Feeling thoroughly unworthy, I politely turned on my mini-recorder to interview two of the most respected and prolific freeriders in the world. Trained to negotiate unwieldy manuscripts, not dicey chutes and hairball rock shots, I hardly seemed qualified to discuss backcountry snowboarding with Snowboard Life’s first-ever guest editors Karleen Jeffery and Craig Kelly. Even the setting seemed wrong. We should’ve been somewhere above treeline, with a commanding view of a majestic range. Instead we were in a cavernous, air-conditioned conference room in a magazine office with a commanding view of cubicles and fax machines.

But all my anxiety disappeared as soon as Karleen and Craig began talking about their life’s passion–the backcountry. Despite the fact that I’d elevated them to snowboarding immortals, it soon became clear that Karleen and Craig are just people–polite, soft-spoken, thoughtful people. As I’m sure you’ll pick up over the course of reading the interview, these two also have strikingly different personalities. While Craig is contemplative and philosophical, Karleen is direct, no-bullshit, and concise. Craig’s spirituality was a beautiful balance to Karleen’s dry-witted pragmatism as they fielded my questions and threw in a few of their own.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy a conversation with two of the most talented and experienced backcountry riders our sport has to offer. You’re bound to learn a thing or two about them. We sure did.

–E.M.

What was your introduction to the backcountry?

Karleen Jeffery: For me, it runs in the family. My grandfather was a skiing pioneer in Canada. He was the first person to ski between Jasper and Banff, in the national parks there. It was like a three-week trip. So he was super full-on into the backcountry. My father was on the national ski team in Canada, back when you had to ski-jump, cross-country, and ski-race, so I was totally born into this and started at the age of two learning about everything.

Craig Kelly: My first backcountry experience was probably my third day snowboarding at Mt. Baker in 1981, the year that I learned. The first thing we did was hike these little waves by the upper parking lot. Eventually we hiked across this little valley to Mt. Herman, which is just out-of-bounds at Mt. Baker. I remember hiking up there for the first time with Jeff Fulton and Dan Donnelly. I knew nothing about avalanches, and that day we were hiking up the main gully when this big rumbler came down just beside us. We just thought of it like lightning: “Oh, we just got so lucky.”

Were there any individuals who served as backcountry mentors for you?

My family.

We had our little Mount Baker Hard Cores crew that kind of bungled around the backcountry and learned on our own for the first five years. Eventually, George Dobis from the Mt. Baker Snowboard Shop showed a lot of us around and started educating us on what’s safe and what’s not. Further down the road, Steve Matthews was somebody I really looked up to a lot–the first person to show me that snowshoes, poles, and a backpack were a lot more efficient than post-holing.

Did any other factors influence your backcountry education?

When I moved over to Europe about six years ago. Over there you have to have some knowledge or else there is such a danger–you’re putting yourself at really high risk. It’s more like a personal quest for self-preservation. It wasn’t like I had any one mentor, I just considered when I was riding with anyone that no question was too stupid. Even if you think it’s the most retarded question, you have to ask it because it might save your life one day, asking guides and more-experienced riders a lot of questions, trying to decipher who has good knowledge and w doesn’t.

What about you, Craig? Did you have any formal backcountry-safety training?

To begin with, my backcountry experience was self-taught because there weren’t all that many snowboarders to go out with. I was more or less leading things with my friends. Over time I did get a chance to work with a lot of qualified backcountry guides on the filming and photo-shoot projects I’ve done, and I learned a lot technically from them. I learned how lucky I’d been earlier on in my snowboarding days. Eventually I took the level-one Canadian Avalanche Association course–it’s like a seven-day intensive course–and learned about the backcountry dangers that are out there. I think that’s a bit more than the average person needs, but they have a recreational course that’s two or three days, and I think everybody who steps outside the ropes should have that. It’s good stuff to know, and it’s also a fun process to learn.

Any other pointers for riders interested in learning about the backcountry?

For beginners just making the transition away from the ski area, you should go with someone who knows more than you do. Often beginners will be intimidated to ask questions. If they feel intimidated to ask their friends questions, they have to take an avalanche course. I personally carry a book called Mountaineering:Freedom Of The Hills by Don Graydon and Kurt Hanson. It’s basically the bible of mountaineering, and it covers everything from what kind of clothes you should be wearing right through crevasse rescue and anchors for rock climbing–everything you could possibly need to know. So any day when I’m out there and I forgot to ask a question or I feel intimidated, I just look it up.

Name one backcountry rider you respect.

I’ve been riding with Matt Goodwill a lot the last three years. We try and get in the same groups every day up in Alaska, just because we really trust each other, talking each other down on the radio or that kind of thing. I try to keep the same partners or groups. When you go to Alaska, you don’t want to go switching people every single day because you could be putting yourself at risk. You want to know how much knowledge each partner has.

There are so many guys I really respect a lot, but the one that stands out–has stood out forever–is Tom Burt. What it comes down to is that he rides fast and he rides smart. A lot of people don’t realize that to ride as fast as he does down the mountain, and to have as much knowledge as he does about the dangers of the mountain, is a rare combination. There are a lot of guys who ride fast that just don’t know what they’re getting into, but Tom knows and he still rides fast.

Craig, your home mountain–Mt. Baker–is renowned for its backcountry terrain. What’s your take on it?

It’s a bit of a misnomer because it actually does snow so much at Baker, and it’s wet so often, that on the average day–most days–the backcountry isn’t worth the hiking effort. And it’s dangerous because of the amount of snowfall. But the days when it’s clear and nice … You’ve seen the pictures–that’s how it is. It’s super easy to get at, and it’s really convenient. I think places that get less snow than Mt. Baker actually lend themselves much better to backcountry access.

What do you consider your home mountain, Karleen?

Chamonix has been a big part of it. I did start out at Big White, up in Canada.

To Karleen British Columbia has become such a snowboarding dreamland for me. I’m blown away by how you can just take off. What made you leave?

Just looking for bigger mountains. I’ve done a lot of stuff in Canada. From my ski racing and traveling all over Canada and seeing all the resorts there, I always felt like I wanted bigger mountains, steeper terrain, unlimited access to all the goods. I wanted to be able to go wherever I want. That’s kind of what led me over to Europe, where there are no rules and you watch your own back.

But now I miss my homeland. I miss my own culture and my own language. So this season I’m going to be in North America, exploring B.C. more and the Rocky Mountains. Getting back home.

Karleen, tell us a little bit about Chamonix.

It’s a huge valley developed on three sides–all ski resorts. You can go up a lift, ride down into Switzerland, and take a train back. You can go down into Italy and take a gondola back over. It’s just so vast and extensive, and all the resorts are no more than a five- to ten-minute drive from the center of town. The kids get a full day off a week to ski, everybody takes two or three hours for lunch to go skiing. It’s absolutely part of the lifestyle.

To Karleen There’s a lot of follow through in your riding, and it seems like you’ve had some training. Has it been in snowboarding, or ski racing?

Ski racing. Just being able to visualize what you’re going to do before you do it. You learn how to visualize success instead of failure. You don’t visualize yourself falling.

It’s not too often I get to ride the backcountry with someone I’ve heard a lot about but haven’t spent a lot of time with, like with you in Chile. I immediately noticed that you carved hard and really well in intense places, where most people would be more likely to chatter out or slow down.

What’s your favorite part of the backcountry experience?

For me, it’s the whole decision-making process. I’m relying on myself for survival, and it’s all based on my own knowledge. I can’t rely on anyone else to keep me alive. It’s a challenge every day. This is my favorite thing, and I study what I do. I’m always researching and trying to preserve my life.

Nice. Mine is a little bit similar, it’s the freedom aspect. There’s the book–The Tao of Pooh–and the concept of the pu’u in Chinese means the uncarved block, or the clean slate. And that’s what the backcountry represents to me. Even though you can’t go everywhere–you’re gonna find a cliff or avalanche danger or whatever–but in general you are so much more free in the backcountry to carve the line you want or pick the route you want. And you get to express yourself in whatever way feels comfortable out there.

To Karleen All things considered equally, what’s your preferred method of ascension if you’re only going to get one run in a day?

Ski touring, which before for me meant actually skiing down–that’s the quickest way. But you Craig got me into splitboarding on this trip to Chile, and I think I’ll be on that thing constantly.

I feel the same way. We’ve got freedom to use helicopters, snowmobiles, ski lifts, snowcats, whatever–but when it’s all said and done, I really feel better about that one run if I earned it.

To Craig How have events like the Olympics affected snowboarding? The magazines really depend on commercialism and logo placement, and a lot of that doesn’t mix with backcountry riding. Where is our sport heading?

Unfortunately, the backcountry is not getting any less crowded. Before the Olympics, I saw the mushroom-cloud effect on pro snowboarding in particular, and maybe on the media’s perception of snowboarding. Right now I feel the mushroom cloud has artificially expanded larger than life with the halfpipe and jumping coverage. Maybe it’ll last a lot longer, but I don’t think it will. It’ll all suck back down into a level even smaller than what’s curreing all the resorts there, I always felt like I wanted bigger mountains, steeper terrain, unlimited access to all the goods. I wanted to be able to go wherever I want. That’s kind of what led me over to Europe, where there are no rules and you watch your own back.

But now I miss my homeland. I miss my own culture and my own language. So this season I’m going to be in North America, exploring B.C. more and the Rocky Mountains. Getting back home.

Karleen, tell us a little bit about Chamonix.

It’s a huge valley developed on three sides–all ski resorts. You can go up a lift, ride down into Switzerland, and take a train back. You can go down into Italy and take a gondola back over. It’s just so vast and extensive, and all the resorts are no more than a five- to ten-minute drive from the center of town. The kids get a full day off a week to ski, everybody takes two or three hours for lunch to go skiing. It’s absolutely part of the lifestyle.

To Karleen There’s a lot of follow through in your riding, and it seems like you’ve had some training. Has it been in snowboarding, or ski racing?

Ski racing. Just being able to visualize what you’re going to do before you do it. You learn how to visualize success instead of failure. You don’t visualize yourself falling.

It’s not too often I get to ride the backcountry with someone I’ve heard a lot about but haven’t spent a lot of time with, like with you in Chile. I immediately noticed that you carved hard and really well in intense places, where most people would be more likely to chatter out or slow down.

What’s your favorite part of the backcountry experience?

For me, it’s the whole decision-making process. I’m relying on myself for survival, and it’s all based on my own knowledge. I can’t rely on anyone else to keep me alive. It’s a challenge every day. This is my favorite thing, and I study what I do. I’m always researching and trying to preserve my life.

Nice. Mine is a little bit similar, it’s the freedom aspect. There’s the book–The Tao of Pooh–and the concept of the pu’u in Chinese means the uncarved block, or the clean slate. And that’s what the backcountry represents to me. Even though you can’t go everywhere–you’re gonna find a cliff or avalanche danger or whatever–but in general you are so much more free in the backcountry to carve the line you want or pick the route you want. And you get to express yourself in whatever way feels comfortable out there.

To Karleen All things considered equally, what’s your preferred method of ascension if you’re only going to get one run in a day?

Ski touring, which before for me meant actually skiing down–that’s the quickest way. But you Craig got me into splitboarding on this trip to Chile, and I think I’ll be on that thing constantly.

I feel the same way. We’ve got freedom to use helicopters, snowmobiles, ski lifts, snowcats, whatever–but when it’s all said and done, I really feel better about that one run if I earned it.

To Craig How have events like the Olympics affected snowboarding? The magazines really depend on commercialism and logo placement, and a lot of that doesn’t mix with backcountry riding. Where is our sport heading?

Unfortunately, the backcountry is not getting any less crowded. Before the Olympics, I saw the mushroom-cloud effect on pro snowboarding in particular, and maybe on the media’s perception of snowboarding. Right now I feel the mushroom cloud has artificially expanded larger than life with the halfpipe and jumping coverage. Maybe it’ll last a lot longer, but I don’t think it will. It’ll all suck back down into a level even smaller than what’s currently represented. It looks bigger than it actually is. The average kids don’t ride halfpipe that much, but the coverage is there, bigger than life.

Backcountry snowboarding is almost totally independent of mainstream media, and somewhat independent of magazine media. A lot of the best backcountry riders you’ll find in any given area really don’t care what’s going on in the magazines, or what pro is doing what. They may not jump the biggest cliffs or ride the fastest, but they’re out there the most, living it and loving it the hardest. I think that will always be there–totally independent.

To Craig I read an article in Time about risk takers, and it described people like us as self-centered adrenaline junkies who don’t think about our families and the effect a devastating accident might have. I’m wondering if you agree with that.

I would probably tend to agree with them if they were to publish some kind of statistics that proved what we’re doing really is dangerous. But, like you said, you research what you do a lot. It’s your life and you put everything into it. From riding with each other, we know we’re not taking big chances out there. Maybe a sprained ankle or dislocated shoulder is realistic, something like that might catch up with you sooner or later, but I don’t really know if what we’re doing is that death-defying.

Realistically, if I had a family and kids right now I probably would think twice. I’d still do most of the things I do now, because when it comes down to it I’m still scared out there, and if I get scared I back off. That’s all there is to it. If I had kids I’d probably think about it more.

To Karleen Is there anything about backcountry riding that makes it feel like an art form to you?

Well, my paintings are very swirly and flowing, and that’s a similar sensation to when you’re on your snowboard. It’s like the art just comes out of you. It just happens, it’s not really planned. It’s the same way with snowboarding: when you look at a peak and you have a flash in your mind of what you’re going to do, you visualize it and go for it.

What about you, Craig, do you consider backcountry riding an art form?

I’ve got to be careful here, it’s easy to step into the realm of vanity. I don’t think that what I do is a piece of art when it’s finished necessarily, but I do feel expressive in an artistic way when I snowboard. A very personal way, not an outward way.

You like to check out your tracks laughter!

Everybody likes to check out their tracks. Especially Mike Ranquet joking–we had a philosophical discussion about vanity and looking at our tracks. In the backcountry is when I feel most artistically inclined, without inhibitions. Especially without cameras around.

To Karleen If baggage handling wasn’t an issue, what extra toys you would bring on a snowboarding trip?

First thing–my skis, for sure. Because I like to mix it up. If there were no limits at all I would be full-on multi-sport everywhere I go. I’d bring my bike, surfboard, all my climbing gear.

Any book recommendations for that trip?

Freedom Of The Hills–I bring it with me everywhere and I’ve been reading it for years. Rereading it and rereading it–not front to back, but looking up the point that interests me at the time.

I just finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Doestoyevsky and it put me in such a sour mood for five or six days. It’s really depressing and full of despair. Luckily in the end it picks back up and–whew!–puts you up where you feel good about life again. In relation to snowboarding, I think Jonathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach is an awesome one, and so is the Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff and Ernest H. Shepard.

What would you say is your biggest hang-up?

I’d say impatience with people. I can’t stand when people get in massive groups and they’re just ignorant.

I think my biggest hang-up has been that I’ve had so much tunnel vision and goal-oriented drive. That in itself has been a problem for me. Now a lot of that has fallen away, and what’s still left over is a lot of intolerance when things aren’t going my way.

Do you feel there are any public misconceptions about you?

I don’t think there is a real public awareness of me being alive laughs, so I don’t think we have to worry about that.

A lot of people believe that because a person is successful in what they do, that leads to happiness in their life. I’m not saying I’m unhappy, but my accomplishments in snowboarding and the opportunities I hav