It took me a while, but this week I finally got round to watching Ode to Muir, the latest film from big mountain snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones, released last autumn. As the title suggests, the project is inspired by the writings of John Muir, the lad o’ pairts from Dunbar who, after his family emigrated to the USA in 1849, first fell in love with the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada and then devoted his life to trying to protect it. Footage of heart-in-mouth snowboard descents interspersed with some of Muir’s most memorable quotes – what’s not to like?
Jones is based in Truckee, California, and considers the Sierra Nevada his home range. In recent years, after a globetrotting career (Japan? Check. Iceland? Check. Nepal? Check.) he has switched his focus to exploring the myriad snowboarding possibilities on his doorstep, mostly under his own steam, and for this latest project he resolved to travel further into the Sierras than ever before, lugging all his own gear, using a splitboard to get around and pitching camp wherever the mood took him. Along for the ride, and also struggling under a pack that looked like it must have weighed well over 20 kilos: professional halfpipe snowboarder Elena Hight, who, in spite of her limited splitboarding chops and non-existent winter camping experience, somehow seems to have remained impressively upbeat throughout their adventure.
It was a proper adventure, too. Jones didn’t exactly make allowances for the fact that his companion was a relative newcomer to backcountry travel, taking her cramponning un-roped up vertiginous mountainsides before riding down steep, narrow, no-fall-zone gullies. Hight’s enthusiasm, though, is a big part of the film’s appeal. Freed from the results-driven nature of her competitive career, she was obviously delighted by this anything goes existence, and her sense of new-found freedom chimes nicely with Muir quotes like “I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”
On one level, then, Ode to Muir is a bit of an ode to joy, but it has a more serious side, too. Since 2007, when he founded the not-for-profit organisation Protect Our Winters, Jones has been an active environmental campaigner, and the film contains plenty of stark warnings about what climate change could mean for the south-western United States, and in particular its wilderness areas. Certain species of tree, including white firs, are already dying out in the Sierra as temperatures rise, and the film also features a scary-looking graph showing how forest fires in the region have increased dramatically over the last century in terms of both duration and extent. John Muir may have managed to prevent these places from being turned into farms and mines and shopping malls, but even with their protected national park status they are still at risk of being changed forever due to human activity.
Also at risk, of course, is the snow. As elsewhere in North America, the glaciers here are retreating at a phenomenal rate, and this reduction in snowpack has wider implications. There’s a wonderful scene in the film in which the crew stop at the end of a run, realise they are out of water, and – because they are so high up – must fill their water bottles painfully slowly from the gradual drip, drip, drip of melting snow, as it runs off a snowfield and into a tiny rivulet. The water that’s stored in this way and released slowly and steadily over time plays a huge but largely unsung role in keeping the state of California running; once it’s gone, as Jones points out, there’s no obvious replacement.
It’s not exactly of the same significance as, say, the four million inhabitants of Los Angeles running out of fresh drinking water, but the loss of snow in the Sierra Nevada will also one day make its mountains unskiable. According to Jones, people who ski and snowboard in the range are already starting to talk about “last descents.” A friend of his, he says, has a favourite backcountry run that he hasn’t been able to attempt for nearly a decade due to insufficient snow cover.
And if the skiers and snowboarders of California and Nevada, with their multiple 14ers (14,000 foot-plus peaks) are starting to talk about last descents, then perhaps we should be having that conversation here in Scotland too. Given the snow bounty of the 2017/18 ski season, there’s no reason to think that there won’t be a few more great winters in the future, but if there’s an enticing line somewhere you have your eye on, perhaps one that doesn’t come into condition all that often, well... maybe don’t leave it too long.
To watch Ode to Muir, visit www.tetongravity.com/films/ode-to-muir