It’s late March 2018 and Kai Jones, a pint-sized skier from Victor, Idaho, is in the middle of his spring break from sixth grade. But unlike his peers, Kai isn’t spending his week off from school playing video games or visiting a theme park. Instead, he’s in the backcountry surrounding Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, in Wyoming, filming a segment for Teton Gravity Research’s fall 2018 film, Far Out, presented by REI.
Kai and the TGR film crew are at Smart Bastard, a classic and notoriously bold line outside the gates of Jackson Hole that requires skiing above an exposed cliff, then launching a mandatory 35-foot air into an apron of snow. Kai is standing at the top, waiting for his cue to go. “You see the edge of the cliff and it’s super intimidating,” he said later. “At one point, I was like, I don’t know about this.” But then his friend and mentor Tim Durtschi, a pro skier and longtime TGR athlete, gave him a pep talk. “You’re Kai Jones,” Durtschi said to him. “You go bigger than Tim Durtschi.”
With that, Kai was off, nailing the line in one clean, fast sweep. At the bottom, he borrowed a cellphone to make a call. “Mom, I stomped Smart Bastard,” he said proudly into the phone. They chatted for a few minutes about the rest of his day, then he hung up. “I don’t think she knows what Smart Bastard is,” he told the others around him with a laugh.
Here’s what you need to know about Kai Jones. He just turned 12 years old, and already, he’s one of the most promising young skiers in the country right now. Last winter, he won the under-12 overall title on the International Freeskier Association’s big-mountain competition circuit.
He’s also the son of TGR co-founder Todd Jones, who started TGR with his brother, Steve, and friends Dirk Collins and Corey Gavitt in 1995, in Jackson, Wyoming, compiling money they earned ski guiding and commercial fishing to buy camera equipment to film their friends on skis. “We were dirtbag ski bums, trying to find a way to continue doing what we were doing,” Todd said. Now 23 years later, they’ve made dozens of movies, won heaps of awards and are one of the leading action sports media companies in the country.
Never, though, did Todd think that one day, he’d be filming his own son. Kai first got on skis at 18 months, and from his home base at Grand Targhee Ski Resort, on the other side of the Tetons from Jackson, he’s spent the last decade fine-tuning his skills, skiing with the mountain’s freeride team and competing in junior big-mountain competitions since he was 9. He grew up going to TGR film premieres and hanging out with the pro skiers whose posters he has on his bedroom wall.
Now in middle school, Kai rock climbs, plays soccer, runs track, serves on student council and gets straight A’s (all while missing 27 days of school last winter for skiing). When he was 10, he climbed 13,770-foot Grand Teton, the highest point in the Tetons, and late this spring, he climbed 12,605-foot Mount Moran, a 6,000-vertical-foot ascent in the Tetons, then skied the peak’s Skillet Glacier.
Last winter, Todd and Kai were filming together just for fun, mostly using GoPro cameras and smartphones, when Todd realized the footage was actually really good. “I’ve filmed and watched a lot of skiing and I know I’m biased, but this kid has something special going on,” Todd said. “We talked about it and made the decision to start shooting with the big cameras, but still, we had no intent of putting him in the movie.” Adds Kai, “We started out filming just for fun, but then things started to get real.”
Kai started putting down big Jackson Hole lines—including Smart Bastard, and Zero G and Spacewalk couloirs—and suddenly, things changed from just-for-fun to making a real movie. “Kai, Tim [Durtschi] and I had been filming for a couple of weeks in the backcountry, and off this one line, Kai does a beautiful grab and stomps it, then comes over and fist taps me,” Todd said. “At that moment, it just sunk in that this was happening. I was working with my son. That wasn’t even an idea when we started TGR. It’s wild. Here’s this kid who’s eating Skittles and building Lego sets, then going out and manning up to these beastly lines.”
Kai’s segment in the film makes him the youngest skier ever to appear in a TGR film. (Before him was 13-year-old Daniel Tisi in TGR’s 2013 release, Way of Life.) Kai will appear in this year’s film alongside his uncle, big-mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones.
Safety has been the number one priority for Todd in letting his son explore backcountry terrain. Kai has participated in avalanche and backcountry safety courses, and they waited all season for some of the bigger lines until the conditions were right for Kai to head out the gates from the resort.
“Todd helps Kai make smart decisions and Kai is a good learner. He’s good at asking questions,” said TGR filmer and editor Jill Garreffi, who helped Todd shoot the segment of Kai last winter and kept him supplied with gummy bunny snacks. “But there’s also got to be something in the Jones genes. There’s some stuff that just isn’t taught—it’s in you. This kid definitely has raw talent.”
Now it’s mid-summer and Kai’s out of school again. After a month or so off skis since his Mount Moran mission, he was eager to get back on snow. So in July, he headed to Windells Camp, a summertime freestyle camp on the slopes of the always-snowy Mount Hood in Oregon. When someone asked Kai what he wants to be when he grows up, he answered, “I want to be a pro skier. I want to have passion in what I do and and I want to have fun no matter what.” By the looks of it, he’s already there.