Lights, Powder, Action! Part 2: Interview with Jeremy Jones

Over the last decade, Jeremy Jones has been perhaps the biggest name in big mountain snowboarding. He has appeared in numerous extreme ski films with Teton Gravity Research and other productions. The jaw-dropping action in these films features Jones and his buddies choosing ridiculous lines down nearly vertical terrain, dodging or outrunning avalanches along the way. These sequences are usually preceded by a helicopter hovering just long enough above a sliver of a peak to drop off a rider before peeling off down the valley. 

Yet a few years back Jeremy did a curious thing. He took a hike. He walked away from a sure thing and chose a different path. He began hiking up snow-covered mountains on his splitboard. He decided to trade in the convenience and efficiency of the twin-propelled taxis for the steady progress of his own two feet.

Having access to a helicopter is something of which most of us dream, and it sounds a bit crazy to give it up. Yet there is method to his madness. He finds the human-powered adventures more rewarding; the connection with the mountains more profound.

You’d think this would slow him down, but it hasn’t. His first human-powered film, “Deeper,” was a big success. Shooting for his next film, “Further,” brought Jeremy and fellow Jones Snowboards rider Forrest Shearer to Nagano’s Hakuba Valley.

How much history do you have with Japan?

I’ve been coming to Japan on and off for about 20 years. I remember the first time I came here; a snowboard shop brought over a buddy and me. I was at the airport with Aki (Akira Matsumoto), and I showed him my wallet. I open it up and say, “Aki, should I be getting on this plane?” I’m like, “No money. No, no money!” He just said, “Yeah, OK.”

We won a bunch of money and it basically got me out of debt. Without that I don’t know if I would have been able to keep snowboarding, because I was really broke. I was young and kind of stressed on being in debt. 

We were doing some contests in Nagano, near Shiga Kogen, and some other places. Then we went to the north island a bunch, mostly racing around Niseko and Rusutsu, but the contests became kind of irrelevant because the powder we found was like nothing we’d ever seen before. We were all blown away, and I just fell in love with the snow, the people and the culture.

We found some killer steep stuff, but the snow was so good, I wanted to find more featured, and even steeper, stuff.

What brought you back?

Well, it had been a while, and I started seeing pictures from the Northern Alps—Japanese snow with spines—real legit lines and a coastal snowpack which is traditionally the type of snowpack I like to ride, because it’s safer. So I made it a point to get here. It was kind of why I started the next film (“Further”), because I wanted to come to Japan. 

Why did you decide to start hiking?

Hiking is a more intimate experience; it’s where I get my highest highs in the mountains. Being out there for long periods of time away from society. The heli was brought into the picture, not because it was cool to ride in a helicopter, but to take us to places to which we couldn’t get with a lift. But there are so few people who can take a helicopter; you know, they are so expensive, and they can be quite disruptive. 

I learned a lot filming “Deeper” and making these movies on foot. I went to mountain ranges I knew really well; they were almost second homes to me, except I was going to areas to which you could only get by hiking or camping. With “Further” I went to four places around the world I didn’t know too much about; a little more off the beaten path. It’s the evolution of “Deeper.”

With all the hiking you do, are you mostly riding splitboards?

Splitboarding is about 70 percent of my snowboarding these days. Actually, I started Jones Snowboards because I wasn’t getting the boards I wanted, and I couldn't convince a company to make them. I was sure there were some other riders out there not getting what they wanted too, so I decided I needed to start my own company to make them. That was the inspiration for Jones Snowboards.

We have a wide range of snowboards, but splitboards were initially the main reasons I started the company, because none of these other companies wanted to make them. And I didn’t just want to make any splitboard, I wanted to make a kick-ass splitboard. 

How was the filming in Japan?

Japan was a tough trip; we weren’t prepared for it at all. The weather was really hard on us, the wind was relentless, the terrain was more serious than we thought, the hiking was more serious…The mountains are so unique to Japan, the woods some of the best in the world. But getting up to some of the high alpine stuff added a whole new layer to it.

I thought it was going to be a bit more “fun lovin’ powder.” Instead I found myself on belay trying to line up cornice entries. It was a thrash. One of the heaviest moments in the film was in Japan. 

We were in Hakuba about three weeks and in the mountains almost daily.  I think we camped five nights in a row during a so-called break in the weather. We needed every bit of three weeks to get our three good lines. That’s common anywhere, especially when you are hiking. It seems like we go on these trips for three or four weeks and, when it’s all said and done, on a good trip we ride two-to-four top tier lines. 

Japan was a good example of how we have a mix of some really serious moments and also have some feel-good powder in there. That’s kind of how a trip is. The film showcases the highs and lows of going out and spending a long time in the mountains—in these uncontrolled environments—snowboarding.

One thing I love about Japan is the lift service; it's got the best lift-accessed powder in the world—and some of the nicest people. The smiles say it all. But what surprised me the most was how many people were in the backcountry splitboarding. I was shocked; the (riding) level is legit.  

How much do you rely on local knowledge?

I may bring one of my guys, but I always make an effort to connect with locals. In a lot of places there are no locals, but in a place like Japan we relied on local knowledge. It’s a complex snowpack here in the sense that it's a very safe snowpack but, with the amount of wind and snow, we found ourselves digging snow pits with six-to-nine feet of new snow—the pit would look great, but there’s six feet of new snow…and then the odds of getting three sunny days in a row in Japan are pretty slim.  It took me about three trips to Japan before I saw the sun.

From a production standpoint, to come to Japan and ride these high alpine faces in sun, well, it’s a really tricky place to do that. If you want to come here and shoot in the trees and powder, you can do that all day long. You get those conditions all the time. 

In Utah, where Forrest is from, they deal with a much different snowpack than here; a very complex snowpack, but where I live in Tahoe, we get a ton of snow, but it’s followed by big high pressures. You give it a day, and it generally settles, but here you give it a day, and it’s tough. Odds are there’s snow the next day. 

What’s going on in your mind when you are looking down the barrel of a big chute or steep line? 

For a lot of the stuff—because we are hiking it—it’s more like looking up at the barrel. I’m thinking, “Should I be here for the next couple hours?” or “Is the slope going to hold?” So, once we are finally strapped in, we have a lot of confidence in what we are riding. That’s one of the perks of doing it on foot; when you do finally get on your board you are ready…if it wasn’t safe, you wouldn’t hike it; you wouldn’t get to that point.

Backcountry psychology is extremely important. Being in the right mindset is key in the mountains, and it’s something I try make sure I do every day I’m out there. 

Have today’s action cams affected the way you shoot?

The first POV (point of view) stuff I did was about 10 years ago. It was pretty much rocket science, your success ratio was maybe 10 percent and it added a lot of weight to your pack. Back then we would use a camcorder, and we’d have wires going off of that to a lens, and that lens also had wires going to a battery pack. Then you had a wire going to a microphone…Yeah, it’s been a really nice perk to have these new action cams. 

How much recon do you do before you begin shooting?

The main thing I do is go into a season with a handful of spots in which I’m interested. I watch the snow there, make sure they are getting snow and no major red flags in the snow pack. In some locations we can’t get any snow info, but we did for Japan. 

That’s about it for recon. Because things fill in so differently, you just really have to get out there and see what you see. That’s why we were here for three weeks. The first five days we were just going to different spots checking out terrain, making a hit list and then targeting our efforts for those spots. We do a lot of freeriding when we get to a spot and not just shooting right away. 

We were really fortunate. I thought out of the four locations we might have gotten skunked, but there are different levels, you know. I’m not a picky snowboarder, so it’s tough for me to say. We do trips that don’t make it into the film for sure, but we still leave those trips and say, “That was a great experience.”

Post-production is one of the hardest parts of the whole process. We do really story-based films. “Further” is a really story-based documentary which takes a lot more time than a traditional action-based film. We had a team of editors and a long editing window, and the amount of work is ridiculous with that stuff.

Are there more filmmakers coming to Japan or just more films?

There is definitely more people making films, but I think people are also realizing the quality of riding and snow in Japan is world class. I think that’s what drives people to Japan.

There is just so much incredible riding here. Just yesterday driving from Hakuba to Kamakura, for about three hours of the drive I was drooling. Forrest and I were glued to the window looking at the peaks.