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Elena Hight From the Podium to the High Sierra

Story by Max Ritter

The only way to grow as a snowboarder is to try new things.

Sounds obvious, right? But, sometimes those new things can be scary, physically taxing, and even downright dangerous. So of course, professional snowboarder Elena Hight did not think twice when her friend Jeremy Jones invited her on one of his annual spring missions deep into the Sierra backcountry. Jones knew these mountains like the back of his hand, having spent years traveling through them on his snowboard, climbing and riding some of the most aesthetic lines ever seen. More importantly though, the mission was for a greater goal than just snowboarding. By retracing the footsteps of naturalist John Muir, Elena and Jeremy would explore the important relationship we have with the lands we love.

Hight, who was born on Kauai and grew up in, had never spent extended time in the backcountry, let alone gone on a multi-day winter camping trip in some of the most rugged mountains in the lower 48. However, she trusted Jones and his expertise in route planning and general mountain safety. Of course, she recognized the importance of being able to rely on her own skills, experience, and athleticism in case anything went wrong, and she accepted the challenge wholeheartedly.

This past spring, the two set out to explore a new zone in the John Muir Wilderness of the Eastern Sierra while shooting for the film Ode To Muir ( film tour dates and tickets here). They had several goals in mind: spend a week moving through the mountains all under their own power, climb and ride big couloirs and mountain faces, and use the trip to encourage the conversation about environmental protection.

TGR caught up with Hight after her nine-day trip into the Sierra to hear what she had to share about the experience.

This spring, Elena Hight joined Jeremy Jones on a nine-day foot-powered trip through the Sierras - her first winter camping mission ever.

Let's dig a little deeper into you background. Tell us the story of how you came to be a pro snowboarder.

I am originally from Hawaii and my dad has been a surfer his entire life. When my family relocated to the mountains, the first thing my dad did was teach us kids how to snowboard. It was a family affair and we would go on the weekends and after school. I fell in love with it right away. I remember just loving the days I spent on the hill, and when I wasn't into it, my dad would bribe me with hot chocolate to go out and take runs.

I started doing USASA events at 7 years old and the competition life really took off from then on. I was an uber-competitive kid, so I just wanted to compete all the time. My family was super supportive, and we would drive all around Lake Tahoe to these events every weekend so that I could compete. I now know how hard it was on them, but they did it anyway, just to keep me on my board and progressing…and probably to keep me from throwing a fit about how I needed to win! I did my first pro event at 13 and joined the US Snowboard team at 14 when I started touring the entire pro event circuit.

It was a surreal jump into this lifestyle as my parents couldn't afford to travel with me. I was 14 and not only traveling the world with my idols but competing against them. I still look back at it to this day and just think how lucky I was to have that family support and to have the support of the community and riders around me. They took me in with open arms and really helped me learn and grow as a snowboarder and a person in those early years.

After moving to Tahoe from Kauai, Hight immediately took a liking to surfing on snow.

Who were those idols, and what challenges did you face competing with them?

As a kid my idols were Tara Dakidas, Victoria Jealous, Gretchen Bleiler, GiGi Ruf, Danny Kass, Travis Parker. They are still people I look up to today.

There have been so many challenges over the years. A significant setback I faced was when I first turned pro I felt I had something to prove. I was trying to progress faster than ever and paid for it early on. I had a series of concussions that ended up taking me out for almost the entire winter. I didn't understand the effects of concussions back then, I am lucky that it didn't end up worse, but those effects really took a toll on me for some years after.

As the first female to land a whole bunch of tricks, and now pushing yourself in the backcountry, progression has obviously been a huge part of the game for you. What goes through your head as you push yourself to a new limit? 

I have always found the most fun and reward in progression. The natural part of that progression is the imagination, day dreaming of doing something that doesn’t really exist yet. The intention sets in when you decide to move that idea from an idea to a reality. I feel like when I hone in on one objective I find the most clarity and motivation to push myself to that next level.

That progression led to the Olympics, twice. What was it like in Torino and Vancouver?

The Olympics are a really cool event. The idea of gathering the world, despite our differences, in honor of sport is pretty incredible. Being able to walk alongside some of the greatest athletes in the world, knowing firsthand how hard every one of them had to work to get there is a surreal experience.

One of the most hilarious moments I can remember from Vancouver was driving up to practice in a bus with the entire snowboard team. Because of security and traffic, it would take us nearly two hours a day to drive up to the mountain. We might have been losing it a little!

At the time Miley Cyrus was a huge hit and Party in the USA came on the radio. It turned the entire bus of adults in matching America uniforms into 16-year-old girls belting the lyrics at the top of their lungs. Of course, Party in the USA became our theme song for the entire Olympics after that!

When Jeremy approached you with the idea for the Sierra trip, what went through your mind?

Well, I’ll be completely honest. I had never been snow camping before, so when Jeremy called me four days before we left, and said “Hey, you want to go on this trip with me? It’s camping!” I had no idea what that even meant. Was it Jeremy Jones-style “we’re going out forever camping?” or something more mellow?

He kind of gave me the rundown, and I was so excited about the possibilities! To be able to explore an area near where you are from that you have never really been to before is really special. I was definitely intimidated, but after the first day I wanted to stay forever!

Taking everything day by day was really awesome, you’re just so in the moment out there.

"You can see only as far as the horizon, and know that anything between here and there is fair game, but that once you crest the horizon you can do that too!” 

The vastness of the John Muir wilderness was something Hight could never have imagined, and once out there, she never wanted to leave.

What were some of the highlights of the trip for you?

That’s pretty tough, but I would say all our camping zones were the highlights for me. Going into it, we didn’t really know our path, but we ended up camping at the most amazing places. We camped at the base of Red Slate mountain the first two nights, which was probably the most beautiful view ever to wake up. Following that, we camped at the base of this granite amphitheater that was wild. It was the biggest 180 degrees of rocks around us.

We had a full moon, and we actually rode one of our runs after sunset by moonlight! Being so far out in the wilderness during the stillness of night, lit only by the moon, was pretty magical.

Following that, we moved camp to a saddle at 12000 feet, in between two peaks we wanted to ride. We woke up in the morning and hiked like 15 minutes to the top of our next line, which was probably the shortest hike I’ve ever done to ride a big mountain line! I was definitely expecting some longer walks to our lines but camping up really high was a huge advantage. It allowed us to ride at least two big lines a day without mega approaches.

Was there a learning curve to keep up with Jeremy?

I have splitboarded for quite a few years, but not that often. Being a competitive snowboarder didn’t really leave much time for that, so it was usually a “just for fun thing” when I got back home! I had been to Alaska once, but that was heli-based so my mountaineering and climbing experience was pretty nonexistent. This trip was actually my first time using crampons and an ice axe. I showed up and everyone was like “What do you mean you’ve never been snow camping before? You’re about to go on the longest snow camping any of us have ever done!”

I had a lot to learn! What an epic opportunity to learn from one of the best. There’s no better person to be out in the mountains with than Jeremy, he’s so calm and collected and strategic with his moves. It was really cool to just shadow him and absorb as much of that as I can. He gave me some great tips on using equipment, reading lines, and looking at landscapes and seeing how we should move through them. Of course, that’s knowledge he’s been building for the last 20 years, so to be able to go out and have a fresh eye and see it from his point of view was so amazing.

The trip was one of many firsts: first time using an ice axe, first time using crampons, first time carrying a week's worth of food and gear through the mountains.

Did you have any low points on the trip? Was there ever an “oh shit” moment, where you had to remind yourself why you were out there?

The very first line we rode was also the very first time I put on crampons and used an ice axe. We were hiking up and the snow was pretty variable. We were hiking through some icy points, and the couloir was super long. While hiking, the ice started really scaring me and I kept thinking “what am I getting myself into?” while I was slipping and really struggling up the wall. Of course, Jeremy kept encouraging me and we made it to the top, and I decided that I wanted to commit the whole way. Luckily, the snowboarding was really fun, with some rock jumps and some spice. It’s really funny how much more comfortable you feel with your snowboard on your feet.

Honestly, the rest of the trip was pretty awesome compared to that. I thought it was going to be a lot more tiring and a lot more physically challenging, which it was, but I felt comfortable! We did it in a way that was both challenging and super rewarding, where we rode a lot of really fun snow, and all on our own schedule. The second to last day, we had a really long tour to get closer to our exit. That day, I crashed. We crossed a whole valley and then went back up the other side. By the time we got back up there, I was wrecked! That was really the only day where I was completely physically exhausted.

What did you do to get through that?

I ate a lot of Clif Blocks! I learned quickly that you can keep your energy up as long as you are on top of keeping yourself hydrated and fed. I think I slacked a little that day and went too long without eating or drinking. In normal life, it’s pretty easy to snap back out of that and be fine as soon as you eat, but in the mountains it takes a little more time!

What was your favorite line you rode?

I think one of my favorites was the big couloir on Red Slate Mountain. We had really good snow, and we just cruised up and down it. The whole experience, including hiking up was awesome. Maybe two days later, we actually saw a mountain that changed the whole course of our trek. We saw it and immediately decided we had to ride it, so we went down a different drainage to get there. We rode a couloir on that face that was probably the best snow we rode all trip. It was classic corn snow mixed with some hot pow, heavy but not sticky. By that time, we had ridden a few things and were kind of warmed up to the snow, so it felt really good!

One of the things I had never really experienced before was how nice it is to hike up the line you ride. I’m used to coming up on them or being dropped off on top, so you have very little to examine what you’re dropping into.

"Being able to take the time to hike up it, know what the snow is doing and map out your line makes it way more fun to snowboard because you what to expect!”

For Hight, sharing the connection to nature and its inspiration was something this trip afforded like none other.

Outside of just riding sick lines, the trip was meant to be achance to explore what John Muir had seen a century ago. What did that connection mean to you?

When Jeremy told me about the project and what the whole meaning was behind it, that made me even more excited about heading out there. It’s great to go on snowboard trips and have these experiences, but to be able to put some real meaning behind it and use the voice we have as pro athletes to spread a message and inspire others to go out and experience these things is really exciting.

Knowing what John Muir was able to accomplish in his time, and then seeing those lands in person really makes you understand why he called for their protection already 100 years ago. Understanding that man’s connection to the land and to the Earth is so powerful, and that lives on today.

To be able to explore those mountains the way he did, and the fact that we still have them with everything that’s going on in our world is really powerful. I think that we have to elevate that message so that my generation and the ones after can continue to protect that wilderness so that we can continue to have that for future generations. There’s nothing like being out in the wilderness without seeing another soul; there’s a sense of lasting peace that it brings you. I really want to share that message.