Greg Hill is high above me. We are in the woods, several kilometres from the Trans-Canada Highway in Rogers Pass, one of the world’s top backcountry destinations and Hill’s primary sporting arena.
It’s a burly ascent, steep and difficult. I huff up, through alders and then pine, arms lurching for tree trunks to haul myself higher.
Hill, 34, is arguably Canada’s top backcountry skier. His quest this year has never before been achieved, if even imagined. The mission: Ascend and ski two million vertical feet in 365 days. He is nearly there and crossing the finish line will place the Revelstoke, B.C.-based skier in the annals of ski mountaineering.
No one has even come close to such a feat. It is an abstract number, hard to immediately understand, like a cubist Picasso. Hill prefers to count in feet, not metres; the numbers are bigger. In the simplest terms, two million feet means climbing at a pace that would carry a person up the elevation of Mount Everest every five days, over and over, all year, or, in an urban context, up the whole height of the CN Tower four times a day.
Lou Dawson, one of North America’s pioneering ski mountaineers and the go-to historian of the niche sport, is measured. But even in the measured words of a historian watching history being made, Dawson’s amazed: “It’s a significant accomplishment.”
Hill and I emerge into an open expanse, snowy peaks towering around us. It’s the reward of a three-hour ascent of 3,500 feet, bright sun sparkling the snow, glimmering like diamonds, a bounty of knee-deep, untouched powder below.
“The enjoyment is gravity,” Hill said. “There’s not many sports where you can just enjoy gravity.”
He pointed at a mountain across the valley, to an extremely narrow couloir that dangles like a thread from the peak. It looked impossibly steep. Hill has skied it.
“Obviously you’re fighting gravity the whole way up, but then you get the turns. You float through the snow and play with gravity. Which is really fun.”
A quick primer on this obscure but growing sport. The key piece of equipment in backcountry skiing is the skins that affix to the bottom of skis. They allow the ski to slide up on the hike, and the grain prevents backsliding. At the top, the gear is stowed in a backpack and the earned turns await.
As of late November, Hill had climbed – after starting here and going to South America and coming home – 1.75 million feet. In a video that he made at one million feet – on July 13, atop a Chilean volcano – he looked worn. “Every day’s a struggle,” he said of the torrential, unrelenting winds that knocked him around in what he called “sufferfest.”
Now, however, on the verge of a decade-old dream, the year does not appear to weigh on Hill. His eyes radiate, deep set and blue, like the reincarnation of Pierre Trudeau paddling the Mackenzie River. Hill stands 5 foot 11, weighs 165 pounds. He’s spry.
Born in Quebec in 1975, he spent his teenage years and early 20s rock climbing, but separated his shoulder in 1999. Around the same time, he began backcountry skiing. Inspired by a week at Selkirk Mountain Experience, a remote backcountry operation run by famed guide Ruedi Beglinger, Hill poured some energy into skiing. In November of 1999, the first time he ascended close to 5,000 feet in a single day, he did some quick math, multiplying the figure by 365 days. He rounded up, and two million feet in a single year became the then 23-year-old’s singular goal.
Passion and fervour, fuelled by beauty, challenge and a sense of deeper meaning in the mountains, have always driven skiers harder and farther. Ernest Hemingway, during his Paris years in the 1920s, spent several winters in the Austrian backcountry.
On the addiction that propels people to such places, to dance through powder snow far away from the crowds of cities, Hemingway recalled the highs in his memoir A Moveable Feast: “It was better than any flying or anything else.”
It was the winter of 2004-05 when Hill first ascended and skied a million vertical feet. The feat wowed the small backcountry skiing community and Hill was ranked among 10 “adventurers of the year” by National Geographic. Still, it drew detractors. Some guides – the profession is full of egos and competitiveness – scoffed, saying it was hardly an extraordinary accomplishment.
Beglinger, a one-time mentor to Hill, refused to talk about his star pupil. However, in an e-mail, his disdain was clear. He criticized the “hero act” and wrote: “Me and many other people have difficulties with people who cannot do a single adventure unless it is going immediately to the media.”
Andrew McLean, one of the world’s great backcountry skiers, laughs at such criticism. McLean, who has skied some of the wildest and most remote mountains on earth, said he was “completely blown away” when Hill did one million feet.
“And then Greg, as only Greg could do, goes: ‘Oh, okay, a million, that’s not enough? How about two million?’” McLean said from his home in Utah. “It’s just fantastic. No one could say they’ve even come close to that.”
Hill is married, to Tracey, and father to a daughter, Charley, 5, and a son, Aiden, almost 4. The most dangerous thing about backcountry skiing is driving to the mountains on snowy, slippery roads. It’s what worries Tracey, not the skiing. And ascending mountains, many precautions are heeded. It’s also been seven years since an avalanche killed a skier in Rogers Pass, but the ghosts of that disastrous winter of 2003, when seven teenagers died, linger, and danger does always lurk.
“I used to be at peace with dying in the mountains,” Hill said. “I know it’s dangerous. I know I push the line.” He stopped. We are stopped. I sucked back water.
“It’s harder when you have kids.”
His family is foremost in his mind. The quartet spent the Canadian summer in the winter of Chile and Argentina. Tracey, Charley and Aiden left a couple of weeks before Hill. On kissing his son goodbye, Hill tried to impart to the boy his work while they were separated.
“You know what’s going to happen?” Hill asked his son.
Aiden, precocious, responded in a refrain that thereafter haunted Hill’s mind: “Yeah, you’re going to stay for three weeks and then you’re going to die.”
Hill, though aggressive, is without hubris. On an approach early this year to a peak, he said he was intimidated and called the couloir he and his partner planned to ski a “ridiculous” line. “It’s definitely big country out here.”
So far, he has stood atop 68 peaks, skied 239 days and made eight first descents. Less than a month to go, Hill needs to hammer a string of big 10,000-feet days to make the two-million mark.
“I’m just trying to help the sport progress, getting more people into it,” Hill said. “I don’t put myself up as this iconic, whatever, ski mountaineer. I just want to, hopefully, inspire and show people what’s possible out there.”