She’s a daring adventurer that has left footprints in places like the Arctic and Alaska; some may call her a exploratory mountaineer, brand ambassador or a big mountain snowboarder- but she likes to introduce herself as Jules.
Julia Pickering isn’t only a split board master but also a influential pioneer in female mountaineering.
POWDERROOM –recently caught up with Jules to talk about her latest expedition, upcoming documentary and why boredom is simply not her style.
Berghaus , Prior Snowboards, Deeluxe, Poc Sports, Powertraveller, Clif Bar, Big Agnes, Dermatone, Nathan Performance
When did you first get introduced to snowboarding, and how did that lead you into mountaineering?
I skied as a youngster but didn’t start snowboarding until university. In my second week on a board it snowed so much everything was filled with perfect powder. I started to ride off piste almost immediately. I became hooked on finding untracked powder. I was studying Outdoor Education at university and already rock climbed so the snowboarding leading into mountaineering was a natural step. The desire to get further and further into more remote mountains for untracked powder was so strong that I nearly turned back to skiing as an easier way to get around. The first time I saw splitboard I knew this was what I had been searching for.
Snowmobiles and helicopters are all awesome and I would never turn any of them down as the offers come all too infrequently! But there’s something truly special about human power, climbing for your line, earning your turns and getting to lines that mechanised power just can’t access.
Last year, you headed to Alaska with 2XS Films as they documented your ascent and decent at Mount Bear; Tell us about your excursion, and how it was to be chronicled by a film crew?
We had decided to climb Mount Bear, one of the top 20 highest mountains in the US, deep in the Wrangell St Elias mountain range that spans an area about the size of Switzerland, making it really difficult to access. We would be making the first snowboard descent ever of this rarely visited mountain. We also intended to make first descents on some surrounding smaller peaks. However, it didn’t quite go to plan… Alaska is well known for its bad weather. It was colder than anything I’ve ever experienced, colder than the arctic; minus 45degrees C at the summit. The actual ascent took much longer than planned too; our weather window forced us to set up two camps instead of one and afterwards we were trapped in our main base camp for about a week because of bad weather. We had just enough supplies before the plane finally made it to pick us up. We had to deal with frost bite and crevasse falls. But despite all on May 5, 2012 at approximately 4:45pm, our team of five splitboarders and four skiers successfully summited Mount Bear, at 14,831 ft (4,520 m). With 45 below at the summit and howling winds, hanging around was not an option. Our successful summit marks the first snowboard ascent and descent of Mount Bear and probably the first female descent.
I really enjoy the filming side but filming in those temperatures in such a remote expedition environment is really hard. At -45 degrees C cameras seize, fingers freeze and no-one wants to hang around being filmed or filming. For Simon and Joe at 2XS they don’t just have to climb the mountain they have to film us climbing it too and that takes a huge amount of extra equipment. I have such a massive amount of respect for them and how hard their job is. What most people don’t realize is that many ski and snowboard films can take a full season to make. Many take more than that. They use helicopters to film and then if the riders (or the cameraman) mess up a line they can just be heli’d up to another one, in addition to having the time to wait out for perfect conditions. Expedition films are a completely different ball game. We have one shot to ride and shoot because we aren’t climbing back up again. The conditions are what they are and if that’s horrid wind affected strastugi that’s what we have to ride and try and make it look as best we can. If that’s high risk avalanche conditions we can’t do it, full stop.
Who has been you’re your biggest influence?
In mountain terms, Jeremy Jones for being the splitboard pioneer that he is, Victoria Jealouse for being such awesome female big mountain freeride snowboarder and Kit DesLauriers for her awe-inspiring achievements is big mountain ski mountaineering.
I’ve always had this need to take things one step further. I guess that’s what’s led to me to doing what I do now. The times when you think you can’t take another step more, I have been able to take myself to another place deep inside and keep going. I practice yoga and I apply the same principles of focusing on the breath and the current moment. I then find I am able to reach inside and pull some more stamina out. The pain will disappear but the achievement will last forever. Having said that it’s also important to know when not to carry on, turning back can sometimes be the bravest move ever. No mountain, no descent is worth dying for or losing fingers and toes for.
Not special training as such. I spend my winters in the Alps living in my van. I ride every day and tour and climb as much as I can so I am in good condition for the trips. It’s important to keep on top of and rehearse safety skills such a crevasse rescue and avalanche beacon practice. In the summer I trail run, mountain bike, rock climb and surf to keep myself outdoors, fit and having fun. I also have 2 huskies that will never allow me to be sedentary.
What’s your favorite climb?
My favourite climb is usually the one I’m on at the time. Conditions can change a climb/descent so much it’s hard to single one out that would be good every time.
Not so much on the mountain but in the mountains. It’s got to be the Northern Lights. We were lost on an expedition in Greenland, in the middle of the night, driving snowmobiles through the freezing cold and we saw the most spectacular display of dancing lights. Another one was finding wolf tracks outside our camp in the Alps, if we’d seen the wolf that would have topped the above!
It was such a huge achievement for me. I accomplished it on a homemade splitboard that I really had no idea whether it would stand up to the whole experience. After summiting the highest and the third highest we had extremely limited time to complete the trilogy and do the second highest. We had to climb through the night with some mildly bad weather coming in to pull it off. I had also come down with a stomach bug and was feeling so ill I nearly bailed. But something pushed me on, I couldn’t go home knowing I hadn’t given it my everything.
During these climbs, were there any particularly dangerous moments? (Off the record, I would crap my pants just thinking about climbing these peaks)
I fell in a crevasse on the descent of Mount Bear, unroped. I was very lucky and landed on a ledge only up to my chest. I had no idea though, how stable the ledge was, how far it went down below that or if the slightest movement would send me plunging into the abyss. All I could do was stay really still whilst two of them team roped together to haul me out. I wasn’t even in a position to move to tie the rope into my own harness in case I dislodged something.
Biggest physical challenge?
Purely because of the cold I think that would be Bear again I’d never had it colder than about minus thirty-ish on previous trips. It’s so hard just existing at those temperatures that motivating yourself to get out of your sleeping bag feels like climbing a mountain. It takes 2 hours every morning just to melt enough snow to eat breakfast and provide water for the day. Long daylight hours can make sleeping difficult and bring energy levels down. In addition to the low temperatures, the fact that we had to kit haul to make another high camp on the mountain made the whole climb doubly hard.
What’s next for you? What do you want to accomplish in the next 10 years?
Oooh I’m not good at long term planning. I change my mind too much! In winter I live in my van in the Alps and I’m torn between wanting to live on the road fulltime or get a cabin in the mountains somewhere and get a full team of sled dogs to join my 2 huskies. I have a big snowboard project in the planning stages that I can’t say too much about at the moment, but I’m super excited about it and if it goes ahead would probably take a couple of years. I also have ideas for other adventures that are non snowboard based. I’ve been doing a few talks in schools recently which has definitely fired me up as to how I can use my experiences to educate. I’ve also written my first article for a snowsports magazine and I’m looking forward to seeing how that looks in print. It was great getting my experience into words and I would love to write more.