Think Global, Ski Local

Estimated reading time: 4 min

Ski legend Greg Hill sold his big pickup, quit his job as a heliskiing guide and cut out nearly all his flights. Today, he is one of the outdoor world’s leading advocates for sustainable ski adventures.

It’s shortly after seven o’clock in the morning and the line is already long inside La Baguette, one of several cozy cafés in Revelstoke, British Columbia – among Canada’s most renowned off-piste paradises. It is full of skiers in worn shell garments and holding their own coffee mugs in hand. Some mountain guides have arranged meetings with their guests and are planning the day’s tours. A couple of lumberjacks have also found their way here. When Greg Hill steps through the door, half of the room turns to look at the tall, dark-haired man with bright eyes. He radiates energy despite the early hour and greets people to his left and right. Not only is he a world-famous skier, mountain climber and ski guide – he is also a local hero. For the next couple of days, we’ll have the pleasure of doing summit tours together and talking about sustainability in the world of skiing.

“The electric taxi is here, let’s go skiing,” he says with a grin.

A little while later we’re sitting in Greg’s small white electric car – a Chevrolet Bolt – with hot coffee in our thermoses while he navigates out of town and onto the highway in virtual silence. We are on our way to Rogers Pass, one of the snowiest places in Canada and with a spectacular location in the mountains between Revelstoke and Golden.

“It’s a 70-kilometer drive up there. No problem for this ride! Now that it’s winter – with the roof rack on, the heat turned up and winter tires on – the range is still 250 to 300 kilometers, so we have a little margin,” explains Greg as he takes a sip of coffee.

Just over an hour later, we roll into the parking lot at the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre. Although it is less snow than usual, the snowbanks are enormous where we park – right next to a charging station.

“Back when I sold my pickup and leased this car two years ago, there were hardly any charging stations in British Columbia or even in the United States. So, I was forced to plan every trip in detail so that it would work. Things are much better now,” he says.

Occupation: Skier

We slip on our ski skins and glide away along a stream surrounded by tall snow-covered fir trees. After a while, we come to an opening where we can see some of the mighty peaks that surround the passage. The soft morning light shines on the mountains and Greg points out the peak that we are heading towards. We jog along in the shade a little while and I mimic what my tour companion is doing as he zigzags efficiently up through the steep forest, learning from how little energy he is expending. We have close to 4,500 feet (1,400 meters) to climb today so we are in no position to dawdle up on the mountainside.

Greg Hill left his hometown of Quebec City when he was young and he traveled west toward the Rocky Mountains, where he spent a few years alternating between planting trees and skiing – in other words, a classic Canadian ski bum. He settled in Revelstoke nearly 20 years ago. Back then, there wasn’t even a real ski area in the town, but he had heard of Rogers Pass – about the enormous amounts of snow and the fact that there were hardly any people living in the mountains.

It sounded a lot better than Whistler where he had lived before, and the lack of long lifts could be compensated for with ski skins.

In the years that followed, he trained as a mountain guide and began to make a name for himself in the skiing community in North America – above all in the area of ski mountaineering. With a lot of enthusiasm, extensive knowledge and a really good physique, he won ski mountaineering competitions, conducted multi-day trips in the mountains in record times and also checked off a number of first downhill runs. It didn’t take long until he was offered sponsorship contracts from several industry giants and soon, he was able to call himself a professional skier.

In 2010, Greg set the world record for ski mountaineering as he climbed and skied two million feet (610,000 meters) in one calendar year. The record put Greg in the spotlight, and the affable Canadian soon became an important spokesperson for summit tours and ski mountaineering in the media. He continued with his unique projects and he became known in the skiing community as the man who conquered superhuman feats in record times. In retrospect, he describes the pursuit of endurance records as an obsession. How many meters could he climb in one day? One month? One year? Greg Hill was the skier who pushed those boundaries to to entirely new levels.

Towards environmental responsibility

Even though he continues to spend more days on his skis than most people, in recent years, Greg has shifted his focus completely: From individual achievements to a more collective mindset where the environment takes priority. Climate-related crises, such as forest fires and hurricanes, had started to cause him to question the environmental impact of his air and car trips.

In April 2012, he cycled to all the peaks he had previously skied up and down, just to try it out. During the entire month, he didn’t use any fossil fuels at all. But the drawback was that none of his friends wanted to come along on the tours; it seemed the days were simply too tough for his adventure buddies.

He really wasn’t a model citizen himself and he’d be the first to point that out. He drove a turbocharged Ford F350 pickup truck with a diesel engine – one of the largest and least fuel-efficient vehicles you can find on the market. In addition, he often had his heavy snowmobile in the bed of the truck. He traveled all over the world and sometimes worked as a heliskiing guide. He ate a lot of meat and went through a very high amount of outdoor gear every year.

“When I look back at what I did earlier, I feel that it was hypocrisy – being an outdoor enthusiast that loves destroying what he loves,” says Greg as we take a brief standing drink break.

Taking an electric approach

But back then, electric cars were not a simple alternative. The few models that were available in North America at the time had a very short range and were extremely expensive. So he waited until a more affordable alternative became available – particularly one that also had a range of at least 200 kilometers.

In December 2016, he decided to make a serious commitment towards sustainable adventures. He started by selling his pickup truck and snowmobile. He then leased a small electric car, quit guiding heliskiing trips and reduced his air travel a fair amount.

“In the past, I crisscrossed the globe traveling all over for expeditions, film projects, trade shows and vacation trips. Nowadays, I only fly when the sponsors really want me to attend something as well as for funerals and weddings that are far away,” says Greg.

Since then, he has been looking for novel ways to carry out his adventures while having the lowest possible impact on the climate. His main project these days is something he calls #electricbikeadventures.

Simply put, it’s about climbing a hundred mountain summits without using fossil fuel. Getting to the mountains must take place either by electric car or electric bike; however, not with an electric scooter. He walks on foot until he can put on his ski skins or he just starts skiing directly from the parking lot like he did today.

“The big difference compared to how things were before is that I don’t have to keep up with this project over a specific period of time. And I’m not going to stop once I reach a hundred summits. This has become a lifestyle that I will continue to advocate for and live according to,” says Greg, who does most of his tours in British Columbia but also in Wyoming, California, Washington and Oregon south of the border.

Proving sustainable adventures are possible

Three hours later, we have passed through the forest, managed to stop for a much-needed coffee break and started approaching Little Sifton, 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) above sea level. It is a popular summit tour, but today we are alone up here in the beautiful, wild landscape. The wind has created large, undulating snow formations and some of them are forming enormous shadows in the otherwise snow-white terrain. We follow a plateau that heads towards the summit until Greg steers over more towards the east side where he sees a better line. It’s impressive and inspiring to see how he is constantly reading the terrain and snow in order to choose the smartest and safest route further up the mountain.

The last 150 meters of climbing towards the top are steep and our ski skins begin slipping on some sections. I can feel every meter we climb in my legs, but I continue to soldier on knowing that we’re going to get to ski downhill soon. At this altitude, the snow has remained cold and even though it hasn’t snowed for a while, it is surprisingly pristine.

“All my previous goals in my career have been about finding out what is physically possible. In some ways, this is similar, but I do it to show that sustainable adventures are possible. And to spread knowledge about this and to be a good role model in the skiing industry.”

Environmental impact halved

When we look out over Rogers Pass – a dream area for anyone who loves summit tours – it is easy to understand the logic behind Greg’s story.

The electric adventures also became a natural reason for changing his personal life.

“It has inspired me and made me into a much better person. My own environmental impact is now half of what it was before, which feels really good. My entire family are ‘weekday vegetarians’ as we call it. We eat vegetarian food during the weekdays, but on weekends we eat meat if it’s produced locally and organically.”

But the fact that Greg has changed his life has also resulted in a fair share of complications. Through the choices he’s making now, for example, he is excluded from a number of projects to exotic ski destinations and there is a limit to how long he can keep making trips to the mountains near his home.

Occasionally, he also admits he has doubts about whether anything we humans do will actually matter in the end.

“But then I see positive effects of what I myself am doing and quite often that inspires others. We all need to make an effort, and if you can change something then others in your sphere of influence can follow. Together we can all contribute to a greater change.”

Redefining the dream

Almost fifteen meters of snow fall each year in Revelstoke. It is a remote mountain town where the railroad and forestry industries are still the largest employers, yet tourism and infrastructure are growing at a rapid pace. The influence of younger, adventurous people is clearly visible. Everyone wants to live the Canadian dream where a big pickup truck has its natural place.

“But you can have a smaller electric car here too. If I can show this and keep doing my adventures without a big pickup truck, then hopefully I can inspire others to make the same choice.”

With a few exceptions, the companies that manufacture skis have not switched to particularly sustainable production. According to Greg, the clothing brands are taking a greater responsibility for reducing their impact.

“More and more companies are following and taking on more responsibility. It’s wonderful to see,” says Greg, who himself influenced his sponsor Arc’Teryx to think more on sustainability.

The sun has set as we drop into the east side of Little Sifton. Greg skis fast, energy-efficiently and smart in the pristine, boot-deep powder. He exudes a natural feeling of security in this wild and relatively dangerous environment. Big turns down these enormous slopes, surrounded by sharp mountain peaks. He doesn’t appear to feel any of the lactic acid that is beginning to creep up my thighs.

It starts getting dark when we come down to the parking lot. Greg’s little white electric car is one of the few that remain in the parking lot. We take our skis off, exchange some high-fives and enjoy the tranquility. A long, wonderful day in the mountains has come to an end and Greg takes the charger off the car.

“Now the battery was fully charged while we went on a cozy ski trip and got to ride powder – isn’t that brilliant?” he says as we silently head homeward towards Revelstoke.

 

PHOTOS: MATTIAS FREDRIKSSON

 

 

Mattias Fredriksson
info@norragency.com