live another day – don’t take a chance and not be able to live the next day by doing something stupid.