[Jones's beach holidays are different from most people's. Photo: Swatch]
Jeremy Jones and his snowboarding exist on a plane unattainable, unimaginable, to most snowboarders on the planet. Over the last couple of decades he’s made his name by charging some of the most brutal big mountain lines you can imagine – a journey that culminated in the movie Higher and the descent of a freakish shard of Himalayan peak – but if you strip away the 50 degree faces and gnarly exposure the way that riders like Jeremy look at mountains and evaluate lines at their level of snowboarding can equally be translated to anyone on the more mortal end of the spectrum.
At the launch of his new book, No Words for the Way Down (a high-quality, large format coffee table affair combining epic photography with extracts from the numerous journals Jeremy has written on his trips) and Swatch timepiece, Sam Oetiker sat down with him to talk about his approach to riding the backcountry...
"I’m thinking ‘what’s going to happen if it slides?’ You’ve got to ask yourself that all the time and if it means that the slope slides and I’ll die, it means that the slope, probably 98% of the time, is a slope that I’m not going to touch."
You’ve clearly got a lot of experience with backcountry. What are the first things that you evaluate when scoping a new zone, do you pick like ‘I want to ride that mountain’ or is it particular aspects? What draws you to certain areas?
Yeah so, the beauty of the mountains is that no two are made the same. I’ll see a mountain that just gets inside of me and I can’t get it out of my head. They stay with me. The really special ones I will put everything I have into that to try and have the opportunity to snowboard down that thing, which at times can be three weeks in a tent. That’s very common. Most of the stuff takes two to five attempts and it’s a pull that I get, I don’t know if that will end but that pull is as strong as it’s ever been right now.
What are the key factors for assessing an individual line?
The main thing that I have to tell myself over and over again is ‘what happens if it slides?’ So for me, now 90% of my energy is focussed on the way up. If I can go and be on the slope for four hours just on the way up, getting [snow] stability that will allow you to be on foot on slope for hours at a time is so much. There’s much less room for error than needing stability for when you’re on a snowboard and descending that slope because, for example, an avalanche the size of a table will knock you off your feet, but on your snowboard you wouldn’t even know it. So the level of avalanche assessment needs to be so much greater. So much of my energy is spent working out if I can get to the top safely, and then once I’m on top I’m thinking about where I need to cut the slope, or where the danger is. Again, going up and down, I’m thinking ‘what’s going to happen if it slides?’ You’ve got to ask yourself that all the time and if it means that the slope slides and I’ll die, it means that the slope, probably 98% of the time, is a slope that I’m not going to touch.
So what are the things that you first evaluate?
Most of the time I am drawn to these big, steep, clean lines. My eye naturally goes to clean terrain, the reality is with some of these lines, you might have to deal with some dirty terrain to get to that sweet spot. That’s where it gets a little bit tricky. I think if the line is manageable, and in the case that’s in the book – the Grand Teton – that’s a line that 99% of the time I’m going to look at and think ‘I want nothing to do with that’, it won’t even reveal itself, but every once in awhile you get to a comfort level in the mountains and you get into that dream cycle where you get this incredible stability with good snow and it’s like ‘wow, I can’t even believe it, but that crazy line over there is now calling my name and I think it's doable’. It’s amazing how much avalanche conditions change how I look at the mountain. If it’s a high avalanche danger day, I don’t even see it. The only thing I see on a high avalanche danger day is terrain that is maybe rideable, which on a high avalanche day is all small stuff.
"Believe me, watching Mitch and Bibi go down that mountain in an avalanche doesn’t look that calculated but it is. Some fucked up calculations, but yeah."
Do you feel like you’ve improved that decision making process with experience? Where do you draw the line, if there’s nothing telling you if a slope is really bad, how do you find the balance?
I’m definitely getting smarter but believe me if I go into the mountains tomorrow it’s got my full attention. I know that one bad call could erase a lifetime of good calls. It is important to know – going back to what happens if it slides – if I’m going for a ride that the outrun is [good], I’m not going over a cliff, I’m not going into trees, if I make a mistake and the worst case scenario happens, I for sure could break my arm or tweak a knee or an ankle but I’m not gonna die here. In an example from Further, Mitch [Toelderer] and Bibi [Pekarek] get caught in a slide and we had an in depth discussion before that of what the worst case scenario could be. What happened to them was our worst case scenario, but it was clean terrain and that’s a survivable fall, the slope wasn’t big enough, the outrun was clean enough that it wasn’t a burial situation. So that is what I think has kept me alive in the mountains. I’ve made mistakes, but they’ve been in places where I’m allowed to make mistakes. Believe me, watching Mitch and Bibi go down that mountain in an avalanche doesn’t look that calculated but it is. Some fucked up calculations, but yeah. The other thing is that not all avalanches are created equal. I mean, are you concerned about a 10cm slide or a 2m slide? How are the slabs propagated? I can go out and see a natural avalanche, the crown line is 2m deep and instead of breaking at a point it’s breaking and grabbing everything is possibly can and propagating around corners and into different slopes, when I see that it’s like ‘Okay!’... You can’t really work in those conditions. When you see convex rolls that are unsupported and it’s a 10cm slab and just the roll goes, and it sends a slide onto a bigger face you see. The unsupported rolls are going but they’re not releasing bigger slides then that’s a more manageable scenario.
There are some resorts which have much tighter restrictions on off piste riding. Do you think that’s right, or should they leave it open for people to decide themselves?
I think of what we call ‘open boundary’ in the States where it’s free to make whatever call you want. But you as a mountain area should absolutely provide avalanche safety, whether it’s a weekend clinic, or offering classes, or when you’re leaving that boundary have a beacon check and have the avalanche report available for people to see. Stuff like that is very important. Where it absolutely needs to be restricted is if you you’re going into backcountry terrain that could release an avalanche onto a slope or piste inbounds, that’s not cool. That should be restricted in my mind. I believe that people should be able to go ride on piste at a ski resorts and not be worried about being taken out by an avalanche.
Safety aspects aside, what things do you look for in terms of features in a line?
The big, broad open stuff is not super interesting to me. I like broken terrain with a lot of different waves, rocks, chutes and that kind of thing, that’s a way more creative and interesting thing than just a big, broad slope. So it goes back to that question, what happens if it slides, on a big, broad slope you have no outs. I just take those things out of the equation generally.
How does it differ when you’re looking for features in high altitude, big mountain faces versus less intimidating resort access terrain? Is there a changing mindset?
No, I don’t think so. The further out you go, the higher the stakes get. You know, a sprained ankle in the alps, you can get a heli out, unless it’s cloudy. Way out in the backcountry, the more remote a line is, the less room you have for mistakes because a simple mistake can be life threatening, but I still love killer lines straight off the chairlift you know. Sign me up! I don’t discriminate against that.
"It’s common for me to think, this is steeper than I thought and get freaked out and get myself over my exit, when you’re over your exit you can fall."
When you’re about to drop in on top of a line, do you already know exactly where you’re going to go? Do you have specific places you have to hit, or do you just have a general idea and then let your flow and instincts take over.
I have a pretty damn good idea. What I will do, I can look at terrain and see where there are blind spots, so I know where I’m going. You have to know where you are. But there are scenarios where if I’m feeling it I can take this one air, straight fall line, right over that wall. If I’m not feeling it I also know my line limit, my exit of a line. If the snow’s feeling weird, if I’m lost, or if there’s an avalanche situation, what is your exit? It’s common for me to think, this is steeper than I thought and get freaked out and get myself over my exit, when you’re over your exit you can fall. So you have to know where that exit is and then you might have one line where you’re really feeling it, I’m going to screw around on this terrain 10 feet to my right, it’s more funky, there might be some possible airs over there. You can always enhance the line, but knowing the way out is important.
How do you deal with the fear of taking on a heavy line? Do you shut it down inside once you’re riding?
The fear really needs to go away. Fear is such a good thing in the mountains. It gets your attention and you have to ask yourself what’s making me scared, is it real or is it mental? You have that conversation and you either turn that fear into confidence or you have to turn around. That’s not to say I don’t have it when stood atop a lot of these lines, a lot of the it is mental, but a blind rollover can make you sick to your stomach and then you have that conversation and go ‘you know what, your fear is just because you can’t see your third turn, so get over it’, and then you’re good.
Is there one line that you’ve picked out for this season, somewhere that you really want to hit?
No, with the films I always have some. There’s lines all over the place that interest me, the winter determines it. I never get emotionally invested in any one zone or line because I have these areas and follow what regions are having good snow and have the right snowpack. It’s common for me to start out with five places that I’m interested in and narrow it down to one or two. Really snowpack dictates that. I won’t travel to a bad snowpack, it’s a waste of time.