Editor's note: This is an excerpt of Planet Money's newsletter. You can sign up here.
In mountains across America, skiers and snowboarders are ditching ski lifts and heading into the untamed wilderness of the backcountry. Even before the pandemic, backcountry was the fastest growing segment of the skiing and snowboarding industry. Now with COVID imperiling ski resorts, the sport is exploding.
Jeremy Jones — a fixture in snowboard and ski movies, a National Geographic "Adventurer of the Year," an eleven-time Snowboard Magazine "Big Mountain Rider of the Year," and the CEO of Jones Snowboards — has probably done more than anybody else to popularize backcountry snowboarding.
Back when Jones turned pro a couple decades ago, the sexiest part of snowboarding was freestyle. You know, where riders spend their days in man-made snowparks, doing 1080 McRib triple backflips and drinking Mountain Dew or whatever. Jones was different. A freeride snowboarder, he made his name in the backcountry, doing death-defying descents on some of the world's steepest mountains. As a backcountry snowboarder myself who kinda looks up to Jones, I couldn't think of a better person to talk to about this moment and how we got here.
"It's like you stick to something long enough and eventually, all of a sudden, you're like, wow, people really care about the type of snowboarding I'm doing now," Jones, 45, told us last week from his home in Truckee, California.
Jones has been snowboarding in the backcountry since he was a kid in Vermont. But it was really around 2008 when he began to push the world of snowboarding in that direction. By then, he had spent over a decade using helicopters to get to remote peaks in Alaska, bombing down while cameras rolled.
But Jones got sick of helicopters. For one, they were restricted to a small sliver of the world's mountains. And then he got into environmental activism, founding an organization called Protect Our Winters. "I was understanding climate change and really taking a close look at the carbon footprint that my snowboarding had on the planet," Jones says.
So Jones ditched fuel-sucking helicopters and began hiking mountains on a special kind of snowboard, a splitboard. It's a snowboard that separates down the middle into two skis. You put climbing skins on the skis, giving you traction on snow so you can glide up mountains. Once you get to the top, you take the skins off, put the skis together, and, boom, a snowboard.
People have been riding splitboards since at least the early nineties, but, for a long time, splitboarding remained on the periphery of snowboarding. One reason: the technology kinda sucked. Splitboards were heavy, cumbersome, and didn't ride very well. This helped inspire Jones to create Jones Snowboards back in 2010. That same year, he released his classic movie, Deeper, which featured him and an all-star team of pro snowboarders rocking splitboards deep in the snowy wilderness of Tahoe, Chamonix, Alaska, and Antarctica. The movie helped catapult Jones Snowboards — and, more broadly, splitboarding — into the mainstream.
Jones Snowboards is now one of the most popular splitboard brands, and business is booming these days. According to the NPD Group, an industry analysis firm, so far this season, traditional snowboard sales are down four percent compared to this time last season. But splitboard sales are up 151%.
"Splitboarding has definitely grown more than I ever thought it would have grown — by, a long shot, quite frankly," Jones says. "Absolutely COVID has kind of turned it into this more of a frenzy-type scenario where people are rushing to buy gear early because they're afraid it's going to sell out."
There's a lot to love about backcountry skiing and splitboarding. You ditch the crowds, the lines, and the expensive lift tickets. And you immerse yourself in nature. It's socially distanced. You get endorphins climbing up, and adrenaline riding down. The whole thing is kinda spiritual.
But riding in the backcountry is also hard and dangerous. There's no ski patrol. No avalanche control. No groomers. The terrain is unpredictable. And the boom has what economists call negative externalities. In other words, costs imposed on others. All these backcountry newbies can place an extra burden on public health and safety resources, during a time when some hospitals are overwhelmed. This got a lot of attention last March and April when backcountry skiers in Colorado triggered avalanches, and in some cases, died.
"We hope to inspire people to get out there, but with that comes the responsibility of educating them," Jones says. It's why his company's gear comes with avalanche education materials, and why the homepage of their website has a whole section about backcountry safety. Jones recommends taking avalanche courses, hiring guides, and always reading daily avalanche reports. Given that backcountry sports bring lots of dollars to mountain communities, Jones says, he hopes they invest in safety resources, like better avalanche forecasting systems.
"To all the newbies, you should be nervous. I'm nervous," Jones says. "The mountains — you are entering a wild place."
Wild, but maybe more crowded these days.
Did you enjoy this newsletter segment? Well, it looks even better in your inbox! You can sign up here.