Higher Earning

By Andrew McLean

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Originally published in Backcountry Magazine
 Aug 2005

There are few millionaires in backcountry skiing. Let alone those who have earned it all in one season. But last winter Canadian skier Greg Hill ascended a total of one million vertical feet—banking it all in 145 days. With the completion of his 2004/05 quest, code-named “The Odyssey,” Big Leg Greg may actually be the first documented one-season millionaire in backcountry skiing.

His rules were simple. Count only the ascent; reach the million mark in one year; and do it the old-fashion way, fully self-propelled. By the end of the winter, Hill averaged over 7,000 feet climbed per day, mostly in British Columbia ’s Monashee, Purcell, and Selkirk  ranges. For motivation he invented projects like skiing ten new areas in ten consecutive days with 10,000 feet per day, or busting out a potential world record just to keep it interesting.

On February 25th, he and his brother-in-law set up a backcountry camp in the Selkirk mountain range.  Starting at midnight under a full moon, Greg soloed twenty-five 1,600’ laps in 21:06 for a staggering total of 40,160’.   Hungry for more, he has already figured out the logistics of a 50,000’ day.  “2,500 ft.  20 runs. 1 lap every hour and 12 minutes. Might be possible.” This vertical obsession has literally made him a walking user’s manual for Suunto altimeter watches and has attracted sponsorships from Arc’teryx and Life-Link.

Hill’s compulsion is driven in part by his highly numerical mind—one geared for calculating time, distance, weight, and fuel estimates (as well as adding up his crushing cribbage scores). He's also got an immense threshold for pain and cold, which he controls through sheer willpower. According to Hill this is also the key to achieving big vertical—“what a strong mind commands, the weak legs must obey.” But his exceptional physical and mental talents are eclipsed by an even greater human spirit—a rare quality that makes it hard not to like the guy, even if you can’t keep up with him. He is the “Greg” in gregarious, exuding a calm, capable demeanor unfazed by barfing tent partners, crushing loads, and huge vertical.   

“The Odyssey” marks not only a milestone in Hill’s skiing career, which began at an early age ski racing in Quebec , but in his personal life as well. Recently retired from his summer position as manager of a roving reforestation crew, he plans to continue similar work much closer to home—a decision he made upon learning in January that he would soon be a new father. While this spurred him to make sure he finished his quest on time, he is looking forward to child rearing as an “interesting science experiment. ”

Anticipating that 2004/05  might be his last season to be a professional ski bum, Greg got his priorities in order.  “You can’t work and ski a million vertical feet.  It’s a full time job.” Last April he passed the ACMG Assistant Ski Guide exam and will be putting his new certificate to use  in the future by guiding around his hometown of Revelstoke.  Over the years, he has meticulously penciled in the hundreds of lines he has skied in the region, which span five topo maps. As part of a new generation of professionalism in North American ski mountaineering, he is not only pushing the physical aspect, but also snarfing up first descents, First Aid, avalanche, and guiding credentials all before he turns 30 next December.

Although it might seem intimidating, skiing with Greg Hill is easy.  Since you’ll never catch him, you’ll never break trail. If you packed too much gear, he’ll carry it for you. If you didn’t pack enough Ritter Sport chocolate, he’ll give you some of his. All of this frees you up to do the one thing that everyone, including Hill, wants most—to make more turns.

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index