…or more like the 10 lives of Flyin’ Brian
One day in May, 2011, 47-year old Flyin’ Brian Jones came home from a hard day of skiing on Mammoth Mountain. His feet had been bothering him for weeks, and doctors couldn’t figure out why. His feet were especially bad this day, and in his frustration over the pain, he grabbed his backpack and drove up to the Lakes Basin. He soloed up the Sherwin Range and skied down the Rock Chute. It was a powder day. 8 inches had fallen on the chute, and no one had touched the new snow. It was a perfect run.
He skied to Snowcreek where a friend picked him up, not knowing that this run was the last that he would ever take. A few days later he would find out that the pain he felt in his feet was the effect of Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the blood, a death sentence.
This run was a turning point in the extraordinary life of Brian Jones. Before it, Brian had pioneered extreme skiing, drove mules through the Sierra, made thirty foot steel sculptures, jumped out of hot air balloons, survived forest fires, flash floods, car wrecks, and addiction. After it, he would build his own tombstone, be sent home by doctors to die in his bed, say goodbye to his stoic son and his crying father, die, live again, lose the ability to walk, drag himself around his home, walk again, die three more times, and live again. Mostly, he would teach those he met the indomitability of the human spirit. He would learn, and subsequently share with others, a law that only those who have seen God can come to fully understand:
That the only unforgivable sin is feeling sorry for yourself.
Brian Jones was raised in the San Bernardino Mountains, near Big Bear. He began skiing at the age of five and racing at seven. He took school year-round, with an eight week break in the winter for skiing, and a six week break in the summer. With night skiing, Jones said he was skiing from 8 o’clock in the morning until 9 at night almost every day since he was five years old.
Professional skier Suzy “Chapstick” Chaffee trained at Snow Valley, Jones’ home mountain. She took him and some other young skiers under her wing. By 8 years old Chaffee had taught Jones how to do back flips, tip rolls and helicopters.
When Jones was 14 he moved to Mammoth Lakes. The big jumps and cornices of Mammoth Mountain brought the tricks Brian learned from Chaffee to a bigger dimension.
“I’d start from the top of the stairs of the Gondola on 223 cm. downhills [skis], tuck down the ridge and do one turn off of Hangman’s and do a helicopter all the way down the throat.”
Sometimes ski patrol would spot Brian for these blind jumps. After landing, Brian would be going more than 80 mph, turning once on Climax, and once more into San Anton. The patrollers would stay below to make sure that he didn’t kill anyone on the runout.
“You’re not pulling the jump unless you go off the jump, fly through the air, land, do the full runout, stop, and then you’ve done the jump,” Jones said. “To me, that’s the jump.”
Other times, patrol was not as fond of Jones’s jumps. If they weren’t spotting him then they might be chasing him off the mountain, he said.
Jones fell in with a group of extreme skiers in Mammoth who also liked to terrorize patrollers with big jumps. His group got noticed, and Jones started appearing in Warren Miller movies.
Clips of Flyin’ Brian can be seen in classic movies like Ski Time, Ski Country, and Ski People. At the beginning of the movie Aspen Extreme, the camera zooms in on a poster of Jones throwing a helicopter on Mammoth Mountain. Jones had to sue Disney, the filmmakers, to get some money for this cameo.
He started getting gear sponsorships from Atomic, Marker, Oakley, K2 and Technica.
Jones started Brian Jones Enterprises, through which he sold posters of himself skiing. At the same time he was managing Mammoth Sporting Goods.
At the age of 23, Jones used a 12 step program to get sober. He was addicted to alcohol and cocaine.
He said that this battle against addiction helped him in surviving his current battle with cancer.
In his late twenties, Jones began writing histories of the Eastern Sierra. He partnered with a photographer, and paired his histories with photographs to sell as artwork. A series of histories he wrote can be seen on the wall of the Good Life Cafe in Mammoth.
He also started packing mules for back country excursions. According to Jones, packing mules was more dangerous than anything he ever did on skis. It was here that he met his wife, Cleland Hoff, who was working as a backcountry cook.
During one outing into the backcountry, Jones and Hoff were caught in Agnew Meadows during the ’92 Rainbow Fire. Without radios or an emergency alert system, Jones did not realize how close the fire was until it was much too late.
“The hillside caught on fire, and I had to have everybody bail off their horses and run,” Jones said. “I somehow had to weave my way through a firestorm with all these horses and mules.”
Jones sent his group down to cross the river and led the horses with their packs through an inferno of falling trees and flaming earth. Jones loosed 160 horses from the stable, and made it out of the fire alive.
Hoff said that things like this just seem to happen to Jones all the time.
At one point, Jones took his skill at framing histories and started framing artwork for people in town. Inspiration struck when Jones worked with an artist who made steel weathervanes. This introduced him to metal-smithing, which would come to consume his time.
He started with hand-hammered steel, and eventually moved into triple matted suede, barb wire, polished deer antler, and railroad spikes. Jones became known for his style of animal scenes in steel sculptures or framed steel, big and heavy.
He became so engrossed in his steel art, that it brought him to a crossroads in his early thirties.
“This was not allowing me to ski because I was working all the time,” Jones said. “So I went ahead and made the decision to be an artist.”
Art has remained his vocation for the last 25 years.
He has built numerous custom pieces for private collectors and the public: a to-scale steel Les Paul guitar that weighs over 100 pounds, a series of benches around the Mammoth ice rink that mimic the mountains they face, and the archway at the entrance of the Mt. Morrison Cemetery, to name a few. He builds these pieces at a 5’ x 12’ shop in Mammoth’s Industrial Park. He has built many of the tombstones in Mt. Morrison as well, including his own. Jones’ tombstone is a massive wrench and bolt framed on a steel sheet that looks like mountains. It spins on its axis. Jones designated this piece to be his tombstone when he was on his death bed. Now it sits next to the woodstove in his home, reminding him that he lives to die another day.
Die Another Day
Eight years ago, Jones skied his last run on Rock Chute. Shortly after, he went to a neurologist, a rheumatologist, and an oncologist, and he had a bone marrow biopsy performed. The results came back as Multiple Myeloma concentrated in the bone marrow in his hip.
At one point after the diagnosis, approximately 2013, Jones was talking with a friend and turned his shoulders. As he turned, his hip broke completely off of his pelvis. The cancer had rotted his bones to the point that they could not hold together any longer.
Doctors managed to remove most of the cancer from his hip and put him on a heavy dose of chemotherapy. He was in the hospital in Glendale, Calif. for four months. Then they moved him back to Mammoth Lakes, and he spent around a month in and out of Mammoth Hospital.
Doctor’s told him after a month that they couldn’t do any more for him, and sent him home to hospice. When he left the hospital the final time to go to the hospital bed in his living room, doctors told him that he would die in two days. He was taken off of all medication.
His wife was in such a state of disbelief that she asked the doctors about every medication individually.
“I said, ‘So Vitamin D then, do I keep giving him that?’” Hoff said, “They said, ‘you’re taking him home, you’re helping him transition, He’s dying, Cleland.’ So then I said, ‘Okay, so Vitamin A, do I keep giving him that?”
The doctors gave Hoff a vial of morphine that she could use when she sensed him passing into death, to smooth the transition.
Jones’s friends and family came up to say goodbye to him. Jones’s son Blaise asked him if he was going to die.
“I said, ‘I don’t know.” Blaise turned around, walked away, and his head and shoulders dropped.
“I saw that and said, ‘I can’t die.’”
Jones’s normally stoic father came to visit him and began to cry.
“I said to him, ‘Dad, it’s okay. Look at what I’ve been able to do. I was one of the first people to go heli-skiing in Alaska when we did the world extreme championships. I’ve been able to jump out of hot air balloons. I’ve been able to race trucks off-road … I lived the life of ten people.’ That helped my dad out.”
Jones went into a waking coma. He cannot remember 8 days of his time in hospice. He weighed less than 120 pounds. He could only eat Ensure nutritional shakes. Chemo had filled his mouth with sores and his skin was peeling off. He had pneumonia and his body was completely septic.
The last memory he had was of looking into the eyes of a young girl who was visiting him with her mother. He remembers looking at the little girl and feeling a calm wash over him.
“I thought, ‘That is such a beautiful child,’” Jones said. “That eye contact, it was like she was saying, ‘Everything is going to be okay.’”
Whether it was the final stage of dying, acceptance, or the prescient knowledge that he would not die, he felt comfortable with whatever was next.
During his waking coma, he could not speak coherently. He fell asleep often. Eventually, he fell asleep and could not be woken up. His friends and family left him alone with his wife.
Hoff, who was raised Christian Scientist, sang a hymn from her childhood over her dead husband.
During her hymn, Jones woke up. Hoff began screaming, “You’re alive… You’re awake … You don’t ever have to take chemo again.” She never used the morphine.
Jones was coherent, but he didn’t know what to do with his newfound life. He didn’t go to the doctor for over a month. They had already sent him home to die. What more could they do? So he crawled around his condo.
Five and a half years later, he is still alive, and still makes art. He also still suffers.
His illness has caused severe neuropathy, nerve damage causing a lack of feeling. He has no feeling in 80% of his body. While welding months after his near-death experience, he burned his fingers to the point that Doctor’s planned to amputate his thumb. His welding gloves became a kiln and he couldn’t feel it.
He still has Multiple Myeloma, though the cancer concentration in his blood is below 5% rather than the 65% it was when he died. Every month he has to get intravenous Immunoglobulin to boost his immune system. Eventually he will likely need chemo again, but he doesn’t need it today. He has POEMS syndrome, a disease only diagnosed to about 100 people in the world, which caused a lot of his neuropathy.
On Wednesday, February 6, 2019, Jones’ bicep ruptured while he was lifting a log off the pile. He had to get a cadaver tendon attached to his bicep, and had the bicep put back in place by drilling through the Ulna and threading the new tendon through the bone. It will take 8-10 months to recover from that.
In his life, he has flatlined three times while on the surgery table.
Trying to walk, for him, is like trying to walk with two feet that have fallen asleep. He could only crawl for months. Now that he has taught himself to walk again, he can only walk in the two pairs of shoes that he has become used to. Since he can’t feel his feet, wearing new shoes is like having new feet. If he changes shoes, he has to relearn walking all over again.
There was a time when, in order to get around his home, Brian would have to drag himself up his stairs, crawl across his floor, use his one good arm to grab the couch, pull himself up and do a one armed pushup on the couch to get back onto his feet. Crawling around his home doesn’t bother him. “Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”
To this day, Brian falls down every single day. After leaving his art shop, he always walks a mile around the industrial park, and he says he falls every time.
“I know when I am going to fall. I catch a toe, or feel my legs crumple and I just fold. Somebody has to pick me up and set me on a log, and I have to sit there for ten or fifteen minutes and recharge. Then I go the rest of the way.”
Often Brian doesn’t let people help him up. He does what he calls the stink bug move to pull himself up. His wife says it is torturous to watch, because you want to help him up but he won’t let you.
Jones said, “Learning how to walk after this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
Despite having no feeling in his body, despite falling down every day, despite never being able to ski again, he loves every moment of life. Even in his darkest moments he never lost his optimism.
“I didn’t feel sorry for myself for very long,” Jones said. “I felt that I hadn’t done so many things. I hadn’t made all the art I wanted to make, I wasn’t going to be able to see my son graduate from college, to see my wife become mayor. These things are all gifts.”
Being on the other side of illness has made life for Jones seem brand new. He has developed a new daily routine.
“I wake up an hour earlier and do prayer and mediation, I go to a meeting [either for those grieving over death or addiction], I eat something that is good for me, and I go to my shop and make art.”
Since Jones got sober at the age of 23, he has been helping people to get off of drugs and alcohol. Now that he has survived a death sentence, he also helps those who have been told they will die. Jones says that surviving each of these two trials has helped to inform survival of the other. Now he brings his knowledge of fighting addiction to the realm of death sentences, and vice versa, to give hope to the suffering.
“This is my mission in life now,” Jones said. He still goes to the meetings of his twelve step program. He says that the despair that he sees in those suffering from addiction mirrors that of the terminally ill. The solution is parallel as well.
“If people do the right thing and take their medicine, which in that case is the twelve steps, they are probably going to get sober, and their life is probably going to end up pretty darn good.”
Jones believes that living each day one at a time and carrying a positive attitude is an effective plan for dealing with both forms of affliction: mortality and addiction, and Jones is boundlessly positive.
Every challenge he faces now is a lesson for him. It is an opportunity to become more patient, stronger, wiser. He can pass the knowledge that he gains from these struggles on to others, or keep it under his belt for himself.
He regularly speaks with strangers who have been told that they will die of cancer. Through hearing his story, Jones hopes that they will not give up hope.
“Cancer sucks,” Jones said, “but attitude has a hell of a lot to do with it.”
“They told me that I was going to die for sure, that there was no way I was going to live, and here I am five years later.”
“Life isn’t over.”