Elena Hight On Last Descents, Keeping Up With Jeremy Jones, And Using Crampons For The First Time

For the last 15 years, Elena Hight has been a mainstay on the halfpipe snowboard scene. She has been to countless X Games, appeared in multiple Olympics, and was the first woman to land a double backside alley-oop rodeo  in competition. She has pushed women’s halfpipe riding to places nobody thought it could go. After 15 years of competition, Elena is ready to push herself, and the sport of snowboarding, in a new direction.

After a last minute phone call from Jeremy Jones in May, Elena packed her bags and set out on a trek across the Sierras. For a week, Jeremy and Elena climbed and rode lines that may never be ridden again—and got it all on film for our viewing pleasure. We sat down with Elena to talk about working with the big mountain pioneer Jeremy Jones, tackling new challenges, and more.-ML

Elena and the never ending stoke-machine that is Jeremy Jones. Photo: Nick Kalisz/Teton Gravity Research

Tell us about yourself, Elena.

I’m 29 years old and I’ve been a professional snowboarder for 15 years. My main focus has been on competitive halfpipe riding. I’ve been to two Olympics, a lot of X Games, US Open’s, and all that jazz. In the past few years I’ve branched out to backcountry riding, and I’ve done a little bit of work with different crews. I did some stuff with Snowboarder Magazine, and I was part of the Full Moon film.  Then, this April I got to go on a trip with Jeremy Jones, which was my first winter camping trip.

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How did the “Ode To Muir’ trip come across your proverbial desk?

I’ve been competing pretty much full time up until this past winter, so I’ve just tried to dabble in as much backcountry as I can. I love the mountains, I love freeriding, and I’ve been getting more and more into big mountain riding. I’ve kind of been just learning as much as possible while being on the competition scene. I’ve been working with Protect Our Winters for a while, and known Jeremy for a couple years. I saw him before the season, and since this was obviously a big Olympic season, he was like ”We should get out when your done with all the hectic-ness. It’ll be good for you to get out into the backcountry”. So, there was a seed planted then. He hit me up and wanted a woman’s perspective to be a part of the film. I was in Tahoe, and from there it was a fast track to get on the trip.

I had never been on a trip more than a couple days. So I basically told him: “I would love to… but are you sure you want to take me? It sounds awesome but…this is what you’re in for.” He jumped right on board.

You mention in the trailer it was your first winter camping experience. So…how did that go?

Jeremy called me out of the blue one day, told me about the trip, and asked if I was interested. I immediately said yes, it sounds amazing. I told Jeremy I had never been winter camping, and the longest tour I had ever been on was probably six hours. I had been backpacking, so I know what it’s like to carry a heavy backpack. But even that, I had never been on a trip more than a couple days. So I basically told him: “I would love to…. but are you sure you want to take me? It sounds awesome but…this is what you’re in for.”. He jumped right on board. I was definitely nervous—I’ve been a fan of Jeremy Jones since I was a kid. He’s arguably the best big mountain snowboarder of our time and basically created the winter camping/splitboarding scene as we know it today. I was definitely intimidated and more so than anything I was worried that I wasn’t gonna be able to keep up. Jeremy is a minimalist, and he has done this so much that he is very non-chalant about everything. So, getting ready for the trip was pretty funny. I had no idea what I needed. It was definitely a mix of him guiding me, but also me trying to use my own judgement of what to bring, how to pack and so on. With a trip like this, you’re looking for a high pressure system. He hit me up five days before we left so it was a spur of the moment, buy a tent and a sleeping bag, and we’re going sort of trip. It might have been the best-case scenario for me, so I didn’t have time to second guess it.

So where did he end up dragging you out to?

We departed from Convict Lake outside of Mammoth, California in to the John Muir Wilderness. We traversed the Sierras from east to west and came out on the Fresno, CA side.

Jeremy leading the way on one of the many lines from the trip. Photo: Chris Figenshau/Teton Gravity Research

You experienced a lot of new things it seems like. What was the biggest surprise?

Tons of things. But, relating specifically to Jeremy it was amazing to see him in his element. As someone growing up in the mountains, and who loves the mountains, but hasn’t explored much of the wilderness terrain, I learned a lot watching him with his 20 plus years of experience. He’s so knowledgeable in the mountains and to be able to pick his brain about why he was choosing a line, reading the snowpack, and making timing decisions was really incredible. I learned a lot from just being around him and picking up his thoughts. As far as being in the wilderness, split boarding, and camping, I would say I was most worried about the heavy pack. Our packs were probably 60-70 pounds to start. I’m a good split boarder, but I never learned to ski. My biggest challenge was the downhill skiing part. I was pretty intimidated, but I was surprised how quickly you get into a groove, and the presence you find with knowing that you just need to put one foot in front of the other while working your way to some unknown objective. You really learn to just take in the experience.

Sounds like Jeremy was quite the mentor for you on this trip. Was he pretty hands on, or did he let you find your own way?

Jeremy was really patient with me. He helped with a lot explanation on a lot of things. I had never used crampons, an ice axe, or done a lot of the mountaineering side of it all. So, with that, he was really hands on with explaining. With a lot of the travelling through the mountains, camping, and the whole experience, he kind of just led by example. He gave everyone on the trip space to experience it all on their own. The cool thing about Jeremy, and you’ll see it in the film is that he has so much love and appreciation for the mountains, the snow, and the experience. His excitement is palpable. It doesn’t matter if it’s eight hours in on the longest slog ever. He will get stoked something as simple as a tree—and that excitement rubs off on you.

You’ve done tons of competing. Can you compare the nerves of dropping into a pipe run in the Olympics, to climbing a steep couloir behind Jeremy Jones?

Absolutely. I think its funny because competitive snowboarding is so different than the environment out in the mountains. In competition you have a ton of people watching you and there is a lot of inherent pressure that you feel immediately. In the mountains, it’s almost the opposite, but it brings on similar feelings. You are very alone, there’s no one watching, it’s very much about your own pressure to want to accomplish something and work with what you have and do your best. That being said, I get nervous every time I stand at the top of a pipe before a comp run and am about to drop in. I don’t think that will ever go away.  But I definitely felt those same nerves doing something I had never done, hiking up couloirs and standing on the top of steep lines. I think the cool parallel is the presence that you feel. The reason why I think snowboarding is so special is that it brings you into that present moment, and gives you a platform to be in the flow state. I think you feel that when you have those high nerves and that pressure, whether it’s standing at the top of a pipe run or being alone in the mountains.

You must be a competitive person considering how long you competed for. Do you miss that? Or do you think these goals in big mountain riding can help fill that void?

I am definitely a competitive, goal oriented person. Halfpipe has given me a great platform to push my snowboarding, and push women’s snowboarding. It has given me the chance to see where my personal limits are and push the limits of the sport. I feel like this new avenue that I’ve been on opened up to has those same opportunities. There’s so much growth available. The sport has come so far already, but women’s big mountain riding is really just blossoming and I feel like there’s a huge opportunity to use that same outlook that I’ve used in the halfpipe as far as creating goals.  I want to use That same determination and excitement of the unknown, and bring that into the mountains.

Now that the trip is over, do you see yourself on another expedition like this in the near future?

As I’m making more of a solid transition from competitive riding into a film and backcountry career, I am super drawn to man powered snowboarding.  There are so many amazing places it can bring you. The entire experience of getting somewhere on your own two feet is something that is really special. It really aligns with my personal values, and I wanted to do my part of raising awareness about climate change and making small steps to help combat it.

Jeremy mentions “last descents” in the trailer. Tell me about that and how it played into your trip.

A big highlight of the movie is how climate change is affecting our wilderness, and snowboarding in general. For so long, snowboarding has highlighted first descents, and where people have never been down mountains. A really interesting turn of events with our climate changing is that snow isn’t ending up in the places it has been in the past for our generation. Soon enough, we won’t be able to ride things that were rideable in years before. I think it just comes full circle with wanting to be a voice of change for protecting the environment rather than destroying it.

The leaves are turning and the mountains are getting a dusting. You getting excited for the winter? Any big plans?

The next few months we are going to be touring Ode To Muir. That starts in October and runs through November. As for next winter, I am looking to do a lot more man powered trips. I am really excited by the camping aspect, and the places you can’t access unless your on foot. I’m hoping to do a lot more exploring this winter. No real solid plans that I can share, but stuff in the works.

Ode To Muir will be touring across North America this fall. For locations, dates, and  tickets, visit https://www.tetongravity.com/films—/ode-to-muir.