With millions of vertical metres ski touring under his belt in the past decade — often in big, consequential terrain — one might expect Greg Hill to have been caught in an avalanche at some point.
In fact, it took a ski mountaineering expedition to Pakistan earlier this month for Hill’s luck to run out. Fortunately, he came away with only a broken leg.
“I’d never been really caught in an avalanche,” he told the Times Review back in the comfort of his Revelstoke home. “This was my first time being buried, so I might as well do it as far from home as possible.”
Hill was on a mission in Pakistan along with legendary Canadian ski mountaineer Ptor Spricenieks and two Swedish filmmakers. Their goal was to ski Gaashot Mountain, an unclimbed and unskied summit near Nanga Parbat in the Pakistani Himalayas.
The avalanche happened when they were acclimatizing on another mountain. It was May 15 at around 1:30 p.m.; they had reached the 5,500 metre summit and were skiing back down.
“The line I skied, about four turns in, all of a sudden the whole thing was chasing me down. My exit plan wasn’t as good as it could be so I couldn’t get away from it,” Hill said. “I almost got to the right of the gully so I could get away from the flow, but it caught me and took me for about a 1,000-foot ride, thrashing me on the way down.
“I felt my leg snap on the way.”
Hill fought to stay above the snow. As the slide stopped, he found himself with only his head and his right hand sticking out of the debris. He calmly waited about 10 minutes for his partners to arrive on scene and dig him out.
Spricenieks went to call for help on their satellite phone while one Swede went to get sleeping bags and another dug a snow cave. After realizing help wouldn’t come right away, they settled in for the night.
Early the next day, Hill’s partners brought him down the mountain in a toboggan. It wasn’t until after noon that rescue finally came and Hill was flown to a Pakistani army hospital. He spent three days there, and then flew back to Canada, where he had surgery with Dr. Mark Heard in Banff on May 21.
“The crazy pain after the surgery was insane. It was so much more painful than the actual breaking or any of the traveling. The bone pain is really heavy,” he said.
Hill arrived back in Revelstoke to his wife and two children on Friday, May 23, with a titanium rod in his leg. He is bedridden for the next few weeks and it will be eight weeks before he can be active again.
Reflecting back on the incident, he easily identified his mistakes.
“My biggest issue is I’ve ski cut hundreds of slides like this one in my life. I know how to manage these things,” he said. “I’m not sure if it was the elevation or because they were filming, but I did a lapse in my rules and bam, I was in trouble. My escape plan wasn’t good enough.”
He described the run as a 30-degree, planar slope. “It was a beautiful ski run,” he said. He had not seen any instabilities prior to the slide, so he dropped in. In hindsight, he would have put in a harder ski cut in order to trigger any instabilities.
“The truth is, I’ve been lucky many, many times and at some point luck does run out,” he said. “I’ve had tons of close calls. I’ve surfed one down and sat in the debris but I’ve never actually been totally thrashed in the washing machine.
“That’s the truth — I’ve been out there for 18 years and at some point you draw the wrong card. That’s the reality living the life I do. The rewards are amazing but at some point the consequences are real too.”
Hill is working on a book about risk and consequences and part of him feels the project may have jinxed him. All the consequences he was writing about were third hand stories — now he has his own to share.
“I kind of cursed myself — gave myself the first hand story with the consequences,” he said. “I wish I’d been writing about challenges and successes instead. I’d be sitting in a better position right now.”