Backcountry Essentials | The Jeremy Jones Interview – Part Two

How to ride to live another day

Follwing on from part one of our interview with the world’s most famous freerider, we pick his brains on how to venture beyond the resort while staying safe.

What’s your routine for any given day when you’ll be riding the backcountry?
I’ll have an idea the night before of where I’m going. I’ll check the avy report, specifically looking for photos of avalanches that happened that day. That’s the number one thing that I look for in an avy report: photos.

I’ll ask: “Is there terrain that I’ve crossed off the list?” Meaning we know that there’s been a bunch of avalanche activity at, say, north east aspects between 8000 and 9000 feet. That’s off the table. If you can cross it off the night before, great; or maybe you wake up in the morning and the avy report’s changed, so I’ll ask that question again: Do I cross any terrain off the list?

“That’s the number one thing that I look for in an avy report: photos”

It seems like a simple thing, but I cannot tell you how often we’ve gotten up on the ridge and found ourselves looking down this beautiful sunny aspect that we’ve all determined we’re not touching, and someone will be like, “I dunno, man, it looks good…” and I’m like “Dude, no! This is off the table today!” That to me is super important.

(PC: Andrew Miller)

The morning we’re leaving, I’ll also ask: “Are there any red flags that day?” For instance, is it gonna be warmer than it’s been? Has the wind come up? Is there new snow? Then as we’re walking up into the mountains I’ll be checking for cracking and other signs of avalanches.

So there’s the tactical side, but then there’s the mental side – cos I can equate the mistakes I’ve made in the mountains to not being present. So I have my mental checklist. I make sure I’m in the right headspace by the time I get to the trailhead.

Stay sharp and be on your mental game. (PC: Andrew Miller)

What’s in your bag?

The basics, of course: beacon, shovel, probe. I do have this GPS emergency device called the Somewear Global Hotspot. It’s really cool. It’s a really light unit that just sits in my backpack, and if it’s turned off it holds battery life forever. It connects to your phone and allows you to text [via satellite] where I have no service.

“If there’s an accident in the mountains – a broken leg, anything – you’re gonna need a helicopter out, basically”

So much of the mountains – even in California where we’re seemingly not that remote – doesn’t have cell service. You learn that if there’s an accident in the mountains – a broken leg, anything – you’re gonna need a helicopter out, basically. It’s critical to get that SOS out quick. And the beauty of this device is: if your phone is dead you can still hit the SOS button.

Then I’ll have a basic toolkit. And a key thing is the right amount of food and water. Cos if you run out of food and water, it’s not that big of a deal for that day, but you’ll feel it the next day.

Carry the essentials and, more importantly, practice using them (PC: Andrew Miller)

What are you packing in terms of fuel then?

It varies. Ideally, I try to bring as much real food as possible. And then Clif Shot Bloks, and I’ll do these trail mixes. I love pistachios, but it’ll be a mix of pretzels, chocolate and pistachios. If I’m on it, I’ll have electrolyte water.

Any luxury items?

If I’m really on it I’ll bring a sandwich – that’s a luxury item, having a proper lunch in the mountains (laughs).

What brand of beacon do you use?

I’ve been using an Arva of late. But all the high-end beacons right now, from the known companies, are amazing. If you wanna nerd out on it then there are blogs doing beacon tests, but the key thing is to have a modern beacon, and at least a dual antenna beacon.

“All the high-end beacons right now, from the known companies, are amazing”

How often do you practise with it?

Early season I’ll get a full, serious brush-up. We’ll do intricate rescue scenarios, and the person in charge will make them as hard as possible for us. I’ve also gotten really into beacon checks at the trailhead. It sounds silly, but just last year two experts died with beacons turned off. I can’t tell you how often we do beacon checks at the trailhead and someone’s beacon is turned off. And that’s with a bunch of experts – and that might be me. I’m talking 5 or 10 percent of the time. It’s funny, it’s overlooked. Certain people, I’ll do beacon checks and they’ll be like, “what are you checking my beacon for? I’m an expert!”

Riding with your crew – don’t forget the beacon checks! (PC: Andrew Miller)

I read a stat once that the more people know about avalanches, the more likely they are to be killed in one. What do you make of that?

Yeah, Outside Magazine just published a story on that. I think it’s a combination of factors. You’ve got more info, so you think you can outsmart avalanches. You get this ‘expert effect’. Especially right now, a lot of people are like, “Ah, there’s all these beginners coming out!” There’s so much negativity towards the beginners, and that’s why I found this recent article so timely. You know, stop pointing all those fingers at beginners, because the so-called experts or people who’ve taken an avalanche course and are now feeling empowered are often the most dangerous, quite frankly.

“There’s so much negativity towards the beginners, and that’s why I found this recent article so timely”

Do you feel like you’re rolling the dice each time you step under the ropes?

No, I don’t feel like I’m rolling the dice, but I don’t feel like I have it all figured out either. That is why terrain selection is critical. Especially going uphill; I will do all I can to stay out of avalanche paths, just to take the drama out of it, even if that means walking further. And then, whether I’m going uphill or I’m snowboarding downhill, I’m always asking: “What happens if this slope slides?” If it’s: “I might die” then you really wanna avoid that answer.

PC: Andrew Miller

So when you actually drop in, you’re still thinking about the possibility of slides on the way down?

Definitely. Saying that, if I bootpack straight up a couloir and made it to the top then I’m feeling really good about that slope. But when I’m hiking up that thing I’m digging hand pits, I’m like hyper-concerned, because the difference going up is: a small avalanche pocket – like, a couple of picnic tables’ big – is a major problem, especially if you’re over exposure or what have you. And so then the question becomes: do you hike up or go around? I’m writing a book on all this stuff actually.

“I’m always asking: “What happens if this slope slides?” If it’s: “I might die” then you really wanna avoid that answer”

But when I’m strapped in on the board and there’s a clean outrun, and it’s broken terrain – it’s not some huge bowl, there’s little chutes and spines and things of that nature, and if something goes wrong I can point it out – then that’s an ideal situation. And that’s where we make the movies, in terrain like that. But when you’re in big complex terrain you’ve gotta be picking your way through it and moving slow.

Realistically, a lot of the people who buy your boards aren’t going to be doing as much due diligence as you do. Do you have any advice on how a really average snowboarder can enjoy the backcountry without killing themselves?

For one, if you’re riding backcountry you should be riding really close to trails. It’s a cheating way to do it but don’t be thinking that just cos you’re a ripping snowboarder in resort that you’re a backcountry snowboarder.

If you’re new to it, wait for it to be low avalanche danger and go to well-known areas. You’re probably gonna be riding a bunch of tracks, but that’s how you gain experience. Think about the time of year, too. The complexity of the snowpack in December, January and February is far greater than in the spring.

“Get a bunch of friends together and hire a guide, and use that guide like an instructor”

But the big thing is: ideally get a bunch of friends together and hire a guide, and use that guide like an instructor. So they’re taking you out and showing you great terrain, but you want them to be explaining their process. Try to learn from them on that day, so it’s almost like a private avy course.

Learn from the experts (PC: Andrew Miller)

Do you ever turn around at the top of a line?

Oh yeah. Sometimes I’ll even practice turning around. Like, “Well I haven’t turned around in two weeks so let’s turn around.” Yeah, if you’re not turning around that’s gonna catch up with you. It’s always a ‘maybe’ until you are dropping into that line. I never go out and say, “Hey let’s get together, we’re gonna go ride the Matterhorn today!” It’s like, “Man, I’ve been watching conditions, I’ve been building towards it, and I think the Matterhorn might be in play today – but we’re not gonna know until we’ve turned 20 no’s into 20 yes’s.”

Have you ever been in any full-on avy situations where you’ve had to use all this kit and dig people out?

Hell yeah, unfortunately. Definitely. And so you’d better – at the very least – go out with your riding partners and practice rescues. I do it every year. You gotta brush off the cobwebs, because when it’s real it is real, and whatever happens – whether a person survives or not – you wanna know that you were on point and nobody’s pointing fingers and you can ideally come to terms with the situation and know that you did everything you could.

Keeping your avy rescue skills sharp (PC: Andrew Miller)

When you scope out a face and then get to the top, the view always looks a lot different. How do you map that out in your brain so you can ride a flowing line and turn where you thought you were gonna turn?

Yeah, that’s the black belt stuff! (laughs) It takes communication – sometimes it’s with cameramen – and time. Like, I will monkey around on rocks for 20 minutes to see five more feet of a line. And then sometimes it’s a case of studying photos over and over again. Because we’re really in a zero mistakes sport, so to charge confidently over blind rolls – which is what you gotta do when you’re filming – takes a lot of practice and time in the mountains.

Any final advice?

Ride to live another day.

Wise words. Thanks Jeremy.

Thank you.

Wanna learn more? Jeremy has put together a series of backcountry safety videos called “Avy Savvy”. Check them out on the Jones Snowboards YouTube channel.

Ride to live another day (PC: Andrew Miller)
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