Greg Hill is a skier unto himself, and not just because he once climbed and skied 51,100 vertical feet in 24 hours, because he will probably notch 270 days on snow this year, because his short film, "The Unbearable Lightness of Skiing," was a Banff finalist a few years back or because he failed his ski guide exam in 2009 yet still maintains a backcountry profile that is as admired as any in North America.
An ex-randonee racer who grew up in Quebec, Hill now lives in Revelstoke, British Columbia, where he logs giant days in the Rogers Pass backcountry. He is skilled enough to drop 40-foot cliffs, fit enough to average 2,000 vertical feet an hour over a full day in perilous environments -- ascent, descent and transitions combined -- and yet conscious enough to actually stop and enjoy his environment, as he did numerous times last November when I tagged along for an early season descent of a Colorado fourteener.
Beginning on New Year's Day, Hill, 34, set out to climb and ski 2 million vertical feet this calendar year, a feat that no one (to our or his knowledge) has even remotely attempted. To support his quest, he has raised nearly $40,000 from sponsors like Backcountry.com, Dynafit (which released Hill's pro model ski this year, the Stoke), Arc'teryx and Polartec.
The sponsors' primary return on investment comes in Hill's self-made videos, which straddle the line between ski-bum trip reports and rare windows into a raw adventure. (Watch them at www.greghill.ca.)
At the time of our interview on June 25, Hill had summited and skied 44 peaks this year, topping out on the 16,644-foot Mount Steele, the 10th-highest in North America. He spoke via a spotty Skype connection in Las Trancas, Chile, where he is skiing volcanoes and hanging out with his wife, Tracey, a part-time waitress and full-time mom; daughter, Charley, 4; and son, Aiden, 3, as he pursues his 2 million-foot objective.
ESPN.com: How long are you in South America?
Greg Hill: Indefinitely -- until there's snow in North America again. I need to be where the snow is at all times.
How's the terrain in Las Trancas?
I've only sampled a bit. It's been pretty stormy, but it's finally cleared. And there's three volcanoes within 10 or 15 kilometers that are over 10,000 feet that look pretty fun. Also, it seems to dump here. The other day it rained for 20 hours nonstop before turning to snow.
When did you decide to pursue the 2 million goal?
A hell of a long time ago. It was daydreamed in 1999 because I'd heard of people doing a lot of vertical, and I was like, oh, the year 2000 is coming up; it'd be pretty cool to do 2 million vertical feet in the year 2000. But I had no idea how big of a goal it'd be.
Where do you stand right now?
I'm about um, I haven't calculated it because I don't like calculating when I'm behind, but I'm about 12 days behind [he had climbed just shy of 900,000 vertical feet]. I try not to wear my watch on days off so I don't feel it burning my wrist.
How long will it take to make that up?
It's a tough call because it's different terrain. But now that I have a vehicle, I have the ability to go when I want. Obviously I have my family and kids here, so that's pretty important to me, but July 2 is halfway through the year, and ideally I'll have the deficit recouped by July 10 at the worst.
What do you have to do each day to stay on pace?
Par is just under 5,500 feet a day, every day. If I ski about 270 days, it's about 8,000 feet a day.
Biggest day you've gotten?
23,000 feet. That was on Rogers Pass, a 12-hour day.
Will you do any lift-served skiing down there?
I'll do a little bit with Tracey and the kids, but for me it's sort of a waste of time. And financially too, it's not really worth my money.
Speaking of finances, you're not doing your forestry work this summer, right?
Right. I haven't quite raised enough money for the whole year; I'm probably two-thirds of the way there. With the traveling and bringing my family here, it will cost at least $60,000, I'd say. Backcountry.com is the main sponsor, and then Arc'Teryx and Dynafit, and I got a $5,000 Polartec grant. And there's a little "donate" button on my website. I don't think anyone's pressed it yet, but you gotta hope, right?
I recognize I might not be able to raise it all, and I might have to use a bit of the equity in my house, but it's been a goal for so long, and if I don't do it now, I might never attempt it.
How much of your skiing has been powder this year?
I'd say 65 percent.
Do you pretty much know exactly where there's going to be deep snow on some big face every day?
Definitely. If you're out as often as I am, it becomes second nature to know where the best skiing is. My last week before coming here, I was skiing up on the [resort] and it certainly wasn't powder. But it's part of the goal, so I was just up there pounding laps on a nice corn slope.
What do you typically eat for breakfast?
A bowl of cereal. Most of my energy comes from my mental motivation. I do try and eat well, and there's no doubt I bring out the gels; whenever I go over 10,000, I'll definitely have a couple gels along the way. I started losing weight at the end of May when we went up to the Yukon, mostly due to the elevation and the fact that I was queasy and not really hungry. I could tell because my wedding ring fell off once.
I saw you took a day off from skiing recently to go mountain biking. Can you really afford to do that?
[Laughs] I think change is good for re-energizing, and yeah, I think I can because I can do 20,000-foot days if I need to. But ideally it's better to keep average and not tire yourself out.
How many guys do you have on your call list to go skiing?
My call list isn't that big. My partners have been partners for years, and I really like to depend on them. I probably have 10 people that I typically ski with, who I know their strengths and I know their mountain sense, which as you can tell from the lines we ski is pretty important. The other thing is, it's such a personal goal that I don't want to drag people into my craziness, so quite often I'll go out alone, and that makes it easy for me to really get after it.
How often do you ski big faces alone?
When it's good, it's good!
More broadly, you've carved this niche that a lot of skiers would love to do: generate their own Web content and garner interest from sponsors through that. Did you set out to do that, or did it just evolve on its own?
I've always dreamed of having more support from sponsors, but the blog and the videos, yeah, it just kind of morphed into this. And having the videos kind of makes it less selfish because I hear from people who like them. It rounds it out for me.
Do you shoot video every time you go out skiing?
I try to always have my camera with me, but it's tough because it's a big HD camera and it's heavy -- it weighs 5 or 6 pounds.
Do you keep track of how many first descents you have?
We have a very vague history in our area. You can't find it. But this year I've done five that I'm pretty sure are first descents.
Who were your inspirations growing up?
Well, I wrote about Craig Kelly on my blog last night, but I've never been one to put other people on a pedestal. I just appreciate people who follow what they believe in.
On your site, you call yourself "a skier in search of powder," and I know you like to jump off cliffs. But you're also going very fast uphill. How do you balance the freeskier mentality with the racer mentality?
If you can combine the racer mentality and get 10,000 feet of great powder, that's the game; you're winning that race. In the past I was a randonee racer, and I enjoy the speed you can do with that perfect setup. But deep down I'm an explorer and an adventurer and a guy who really just likes skiing nice powder on cool-looking lines.
So how does one with your experience and abilities fail his ski guide test?
Uh, not everybody thinks I'm a nice guy? [Laughs.] I think no matter how you are in life you'll occasionally rub people the wrong way. And there's a difference between skiing big-mountain lines with friends and skiing with clients. I respect that I was failed, but I don't know I was given quite the respect that I should've been.
Will you stay in Las Trancas the whole time you're in South America?
No. The goal is to travel around and see a lot of places. My family will go back in early September so I'll have about six weeks to travel around and see some places that might've been tough for them.
Do you have a return ticket?
I have one for Oct. 1, but it's definitely going to be changed. It'll be hard for me to be away from my family, but again, I have to be where the snow is.