View From The Top
Jeremy Jones Finishes Six Years Of Foot-Powered Lines With His New Film Higher
Jeremy Jones' Higher, an epic finale to the trilogy, is now available on iTunes HERE
We're staggering around the back porch in the cool Jackson Hole summer eve. A near full moon looms and flames flicker in the chiminea. Jeremy Jones, his older brother Steve and longtime friend cackle and roar as they share stories over the sound of popping wood. The boisterous ramble of antics and winters past is no different than others who seek snow and refuge in a mountain town, although their careers suggest otherwise. Jeremy is one of snowboarding's great—a rider, explorer, mountaineer and diplomat. His two brothers, Todd and Steve, are the founders of the widely recognized Teton Gravity Research media company. These paths have taken them to places they could have never imagined; yet the root of it all hasn't changed. It has always been about being in the mountains as much as possible, taking whatever financial and physical route to do so. It's a craft all in itself, an act the three have spent decades perfecting. In the last six years though, Jeremy and crew have taken it to another dimension. The Deeper-Further-Higher video trilogy they've embarked on shook the foundation of backcountry snowboarding and the way it was documented. As the group puts the finishing touches in Higher, we sought Jeremy's take on the path he's taken through life, snowboarding, and the lines ahead.
From Flat Ground
Before the Himalayas and 3,000-foot spine walls in Alaska, Jeremy started in the backyard. The transition from skateboarding to snow was a simple crossover, but in the cold flats of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the early '80s both Jones and snowboarding were in a premature state. "Back East at that time it was all about racing, there wasn't really much of a model for anything else," says Jeremy. So he raced, a lot. So much that he was riding slalom professionally by the age of 16. He funded trips by winning races and sleeping on couches, dirtbagging it from the start. "You know Bud Keene was the first real snowboarder I met," remembers Jeremy. "Like normal clothes and freestyle riding."
While Jeremy stayed within the gates his older brothers Todd and Steve, avid skiers, explored a radically different lifestyle. "Growing up, one thing that Steve really instilled was that you can work really hard for chunks of time, save money, and then go and travel the world," says Jeremy. "When I was like 12 years old, he was going off to Nepal, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Las Leñas—I didn't even know there was such a thing as snowboarding in Argentina and stuff like that. He just really opened the world." Jeremy's brothers sought a ski bum existence, and eventually settled on Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He continued to race and meet them whenever financially possible, soon becoming acquainted with places like Jackson, Whistler, and Alaska. By the time snowboarding was entering the Olympics in 1998 he had a decent chance at making the team for giant slalom, but his sights were clouded with snow scenes he'd seen with Todd and Steve. Jeremy gave qualifiers a go, but didn't make the cut. He never wore hardboots again. The life of riding far from a slalom course took hold and propelled his riding and career to this day.
With racing in the rear view Jeremy was hungry to ride, but funding it was another story. "I do think the fact that I started out in Cape Cod and Vermont made me want it." Jeremy says. "That jump from the East Coast to out West, that is a scary jump. It's like you know no one. Every kid from the East that moves out West goes through the same thing." To fuel the move he did what just about any of those who've lived in a resort town do to get by. "I painted houses and waited tables, and did a little bit of cooking and dishwashing."
A few years prior, Todd and Steve had begun an endeavor of their own, founding Teton Gravity Research in 1996. Coincidentally some of the first rolls of film they shot were of Jeremy. Eager to keep up with his brothers, he was learning ways to extend the ride. "Steve would say, 'You have got to come up to AK!' And I was like, 'Well, I don't have any money.' And he said, 'Sell your mountain bike, sell whatever you can, come up here!'" says Jeremy. "And I did, and I had 1,200 bucks after the plane ticket. He was like, 'Oh dude, you will be fine we're camping at the heli pad and we can do plane drops and dadadada.' That was totally standard issue because we had been doing that. Before going to AK, we would do these Whistler trips. For spring break I would fly out to Montana, and then we would drive to Whistler and camp. It was always raining, which was hard; then we would hike the lower mountain because we couldn't pay for lift tickets. I was doing that when I was 16, 17, 18 years old and I would come back from spring break like 15 pounds lighter and just so beat down. Those were challenging trips for me."
Over the next decade plus Jeremy transformed the snow bum lifestyle into a thriving career. He elevated and explored big mountain riding, often against sponsors support and at a time when snowboarding's freestyle discipline dominated the scene. Through mingling freestyle elements with steep lines Jeremy became a force in snowboard filmmaking, a dominant figure whose riding has appeared in over 45 videos. This film project path led him to just about every big mountain heli and sled zone known. In time the locations became all too confined and familiar. He'd seen it all, ridden it all. So in 2008, Jeremy embarked on another new journey and the foot-powered film project Deeper was launched. As he says in the opening of the movie, "Big mountain riding is about exploration and figuring out what's around the next corner, that's such a huge part of it and that's where a lot of the buzz comes from."
Snowboarding is tied to a means of access and a location. Whether it's a drop-in ramp and downtown, a chairlift and corduroy, or a splitboard and wilderness, it's how the location is altered and one's act that make it unique. "It's funny, I think there are some similarities between the spirit of jibbing and splitboarding in the sense that you take resorts out of it," Jeremy says. "They have to deal with cops and everything, but in the grand scheme of things there, it's their own world, it's like this wide open slate." In the backcountry realm, it's environmental protection, motorized boundaries and sheer geographical barriers that inhibit access. Breaking ground requires tactful wilderness exploration. Skiing and mountaineering have long enjoyed a relationship, but snowboarding and this technical approach have lagged in comparison. When Jeremy and company began seeking lines on foot and outside of lift access, two-stroke borders, and heli tenure for these films it legitimately merged snowboarding and mountaineering, but not overnight.
"We went from using Verts and snowshoes and our own two feet, and sort of broke it down to like splitboards are the way to go, we're going to push it to the edge and see where this takes us," remembers Forrest Shearer, an early adopter, who worked on human-powered projects like My Own Two Feet prior to joining Jeremy's projects.
Every rider who's joined a mission with Jeremy has picked up a bevy of new skills along they way, from extended snow camping to ice screws. "Other than learning some of the skills and niche knowledge needed to ride Alaska, I learned from Jones that the more effort you put into riding a line, the greater the reward and richer the experience," says Lucas Debari, who joined the Fairweather, Alaska expedition in Deeper. "I remember some of the best lines of my life, and being scared shitless the rest of the time. It seems almost ridiculous, but after coming back from my first trip, I had a completely different perspective on the terrain around my home in The Cascades. Mountains that I had only dreamed of riding someday all of a sudden became a reality. Jeremy gave me the equation I needed to apply to all the dream lines in my head."
Even Jeremy, who appears a veteran high-alpine climber in the films admits, "I have learned a ridiculous amount of stuff. I did a five-day, what I was calling "sea to spines" mission, to get the opening shot in Higher and, you know, I probably brought 50 pounds. And six years ago I would have brought 70 pounds for two days." He continues, "I learned how to put on crampons, cross bergschrunds, use an ice axe, build wind walls, rope up on glaciers, ration food, stay warm in below zero temps, bivy on exposed mountains tops, dig snow caves, the list goes on forever. Every day I found myself saying, 'I have never done this before,' and that was so refreshing coming from the heli scene where I had everything dialed. I still find myself out of my comfort zone and doing new things six years later and I think that this why my love of snowboarding is so strong right now. We took this out of Higher, but after I got spit off the face of Mt. Timlin I went back up and I lost a crampon up high on that face and I was in a bad spot. It was really firm ice and you probably have like a minute to get protection like an ice screw in before you are too spent to do anything. And my ability to like, handle that and not make it a big deal, that's something that, fuck, a year and a half ago I wouldn't have been able to do."
Josh Dirksen remembers the experience as some of the most intense snowboarding he's ever done. "Waking up at 3 a.m. to ride the best runs in the world, endless pow runs in the middle of nowhere, camping in the snow for 30 days straight without a shower, splitboarding for 18 hours a day, eating record amounts of Clif Bars, cameras and cameramen freezing before the shot, hiking in a snowstorm because we knew that it had to get sunny sooner or later," he says. "The best runs I have ever taken in over 25 years of snowboarding were while filming with Jones for these projects. And the craziest thing, most of these runs didn't even make it in the movie."
Beyond the climbing technicalities and memories, there's much more to taming remote mountains Jeremy and crew have absorbed, like assessing snowpack, surviving week-long storms and mitigating other inherent mountain dangers. "With Deeper I focused on going past the boundaries in mountain ranges I knew very well," says Jeremy. "So I was able to draw on years of experiences in those snowpacks and had the best resources at my fingertips. The successes I had in Deeper opened up the world too me for Further and Higher. I was on a huge high after Deeper because I could now look at the globe and realize that there were no longer any boundaries. I was able to get out of my comfort zone and go to ranges I had no experience with and knew very little about." And with the film projects he did, exposing untouched areas of Antarctica, Austria, Japan, and Norway. In Higher the company heads to Jackson Hole, The Himalayas and Alaska.
Through the film trilogy Jeremy and crew have reached new peaks around the globe, but there are two areas he's always returned to: Alaska and the Sierra Nevada. "I have been fortunate to travel the world and snowboard the best mountain ranges, but Alaska is still in a league of its own when it comes to high-end snowboarding in powder on really steep faces," he says. "It is a snowboarder's paradise and we have hardly scratched the surface. You can only take a heli to a small percentage of the mountains in Alaska so once I figured out the on-foot program I've been a kid in a candy store with endless amounts of money."
When it comes to the Sierra he says, "The Sierra is my home range. It is my power source, my place where ideas are born and where I prepare for trips. Once on foot I realized the magnitude of the range and how untouched it is. It's a really protected place, making access super hard, which also makes for the perfect training ground to prepare for my trips. Some of my hardest days have been at home." Given that even familiar zones are still untouched he adds, "I think if you are willing to spend the night in the mountains, almost anywhere in the world is pretty much wide open, and it's literally just one night."
Six years and a number of massive expeditions around the globe later what stands out? "The Spine Institute in Alaska, which we went to in Deeper, that's for sure the sickest zone I have ever seen in the world," says Jeremy. "Just so stacked on a level that I have never seen. And I mean Alaska is just endless, as soon as you get out of those heli boundaries it is just lifetimes of unridden mountains. But Antarctica, Svalbard, those two places are really set up perfect for foot-access snowboarding." Peering into more exotic and un-ridden areas he says, "I have looked at a lot of Asia stuff, the Tian Shan—it might be the biggest range in the world, totally untouched. China, totally untouched. Now Pakistan, totally untouched."
When it comes to places closer to home, areas more accessible to the rest of us, Jeremy suggests that "The Sierra I think has some of the most unridden mountains around. But now I am finding all of this Nevada stuff. Then I have been hanging with Guch [Bryan Iguchi], and you have the main Tetons, the big classic lines, but there are so many mountain ranges that I am just learning the names of that are really stacked. I think Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and there is probably more, that's just what I know off of the head. I bet if I spent a bunch of time in Colorado I would say the same thing."
With everything Jeremy has accomplished so far is he ready for a break? Not even close. With Higher ready for release this fall he's already thinking about future endeavors. He mentions conversations with Travis Rice about another foot powered AK trip for one. "I am as amping on snowboarding as I have ever been and there is a ton of stuff I want to do. And how I chose to document that, I don't know. I would have said the same thing at the end of the last two movies, they just take a lot out of me. I am way less picky, you know, I have always ridden hard snow, but I don't need this epic sunny powder day to happen to have an amazing day in the mountains. I mean life makes way more sense after a powder day. So, don't get me wrong, man, the pow still sends me to the moon. Then you know this powder surfer, I have been riding that more and more, just walking out into my backyard and riding the neighborhood."