Fighting for the mountains' future
Snowboarder Jeremy Jones has been honoured by both National Geographic and President Barack Obama for his pioneering rides and activism
Jeff Curley Photography 2014
Jeremy Jones, who grew up in Cape Cod, Mass., was nine years old in 1984 when he got his first snowboard for Christmas. By the time he reached his 20s, he had made his reputation in snowboard movies as a pioneer rider of extremely steep mountains in Alaska.
In 2007, Jones founded the activist group Protect Our Winters – POW – to rally the snow-sports industry around climate-change issues. Soon after, he created Jones Snowboards. It helped lead the development of splitboards, specialized snowboards designed for the backcountry that split into two skis to climb mountains before snapping back together for the descent. The earn-your-turns ethos was then showcased in a series of three well-regarded movies starring Jones: Deeper, Further and Higher.
His work has won him accolades such as being one of National Geographic's adventurers of the year in 2013. The same year, he was named one of President Barack Obama's "champions of change," honouring community leaders. On Nov. 3 and 4, at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, the 41-year-old spoke about his life on a snowboard and as an activist, and participated on a panel about the fossil fuel use inherent in pursuing outdoor recreation – "are we loving our wilderness to death?"
The Globe caught up with Jones by phone from his home in Truckee, Calif., earlier last week.
Jeff Curley Photography
What drove you to start POW?
I'm definitely a reluctant activist. I was seeing changes in the mountains and it was increasing every year. I'm a backcountry snowboarder. Reading the mountains and the snow conditions is so critical. I saw definite change happening. Right around 2005, I was endorsing a lot of products – and I wanted to give some of that toward climate change. I started doing some research and I talked to a friend at the Surfrider Foundation. The conversation was: "Where do I send my cheque?" He said: "You've got to start a foundation. Your industry is not doing enough." Who am I to start a foundation? But I couldn't get it out of my head.
How has the message resonated?
Everyone who lives in the mountains is going, "Wow, this is freaky how much stuff is changing." We've had the buy-in on that level from the get-go. But from an industry perspective, it's been slow. It's so polarizing politically and these companies don't have the guts to put the flag in the snow. But in the last three years, some of the biggest resorts in the world are saying climate change is real. That's a big deal. The latest is Ski Utah, in a very conservative state. That's a significant change.
Of POW's accomplishments, what is one you would highlight?
The political stuff is really a grind. It's the constant battle where we don't have a lot of great victories. But we have talked to over 60,000 kids about climate change.
We'll go into a school with a pro athlete and a climate specialist and give this upbeat and hip climate presentation, but still hard-hitting. We're handing off the baton to these kids, the planet is in much worse shape than we got it in. That's on our generation and the baby boomer generation. If you look at what's gone down in the last 65 years, it's just astonishing.
With the presidential election almost here, what's your feeling?
We're actively trying to get people out to vote to make sure Donald Trump doesn't win. I can't spend time thinking about if he does, it would be so gutting. My hope is [American politics] gets to a point where climate is depoliticized. My dream is if you care about the environment, you can still vote Republican. Obama's had a difficult road, but he's done some great things. He teed it up pretty damn good, if we keep his momentum going and gain control of the Senate, then we could be on to some great stuff.
What's the next decade of your working life look like?
The mountains aren't going anywhere. That's my power source. I've never had a profound idea sitting behind my computer. The climate stuff continues to take up more and more of my time. I have some different short films that I'm in the process of doing. But if I'm going to dive into feature-length again, it will have something to do with climate change. I'm not going to make Higher 2. It doesn't make sense.
I need more meaning if I'm going to give two years of my life and say bye to my family for weeks on end and put myself at extreme risk. That's changed for me.
What does 2066 look like – snowboarding and skiing in 50 years?
We'll lose the lower-elevation mountains, [the snow] will be gone, for sure. But it's really important to note that [there is a big] difference between runaway climate change and [investing in] mitigation, making key changes so it's not just off the charts, those are two extremely different scenarios.
We have this great challenge but we have a lot of the solutions. We don't have all of them but we have a lot of them. We need more buy-in and we need it faster. There is cause for optimism. It's just that we're trying to move this barge where one side of the ship doesn't want to row. If we all get behind it, we can make the change.
How do you jibe our burning fossil fuels to get out into and enjoy the mountains?
I've probably been in a helicopter three times in eight years. But as much as my snowboarding footprint is greatly reduced – foot-powered, and 80 per cent is done in my home range – I am absolutely getting on planes. My biggest increase has been running this global company. That gets me on a plane, as a businessman, more than anything else.
For me, my favourite thing to do is throw my winter camping gear on my back. Walking into the mountains, setting up camp, learning the mountains, focused on a singular line, figuring out how to safely walk up and snowboard back down it, that's the coolest stuff I do on my snowboard and that's why I am still totally hooked on snowboarding. The quick-and-dirty heli scene, it's just not for me any more.
But we will take anyone and everyone to vote for the environment. We need everyone. I'm very cognizant of my personal footprint, but I don't put that on other people: "you drive the wrong car, you can't vote for the environment." We need the masses.
This interview has been edited and condensed.