Boots Are Made for Walking

It's 8 a.m. at a highway pullout near one of Mount Rose's numerous trailheads. The Nevada air is crisp and you can almost see to the top: 10,776 feet. Fresh snow gathered in old tracks suggests hard backcountry use, both by nature-loving Tahoe free-heelers and Sacramento sled-necks whose fuel of choice is PBR not GORP.

Different mountain groups, after all, love mountains differently.

Big-mountain master Jeremy Jones is no stranger to this scene. The 33-year-old snowboarder pockets a Clif Bar, clips a pair of snowshoes to his pack and walks over to the sled trailer where Ryland Bell is doing the grunt work.
The snowmobile being unloaded is one of the first on the scene, yet seven more soon show up on bouncy trailers, old F-250s and salt-licked double-loaders. It hasn't snowed in Tahoe for nearly a month, so the excitement of a late January powder day crackles in the air like static. The joke, of late, has been "June-uary" and it's one the locals are keen to ditch. Stat.

Sleds fire up all around and Jones becomes visibly annoyed by the braaps and blue smoke. The noisemakers idle for 10 minutes at a time, stuck into snow banks like mechanical cigarettes. "Let's go wait in those trees over there," he says in his trademark monotone, a no-B.S. hybrid smacking of a sea captain from his native Cape Cod crossed with the uninflected easiness of a Cali ski town bro. "Sled exhaust makes me kind of sick to my stomach."

Soon enough, his crew is on the move. The group consists of four snowboarders and Ryland's one sled. After a few trips, the entire crew is ferried to a bench where the sled is ditched. It works fine, but will be of less and less use the deeper they go.

Jones helps to jerk it off to the side and mentions that today is only his second time on a snowmobile in two seasons—a surprising figure given that his pro peers routinely log 50-plus days a year on the two-stroke monsters. "Love the access, hate the process," he explains, unzipping vents for the full day of hiking ahead.

As they make their way toward "Relay Ridge," the crew ducks branches through tight-knit tree fences and threads narrow sidehill sections over jagged bands of rock. It's increasingly obvious that on foot is on-point out here.

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He's not some raging anti-sled, anti-heli hippie guy, thumping a tub. It's subtler than that, more personal.

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At the Jones house in Truckee, Calif., a few posters of Jeremy doing his thing line the walls. Most of the framed pictures show only mountains, though: Pontoon Peak. Classic Jackson cliff bands. A certificate from Teton Gravity Research, bestowing the honor of "Spineologist," backs up how much Jones has added to the progression of riding these steep, fluted faces—thought to be unrideable less than 20 years ago. Nobody attacks Alaskan spines like Jones.

Over the years, the name "Jeremy Jones" has become synonymous with "helicopters in Alaska" because he's the No. 1 name in steep terrain, and helicopters are the No. 1 way to access steep terrain. It's easy math.

These days, though, Jones is increasingly aware of what he does, why he does it and whether there's a better way to do it that doesn't leave a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint behind. He's weaning himself off carbon-based travel as much as possible, be it in the backcountry (snowmobiles, helicopters) or getting there in the first place (planes, automobiles). He might not be riding his mountain bike from Lake Tahoe to Alaska—yet—but he is doing everything in his power to show that world-class freeriding can be achieved by more responsible means.

The Jones home is an updated cabin from 1966 and it came correct with coffee filters from the '60s and "macaroni art on the walls," says Tiffany, Jeremy's realtor wife. Now, toys belonging to their two children—3-year-old Mia and 7-month-old Cass—coalesce in the hallway with climbing harnesses, skis, snowboards, unopened sponsor boxes and a spider plant that Manny the cat has decided is his. The meta-message projected is that this is a house of equals.

The Winter X Games SuperPipe is on TV, and as he watches the finalists push pipe-riding to new limits with contorted 18-foot airs, Jeremy casually mentions sharing a day in the mountains with this skier or that rider spinning on-screen. Heavy contender Kevin Pearce shot with Jeremy in Alaska last spring; Danny Davis, arguably the guy with the best air style (and eyebrows) in the business, recently dropped in on a house just up the street.
It's easy to forget that, before becoming a powder-and-rock-slaying legend, this action hero with the meaty scar on his cheek (from tumbling through deadly B.C. ice chunks) used to compete in both racing and halfpipe. He might be famous for "one kind of snowboarding," but he has reverence for them all. He cringes when riders deck out and shouts like a kid when someone pulls a landing out of his ass.

Jones is capable of busting grabs in situations where most transition wizards might call mom on the iPhone. The key difference, of course, is that there is no X Games for big-mountain riders. Yet, in a sport that is famous for aggrandizing the energy-drink-swilling teenage flavor of the month, Jones has been voted Big Mountain Rider of the Year by his peers an unfathomable eight years in a row (2000-'08, Snowboarder Magazine)—a dynastic feat usually associated with athletes like Lance Armstrong or Kelly Slater.

"When he's having fun, I'm usually gripped," says Bell. "I love it, though; it pushes me to the extent of my limits. He just has so much knowledge that no one else has in the mountains ... from the way the snow is going to react underfoot, to the perfect way to feather your turn so as not to blind yourself with a face shot at the wrong moment."

Pro skier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa concurs: "It's obvious that Jeremy has spent a ton of time in the mountains. He projects a calming, comfortable perspective towards terrain and then steps to the gnarliest lines. This combination of cool, collected, smart, technical riding is what makes him the best in the world."

There are no cameras along for the ride on Mount Rose. The day is one of scoping, of enjoying the fresh snow and seeing where vented legs and open minds might take us. Two Alaskan salmon fishermen who rip (Bell and buddy Morgan), one out-of-shape writer and Jeremy frickin' Jones.

Above us looks like a miniature backdrop to Jones' life: 800 feet of vertical with steep open faces, a tight rock slot, even a double cliff line that might be doable with more snow. Jones' crew is going deeper today, though. Higher, too. The abysmal snowfall so far this year in Tahoe means the best snow will start above 9,300 feet.

A long, snaking ridge disappears from sight way up to the looker's left and the plan is to check out Little Cortina, a unique rock feature replete with technical lines. For regulars on Jones excursions, a backcountry day trip like this is nothing. A jaunt. If you lack their high-altitude lungs, however—and your legs' main form of action is "Dance Dance Revolution" down at your local bar—consider yourself warned.

These days, Jones often stays in the backcountry overnight, sleeping within striking distance of high alpine lines he has had in his sights for years. These are the kind of rocky peaks on which a helicopter would be of little use and a sled would be a joke, even if you were allowed such mechanical devices within local Park boundaries—which you aren't.

Today, the sled has been ditched for practical purposes, not because we've run up on any sort of federally enforced boundary. It served its purpose: a quick vertical gain. And, while most sledders and snowboarders are most comfortable in these zones that Jones calls "the front country," places where the road is never far from sight, a quick look at a Tahoe topo map might let them know what they're missing: Jones Country.

Despite having "no idea how to start an NPO," Jones started Protect Our Winters in 2007. His deep desire to educate individuals about climate change created a rallying point for snow lovers everywhere, and patchy snow years like this one can't help but garner support for the burgeoning nonprofit foundation.

With all the travel a pro snowboarder racks up, carbon footprints can get out of hand. Nobody knows this like Jeremy, who can tell you that 70 percent of his is from airplanes, not sleds or helis, and that he has greatly reduced them all. Whether it's carbon offsets or the science behind global warming, the POW Web site is exactly what most concerned snow citizens are looking for these days: a starting point, real-world numbers and a voice they can trust.

Most snowboarders are anti-authority dad-haters by nature and more likely to listen to one of their heroes. By joining POW, they give money for real-world projects, like solar panels on school roofs and pressuring the snow industry to be more environmentally responsible. The new POW commercial puts it this way: "Start somewhere." As is the case with Jeremy's riding, it's about making every turn count.

Leading by example is one of the big reasons Jeremy is being touted as Mr. Inspiration lately, a form of attention he takes with a grain of salt while stepping up to the new responsibilities of CEO with aplomb. Perhaps some day we'll see inspirational office posters showing Jeremy ripping a steep Chamonix couloir—Hang In There!—instead of the kittens in trees we've grown accustomed to. Either way, with close to 10,000 members, POW demonstrates that athlete legitimacy matched with a passionate global warming message can strike a chord even when the economy is cooling faster than a plate of scrambled eggs.

He's quick to add that he's not some raging anti-sled, anti-heli hippie guy, thumping a tub. It's subtler than that, more personal: "I hope that I show people ... that what's been ingrained, e.g. 'I'm a pro snowboarder so I have to own a snowmobile; I'm a big mountain skier so I have to be in a heli in Alaska' ... isn't everything. What I hope to do is show these people that it's not mandatory to have that as part of your program."

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He is as close to a machine as one can get while being made of flesh and blood.

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Jeremy also knows that there are cynics out there who just don't get it: "You see it with people with alcohol or drugs, too. They can always point to a guy who's worse. Like, 'I don't have a weed problem, dude; look at that guy smoking way more weed!' [laughs] That ain't the point, dude, that you know some guy who smokes way more weed than you! So I'm very conscious and know exactly where my footprint is but people love to attack. A year in a heli is usually five full days and five half days and people will just glom all over that thing."

If the grassroots support continues, Jeremy's brother Todd, 35, reckons that POW could become "a power equivalent to the Surfrider Foundation." It's a lofty goal, but if Jeremy has one thing in spades, it's commitment: He spends 50 days freeriding every season before even letting the cameras come near him. For most hard-core snowboarders 50 is a solid season. For Jones it's a warm-up.

"He is as close to a machine as one can get while being made of flesh and blood," says Chris Edmands from Leeward Films. Edmands, who for '07-'08 made "My Own Two Feet", the world's first human-powered snowboarding film, is no slouch himself, split-boarding and camping in the High Sierra and gaining a reputation as the guy who will go out on a limb (or 500-foot cliff) to get the shot.

Jones, naturally, played a part in "MOTF"; however, it was just one of five films for him last season, including his must-see, Bowie-scored section in Absinthe's "Ready" and the X-Dance dominating "That's It, That's All."

In the course of Jeremy's 17-year career, he has starred in nearly 30 such films, and his clips are known to generate not only thunderclaps of applause but also the subtler sound of awe, of viewers mentally packing up and moving to the mountains. The sheer size and scope of the mountains he rides resonate with broad audiences—much like watching Laird Hamilton in 60-foot surf—in a way that back-to-back 1080s in man-made halfpipes can't. His face isn't splashed around like Shaun White's, but in terms of convincing people they need to explore the mountains, Jeremy Jones has no equal in snowboarding. Not since Craig Kelly (RIP) has freeriding seen an ambassador with not only the power to wow but also the power to inspire.

Case in point: Jeremy often has an experience where he's at a freeride hotspot, say a Tahoe hill like Squaw or Sugar Bowl. Regular Joes for whom the mountains are their life (even if they don't quite make up their living) roll up on him at backcountry gates or in the tram to let him know that he is the reason they pursued their dreams to never miss a powder day:

"They're sometimes world-class riders, too, and their life is freeriding. They come up to me and go, 'Thank you for doing what you do.' ... It's a humbling experience. And the greatest honor. I hold that type of person in such high regard, that guy who works his ass off all summer so he can ride all winter. It's like the purest form of snowboarding there is, what that guy's doing."

Being spread thin with five film parts is no way to reach his own goals, so Jeremy is now tightening his focus on a two-year project with Teton Gravity Research and Edmands. The aptly named "Deeper" (Fall 2010) will involve the simple equation of testing your limits in nature's more remote arenas, the kind of places where the true boundaries lie within. The only high-speed quads in "Deeper" will likely be Jeremy's (and a select few other riders, including Jonaven Moore), as the film attempts to merge his lofty personal performance goals with his carbon-cutting ones, a kind of Unified Field Theory for snow.

"'Deeper'is about spending two years finding the ideal lines," says Jones, "watching them, studying them, waiting for them to be in perfect condition. ... [We want to be] riding them at a super-high level and having the end result be as good, if not better, than what you'd see in a traditional movie that heavily relies on snowmobiles and helicopters."

Jeremy doesn't want the fact that the terrain in "Deeper" is largely accessed on foot or by split-board to offer up any kind of "green card to go and do some 4-foot jib." These areas and these lines, often the bigger parts of ranges in Jackson, Tahoe, Alaska and British Columbia that he has shot in extensively before, need to be done on foot. They require either camping or a 14-hour day of hiking—often for one run. "You're coming out in the dark," he says.

Jones' overarching goal is to unabashedly push his snowboarding further than it has ever been pushed, and the environmental bonuses are more a byproduct of the exploratory impulse of the project than the primary catalyst.

Dude just likes hiking.

"I've filmed 10 years in Jackson Hole and I've never been in [Teton National Park] to film. Where we've filmed is blatantly the foothills of the Tetons. Now my goal is to get into the heart of the Tetons. And that kind of holds true in all these areas."

The crucial component of cameraman trust should be there with "Deeper" as TGR is co-owned by Jeremy's Jackson loc brothers, Todd and Steve. What this means is Jeremy won't be rolling out, "shooting with strangers every other day," getting coached into do-or-die lines by some guy he just met that morning. How three key forces in big-mountain skiing and snowboarding came out of "flat-ass Mass." is anybody's guess, but these Jones boys are 13th-generation Cape Codders, with salt in their veins, big peaks in their eyes and more than a decade of protocol working together in serious alpine environments.

"Deeper" is for those very riders rolling up on Jones at resorts, the people who keep him grounded and stoked. It's a pure freeride film in a freestyle world and his largest canvas yet. While most powder victims would happily give nutticus lefticus for a heli trip or that new XP Summit 800, a well-funded pro snowboarder selling his sled, minimizing his heli days by choice and turning down frivolous trips to the Alps is damn near unheard of.

But Jones is dead serious about reaching his goals his way. And we'd do well to trust him. His position as the true vanguard of mountain exploration on a snowboard suggests that, with "Deeper" and POW, he's on to bigger—and better—things.

When Jones and the crew finally get to Little Cortina, they discover it's the wrong aspect for this past storm and still bare. No matter. Trading first tracks down various tree alleys and a few fun rock ollies on their way back to the road, a hippie bumper sticker springs to mind: Not All Who Wander are Lost.

Jones rides the longest pitch yet, on the front face down to Highway 431, threading through well-spaced trees as the last of the day's light illuminates old frozen sled tracks. Today was 90 percent hiking and 10 percent riding and most mortals would rather carry their legs out in Safeway bags than try to keep up with Jones at this point.

He hikes fast and rides even faster. As Edmands noted, the man is a machine: small, finely tuned and surprisingly powerful. But, at the end of the day, Jeremy Jones is a human machine: friend, father, husband, ambassador. Machines will always hold the power to wow but they seldom stay cool long enough to inspire.