Trophy Line Theory

If Jeremy Jones is talking you should listen

Mammoth patroller Scott Quirsfeld talks about safety strategy with local shredders. PHOTO: RYAN COPENHAGEN

A couple of weeks ago in Mammoth, Jeremy Jones spoke and put on a slideshow about his pursuit of trophy lines at the annual Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center fundraiser. And he blew my mind. Let’s just say that if you get a chance to see him talk, especially in a ski town where he thinks the audience will get it: go.

Jones was confident and at ease in front of the standing-room-only crowd in Mammoth Mountain’s Little Eagle tent; he was happy to banter with the locals, laughing often, and making sly, self-deprecating remarks off the cuff like a professional performer. Trusting that the audience—local crusties, the ski patrol, Sierra legends and pro shreds—was going to be able to grasp what he was talking about, he shared his personal pocket camera shots from some of the gnarliest and most beautiful wilderness lines ever skied—his personal trophy lines, the ones that meant the most to him. There were only one or two action shots—most of the show was photos of mountains, with Jones explaining the intricacies of his approach and protocol. Which would be the part that blew my mind.

I had always assumed that much of Jones’ magic was athletic talent and brass balls. Which is no doubt part of the picture. But what Jones revealed was the method: the intricate and infinitely patient way that he searches for zones, and the lines within zones, and then how he gets his head around what it’s going to take to get on them and down safely. Comprehending the “why” of every turn from entrance to exit on these complex spine lines is a process that can take years.

I thought that when Jones was talking about “understanding” a line it was some hippy-dippy way of saying that he was ready to drop it because the vibes were right, man. But no, he means understanding. One of the lines took eight years to resolve itself in his mind before he attempted it. He wasn’t talking to us about pulling the trigger and letting it rip, he was talking about staying safe and minimizing risk, looking for the optimal scenarios and getting it in good style. And the crowd loved it.

Short people were bumming in the packed house. PHOTO: RYAN COPENHAGEN

Later, Jones was saying that while he wasn’t a specialist in snow science, he had a metaphorical Ph.D in terrain management, and I realized that he was basically using the same terrain-based hazard and consequence assessment approach that I do—What’s above me? What happens if it comes down? What’s below me? What will I hit if I fall or trigger a slide?—and applying it to scenarios that are exponentially more complex. Where I would dismiss every zone in his slideshow as too complicated to grasp and move on to something simpler, he puts in the time and the mental work of breaking it down. It’s like the difference between writing a letter and writing a novel. Ultimately Jones is applying the same basic tools that every backcountry skier should be using to stay safe, but at a much higher level of complexity. And it works. I was struck by the way that Jones’ approach paralleled the protocol that I saw from Doug Krause, Troy Nordquist, and John Clauson, the elite of Silverton’s snow safety ops. Working within the limits of a basic mental toolkit will allow you to ski the sickest stuff in good style—if you have the patience.

The blow-by-blow account of protocol, terrain analysis and decision-making might have been incomprehensible to a more recreational crowd, who would have wondered where all the rad hucking was. But the hundreds of locals, patrollers, pro shreds, and Sierra grandmasters like Glen Plake (in straightjacket), John Morrison, and Christian Pondella, were rapt and actually broke into applause several times as Jones described the craft and process of his finest works. To hear someone getting cheers and applause for talking about backing off something, or making good calls was awesome.

Three Sierra legends and your correspondent. JL, Christian Pondella, Glen Plake, John Morrison. Wear sunblock kids, or you'll look like us. PHOTO: Joani Lynch/Mammoth Mountain

Big thanks to Jeremy Jones, Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center, Mammoth Mountain and Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol, everyone who donated gear to the raffle, and everyone who showed up. Seeing so many great people in the room was an amazing feeling, and hearing Jones speak was a privilege.