ODE TO ELENA
Honoring Elena Hight’s stand out
performance in Ode To Muir
Photos by Andrew Miller
I hate the cold.
I won't be able to keep up.
I have zero winter camping experience.
What did I sign myself up for?!
Elena Hight was an Olympian. Elena Hight was an X-Games champion. But there was no getting around it. Elena Hight was not an expedition splitboarder, and she knew it.
Sitting on her living room floor, staring at a pile of winter camping gear, Elena couldn’t help but question her decision. Had she really agreed to join Jeremy Jones for a NINE-day, FORTY-mile backcountry tour into the heart of the High Sierra? Didn’t Jeremy know that she had never been out in the backcountry for more than day? Nor ever slept in a tent on snow? Elena sure did, and as she tried to pack her gear to meet Jeremy the next day to start the tour, these nervous thoughts were all she could think about. Elena knew full well that the challenge she was about to face would push her mental and physical boundaries to places she wasn’t so sure she was ready for.
This epic trans-Sierra tour with Jeremy that Elena so nervously prepared for became the foundation of Teton Gravity Research’s 2018 film ‘Ode To Muir’. Hopefully you’ve seen the film so you know that Elena’s anxious energy prior to leaving the trailhead was all for nought. On every day of the trip, and in every way, Elena absolutely crushed it! Not only did she grease every camping and splitboarding challenge with a smile, but she threw down some heavy shred lines impossibly far from civilization.
It’s no stretch that Elena’s “rookie” performance in the film is one of the highlight shred stories we’ve seen in the first decade of Jones Snowboards. No one else, not man or woman, has stepped to one of Jeremy’s challenges so far out of their comfort zone with as much poise and success as Elena did. To honor her stand out role, we’re thrilled to share her perspective on overcoming such a formidable challenge. Read on for thoughts from Elena about the experience, and if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t miss the link at the end of the story to watch the full length film on Red Bull TV.
What’s funny is the I had been invited to go winter camping before this trip and I had completely turned it down. I was convinced it wasn’t for me. Wasn’t interested. I hated the cold and didn’t think I could handle it. I wasn’t rugged enough. But when Jeremy called it caught me off guard. I had just retired from competing and I was in a flux state. I had told myself I would take almost any opportunity that came my way. But almost immediately after agreeing to join him on the project, I regretted it. On second thought I was like, what did I sign up for? This is not me!
The night before I met up with Jeremy and the crew was the peak of my nervousness. I was double, triple checking all the things I was supposed to have, and kind of panicking, wondering if I could still pull out of the trip. The next morning I was so anxious I drove over to meet Jeremy like an hour too early. Got a second coffee to try to calm my nerves, but that obviously didn’t help too much!
I had grown up in Lake Tahoe, but because of my excitement for riding halfpipe and terrain parks I hadn’t really explored the Sierra outside of the local resorts. I had also been to Mammoth a million times, and looked out at the surrounding peaks, but I had no vision for how to explore the High Sierra, and especially not in the winter.
"On the first day of the trip, when we got past the first crest, I was in absolute awe of how big and vast the terrain was. I couldn’t believe how long I had lived in these mountains, yet how little of the range I had actually seen."
When I was packing my bag at the trailhead I purposely took longer to pack so I could eye up how everybody else was packing their bags. Having never done it before I really had no clue. I was just shoving everything in and I got to the point where the pack was totally full but I still had a bunch of stuff left to pack. I started asking Jeremy a bunch of questions, “Where does this go? How do I attach this?” and it began to click. I ended up dumping out the pack and re-packing it once I had learned a few things.
My biggest concern going into the trip was about whether
I was going to be able to keep up.
I knew Jeremy had put together this super fit crew that he had worked with a lot before. Everyone was going to be super experienced, but I had no experience. I was really nervous about that.
The first night of the trip was so amazing. By the time I laid down, I was completely exhausted, yet so happy I was there. It had been such a big push, and taken so much effort to get out there, but I had been right there with everyone the whole time. For the first time in weeks, I fell asleep without fear about not being able to keep up.
Going into the trip I had never put crampons on or even climbed a couloir. The learning curve happened really fast. I remember being so gripped the first couple hiking sessions, thinking I was going to just fall off the mountain on every step. That fear faded pretty quickly once I started trusting my gear and my partners.
Dealing with the risks of riding exposed lines so far out in the mountains is an interesting one. You really have to consider every move you make. I think being fairly inexperienced I was less concerned about specific risks and more concerned with trying to ride smooth and fast. I didn’t really push my ability level though. I held back just a little bit knowing the most important thing was making it to the bottom safely.
The first couple days of the trip you are still thinking about home and those things you’re going to do when you get back or worries you had before the trip. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives, it lingers for awhile. But by mid trip you are just purely focused on what you are doing. You become so much more present and you fall into a simple routine that feels so awake. It becomes all about the little things like filling your water bottle in the perfect stream or finding the snack you’ve been craving or watching each other ride lines. Life really slows down and it feels really, really good.
I had heard of John Muir growing up in Tahoe, but I didn’t have that much connection with him before the trip. It was awesome to be with Jeremy who knew so much about the influence Muir had on the Sierra. We spent a lot of time on the skin track talking about how Muir explored these same valleys and had worked so hard to protect the experience we were having.
I came away from the trip a huge fan of John Muir. What an incredible legacy he left behind for us.
As far as food goes, I really put my trust into Jeremy and the crew. I had no idea how much food I would eat, hiking all day every day for ten days. They crushed it. We never went hungry and we came out with just a little extra food. I also brought a few things that I knew would keep me feeling good. I drink a powdered greens drink every morning so I brought a big bag of that and I brought the vitamins I take every day. I didn’t want to have some weird crash that had nothing to so with anything but interrupting my daily routine.
"The line we rode that stands out the most was not the most gnarly line. It was this mellow chute that we rode at sunset half way through the trip. It was the best corn snow ever and the whole run was glowing pink in the alpenglow."
We party lapped down the run without any worry about our lines. We were so disconnected from the world, yet so connected to our surroundings. I had no idea that wilderness experiences this rich were even possible on a snowboard.
The most taxing day of the trip was the second to last day. We had camped low to prepare for our exit the next day, so we made one last big push back to the higher elevation terrain to ride a couple more lines. We started the day hiking from 8000 feet to 12,000 feet and I was already smoked by the time we got to the lines. It was a combination of emotional and physical exhaustion because I was already thinking about how far we had to hike out the next day and I wasn’t that stoked about going home. Jeremy was feeling the same way as he kept trying to wrap his head around whether we had enough food to be able to stay out a day longer than planned. I remember watching the sun set from the top of that last peak and thinking to myself that I’ve never been so exhausted, yet so happy.
Looking back on the trip, I’m glad I was so blissfully unaware of what I was getting myself into. Going into it again, I would know how tough the hard days are going to be which would probably make me just as nervous as not knowing! But now I also know that I’m capable of way more than I had given myself credit for. All those elements of winter camping like being cold or having wet boots that I worried about faded away as soon as we got out there.