Most professional skiers are known for skiing down insane lines on big mountains. Ski mountaineer Greg Hill, on the other hand, is better known for skiing up them, putting in almost inhuman efforts to hike and ski massive amounts of vertical. In 2006, he ski toured 50,000 vertical feet in a day, which is about twice what your average heli operation does. In 2010, he did two million vertical feet in a year, averaging more than 7,500 feet for 266 days in the mountains of Canada, the US, Chile and Argentina. Last March, he knocked out 100 vertical kilometers (or 328,000 feet) over the course of a grueling month in the powder-rich ridges and couloirs above his hometown of Revelstoke, British Columbia. These accomplishments have earned him the reputation of a hard-driving, vertically obsessed masochist, not to mention an incredibly fit and talented backcountry skier.
But last April, in the prime of his fitness and confidence, Hill triggered an avalanche on Pakistan’s Gaashot Mountain, an unclimbed and unskied summit near Nanga Parbat. The slide caught him, tumbling him more than 1,000 feet and breaking his tibia. Now, for the first time in years, the unstoppable Hill has been sidelined from his big mountain pursuits, forced to rebuild his strength and skills the only way possible: slow, hard work. We caught up with Hill during a last-minute trip to Japan and spoke with him about what it takes to go big in the mountains day after day, weighing the risks of backcountry skiing and the hard road to recovery.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Every man should know how to cook a few decent meals. Invariably we burn our brownie points quickly, so being able to earn some back is priceless.
It tore my finger off, and I crashed down onto the boat.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Endured through a night at 20,000 feet in Pakistan with a broken leg. I sat there and patiently accepted my mistake, while shivering and somehow maintaining a positive attitude through it all.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. Right now I am working at rehabbing my leg, getting it as strong as I can. Essentially, I need to teach myself to be strong again; it’s a long process that requires a lot of dedication.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: I am influenced by people who follow their passions, regardless of the status quo, who are strong enough to go against the flow and find their own paths.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. Only those close to me know that I lost my finger as a kid. It was a pivotal moment where I was beginning to take risks, and I had yet to learn about consequences. Also, that when taking consequential leaps, one must commit. I was 14 years old and 30 feet up a mast, and decided to jump into the water. As the boat swayed in the water, I jumped but didn’t fully commit. Fearing I would land on the boat, I frantically tried grabbing back onto some wires and my left pinky finger got stuck while I continued to fall. It tore my finger off, and I crashed down onto the boat.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A.: A nice red wine, Malbec, and a perfectly cooked steak.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say? To worry less about falling in love, and more about having fun with all those young girls.
I generally sacrifice being able to just sit back and enjoy life.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As someone who lived his life passionately, and always strove to be better.
Q. Why ski uphill? Why is earning your turns so important to you?
A. By having to earn your turns, and work hard for your vertical, each downhill turn is that much more worthwhile. It’s also about exploration and pushing oneself. But, really, it’s just that each turn means that much more, and feels that much better.
Q. You’ve climbed and skied 2 million vertical feet in a year, and 100 vertical kilometers in a month. What drives you to fixate on these outsized goals?
A. Although I’m “simply” a skier, I want to know that I’m pushing myself, furthering my sport and myself. I don’t want to be stagnant, but prefer to be living life. These goals give me a tangible goal that I can focus on that allow me to know that I’m pushing myself as hard as I can.
Q. How do you stay sane out there day after day? Podcasts? Audiobooks? CBC? Or just the sweet sounds of nature, and fresh pow whooshing past your helmet?
A. I don’t need any external influences. I want solitude and to be able to listen to the mountains so that I know what is happening around me at all times. Luckily enough, I like myself so I am never lonely out there.
Q. What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve had to make in order to complete a challenge?
A. I generally sacrifice being able to just sit back and enjoy life. I enjoy life, but it’s always at a breakneck pace and full of endorphins. When I am on a mission, it’s all about that mission. Each day off is planning the next week, letting my body catch up and getting ready to go again.
Q. What’s a typical day of eating look like during one of these massive, sustained efforts? It seems like you must have your nutrition pretty dialed by now.
A. I let my body tell me what to eat, but I do have a system: Breakfast of egg-in-the-hole with a smoothie; large lunch with avocados, Clif bars and gels, and big sandwiches of peanut butter, butter and jam; when I get home, I have a protein smoothie and some toast. Then I cook a good meal and enjoy it with my family. Late night snack and repeat.
Q. How do you balance hard-charging days with recovery, so you can keep hitting the mountains day after day, injury-free?
A. I listen to my body, push it as far as I can go and, when it tells me to stop, I do. When I start feeling my IT band flare up, I get after it with rollers and stretching.
Q. Speaking of injury, it must be a real bitch being sidelined so long following last year’s avalanche in Pakistan. How are you dealing with rehab?
A. The whole process has been both humbling and rewarding. Obviously, it was hard for the first few months of lying on the couch, but each step back has been enjoyable. When I finally started skiing again, green runs were hard, almost impossible. I was unhappy while I drove home. But I kept at it, and slowly worked my way back. It has really shown me how hard ski touring is, and made me better understand how crazy some of the things I’ve done were. I still have a ways to go, but I’m lifting weights and training as hard as I can so I can come back as strong as before. Since I’ve based my life on physical challenges, this has been a great one. Not one where I run around and summit things and push deep, but more of a mental and physical challenge of teaching myself to be strong again, to dig deep and relearn how to crush it in my sport.
I barely have a leg to stand on, but we all made mistakes. It was the odds of the mountains combined with simple human error.
Q. What happened with that avalanche? How’d you get into trouble?
A. I was at a high in life and had blinders on. I had killed it last winter — done more in a month [the March Madness Challenge] than I ever thought I could, passed my full ski exam in the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. I knew I understood the mountains and could crush it hard out there. I was brimming with overconfidence, and didn’t have someone to temper me. I also had not skied a big line in months, since I’d been so busy, and felt like I needed to ski something big. And then, since they were filming and I had a dose of “Kodak courage”, I didn’t ski cut like I should have. There were no good escapes, so I should’ve stabilized the slope on the way down. Instead, I stupidly skied blindly into the line and then had a Class 3 avalanche chasing me down. Luckily I was able to stay calm and try to ski out of the path. I made it to the side, which probably saved my life, but I was still caught and tumbled for over 1,000 feet.
Q. You spend a lot of time skiing big lines in untracked territory. How do you weigh and justify the risks, especially having been involved in two avalanches now? Did the avalanche deaths of JP Auclair and Andreas Fransson last September give you pause, or make you reconsider those risks?
A. I barely have a leg to stand on, but we all made mistakes. It was the odds of the mountains combined with simple human error. I’m now more adamant than ever about my safety rules, and how I ski lines. Obviously, I’m still a little more afraid, but I know that if I stick to my rules — somehow temper my enthusiasm so I don’t put blinders on and forget my ways in the mountains — I can continue to ski safely out there.
Q. An odd footnote in your history is that you’ve apparently planted more than a million trees. What’s that about?
A. That was about making money for years, but it was also about pushing myself as hard as possible every day. It’s where I learned to focus on a goal, and to never give up until I’d accomplished it. In retrospect, it was also a great way to offset my carbon footprint.
Q. What does a successful day look like to you?
A. Success for me is to know that I am continuing to evolve myself, not only in my sports, but in my family life and my business. Life is about growth and always being better at what I’m doing. So any day where I’m progressing is a great one.