"You can't worry about whether or not you got the shot. Up here, you can't think about making a movie, or you'll make a mistake. For me, it's about the process. It's all about the ride."
Big-mountain icon Jeremy Jones told me that over the weekend, while resting atop an exposed slab of granite at 9,000-feet in the Sierra Mountains. That thought gets to the heart of "Deeper," the movie Jones has been filming over the past two years with TGR, the Jackson Hole-based film company his brothers Todd and Steve started nearly 15 years ago. Those involved with the film call it a "game-changer," a backcountry snowboard film like nothing that's come before it. The film, and the snowboarding featured within it, blends Jones' zeal for finding and riding unchartered terrain with his passion for the environment. Unlike his 45 previous movies, no helicopters, snowmobiles or lifts were used in the making of this film. Instead, Jones and the riders he invited to accompany him, camped, hiked, rock climbed, ice climbed, down climbed and splitboarded to reach peaks previously unreachable by machine. This movie is not about the breathtaking moving images of Jones and friends slashing through powder on incredible first descents. It's about their journey to the top.
As part of my reporting for a feature on Jones that will run in The Mag in the fall, I found myself part of the five-person crew headed into the backcountry on "Deeper's" final filming trip over Memorial Day weekend. Along with Jones was big-mountain pro Ralph Backstrom, videographer Jeff Wright, photographer Greg von Doersten ... and me.
Seeing firsthand what goes into a single descent -- which may or may not make it into the film -- puts what Jones is doing into perspective. Snowboarding, while the final objective, is but a very brief payoff for weeks and months of preparation, patience and mountaineering. Those weeks are grueling, dangerous, exhausting and mentally taxing. Trust me. I am proud to say I made it through three days. Before this trip, I had never used an ice axe, a splitboard, a 5,000-cubic-inch hiking pack or crampons. To me, snowboarding meant purchasing a lift ticket and making sure my board was freshly waxed. I will never look at snowboarding the same way again.
Early Friday afternoon, we met at a campground near Twin Lakes, which is about an hour north of Mammoth and a little west of Bridgeport, Calif. From there, we hiked, while carrying about 50 pounds of gear on our backs and snowboards under our arms, for three or four very tough hours. (The backcountry is a little like a Las Vegas casino -- you never know what time it is or how long you've been there, but you're certain you're a lot more tired than you realize.) We negotiated a balance beam-like river crossing, a seemingly never-ending, steep-as-hell climb through deepish snow and thick brush, and a precarious descent across a large rock field to arrive at our camp at the base of Little Slide Canyon. It was 8 p.m. We set up our tents, unpacked our bags, cooked dinner -- pasta and sauce with chicken-apple sausage and a salmon-and-cream cheese appetizer -- and went to sleep.
Jones, unlike the rest of us, likes to sleep under the stars, sans-tent. I would have been happy to have four tents, that first night was so cold. Our Saturday- and Sunday-morning wake-up calls (Jones yelling, "Ralph! Wake up!") came at 5 a.m. and we began our climbs around 7. I was using a splitboard, which I borrowed from Jeremy's wife Tiffany, for the first time. Although I had a rough start -- after splitting the board into skis, I promptly put them on the wrong feet, forgot to raise the heel lifts when the climb got steep (crucial for keeping your Achilles tendon from ripping away from your calf) and put the bindings on backwards the first time I switched from skis to board -- I finally got the hang of splitboarding. And I am officially a convert.
On day 2, when the snow became too icy, steep and slippery for my ski-climbing level, I took them off, threw them over my shoulder and slowly kick-climbed my way to more negotiable terrain. I was in the backcountry with Jeremy Jones, a rider I'd watched ride in films for years and an athlete who's been on my dream interview list for quite some time. I was not going to miss the chance to watch him make a first descent in person, a descent I'd watched him eye and plot out for nearly 48 hours. So I kept climbing, one foot in front of the other, for what seemed like an eternity.
And I made it to the top in time. I was thrilled. And thirsty. I took off my skis, found a comfortable spot and waited to hear over the radio that Jeremy was at the top of his run. Thing is, when he explained where he was beginning his down-climb, I realized I wasn't in good position. I thought I was. I was in great position to watch Backstrom's run, which was incredible and worth the climb in itself. But I missed Jones. I was in the wrong spot. I'd missed the shot. And I was bummed.
After his run, Jones called me over the radio and we met up to talk about his experience that day. Then we climbed back to my comfy viewing spot to wait for Ralph to finish his climb. While we were sitting on that exposed slab of granite at 9,000 feet, talking about fear and death and pushing limits and passion, I realized I was missing the point. It wasn't about getting the shot. It was about the ride.
And with that, I transformed my skis into a snowboard and followed Jones back to base camp. Talk about a ride.