The Unrideables ~ An interview with Speed-Rider Jon DeVore


Red Bull Air Force athlete Jon DeVore is riding high on the momentum of an emerging adventure sport. Combining his love of big mountain skiing and skydiving he and his teammates are putting themselves into some of the most inaccessible or inescapable terrain on the planet. Riding steep-angle lines on skis through hard to reach places with the help of a paraglider he’s on the cutting edge between two worlds. In his new film out this month at Red Bull On-Demand, DeVore pushes the boundaries of skiing beyond the realm of possibility in the sport of Speed Riding to explore what the title describes as “The Unridables.”
During the 2014 Banff Mountain Film Festival DeVore shared his journey to fly and ski through the mountains where he grew up in the Alaska Range.


The Joy Trip Project:

The whole concept of “the unridables” puts us into a different form of adventure sport. But to begin how did you first get started as a wing suit pilot?

I grew up in Juno Alaska and doing a lot of adventure sports. I had a dream when I was graduating high school that I wanted to open an adventure business and name it Choose Your Own Adventure. I had lot of certificates as a whitewater raft guide and I wanted to offer sky diving. I made my first tandem skydive when I was a senior in high school. So I knew it was something I wanted to do so I started chasing skydiving. I was lucky enough to find this sport when there was a lot of new innovation and development and techniques going on. What I saw in my eyes was the same thing I saw going on as a kid when snowboarding came on the scene and it was changing the ski world. I saw this in the sky dive world and I happen to by just dumb luck move next to a drop zone where there were about 5 guys that were developing this new style of flying. Now it’s called free-flying, but back then there was no name for it.
I was really lucky to be a part of this group that developed and invited this new style of skydiving. So I focused on that for about 10 years to where I was doing 2,000 jumps a year, training and going to nationals and world meets and really getting sucked into that part of the sport. Wing-suiting came on the scene. Although the idea had been around for a long time, back in the early days of sky diving it was for different reasons than today. It was killing people, because the suits were designed wrong and having malfunctions.
So I started playing with it a little bit, but it was actually kind of boring to be just in the big blue sky, just flying around. The first 50 or 100 jumps you’re psyched, but after a while you’re just gliding around. Then slowly I started getting into the base jumping world and I started meeting a couple of people who where at the forefront of taking these wing suits off of cliffs. That’s something that really excited me because one of the most dangerous parts of BASE jumping is getting away from the wall. My big passion in life is human flight and I didn’t think BASE jumping was flight as much as falling straight down to the ground. It’s exciting and all, but it wasn’t what I was after. But then I started playing with wing suits and started having those visuals of the cliffs and mountain slopes. That’s what I was after. That was the closest thing I’ve ever felt to true human flight, like being a bird. You have all these visual references that confirm in your mind that you are flying and not just falling.

Is it the proximity to the ground that makes the difference for you in a controlled free fall which makes wing suit flying a completely different sport.

Yes, 100 percent! The proximity to the grown whether it’s trees or mountain slopes, that’s when you realize that you’re not just on a straight line trying to learn the balance of it all. You’re banking turns, you’re diving back up. It’s what makes it really feel like you’re flying. It’s something that I started focusing on a lot over the last hand full of years. At the same time I think in 2001, was the first time through Red Bull I had an idea to pitch an event of blade running, flying parachutes down a ski course with gates, but it was still jumping out of an airplane and no skis on our feet. It was a lot more like the forever landing of a skydive. Then we started playing with the idea of launching with skis on. The first times setting down on skis there’s a lot of crashing going on because you’re unloading your parachute and it’s collapsing behind you. Then you start questioning yourself. How valid is this? What can we really do with this? But back then it was all different types of parachutes and manufacturers didn’t have an idea of how to build a chute like ours that could withstand the heavy unloading. So it was a slow progression of people developing the right wings and the sport just developing to really start putting more and more vision to it.

You seem to have created a hybrid between aerial flight with a wing suit and aerial flight with a paraglider and skis. How did you make that transition from flight to your life-long interest in skiing.

Ever since I took up skydiving as professional, I’m a small town mountain kid, but I always wanted to get back to somewhere out in the desert. There was always that want and how can I get back. So when I started the BASE jumping and the wing suiting that was in the mountains. And when I started playing with the parachutes it’s the same feeling, except in the wing suit it’s a little bit faster and little bit more intense. You can’t crash because you’re going too fast. You won’t make it. Then I started to realize that to get that some feeling of flight but also to tap back into my childhood love of skiing it was the perfect recipe for me to get the best of both worlds.

So now you’re accessing run that as the name of the film implies that would be otherwise unrideable because there’s no way to stick the landing. Was that a big part of this transition as well as being able to get to these unridable locations?

Yeah that was the vision. It wasn’t always just to find the unridable runs or lines but it was inevitable that it forced the fact the flying was still going to be a really big part of this sport. You can go to a ski hill and stay on the ground the whole time and have the assist of the wing, but when you start going to these locations and pushing yourself a little bit to go the type of terrain that people can’t ski because they can’t get out of it. It really opened the door to a true combination of skiing and flying.

What about this particular location? Why did you decided these runs in this part of the world?

Seriously it started because I’m from Alaska. So when I was dreaming about going and doing these new adventures and trying to push the boundaries of what the sport had to offer I knew from growing up there what Alaska had to offer, so I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, but I have life-long goal of doing this down Mount McKinley. But I didn’t want to start with the home run right away. It would probably be a bad move. So I just started talking to a lot of my pro ski friends who had done a lot of ski films and traveled through all th back countries and starting doing research to find out which mountain ranges had what and where would be the best place to go. We flew out and did a quickie little scout of the Alaska Range in the Tordrillo area and it was apparent that this was going to be the place that I would have more options than I could deal with out there.

You have very long career at this. You were one of the stunt men in the last Transformers movie that featured wing suit flight and you were also in the Amazing Spiderman 2. You’re the guy that people go to this kind of thing. But perhaps we’re looking at the dawn of a new sport. What type of preparation ultimately does it take to be able to do the types of flying that you do in combination with skiing?

It’s a long time. It’s something that you really have to be passionate about and really at least at this stage in the sport you need to be pretty proficient at one of the two. Either you have to be an instinctual skier or an instinctual air pilot with a parachute. That’s really going to help you so then you only have to learn the other one.
The people who were at the beginning of it all had both without even having the idea of combining them.You’ll find that in any sport where people are skilled in lot of different things. But to get into it you just start slow. But it’s actually pretty easy because first you learn paraglide. If you go the skydive/BASE jump route that’s going to take you a long time. But if speed riding is something that you really want to get into and experience you can go to a local paragliding school and you learn basically how to kite, stand on a ridge and not even fly and just how to kite your parachute in the air, how the lines work and why it works. And then you do really basic runs down grass slopes, how to run and take off, just like a paraglider would and just how to control your wing.
And if you have skiing in your back pocket already then you can take it to a mountain. You don’t have to go to a place like we did in the Unridables, but you can go to place like we did called Crystal Mountain where they do allow it as along as you have a paragliding license. But it’s a controlled environment where there’s a ski hill. There are not a lot of obstacles that are going to take you out. It’s all about baby steps in our sport, not rushing into to because it can pretty unforgiving. But you just have to get your basic paragliding license and start sliding down the hill.

So is it fare to suggest that we’re looking at the drawn of a new sport? If so what do you see in the future?

I truly believe we’re watching the beginnings of a new sport. If you had asked me that last year I might have questioned it because it was just something that I was passionate about. But what opened my eyes a lot was when I visited my friend Filippo Fabibi the Italian in the movie, a crazy man in Valefréjus France. On my very first chairlift up I get to a place where they allow it to happen. I’m seeing everyone from a dad and seven-year-old kid to an 84-year-old man. There were obviously a lot of youth doing it, but it was littered with 30 or 40 people. There were speed riding schools going. I had never seen that in the states because it doesn’t exist.
That’s what really drove home for me that I was watching this whole new sport develop there and it was supported and understood and regulated. That’s what lacking in the states right now because it’s brand new. There are no regulations because the ski hills are hesitant because of the world of lawyers and risk, but that place really let me know that developed correctly this was going to be something big that a lot of people were going to enjoy.

What’s in the future for you? You mentioned McKinley. It’s sounds like you have a lot of high aspirations. What is your next big project and what can we hope to see from you in the future?

I’m blessed where I have a lot of big projects every year. Next month I’m going to the Nepali Coast in Hawaii to fly wing suits down some of those big magical sea cliff walls down there. So things like that happen often in my life. Right now I’m getting mentally focused on finding out what it’s going to take to actually achieve my big life-long dream of McKinley. I grew up in the mountains but I’m not a mountaineer in the sense of climbing one of the biggest mountains in the world so I have that to learn. I feel like I have the other stuff already, so my big missions now are going to be to go to these bigger mountains and start stepping it up and start hanging out with some of my friends who are more the mountaineer types so I can safely go in and start trying to conquer my mission.

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of the Mountain & Adventure Film FestivalFFF M&AFF Logo


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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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