Photos by Bruno Long
Last spring, Greg Hill quite possibly had his biggest first descent in the Battle Range of the Selkirk Mountains, BC. First descents aren’t new for Hill a resident of Revelstoke, British Columbia, but this one was different. It wasn’t any gnarlier than the rest—Hill always likes to ‘giv’er’, but the circumstances were. Reeling from a nearly tragic avalanche accident in Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat region, in May 2014 where he snapped his leg amidst clouded judgment, it was the first time that Hill said he felt like himself again. Similar to his massive touring goals and projects, Hill had to bear down and work hard, rehabbing mentally and physically one step at a time. His trials and tribulations are evident in his voice, yet so is his determination to return to top form, just as he did last spring within the Battle Range, BC.
I saw this line in Pakistan and thought, oh that looks amazing. Part of me was saying don’t go ski that, just summiting and skiing this mountain as part of Ptor Spricenieks trip was already an adventure. During the buildup to the trip, I took and passed the full ACMG exam. I didn’t ski enough wild lines to get my fix, so I feel like I had this desire to ski something. Perhaps the elevation was clouding my judgment or perhaps I was blinded to ski something wild.
There wasn’t any evidence of big avies or crown lines, and felt like I could ski the line. The conditions were light fluffy snow, no slab, with hard snow underneath. We were there for a filming mission. I didn’t need to ski it, but though it was a cool line and angle. We were tired and jumped around the top of the slope. I hung out and relaxed around 20,000 feet. The light came and I thought this is awesome, lets go for it. I spoke into my Go-Pro saying “yeah first real skiing in Pakistan…”
I wasn’t fearful enough. The roll was perfect, if I just pulled off to the side I would have been fine. I think honestly it had been too many years of following my rules. Too many years of no real failures and being strict, just ski cutting things away. I know where to release slabs, and put my pressure down. Instead of stopping I kept going. I arced three turns and on the third or fourth turn it was all breaking around me. It was amazing how far around me it was releasing… 200 feet below me, above, and side… There was no escape, and where I almost made it out was not an escape plan. I saw a b-line spot below and got to six feet of the gully. You typically don’t just carve your way down on a slope like that, you work your way from one ski cut to another, safe zone to safe zone. But that day I didn’t. It’s interesting for me, the filming blinded me.
It was like getting hit by a big wave in the ocean, and right away I heard a snap. It was my leg. My tech toe pieces were locked. I tumbled like a dryer for a thousand feet, and took some shots on my helmet. Figuring out which way was up, I treaded snow to the surface and kept swimming to keep my head up. The snow slowly started to solidify, and I kept my hand up. It came very close to burying my head and then it stopped… I was like wow, I’m ok. I’m alive.
My leg didn’t’ feel bad, but then it came out of the snow and it just flopped over. Luckily I am calm under stressful situations. I managed to make a splint and kept my boots on. Our group set up a snow cave and got our sleeping bags from camp. I didn’t really sleep, and kept wiggling my toes. I was very lucky it was a good break, nothing sticking out, and I didn’t go into shock or have internal bleeding. The next morning they sledded me out on a makeshift toboggan to where the Pakistani army evacuated me by helicopter.
The avalanche changed things for Hill, who at the time was flying high. Known for incredible feats within the backcountry such as climbing 2 million vertical feet in a year, the March prior to his Pakistan trip he climbed and skied 100,000 meters in a month. The recovery proved to be a long road both mentally and physically. Reflecting on the accident, he learned how he deviated from his backcountry checklist and later through physical therapy for his leg, became humbled on how challenging the sport he has done for years actually is.
When they flew me to the Pakistani army base, I eventually got an x-ray, and they knew I would have to get surgery. I didn’t think their medical system was up to par, so I opted to fly home and organized surgery from there, flying right into Calgary. The surgeon said it was one of the worst breaks he had seen. They put the bar in the tibia and plate in the fibula along with screws, a total of 13 pieces of metal.
Last winter I kept thinking I would ski by December. It was a pretty long road, I thought breaks were six to eight weeks of rest and you’re fine, but I’m getting there.
It was like my legs forgot what to do. At first green runs were hard, it was pretty wild and I was just skiing cat tracks. I still thoroughly enjoyed it, and I would hate to be stuck on them the rest of my life, but I was still having fun. There are so many things your leg does when you ski. Powder is fine, but the ski hill is hard on your body. My first real tour last winter was with the Salomon team. I was tired and when we got back on the resort I was so crushed. My legs weren’t working, I was screaming at them. I thought about sitting on my skis and sliding down. It was the longest ski down, my leg didn’t have the strength, and I couldn’t snowplow or go straight. I couldn’t get down the hill, but eventually I did. Just understanding how hard this sport is that I’ve done for years as a guide, I now know what it feels like with novice clients. It’s great to not be good at something and learn it again.
The accident gave me more fear, even on moderate slopes. I would be intimidated by things I wouldn’t be before. It took a bit to realize I can ski these things again. To me the risks are worth it. It provides me so much fun and it’s like I’m living life out there. I may have to take risks, but it’s worth it. My family made it more real. Up to that point in Pakistan, my wife always trusted me to be safe and we have two kids. That definitely put some doubt in her mind, but I mean do you want to live with some who is happy and passionate or a shell of that person. There are enough benefits to who I am to cover the anxiety she may feel.
To do wild things in the mountains and guide I need to feel confident in my body. I’ve been doing weights, biking, and hiking all summer. This fall I got 3 screws removed. It set me back as there is still some micro-healing to be done. The plate will stay there forever, and the bar will stay there for a couple years. Last year I did a few mountaineering trips, the big one was to the Battle Range, to a line I saw a few years ago.
Needing to build up his confidence and return to the skiing that drives him. Hill reminisced to a line he saw ten years ago, on the Bugaboo to Roger’s Pass traverse. Surrounding himself with strong partners, each with unique characteristics and strengths for the trip it, the crew of five set out to ski the prominent line off Moby Dick—one of several 10,000 foot peaks within the Selkirks. It’s a lifelong goal of Hill’s to ski all the peaks over 10,000 feet within the range.
I didn’t want to go anywhere far where I had to be a super hero. I needed to build my confidence up and relearn my decisions with my buddies. That for me is the takeaway… To have a system and a way to ski the mountains, and know I can trust those rules. I just need to always follow those rules and operations. It’s good to have partners who can also have a system to check and see if I am being an idiot or if I am doing this properly. Our crew was Aaron Chance, Mark Hartley, Bruno Long, and Derek Glowiackie. It was good to have a well rounded group that could work together and who also dreamt about that line for years.
We skied a wicked line. Years ago we toured past it and thought… oh my goodness look a that thing I wonder if I will ever ski something like that. Can it be on my radar?.. It has been one of those lines people talk about, but it never lined up for anyone. When we flew in we had a good look from the heli. We didn’t want to go for the line right off the bat and found a supported glacial line with good powder turns as we investigated the snowpack.
Nothing can wrong on the line, otherwise it’s over the serac. Back at camp that night, the line was towering above us. We were all keen and were also all a bit scared of the hazards. Up at 6:30am the next day, the exposed rocks were already heating up and we knew we would be on the crux of it at 9am. We backed off and decided to summit and ski Mt. Butters. It was a great ski. On the way down, we saw someone bringing Rob Gmoser’s (a well-known and respected Canadian Mountain Guide) ashes to the summit. We skied back to camp, and while looking up at the line again, noticed the heat of the day was off it. It was safer than it had been all morning and we decided to give it a go and get closer.
As we toured closer we felt the vibe of the whole day. Whenever you are looking at something from far away, as you get closer features change. We were zig-zagging, then skinning across the big serac, then the rope is coming out and crampons were put on as we began boot packing up. Mark was just givin’er, and was pumped to be kicking up the face as he pounded it in. At one point I said I can take the lead… It’s a big difference following than setting. I took over high on the face, and booted 150 feet of it. When I got to the next safe spot, I thought wow I’m much more scared having led then followed, then passed it back to Mark as he was gung-ho. We crested to a nice safe spot, and it was already four in the afternoon. Knowing if something went wrong it would be too late for help, with another 200 feet to the true summit that only featured skiing on blue ice, we decided to turn tail and just ski the line from its start point. I’d like to go back and finish from the summit one day.
The descent was steep to amazing flowy turns, and we slid right back to camp to crack a beer. I knew there were hazards, but if we skied it properly we would be ok. We took the proper safety precautions and I always say, expect the best but be prepared for the worst.
I’m turning forty on December 19, and I want to ski tour 40,000 feet on my birthday, to see if I still have it or if I’m going soft. It will get dark early, and there will be a lot of head lamp skiing. I just need to make sure I’m fit enough and I’m already thinking about some future international adventures.