Perspectives: Jeremy Jones talks about the avalanche he was caught in last winter
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine.
words: Mary Walsh photos: Mary Walsh, Brock Harris, and the Utah Avalanche Center
The sound of the snow breaking was like nothing I had ever heard. The crack when the slide popped was loud, breaking the silence of the woods, overtaking the atmosphere and filling the air with muffled movement. It's a rumbling and forceful noise that is almost stifled by the severe and powerful motion of the snow. It's striking and scary, and while it lasts only an instant, it's an instant dragged out and defined by a feeling of slow motion helplessness. In the days and weeks that followed, I would have sudden flashes of that moment, the sound of the pop and the feeling of air and snow around me. And the bellowing words of Seth Huot from above on the ridgeline, "RIDE FAST, JONES!"
That morning, a crew of eight of us had met before the sun came up at a trailhead in the Uintas, just east of Salt Lake City. Loading into a cat, we took off into the mountains, the snow taking a brief break before continuing to pile up all around us. On our third run of the day, a massive avalanche occurred, carrying two members of our group downhill. When the snow settled, we hurried to our friends to get them to safety.
Jeremy Jones has been a catalyst of influence and an overall pillar in snowboarding for as long as I have been strapping in. He's legendary for his video parts, his style, his authority. I had only met him a few times prior to this day, and as Brock Harris and I dug snow from around Jeremy, I was struck by his unequivocal mental strength and ability to stay calm despite two broken legs, and the accompanying shock, pain, and overall gravity of the situation. The weight of his leadership in this scenario was heavy.
In the months that followed, Jeremy got back on his feet. Relegated to recovery for the rest of the season, he committed himself to getting better than before, quickly dialing in wheelies on his wheelchair before his part in Visitors even premiered. Jeremy possesses lifelong experience in the mountains that surround his Salt Lake home and has a sincere reverence for the risks that come along with snowboarding's rewards. The same fervor, passion, and calm sentience that bleed through each of his 21 video parts are apparent when he talks about his experience and understanding of the avalanche. Gratitude for the successful evacuation and veneration for the power of nature run deep in everyone involved, but Jeremy is illustrative of the bottom line: there's a passion that draws you to the mountains in the first place. It's what keeps us going. And for him, he's ready to strap in and continue doing what he does best.
You were in a serious avalanche last January. I know it's a long story, but could you explain what went down—not the synopsis, but I guess the tight version?
So, we put together a crew to cruise out on a little cat mission in the Uintas. We do that stuff all the time, so it wasn't anything real strange for us. The thing that we had against us is that we got there at six in the morning and ended up being in the cat until one in the afternoon because we were pushing the road, so we just didn't have a ton of time on-snow. We dug some pits when we were putting in cat roads, and we got good looks at the layers of the snow, but it continued to just keep dumping. The more time we spent in the box, the conditions were changing for the sketchier right under us.
We got a couple good runs in, and it was the best snow I think I've ever ridden in my life. We were all frothing, such a good moment; everyone was psyched. We had two runs under us. The second run was the same run that slid, and we had ten people on-slope that run—we got through it just fine, so we went back for another one. That time we got a couple people on-slope. Mary, you were tucked behind a tree shooting some photos. Alex [Andrews] dropped in; he and I had kind of the same line off of this rock. He dropped in, hit the rock, made a turn across the face over to his safe zone. You always map out your safe zone and what your escape will be if something happens. And what your line will be if nothing happens.
So, I drop and do a little forward roll right off of the cliff back to my feet and I'm cutting across just under Alex's line to the exit zone, and right in the middle of that, I hear the loudest pop. The snow went from perfect canvas to rippled and terrifying, and it started moving me so quick. I mean, as quick as I heard the pop, you know? I just tried to hold my line the best that I could, start swimming, and stay at the top. There was a big pine tree that was part of my plan, and as the slide was taking me past it, I grabbed one of the branches to try and have the slide pass me, and I just kind of skinned the branch. It just kept pulling me; it had so much power. At that point, I'm kind of in sitting position, and I just kept swimming the best I could. The slide took me over a little roller that was a cliff in the line that we were hoping to hit. As it took me over that roller, that's when the snow came over me, but just as quick as that roller ended, I hit a tree right between my feet. The slide packed my legs around me and then it stood me up and slammed me against the tree. When I sat back down, the slide had passed me. Grabbing the tree branch and being so high on the slope when it popped, a lot of the slide was below me, so I didn't end up buried.
One of our friends that was with us, he was out powsurfing on the right side of the run, and he heard the pop at the same time and ended up buried, but you guys got him out. He had no injuries. I had two broken legs from being wrapped around the tree. From there, we got to the cat after about forty-five minutes of splinting up the legs, using the powsurfer as a toboggan, and all the homies just working together to get everyone off the hill. It was just a mad hustle. Seth Huot and Brock Harris were probably the MVPs of the whole thing because they kept their cool and knew how to make the moves to get everyone out, and they did. We get everyone to the cat, we start moving toward our vehicles [at the trailhead], and then the cat breaks down. The starter gear is stripped. We know we're in trouble again, and I'm kind of going into a little bit of shock, but I have a lot of adrenaline, so I'm still able to kind of keep it together. My head's still in the game.
Brock's constantly talking to me, and I'm constantly communicating with Seth, as well. Those are kind of the two that I kept looking at because I've worked with those guys for twenty years in the backcountry. Just having those guys there and being able to communicate without talking because we know each other so well, it was a good comfort. I knew we were all getting out, it was just a matter of time at that point. Me and Seth had a little back and forth again without saying anything, and he's just like, "We're outta here." He took you and T. Bird, and you guys sprinted through two feet of snow for two miles to the cars—which is gnarly—got to a cell signal, and were able to call search and rescue.
Ultimately, the heli came and picked me up and got me to the hospital. Then, about twenty-four hours through another series of not-so-sweet events, I ended up in surgery, and that all went well. Everything's been kind of moving along since the—just with rehab and kind of getting my legs back under me and ready for winter this year. So, we survived another day. That's the quick version and the unemotional version, which I don't mind sharing. It's easier to get through.
What impressed me so much, as you mentioned, was the crew's response and actions, because you can prepare yourself as much as possible, but until you're in that situation, you don't know exactly how you're going to react and how the whole group will work together. I was amazed.
Oh absolutely. You never want this to go down, but you've prepared the best you can. And things still go down, and that's what you train for. With Brock and Seth, specifically, I've got twenty-plus years with those guys in the backcountry, working on all these things that we hope we never use. And then we're in this position, and it was literally a life or death situation. And to see those guys react the way that we all hope we would in a situation like that was so rewarding for me, because that was everything we've worked for. Our reaction needs to save us, not make things worse, you know?
Since then I've felt—granted, I felt this way before the avalanche happened, but even more so after—that this is a crew of people I would follow into any situation and would trust with my life.
Totally. I'm the same way. The first face I saw was Brock's, and the second face I saw was yours. When I saw Brock's face, I'm still wrapped around the tree, I don't even know what's going on with my legs or anything yet, and I just see him. I saw his face and I said, "Ok, we will get out alive." And that was my first thought. "Ok, there's Brock. We're out." And that's sick.
After the avalanche, there was a massive outpouring of support not only locally in Salt Lake but from the greater snowboarding community as a whole. Friends set up a donation to help with the heli evac and other costs not covered by insurance.
That whole thing is almost more emotional than the slide. At first, I didn't go through and read that stuff because I couldn't. I was emotionally incapable of reading the things that people were saying, but my wife would see this stuff, and she would come down and sit next to me on the bed, because I had a little hospital bed for six weeks in the family room. She'd read that stuff, and I'd just be in tears for hours. I mean, it was gnarly, just to see how quick people would respond. I appreciated everything, but one of the coolest things was seeing these fifteen-year-old kids who were like, "Yo man, all I got is five bucks." And they were donating five bucks to this thing, and that was ripping my heart out. 'Cause you're just like, "What did I really do that you feel like you need to give me five bucks?" I don't know. That was a hard one. My friends put that together; that was a hard thing to stomach—just because, I don't know, maybe too much pride? But it brought me to my knees many times, and it still does. That was the most humbled I've ever been in my life, for sure.
Everyone rallied around you and rallied around the whole crew that was out there with support and understanding. The snowboarding community is a great thing.
It was really cool. It was something I was stoked to witness. Obviously there was a [negative] feeling of tragedy and accident, but at the same time it's just like, what better way to find out that people are good? Sometimes you don't even know what you believe anymore. You don't know what you should believe, you don't know who to believe in, but people are worth believing in, and that was something that this reminded me, and I wouldn't take that away for anything.
For readers that are interested in or already go out on their own backcountry missions, is there any kind of take away or advice that you would want to impart from this experience?
Obviously, knowledge is good. Any training you can get, any avalanche training and field experience you can get is first and then—well, I don't know if it's first. And then crew. The crew in this situation is what saved the situation. Things happen, you get out there, you're all doing your part, you're doing the things you've learned in your training, and it still happens. You're avoiding it the best you can, but Mother Nature just does her thing and sometimes you're in its path. We were, but we had the crew. That was it. You pick people you trust. Go with people you trust. Go with people you know will get you out. And go with people you know you'll get out if it's not you.
I'm sure that it was a total mental battle having to deal with an injury that takes you out for the rest of the season.
You know, rehab, injury, and the best season that Brighton's ever had, it tore at me. It's a dark place, but I had a lot of support, and I stayed really positive and motivated. I never let up on my rehab, and I never let that get me down, but it's a dark place. It's depression… it's just not life. It's life in the sense that you deal with what you're dealt, and you deal with it the best that you can, but it's just not a happy place.
When your whole life—your profession and your passion—is based around being able to use your body, when that's taken away from you, you're never prepared for it mentally.
Right. I mean, that's my job; that's my livelihood; that's how I feed my family. I physically need to function, so I can give my family what they need. I don't have a desk job. I don't have that going for me right now. I'm still a snowboarder. I'm still in that world, and that's a bit of stress, but I signed up for it, and I'm happy about it. It's what I love. I just wouldn't do it any other way. I'm glad I'm not doing it another way, I should say, because I like it.
Now you're back doing the things you want to do, and we're coming up on a new season. What's your plan for this winter? Do you already have a project lined up?
JP and I are working on a project with Brighton. We're going to be working on that movie all year long. It will be him and me at the forefront of the project, and then we will have other riders come in—we have a list of people we want. Just hoping to kind of keep it local. I haven't done that in twenty years. I haven't filmed at Brighton as a focus since old Mack Dawg days, so we're really excited about that. We feel grateful and lucky to have grown up how and where we did and just want to give back, because that was our platform.
That kind of leads into my next question. You're looking down the barrel of your 22nd video part; that's a lot of time spent on your snowboard, and you've spurred, been a part of, and seen a lot of different kinds of tricks, progression, and trends. How do you keep going every year to put out parts and footage that you feel stoked on?
I think that just comes down to passion. There's something fueling something in there that just keeps it going. I've broken it down time and time again, but I just want a different video part than I had the year before; that's my focus. I want it to be legit enough that I'm not just a clown out there, filming some whack video part that everyone's like "Oh dude, he just doesn't have it anymore." So, there's all of that of course, but at the end of the day, it's just the love that drives you. The love of filming, the love of tricks, the love of features, the love of the crew. It's just that process. I'm just truly addicted to that process, and I don't really want to kill that addiction. I don't really see a reason for it. I feel like it's healthy. Most of the time.