THE PROVING GROUNDS
Jeremy Jones’ Ultimate AK Expedition:
The Spine Institute
Story and photos by Seth Lightcap
With the exception of maybe Antarctica, I am among the wildest mountain landscapes of my life. There is not a breath of wind. This pen on paper is the only sound for miles. There is work to be done, but every couple of minutes I stop, listen and try to feel it. Never in my life have I been so removed from society, so alone. It feels great.
We still have a lot to learn. The glaciers are mellow, but there is nothing mellow about the terrain. These are the biggest spine walls I have ever seen. It will take weeks to fully tap their potential.
Finding a zone to call home for a month has been very stressful. All the other areas that looked good on a map looked too gnarly in person. We didn’t even know this spot existed until we saw it from the plane. For now, we are locked into a snowstorm. I am content and ready to play the waiting game. The weight is lifted.
Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds... Spines.
Like a precious jewel of the mountains, mesmerizing in their beauty and lusted after for their rarity, snow spines are some of the most coveted terrain features on earth for the expert freerider. From the beginning of his professional snowboarding career in the late 90’s, Jeremy Jones has been wildly addicted to riding these stunning mountain features. For a decade, Jeremy used a helicopter to access spine lines in Alaska and beyond, but that all changed in 2009 when he started filming DEEPER, his first signature film project with Teton Gravity Research. Unlike the previous forty-something snowboard movies he’d been featured in, DEEPER was focused on human powered backcountry snowboarding. For the potential of exploring new terrain and pushing his snowboarding to a new level, Jeremy traded in the helicopter for a splitboard.
When Jeremy wrote the above journal entry in April 2010 he was holed up in a tent having just established a base camp for a month long expedition in Alaska. The expedition was the final DEEPER film trip and the pressure was on to find a good location that held both warm-up terrain and next-level spine lines that were relatively safe to climb. Jeremy’s mountain karma must have been peaking that winter as the zone he found turned out to be the most spectacular and inspiring chunk of terrain he’s ever seen in Alaska. The zone was home to spine lines of every imaginable size and the surrounding glaciers were not crevasse and serac infested death traps like most other glacial basins in the area. Jeremy dubbed the zone ‘The Spine Institute’ as it held middle school level lines all the way up to trophy lines worthy of a doctoral thesis.
Now ten years later, Jeremy still regards the Spine Institute as the most successful and boundary pushing Alaska expedition of his career. In celebration of the 10th anniversary of both the Spine Institute and Jones Snowboards, we’re thrilled to share photos, videos and stories from this groundbreaking expedition as our latest TEN YEARS micro-site feature.
One of my goals with DEEPER was to find dream spine lines that were outside of the heli zones that you had to ride on foot if you wanted to ride them. I fell in love with the region outside of Haines because it’s really the most spined-out range I’ve ever seen and you can only take a heli in less than 10% of the range.
The Spine Institute is located in the Fairweather Range within Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska. There are no roads into the park. The only way to access the Fairweather Range is by getting dropped off by a plane or boat.
The Spine Institute base camp was positioned out of reach of any avalanche paths on a small flat plateau above a glacier. It took several flights from Haines in renowned glacier pilot Drake Olson’s Cessna to bring in all the crew and gear.
"We had learned a ton on our AK base camp trip the year before. We were humbled by the amount of bad weather. The storms beat us up so it took awhile, but towards the end of that first trip the proof of concept was confirmed. If you get the right weather window you can ride rad lines on foot. So we came into the second trip way more dialed and prepared for the storms by ten fold. None of that, ‘Is it possible?’ anxiety was there for the second trip. We were ready to hang out on the glacier and be patient."
Alaska glacier pilot Drake Olson was the key that unlocked access to the Spine Institute. After a successful career as a professional race car driver, Drake moved to Haines and became a pilot. He’s offered scenic flights and mountaineering support in the Fairweather range for 25 years and knows the topography of the area better than anyone. Jeremy and Drake found the Spine Institute on a recon flight a couple days prior to the planned expedition departure.
I had gotten to know Drake over the years when we were heli boarding. I got to do some scenic flights with him when he would go check out new landing zones. Flying with Drake blew my mind. I would come home from an AK heli trip after riding a bunch of cool lines, but what really stuck with me was the vast unknown incredible terrain that I would see when I got in the plane
What made the Spine Institute zone so appealing beyond the exquisitely stacked spine walls was the reality that most of the major walls had clean runouts and minimal serac hang fire. There were some holes here and there, but nothing that sketchy on the relative scale.
I’ve been obsessed with finding and riding big spine walls for two decades. For a condensed chunk of terrain, the Spine Institute is the most spectacular spine zone I’ve ever seen.
The progression from riding a 20 degree bowl 100 feet above camp to ripping a 50 degree 3000 foot spine wall took weeks. The first step in the progression was to assess the state of the snowpack. Legendary snowboarder and guide Tom Burt took the lead on snow safety. He dug pits after every storm and advised rider’s on line choices. Once Tom gave the green light, it was go time.
"Tom Burt is someone I always looked up to as a kid. He wrote the book on hard charging freeriding and AK freeriding. Having Tom on the trip was really helpful because even though I’d spent a lot of time in AK I was way out of my comfort zone on this trip. I’d share my ideas with Tom and ask, ‘Am I crazy? Can we do this? What do you think?’ Getting his vote of confidence on what we were doing was really critical."
Jeremy’s first trophy spine line of the trip was Wall Of Walls. Positioned just across the glacial bowl from camp, the 3000 foot tall fluted wall beckoned to Jeremy for weeks before he attempted to ride it. He ended up riding it twice, climbing an adjacent couloir to reach the top. For the first ascent and descent, Jeremy and Ryland slept on the top of the wall to assure they could ride their lines in good light for filming.
Wall Of Walls was the biggest rideable spine wall I’d ever seen and may still be the largest I’ve ever ridden to this day. From the valley floor to the top was over 3000 feet. We wanted to ride it in early morning light, so at the time I thought, ‘We’re going to have to sleep on top to do that.’ So Ryland and I climbed the shady couloir to the right of the face and slept on top. In the morning we threw our gear down the chute we had climbed up in a duffle bag. After I released the bag and watched all of our camping gear almost disappear into a bergschrund at the bottom of the chute, I was like, ’Don’t ever do that again.’
With Jeremy safely down from his descent of Wall Of Walls, all eyes turned to Ryland who was still on the ridge. Ryland had picked out a complex line lookers left of Wall Of Walls that started from an even higher and steeper part of the ridge. Ryland rode the line clean, but the first thing he said on the radio when he got down to the glacier was that the descent had been, ‘a battle for my life.’ Here’s his harrowing description of riding the line he later named Barenjager.
Ryland started his line with a toeside traverse across near-vertical spines above certain death exposure.
"You’re nervous at the top, really nervous. Then you drop in and there’s this one moment, and it’s only happened to me a couple of times, where I realize it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s too late. From that drop until the first good turn it’s a very simple state of, ‘Oh, fuck.’ But once you do that first turn, you’re just taking what comes and making it work.
To this day, it’s still the heaviest line I’ve ever ridden. We had just woken up in our bivy sacks and I had been claustrophobic and shivering all night. I was awake until 3 a.m. looking at the photo of the line until my camera ran out of batteries. Jeremy’s line was in a different direction from mine. On the way up I ran into this big crack in the ice that I couldn’t get past by myself. I was able to get my camera on again and saw there was an option for a second entrance, but I’d have to cross vertical spines to get in, then I’d be free of 500 feet of death exposure. When I got to the first spine I realized I had to clear ten more of them. It was the steepest stuff I had ever ridden and I was fully committed, so I just kept going. I had to go toes-to-heels maybe three times, but I made it."
The bottom of the line crossed over into yet another steep section of spines that guarded the small clean run out zone.
No matter how much you prepare mentally, no matter how much you look at a picture, you cannot fully be ready for what comes once you drop in. But once I had ridden that line, everything else seemed so much more doable - that was definitely the moment when everything changed.
At the bottom it felt like my heart wanted to explode. I was so relieved, just like, ‘I made it!’ Then I felt really good, shaky even. I was able to look back up and relive it a little bit and the feeling stayed with me for hours. I still have never had a high like I felt at the bottom of that line.
Yesterday was the payoff for two years of commitment to foot-powered snowboarding. The day plays out over and over in my mind.
It starts with a technical bergschrund crossing that leads to a 3,000-foot sprint up a steep couloir to find a camp spot before dark. It is amazing topping out in the evening twilight. The night is cold and long, but we are out of camp by 6 a.m. Twenty minutes later, we are looking down a very large spine wall. Three, two, one - and I am flying. Ryland follows with a spine battle into what he calls the “line of his life.”
We take a four-hour Sunday siesta on the glacier and by 1 p.m. we are off to the evening objective: the 60-degree Free Fall Wall.
The Free Fall Wall was just around the corner from Wall Of Walls The west facing feature was stacked with sharp, uniformly spaced spines that glowed in the evening light. Beyond it’s beauty, the wall looked ridiculously steep from below, potentially too steep to ride. But Jeremy knew only one way to truly find out, go have a look from the top.
"I vividly remember getting to the top of the Free Fall Wall, chiseling a little break in the cornice, and looking down on to the spines. My first inclination was, ‘No way, this does not go.’ I kept trying to get different views, but no, no, no. I started to think I was going to be riding back down the bootpack. But then I got a view from down the ridge that helped me figure out where the right entry would be and where a clean exit was. After looking at it for a while longer I had a good plan which gave me the confidence I needed to ride it. I called it the Free Fall Wall because it really was a controlled free fall. The line was so steep that if I had wanted to stop there was no way I was stopping."
Of the 21 days spent the glacier, only 12 days had good enough weather to go ride. The nine down days were spent hanging around the group tent shooting the shit, playing games and drying out gear.
The crew of riders Jeremy brought together for the expedition was the perfect balance of freeride phenoms and veteran professionals. Mt.Baker local Lucas Debari was one of the young frothers Jeremy invited on the trip.
Lucas Debari was this up and coming freerider that just brought a ton of new, fresh energy to the crew. I ran into him in Haines a couple nights before we flew out to base camp. He was in AK filming with Absinthe, but he was really struggling. He was really curious about what were doing and kept asking a lot of questions so last minute I said, ‘Find a sleeping bag and get your ass out to camp! Come ride with us!’
Alaska native Ryland Bell was the other young gun on the expedition. Ryland was no AK base camp rookie, though. He’d spent a couple weeks living on a glacier with Jeremy the previous season.
"Not only was Ryland a talented freerider, but I loved the fact that he was from Alaska. I remember our night when we slept on top of Wall Of Walls. We top out and we’re looking for a place to sleep. I feel like we are on the edge of the world. He looks out at the ocean and says, ‘OMG, I fish in that bay right there, I’ve looked at this mountain my whole life.’ I have always embraced having a local with me on expeditions to have that connection to the land. Ryland was our Fairweather local."
Known for his stunning freestyle snowboarding film parts, veteran pro shredder Josh Dirksen was not the obvious AK expedition partner. But what he lacked in spine riding experience he made up for in class, positivity and sheer riding talent. Josh had recently retired from the cheese wedge jump circuit and had begun forging a second chapter of his career on his splitboard. Jeremy invited him on the trip because he knew he’d be 100% stoke.
Josh Dirksen had been a part of ‘My Own Two Feet’, the first foot powered snowboard film that I was a part of. I was impressed that he was an elite level pro that was fired up to split. When it came time to film DEEPER, Josh was the perfect fit because he’s such a world class snowboarder. There is a level of professionalism that comes with that and it was awesome to have his perspective on the trip.
Fresh off winning his second consecutive Freeride World Tour title, Xavier De La Rue came out to the Spine Institute for the second half of the expedition. He arrived at the perfect time because the crew had already laid the ground work to start riding the biggest lines in the zone. Xavier wasted no time leaving his mark as he ripped one of the heaviest lines that went down in the entire Deeper, Further, Higher trilogy - The Impossible Wall.
"I started spending time with Xavier at the few freeride comps that I did and was always just so impressed with his riding and his attitude. He is such a high level, hard charging freerider and he’s super fun to be around."
After traversing a dozen spines over death exposure and threading through the crux middle choke, Xavier finally got to open it up for a turn or two on a steep panel mid-slope.
I always tried to bring the best riders in the world on these trips, that’s how the levels rise. Xavier was definitely at the top of the game at that point, and still is. It was a no brainier to get him out there.
Incredible terrain, phenomenal weather and a stellar crew weren’t the only things Jeremy was blessed with on this expedition. He was also riding the first ever Jones Solution splitboard, a board two years in the making. He’d received a new prototype just before he left that was by far the best split he’d ever ridden.
Though the final score of 12 sunny days to 9 down days was a huge weather win overall, there were several scary storm days including a relentless five-day storm that nearly collapsed the dome tent and totally buried all the personal tents. Riding out the seemingly interminable storms was a necessary sacrifice for the formation of the cherished spines.
"My advice for riders who want to explore the Fairweather Range is to be prepared to wait out some massive storms. The Fairweather’s have more spines than almost any place else on earth but what makes that is the ridiculous quantities of snow they get. We had one storm come in for five days and I watched it swallow a 30 foot cliff. You better have a lot of time, a lot of patience and a big shovel. We struggled to keep up with the snow on both our foot powered trips into the Fairweather’s. It was hands down the most snow we’ve ever had to deal with on an expedition."
– Jeremy Jones
Jeremy’s tent was compressed into a foot-wide mohawk when he woke up the morning after the biggest storm finally subsided. Thankfully none of his tent poles were broken.
"Throughout my snowboard career I’ve always progressed one little small step at a time. At the Spine Institute I took a huge leap forward. The terrain coupled with the work I’d been putting in filming DEEPER for two years and the incredible weather made it possible. We had a seven day run of cold high pressure with no wind and really good stability, then we got another four day run of amazing weather with stability. I got the two most perfect AK windows at the perfect time in my life, in the best terrain I’d ever spent time in. I’m still really grateful for that opportunity."