"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." — Conan the Barbarian
By Tim Mutrie
Published: January 4, 2011
Greg Hill is a Terminator-like beast from a different age who climbs and climbs and conquers peaks with extreme indifference. He is gifted with leg and lung muscles out the wahzoo, but is somehow absent smiling muscles. He skis solo—mostly because he does not care for, nor require, human companionship. Avalanches are no bother to him either because what are catastrophes to the common man are merely opportunities for the likes of Hill to wet his whistle with minimal effort (provided he even drinks water).
This is the portrait that emerged in my own head of this guy, Greg Hill, 35, the uphilling machine out of Revelstoke, British Columbia. It was only reinforced when I once saw him in action at a 24-hour up-and-downhill ski race near Glenwood Springs, Colo., a few years back (a race that has sent at least one man to the hospital with renal failure, but not Hill). Upon close study, he was everything I imagined him to be—an unsmiling, emotion-less, efficient machine. I was impressed—in the way kids are at the zoo.
Of course, I curiously followed along over the last year as Hill set out to climb and ski—in the calendar year 2010—a total of 2,000,000 vertical feet, an undertaking he studiously documented on his blog. Will he make it, people wondered? You people don't understand, I would scoff.
Because, as Kyle Reese famously says, "Listen and understand: That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."
Naturally, Hill completed his project. And as of yesterday he hadn't been skiing since December 31, a bonus day of sorts when he pushed the final tally to 2,010,018 feet. Still—who is this frickin’ guy?! Everything I’d read about him only seemed to bolster the man-as-mountain-devouring-beast persona. So I called him up, damned curious to find out, you know, whether those lungs of his could produce a genuine actual laugh. And whilst cooking dinner for his two kids, ages four and five (and later tucking them in), at home in Revelstoke last night, Hill went far and wide in an interview and—world, be forewarned—he laughed quite a bit, bringing me full circle along the way.
Powder.com: Terminators can cook?
Greg Hill: "It's just anything I can find in the fridge, pretty much leftovers from Christmas."
And be dads? "The goal was the year-long goal, but on the 30th it was fantastic; I was with my backcountry skiing family, my mom, my dad, my wife. And then the 31st, I skied the ski hill and lots of people from the town were able to come up and be a part of it, so that was fun."
Ski hills aren't for terminators though. “The ski hill is 5,600 feet and that's pretty much what I've had to average every day. And I've used it frequently to pound that out in the morning and then come back and be a dad."
How does a terminator have a French meet Canadian accent? "I grew up outside Montreal, in Sutton… I speak French, but not as well as I used to."
How long in Revelstoke? "This is my 11th season. Did the Whistler thing before that, and Banff before that; so at the time it was a complete unknown, but still a mecca for backcountry skiing. So it all made sense."
OK, so you sound kind of normal. But I remember that 24 hour race; that was not normal. "And never again. Both years it was freezing, and flat, then steep, and high elevation. Not ideal really, but something to do at the time… to make 50,000 vertical feet in 24 hours."
When did you realize you had a gift? "A gift of stubbornness? [Laughter] I'm not sure. I've always been good at endurance, and I climbed. At some point I realized strength of mind and what you can overcome with that, and of course fitness. But basically I moved to Revelstoke in 2000 and got into ski touring and it seemed like at the end of the day everyone was punched and I wanted to go further; I guess that's when I realized it. I've always loved skiing, and endurance, and it just started clicking that year."
And you started making obscene goals, and hitting them—like a million feet climbed and skied from October to May, 2004-05. "This was completely different; that took me seven and a half months, 150 days maybe. But I've been dreaming about the two million since I started ski touring. And even when I did the million, I was nowhere near it. But it clicked and I realized I needed to do more 10,000 foot days."
"In 2006-07 I did 80 10,000 foot days, and that year I did 990,000 [feet, total] and I quit. Because I was like, a million wasn't the goal—it was the 10,000 foot day goal. But I was starting to get the math in the right ballpark to do the two million."
When you start picking up sponsors? "When the rando scene started picking up in Canada. I went to the first race [in 2001] in Canada and a bunch of top Americans were there. I was there with a wicked mullet, leather jacket; the hick from nowhere and managed to win, my first race. I kept working it. Arc'teryx was the first to help me out."
More races? "For a couple of years, yeah, it seemed like a good way to go to other places—Jackson, the Wasatch. Honestly, I enjoyed the races and it was fun to do them, but I was there to look at the mountains, ski-mountaineer the day before and after, and I was never as serious as I could've been. Thankfully I got out of it right as everybody was getting into one-piece suits—not my style."
We're picking up what you're putting down. Did you drop out of college too and then move West? "Went to university in the Maritimes… But at the time I realized I was wasting money and time; did a couple years of biology. It was in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was rock climbing and partying more than going to classes, but I enjoyed it."
OK, we've read about your career as a tree planter. Please explain? "It's sort of a Canadian tradition and it fits perfectly during university. Once you get good at it you can end up paying for university during three months work in the summer. … You load up with six-inch seedlings and you go out and replant everything that's been deforested. That was also a catalyst that made me realize that with hard effort and focusing on a goal, it can really pay off."
Were you the terminator of Canadian tree planters? "No [laughter], a lot of people are good at it. But a lot of people couldn't keep up with me either. Also it was financial—you wanted to make 400 dollars a day. Really, I tried to take what I learned from tree planters to ski touring—you take your lunch with you and go out and work hard. In tree planting, it was about planting trees, but in ski touring it's about skiing as much powder as you could."
"It depends on where you're planting, so like here in Revelstoke you're planting on steep mountainsides, so you'd take 200 seedlings with you at a time. But in Alberta, you'd take 300 or 400. One guy's planted 15,000 seedlings in a day and I've never come anywhere close to that. Max I ever planted was 3,500 and it was a great day—450 dollars. But my little sister's planted more than that in a day."
"Basically you've got this little eight-inch long, four-inch wide shovel, you open up a little box hole and plant the seedling, and close 'em up to the right density and then keep going. Next one. And I've basically done 14 years of it, up to the summer before last when I went to South America for this project. Now I'm looking for a career change, but yes, it's been my profession for sure."
And just skiing in the winters? "A little guiding in the winter too. I'm an assistant ski guide in the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. But mostly skiing; I'm passionate about trying to climb and ski everything around here."
"I first came to Rogers Pass in '99 to take my level 1 avalanche course, which was a weeklong course, and during it there was a class 4 avalanche above us and we ended up involved in the rescue. I ended up knowing one of the people who died. Watching that massive avalanche rip down the mountains, that was when I realized this is serious—if you don't pay attention and don't know what you're doing you can die easily."
Tin man terminator's gotta heart, you mean? "Before that, I was quite nave, definitely; just starting to cut my teeth and not all that keen to learn from those who knew. That day was pivotal. I have to learn how to do this safely to keep myself and my friends safe. I mean, it's amazing up there, but in a split second it's no so amazing."
Numbers? "Good, I just got my excel spread sheet up to date last night; it was 266 days of skiing. So that's not bad—I had 90 some days off, right? [Laughter] But a lot of those days were travel days or not as recuperative as I'd have liked."
"77 over 10,000 foot days—something I'd learned earlier was essential to do two million. 5,480 is the 365 day average… I always had to stay on top of it."
Yeah, suppose so. "71 peaks, some of them multiple times, because they were accessible or easy to get to; but I think close to 40 of them were new summits for me. Clearly, I still need to do some math of this. Probably about 100 different partners too…"
"Percentage wise, I'd say 15 percent of it was on a resort—the rest backcountry—so about 300,000. That makes sense, and something I had to do—not what I was looking for—but still a fair amount. Sort of a balance between three things: keeping the family happy, making travel days still count and when it's crazy avalanche conditions going for the safest easiest thing."
What was that gnarly hanging glacier dealio you got partway up? "Sir Donald. We didn't summit that but we managed to get to the hanging glacier that had never been touched. I don't think I'll go back, but I'm sure somebody will. I don't think it's a parent line."
"We also managed to summit the fifth highest peak in Canada. I wish I'd brought my skis up there, thought we gonna go back the next day and ski. But the whole team was done. Psychologically we were all done. But Sir Donald was really fun, definitely a line I'd been dreaming about for years. Basically, for me, anything that has an exploratory element, a new mountain—that's what gets me the most excited."
And in South America there was a lot of that. "I saw one peak from another summit and went on Google Earth that night and marked it—'cool peak.' And three months later I went back with Donny Roth and he'd been thinking about it for years too. So we went back. It took us a couple of days to put it together, but when we finally did it was fantastic"—Sierra Velluda, SE face, 11,000-plus feet, in Chile.
So are you tired now or what? "I've just been chilling out. My wife, Tracey, is like, 'What! You're not going skiing?!' But I've been getting my ducks in order. Things that have been put on the side burner."
Hercules' gotta rest too. "It's been cool to see how many people are effected by it. It's such a personal goal, but in the end so many other people were effected by it, and inspired by it. A lot of people may not want to ski two million feet but they have their dreams and they realize you just have to work really hard at it and go for it."
Cool that your wife feels the same way. "Tracey was actually bummed about that last movie—she said [my filmmaker friend] just pulled out all the negative stuff she said. I don't understand it, honestly, but she's super supportive and I'm very lucky. And I'm completely conscious about how my goal can effect my life; I've tried to let it effect my home life as little as possible. Obviously it does though."
The whole fam went down to South America with you. "Yep, moving from town to town together. It was tough on them, and they had each other, but in Revelstoke they've got all their friends and coffee shops and the swimming pool and other kids and parents. Down in South America, the kids had a blast, but it was hard on Tracey…"
"When they were leaving Chile, I said to my son, I'm staying here for another month so I'll see you soon. And he said, 'Yeah, daddy, you're staying for another three weeks and then you're gonna die.' And that's because we were seeing death everywhere; horse carcasses, rabbits. Two years ago a volcano exploded and the animals inhaled ash and died, so now two years later, there's skeletons everywhere. But it was a heavy little thing to hear that from my then-three year old son."
Heavy. "Actually, on that peak, Sierra Velluda, it was one of those non-parent lines I was mentioning earlier. And it was three weeks after my son had said that to me. I could hear his words echoing in my head. We ended up backing off that day but went back the next day and did it; I was definitely not my normal confident self. Gotta make sure I make the right decisions for these little kids.“
The project involved some financial risk on your part, too. "I've never been the best self-marketer and in November last year I finally decided it was time to go for it, but it wasn't enough time… But thanks to people like backcountry.com, Polartec, Arc'teryx, and Dynafit, we've managed."
How deep in the hole? "I don't even want to look; 20 to 25 grand."
"It's already paying off with my sponsors giving me more this year. And I'm also hoping to sell footage for TV and make a movie; recouping money through film festivals too, hopefully."
So you're using the Magic Elf Shoe—the Dynafit TLT 5. Gear talk. "I call it the Peter Pan Shoe. It does have some pixy dust on it, if you look closely. I've been paring it up lately—don't tell anybody—with a 173. It's like a little ninja powder set up. But if I wanted to be maching down powder I'd want a different set up. Bigger ski  and boot [Carbon 4, aka Green Machine].”
"I probably did 1.3 million in the Peter Pan Shoe. It just makes walking easier, and makes your body feel better the day after and the day after that. … Dynafit [binding's] seem to be hitting the tipping point now. All the young rippers are getting on 'em around here. And there really is no other way. The pivot and the weight. I haven't skied on anything but it for ten years."
Nerd must know—do you lock out the toe levers for skiing? "My recipe is clicking it up two, three clicks, and typically by the second or third cartwheel it comes off. [Laughter] It always comes off when it should and never comes off when it shouldn't."
"Typically I ski the 182 Stoke, and now there's a 191, which I skied the other day, but it's only when I'm rocketing that I can ski that thing."
Brakes? "I have been using them lately, but typically I don't. You might loose the weight for the up, but then you always have to pay attention. I have seen some people's ski slide away. And that's not the best. You're hanging out, chilling, then, Oh My God!"
Do you have any detractors? "Yeah, I've got a few nemesises, for sure. In terms of this year, I haven't heard them speak out yet. But I'm sure they will… off the record?"
Roger that. // Back on. "I've had a few people on the blog who've sent in some comments, 'Hey, you're an east coastie, you should just go home.' And on a blog, it's weird because you want it to be an open forum and you have to spray a little bit in order to blog in the first place. Blogging's a funny thing like that. You never know how it's going to be taken by readers. … But most people are inspired by it and don't take it as a brag fest. But in terms of my nemesis, I don't know what to say. I haven't come to terms about that one."
Well, I always thought you were a one-dimensional terminator, for what it's worth. "[Laughter]. Donny Roth did too. He'd just read the blog. So he knew I liked to crush big days and expected this go-go-go hiker guy who didn't like to take breaks. But he was surprised that I do like to take breaks, and enjoy lunches on the mountain. He was like, 'I was expecting to leave at 4 a.m. and just go all day.' No talking. But I'm actually pretty relaxed during the day. And I've had a number of people come up to me during this whole mission being surprised by the same thing."
I mean, you were all business at the 24 Hours of Sunlight, no? "One of my friends gave a speech at the ski resort, on the last day, and he was talking about that—that there's the business Greg. And it's true. But you have to balance things. You can't be one way or the other to be a happy person. You have to understand how to balance it all."
Where do you go from here? "To me, the biggest imbalance has been the family. There were three different bouts where it wasn't balanced. So now I'm banking my kid time and husband time. But I also have my ski goals that will start resurfacing in the spring time or whenever conditions come back into… I mean, we ski some bigger lines in January and February, but usually March and April is generally when it really starts happening."
Yes, the R-rated stuff. Close-calls in 2010? "No close calls, but I triggered some avalanches; a bunch over the years. But always from the ski cutting position versus underneath them or what have you."
Nighted? "Nope. I've never been benighted thankfully. But we had some days where we couldn't get there in the first place in the truck and the day was done. But no epic gear failures that I couldn't overcome either."
Has the Prime Minister called? "Nope. I don't even know who my Prime Minister is right now. [Laughter] I did get some international interest from magazines, but no Prime Minister calling."
Have they named a park or ski run for you? "I don't think so. That sort of thing seems to happen when you pass away, and hopefully that won't happen for a long time. Quite honestly I was just pretty stoked when Dynafit approached me about doing a signature ski [the Stoke model]. That's something I never thought would happen just from being a passionate backcountry skier."