It’s a dark January morning in Revelstoke, B.C., and the foggy Selkirk Mountains are draped in sheets of saggy white snow when Greg Hill meets me in his little 2017 Chevrolet Bolt – a low-to-the ground, front-wheel-drive, hatchback electric car, and the least likely adventure vehicle imaginable. For most people from these parts, who drive pickup trucks loaded with snowmobiles, the vehicle we pull away in for a backcountry day trip is comically impractical. Mr. Hill is out to prove otherwise.
Mr. Hill, my chauffeur and ski partner for the day, is a professional ski mountaineer whom Men’s Fitness magazine once called “one of the 25 fittest men in the world.” He’s twice held the world record for vertical feet ascended and skied in a calendar year, and has also broken the records for vertical feet within a month and a 24-hour period.
Decorated by high-profile expeditions to the planet’s most difficult-to-reach places –including climbs in Nepal and Pakistan – and wielding international acclaim for pushing the limits of his sport and the human body, he is now trying to push the limits of something harder: carbon-free mountain adventure. Last summer, the wiry 42-year-old made a huge professional U-turn when he committed to only travel within the limits of electric technology, giving up fossil-fuel-based transport cold turkey – including international flights.
“If you look at mountaineering in North America,” he says while steering on wet winter roads to the backcountry-skiing mecca of Rogers Pass, “it’s always been carbon based. It’s been trains, cars, trucks, snowmobiles, helicopters. Until now, everything I did to access my adventures was terrible.”
For Mr. Hill, who believes human-caused climate change is ruining the places he loves, the decision is a matter of urgency and conscience. A couple of years ago, he added up his carbon footprint using an online calculator and found it was 369 per cent of the world average, mostly because of his travels.
“There are so many people seeking nature and destroying it while they do,” he explains.
In May of last year, he and fellow pro skier Chris Rubens rented an electric Nissan Leaf – a small hatchback – for a three-week road trip to ski volcanoes in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
It actually worked.
“Obviously I’m in a unique position because it’s my job,” he says, “but that only took a couple days longer than most people would take, and that’s not that big a deal.”
Not long after, he got his Bolt. It has double the range of the Leaf and travels 400 kilometres on a charge, but has still reduced his local mountaineering radius to a third of what it used to be. It’s also added hundreds of hours to road trips owing to charging time, but those are hits he’s willing to take.
When an affordable electric SUV or truck comes out, he says he’ll get one of those. As it stands, his Bolt (the cheapest electric vehicle on the market) already costs $40,000, which he leases for $700 a month because the “technology is changing too fast to buy.” His plan also includes an electric snowmobile (soon to be released by the Montreal company Taiga Motors), and an electric mountain bike to get up logging roads his hatchback can’t.
“It’s a change in mindset,” he says of the limitation it’s imposed on how he practises his sport. “But, for me, to live in the middle of nowhere and still have this adventurous life, it’s proof these cars can work for anyone.”
His sponsors (i.e. employers), however, weren’t as quick to embrace his highly restrictive “electric adventures” campaign.
He says two sponsors, outdoor-apparel companies Salomon and Arc’teryx, were concerned at first, but he’s managed to bring them around.
“But I think my job is to create stories, and if I can create enough stories, it doesn’t matter that I’m not flying to some foreign country to climb something I’ve never seen.”
Justin Sweeny, Arc’teryx’s North American sports-marketing manager, says Mr. Hill’s green rebranding actually came at a time when the company was pursuing a similar idea.
“Arc’teryx has never been at the forefront of the sustainable train, but we are constantly trying to do our best to reduce our impact where we can,” he says.
“Greg also lives in a world-class destination that’s a hub of accessibility, and him sharing the idea that we don’t have to travel super far to adventure is fitting.”
“Anytime you break away from the status quo or take a stand you’re taking a risk,” says Mike Douglas, one of the most seasoned professional skiers in the business and Mr. Hill’s teammate at the ski brand Salomon. “But, there’s an authenticity to walking the walk, and I think Greg’s sponsors will stand behind him.”
Mr. Douglas’s production company, Switchback Entertainment, recently made a film for Salomon about Mr. Hill and Mr. Rubens’s environmental awakenings called The Curve of Time. They presented it in Denver, and the project has since slingshot Salomon into a place where they’ve had to take their own environmental position and have implemented some of their own sustainability initiatives.
One of the things Mr. Hill hasn’t been able to reconcile, though, is flying to France once a year for sales meetings with Salomon – which aren’t negotiable. To boot, life is full of weddings and funerals that often feel mandatory. Meanwhile, one long-haul flight can yield the same emissions per capita as driving a gas-fuelled car by yourself for two months. The there is no viable electric solution on the horizon, though some airlines do use biofuels.
But it’s still a significant change. In the past, he’s had 20 international flights in a single year. In 2017, he had two.
Mr. Hill acknowledges there’s some hypocrisy in the exceptions he’s carved out for himself, and in encouraging people not to travel to exotic locales at the apex of a career built from exactly that. But he says it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being better, and the net result is what counts.
“I look at my kids, and I do want them to travel and see the world because it is enriching, but I want them to do it understanding the impact,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s fair to ask them not to, but I think it’s fair to ask them to offset it somehow. Instead of travelling three times a year, go once, but go for longer.”
Fast-charging electric-vehicle stations are proliferating across British Columbia, with more than 1,000 and rising. He said these allow access to some of the best mountain wilderness in the world, without having to go far.
Since July, he’s stood on 25 world-class peaks via electric access.