Chasing the Sun: On location with Jeremy Jones and Teton Gravity Research
In the last two weeks of December snowflakes by the trillion fell from the swirling skies to the delight of snow lovers throughout the Western United States. Two- and three-foot overnight dumps were reported from British Columbia to California and everywhere in between. Santa brought powder to the people for Christmas.
But in roughly that same two weeks, 19 people were killed by avalanches in six states, including eight in Canada, four in Utah, three in Colorado, two in Wyoming and one right here at home ” the tragic loss of Tahoe City skier Randy Davis on Dec. 25 at Squaw Valley. Save one victim who was killed by a roof avalanche in Washington, the other 18 fatalities were all skiers, snowmobilers and hikers who were outside doing what they loved when they ventured into an unstable snowy area.
These obituaries of people passing while at play are a stern reminder about the delicate balance of pleasure versus consequence in winter. Knee-deep powder skiing is always dreamy, but in the wrong terrain those same blissful face shots can swallow you.
For professional winter athletes and the cinematographers who capture their exploits, the quandary of what to do in epic but dangerous snow conditions is a huge frustration. With high expectations from the fans and a finite film season, film companies need to take advantage of every mid-winter day. When forced to take a two-week break from shooting due to sketchy snow, as was the case for many film crews this December, the entire industry starts chomping at the bit. No one wants to take chances, but the hurry up and wait is brutal for athletes who want to perform and filmers who want to produce.
Truckee local and legendary freeride pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones is no stranger to either the dangers of avalanches or the pressure to deliver jaw-dropping film segments. In the last decade Jones has been featured in dozens of films, many of which include footage of himself or fellow riders swimming for dear life in a torrent of moving snow.
But despite his seemingly cavalier attitude toward dancing with the snow devils, Jones, a husband and father of two, takes snow safety dead serious. He’s backed off lines with the cameras ready to roll dozens of times due to unstable conditions and he helps organize avalanche education seminars specific to the film industry. Betting his life for footage is never worth it for him.
Like every other filming professional, the dangerous conditions left Jones sitting on his hands in December waiting to start working. But when the snowpack refused to settle in the area he was visiting he knew just what to do ” come home.
In the last days of 2008, Jones decided to forgo filming the sketchy powder of the continental mountain ranges and return to the safer and settled snowpack of the Sierra.
“After three weeks of waiting I ended the trip early,” said Jones. “It was time to get back to the sun, stability and steeps of the Sierra backcountry.”
Wasting no time, in the first week of January Jones convinced Teton Gravity Research cinematographer Pete O’Brien and photographer Chris Bezmat to join him, fellow local rippers Cody Townsend and Ryland Bell, as well as Tahoe-based cinematographers Chris Edmands, Chris Ondercin and Brian Sizer for a three-day overnight film shoot in the Sierra near Lake Tahoe.
If you are a student of ski movies you know that Teton Gravity Research films have never featured Tahoe terrain prominently. Judging from what I witnessed accompanying the crew on this recent Sierra trip, that should all change next fall when TGR’s latest flick premieres.
For three days, Jones, Townsend, Bell and the rest of us cinematographers and photographers camped under a bright moon, shared stories of hit lists and favorite terrain over dinner, and went to sleep early only to wake up before the sun. At first light we were on our way to start billygoating around the rocky ridges, getting in position to film the athletes slaughtering ridiculously steep lines from up to five different angles on 8- and 16-millimeter film, HD video, and Jones’ infamous helmet camera.
Though the lines the riders ripped were extreme avalanche hazards just a week back, conditions had changed. The “moderate/low” avalanche rating forecasted for the Sierra during the trip was spot on. The snowpack was locked up solid and even the slough movement (the snow that starts sliding on the surface as a rider slashes steep terrain) was minimal.
“One of the nicest things about the Sierra snowpack is that although it can get sketchy, it can heal itself quickly,” said Townsend as he munched a salmon dinner. “The snow doesn’t always stay epic as it stabilizes, but the views always do.”
For O’Brien, the TGR cinematographer, the snow conditions were a stress reliever.
“I think it makes it way more fun when you don’t have to worry about avy danger as much,” said O’Brien. “This year it has been especially bad in the Tetons and the Wasatch. Up until a couple days before I left the rating hadn’t dropped below ‘Extreme’. Athletes were spooked, and I couldn’t blame them.”
Despite conditions that varied from dense cold windboard to hot pow, Jones, Townsend and Bell all found the snow to be more than adequate for ripping heavyweight lines, including serious air time.
Jones felt the semi sun-soaked conditions improved his ability to ride the steepest of the steep.
“With that stability comes pretty cooked snow sometimes, but it doesn’t bother me,” said Jones. “It’s actually good snow to hit big lines. You can scrub speed quickly in steep areas.”
Back at the tents, the second night the jovial camp atmosphere described our success. Nearly a dozen different technical riding lines were filmed between the three athletes, and in between the action, the cameras had caught hours of stellar camping, hiking and sun-bathing, “lifestyle” footage that will tell the story of the trip.
Talking over dinner that night, however, Jones’ comments showed where his passion was ” raw riding, not acting.
“I hit a cool new line today … mandatory air,” said Jones while tending his stove. “Any time I can ride a new line like that, it’s a good day; but the highlight of my day was watching Ryland hit a ‘mental’ line ” two mandatory airs, huge exposure … he drilled it perfect.”
Wrapping up the trip just as the winds picked up and the clouds started to gather, the entire cast of characters casually rolled back to the trailhead, bags full of footage and photos, brains full of memories and Alpine dreams ” some even of alien abductions.
Confidence in the stable Sierra snowpack had allowed everyone on the trip to venture into terrain that would have been dangerous in neighboring mountain ranges at that time and return home safe and sound ” the only thing truly mandatory on the trip.
“We’re in it to make movies of the best skiers and riders and bring them back season after season,” said O’Brien. “We need everyone to come home safely every day to do that.”
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