When the Winter X Games hit Aspen in January, the world's snowboarding greats were all present, throwing double corks over the halfpipe. But one was notably absent: Jeremy Jones. The world's preeminent freerider was busy prepping for his upcoming expedition to the glaciers of Alaska, where he'll strap a tent to his back and camp out between blizzards, waiting for the weather to ease so he can locate, climb, and then snowboard down chutes and couloirs so hairy that he is one of the few humans alive who would attempt them.
For the past three years, the eight-time Big Mountain Rider of the Year has dedicated himself to hiking and climbing up mountains so that he can snowboard down them. His primary tool for this is a splitboard, a snowboard that breaks in two to become skis. Jones' enthusiasm for the splitboard has popularized the genre, and in 2009 he founded a company that manufactures them. His ultimate goal is to get young boarders to follow him out of bounds.
Jones' transition to a purer, more old-school brand of adventure is not that surprising given his background. Now 36, he learned to snowboard before parks and pipes were ubiquitous. "I would have loved them, but growing up, the parks just weren't there," says Jones. "So to me, it's always been about riding the whole mountain, finding the stashes and the top-to-bottom line that connects them all." From his onscreen introduction in the 1997 film 'Totally Board 6' – he dropped into a nearly vertical Alaskan face, triggered, and then disappeared into an avalanche, only to reappear from the tidal wave of white at the last minute and ride to safety – the Vermont-raised resident of Lake Tahoe has spent the better part of two decades seeking out and riding some of the most difficult lines on Earth. As Travis Rice, the world's best all-around snowboarder, once said, "Jeremy is breaking down the boundaries of 'I can't.' "
What makes Jones all the more unusual is that, in person, he's short, skinny, and quiet, with an almost Zen-like presence, lacking the bravado you'd expect from a pro snowboarder. The morning I meet him to go backcountry boarding, it is in the parking lot of the Truckee Community Recreation Center, where he's just dropped off Cass, his three-year-old son, at preschool, after getting his daughter, Mia, six, onto her school bus – a dad's daily duty. "If I miss that," he says, "it's a major bummer. I have to drive her to King's Beach" (a 15-minute drive). That, it seems, is every bit as daunting to Jones as the prospect of ice climbing his way to an Alaskan spine.
Though raised in a family of skiers, Jones picked up a snowboard at age nine and has taken a methodical approach to the sport ever since. He keeps a camera with him at all times and snaps photos of rugged peaks and ranges, seeks out ribbons of snow in places where no one else would look, and then catalogs these first descents on a mental "hit list" that he systematically works through.
Jones has roamed the planet with the perspective that any mountain is a potential run. For much of his career, he reached peaks by chopper, like other freeriders of means. But for the past three years, he has been powered by his two feet. The splitboard, especially, has been a breakthrough, leveling the playing field in the backcountry between skiers, who've been alpine-touring for years, and snowboarders, who've historically had to unbuckle, strap a board to their back, and post-hole through deep snow to reach the powder far from lifts and trails. And Jones has been its most passionate proselytizer. As Pat Bridges, the longtime editor of 'Snowboarder Magazine,' puts it, "The resurgence of the snowboard as a vehicle for exploration beyond resort boundaries can directly be attributed to Jeremy." Danny Davis, one of the best halfpipe riders on Earth, says simply: "Jeremy built a whole new category of snowboarding."
Exploration is the philosophy behind a trilogy of films Jones is producing in conjunction with Teton Gravity Research, the ski-porn company owned in part by his two older brothers. 'Deeper' was the first: It debuted in 2010 and is as much about the climbs up as the rides down. The climbing shown onscreen has resonated with snowboarders, not only because it shows the additional effort involved but because there's a democratic motive, too. "Taking a helicopter to go snowboarding is attainable for maybe one percent out there," says Jones. "There are 30 movies coming out, and all the big-mountain riding in them starts from helicopter. [The ski-film industry] is sending the message that if you want to do world-class freeriding, it needs to be done from a helicopter. We're showing a different way."
When I meet Jones in mid-December, the peaks that ring Lake Tahoe are devoid of their typical white winter cover, but Jones, as adept in the backcountry as a mountain goat, knows of at least one last stash of snow. It might be crusty and windblown, tucked among trees and rocks, but Jones is determined to take me to it. It's just going to involve serious effort to get there.
The nearly snow-free landscape seems an apt foreshadowing of a future Jones is trying to help prevent: In 2007, after traveling to some of the coldest places on Earth and watching glaciers recede firsthand, Jones decided to become an activist. He founded Protect Our Winters, a group that mobilizes the winter-sports community against climate change. In the time since, POW has pushed resorts and manufacturers to get greener, provided education for children, and lobbied in Washington against coal-fired power-plant projects.
Jones' revelation was also a major impetus in his conversion to foot-powered backcountry snowboarding. After spending so much of his career flying by helicopter in order to ride more and more difficult lines, the process started to irritate his growing environmental activism – and give diminishing returns. "I felt like I had taken my snowboarding as close to the edge as I wanted to," he says. "I'd gone as steep as I could. I'd ridden over as big of cliffs as I wanted. I'd gone as fast as I wanted."