A Long Ride Home

At the height of his professional snowboarding career, Jason Robinson commits to living outside the box – by moving into one

By Tristan Scott
Pro snowboarder Jason Robinson, pictured in front of his small house built on a trailer on Jan. 21, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

After gaining recognition as Snowboarder Magazine’s 2016 Big Mountain Rider of the Year, Jason Robinson celebrated the capstone in his career by settling into plush new digs – an aluminum box.

For Robinson, a 31-year-old Whitefish native who divides his time squarely between riding epic big-mountain lines in Alaska and British Columbia, train-hopping his way to the National Hobo Convention in Iowa, traveling internationally, and starring in high-profile film edits that anchor some of the industry’s top-ranked productions, life inside the box isn’t much of a departure from the one he’s created outside of it.

The 8-by-16-foot repurposed storage container measures 116-square-feet inside. It sits on a trailer that Robinson tows behind his ’91 Dodge Ram, which is retrofitted with a dual-fuel diesel line that runs on vegetable oil. A solar array affixed to the roof generates his electricity, and a shoebox-sized, hyper-efficient gas stove designed for a sailboat heats the interior.

To be sure, the new mobile abode is a step up from the tent he’d been living in on a friend’s farm in West Valley. Having not paid rent in two years, it affords him the opportunity to travel at leisure, chasing snow and surf in classic dirt-bag style while mounting a professional snowboarding resume that is suddenly outpacing a magic beanstalk in its rise to prominence.

“Sometimes to think outside the box, you have to move into one,” Robinson said on a recent January morning, a couple weeks shy of his planned departure for an avalanche-safety seminar in British Columbia.

Pro snowboarder Jason Robinson, pictured in front of his small house built on a trailer on Jan. 21, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Pro snowboarder Jason Robinson, pictured in front of his small house built on a trailer on Jan. 21, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Robinson’s journey out of and into the box has been a tumultuous one, and at one point he nearly gave up on his dream to snowboard professionally, joining the humdrum of the rat race until his younger brother and best friend, Aaron Robinson, shook him out of complacency.

It wasn’t until Aaron’s tragic death in a snowboarding accident in 2011 that Jason would begin to transcend the malaise that might have derailed his dreams, but in life, and in death, his younger brother has always pushed him.

“I went to school and was working a day job at Mount Shasta [California] and every once in a while Aaron would pass through on his way to some snowboarding event,” Jason said. “His spirits and ambition were so high. That gave me the jumpstart to get back into snowboarding on a more committed level. He was living the life he wanted whereas I was living the life I felt like I should be living.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Robinson bootstrapped his professional snowboarding career out of humble origins. Born of a foundation that has endured cracks and fissures and unimaginable tragedy, its dazzling trajectory has also healed stronger over time, like a broken bone.

And Robinson has finally tapped its marrow.

On a recent powder day on Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Robinson’s hometown ski hill that doubled as a daycare center for him and his brothers growing up, he effortlessly threw backflips off dump truck-sized cliffs, navigated tight tree lines with aplomb and spun inverted circles off side-hit features that nobody else could see – literally. The terrain was obscured by an impenetrable fogbank, the contours blotted out by ice-encrusted goggles and a barrage of chalky face-shots.

Jason Robinson rides at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 20, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Jason Robinson rides at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Jan. 20, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

But Robinson’s intimate, intuitive knowledge of Big Mountain allowed him to peer through the miasma and envision the winter wonderland that sculpted his snowboarding talents and defined his formative years, scanning the slopes as though with X-ray vision, riding on instinct.

It’s all about instinct. At times Robinson has ignored it, and at other times it’s probably helped him avoid injury or even death – like when he’s backed off a questionable line with a film crew on hand. But one thing is clear – instinct is a big part of what’s led Robinson out of, and into, the box.

Robinson started snowboarding when he was 9 years old, and he and Aaron were quickly swept up in the sport’s momentum, pushing one another while looking toward Big Mountain’s old guard of talented snowboarders for guidance.

It wasn’t long before the Robinson brothers were entering a league of their own, earning sponsorships from established and emerging companies and honing their freestyle skills at their local hill.

But as Aaron began to pursue big mountain riding and gain attention while competing at a higher level, Jason wasn’t seeing the same results. He fell into the workaday grind and started planning for a future that wasn’t dominated by snowboarding.

“I started thinking that maybe the moment had passed,” he said. “But then I saw how much fun my brother was having pursuing his dream and it really pulled me out of my own head.”

By 2010, Jason was riding for Lib Tech and Dakine, among other top names in the industry, being paid in the currency of free snowboarding product and admission to freestyle competitions. He had fallen in with film companies like Think Thank and People Films, specializing in urban missions, backcountry lines and everything in between.

Meanwhile, Aaron had just won the North Face Masters of Snowboarding, which he would go on to win the following year. As a team rider for K2 Snowboarding, Volcom and Airblaster, Aaron was also spending time riding big mountain lines in Chile, filming and shooting with K2.

On July 19, 2011, while on an expedition in Chile, Aaron died tragically in a snowboarding accident at a popular backcountry area known as Santa Teresita, adjacent to the El Colorado ski area. He was 24.

The shock of Aaron’s death rocked Jason, who couldn’t comprehend the loss. To deal with the grief, Jason committed himself to snowboarding more than ever before.

“The grief of losing Aaron definitely drove me deeper into snowboarding. It was so sudden and gnarly, and I didn’t know how to channel those emotions. Snowboarding became like a drug. It was all I did,” he said.

Aaron Robinson, left, and his brother Jason. Courtesy Photo
Aaron Robinson, left, and his brother Jason. Courtesy Photo

Jason threw himself further into snowboarding, pushing himself to ride harder than ever.

In 2013, he placed third at the legendary Mount Baker Banked Slalom in Washington, which put him on the map.

Still, Robinson, whose transient lifestyle occasionally takes him off the grid – he spent one recent summer living on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation – almost missed the call from vaunted cameraman and director Justin Hostynek, of Absinthe Films.

Hostynek tabbed Robinson to join the crew for two months in Haines, Alaska, heli-boarding big mountain lines for the upcoming production of the celebrated edit “Dopamine.”

The only problem was that Robinson would have to come up with $20,000 to pay for the expedition.

“I didn’t have the funds, so I asked Justin if he could front me,” Robinson said. “It was scary, because I knew I might spend the entire two months tumbling down the mountains and I’d still be out 20 grand. Fortunately, I felt solid and ended up with the opening part.”

After three seasons riding and shooting in Alaska, including parts in the praised Absinthe film “Eversince,” Robinson said he’s become addicted to heli-boarding and big-mountain lines.

But he’s never lost sight of his roots, without which he wouldn’t have developed into the same person, or the same caliber of snowboarder.

“More than anyone in my life, Aaron has had the biggest influence on me, as a snowboarder and as a human being. It’s crazy to think about, but as much as he influenced me in life, his influence has probably grown in his death,” Robinson said.

The recent accolades from Snowboarder Magazine were a welcome surprise, he said, particularly because the honor was bestowed on him by his peers – in addition to winning the Big Mountain Rider of the Year award, he also placed fourth overall for all-around Rider of the Year.

“J-Rob may be the most underrated snowboarder in history,” pro snowboarder Eric Jackson said, employing Robinson’s nickname.

“Jason is sick. I’ve traveled with him only a couple times and he’s loose and it’s rad to see him charge so hard after seeing how mellow and humble he is in real life,” said Quebec-born snowboarder Louif Paradis.

Austrian powerhouse Wolfgang Nyvelt added to the kudos: “The first time I saw Jason ride in person I could see that he had some kind of special gift. He rips any kind of terrain but his approach to natural features and big mountains is so unique you never can tell what he will come up with,” he said. “One of my favorite riders of all time for sure.”

Reflecting on the past five years, Robinson acknowledges that the learning curve has been steep, both as a snowboarder trying to find purchase in a volatile industry, and as a person trying to pursue his dream.

As Robinson massages the final parts into his new home, affectionately called “Le Box,” and prepares to embark on another winter’s worth of travel, he’s confident that moving into such a tiny space is going to allow him to live bigger than ever.

“What happens outside the box is going to be as essential to the adventure as what happens inside,” he said.

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