Over the past four days, I learned how to dig a snow pit, find and treat an avalanche victim, tie a butterfly knot and rig up a rope-and-pully system to rescue a person who’s fallen into a crevasse. But I’m leaving Teton Gravity Research‘s International Pro Riders Workshop with more than new skills–I’m leaving Snowbird with a new appreciation for the sport of backcountry skiing and snowboarding. The team sport of backcountry skiing and snowboarding, that is.
Before this week, I certainly had an appreciation for these sports. I am fascinated by the men and women who participate in big-mountain sports, specifically for the way in which they look at the world. They are today’s explorers, driven to go places no one has gone and do things no one has done. And they are willing to commit fully and make great sacrifices in order to do so.
Reporting last year’s story on Jeremy Jones was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in pursuit of a story and was the basis of one of my favorite stories I’ve written. Those few days in the High Sierra taught me more about what it takes to ride a big line–especially in the way he was doing it: by climbing, hiking and using splitboards to access his lines–than would have been possible without experiencing some of it firsthand. Doing what Jones and his peers are doing requires a heck of a lot more than a lifetime of snowboard skills. It requires constant learning, a deep respect and knowledge of the mountains, how they act and how to navigate them, and a team you’re willing to trust with your life.
That last sentiment was echoed throughout the past week. For the past few years, TGR has invited its riders and skiers to attend a pre-season training camp, an avalanche-safety refresher course, if you will, before heading out on film trips. This year, 33 athletes, including Jones, Seth Morrison, Sage Cattabriga-Alosa and Rachael Burkes, the lone woman skier in the group–as well as several cinematographers, photographers and TGR staff members–met at Snowbird Resort in Salt Lake City for the four-day IPRW. Days one and two consisted of wildlife first aid and CPR, which were taught by folks from the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute. The final two days centered on avalanche prediction, safety and rescue, and a half-day ropes course.
None of the course was mandatory, yet every TGR athlete who did not have a legitimate conflict flew to Utah for the week. I was the lucky journalist invited along to witness the type of training and knowledge TGR believes is necessary to have in order to head into the backcountry on one of their film trips.
This type of training seems like an obvious necessity for this line of work, but sadly, it’s not. TGR is the only film company that holds clinics like this. Steve and Todd Jones, founders of TGR and Jeremy’s older brothers, say it’s just another step in the evolution of their company. Early on, they started spreading the safety message by putting safety extras in their DVDs and instructional videos on their site. “We’re inspiring kids to go into the mountains,” Todd says. “So it’s our responsibility to also inspire them to be safe.” Most of the guys I talked to said they’d never taken a first-aid class and likely wouldn’t practice using their beacons if they weren’t encouraged to by the folks who pay their bills. “These guys are outliers in their industry,” course instructor and JHOLI co-founder Marilynn Davis told me during a day-one break. “By learning this stuff, they’re telling one another they care and they’re telling their families they want to be safe in the mountains. People talk about taking less risk when they have families,” she says. “But you don’t have to take less risk. You just have to be smarter in the mountains. I hope more companies follow TGR’s lead.”
After the third day of the workshop, Mount Hood-based skier Dylan Hood said something that changed the way I looked at what we had been doing all week. For the past few days, I’d watched how much teamwork is needed to respond to an accident, find and dig out an avalanche victim, pull someone out of a crevasse and prepare for a backcountry camping trip. It’s obvious a group like this will be more successful in those instances. Because they are here, they know the guys they head into the mountains with have the knowledge to save them. Because they are here, hanging out, drinking beers and getting to know each other as friends, they’ll care more when they hear someone make a sketchy decision or see them pushing beyond their limitations. “I’m here to show these guys how much I care,” Hood said. “This course isn’t about me. Ninety percent of what I’m learning here can’t help me. I’m learning how to help these guys if something goes wrong. And I know they’re here so they can learn how to help me.”
When we watch these guys in the films they’re famous for, the final product hides the production. We see Jeremy Jones ride a crazy line in AK or Seth Morrison land some crazy trick in the backcountry and, as the camera widens to show them alone against a massive sheath of white, we think about them as singular beings, as gifted athletes participating in individual sports. What we don’t see is how much teamwork went into riding those lines. A kind of teamwork that doesn’t exist even in team sports. If Kobe, Gasol and Derek Fisher don’t get along or work as a team, they don’t win a championship. If these guys (and gals) don’t care about one another and work as a team, they can die.
That, is why they’re here.