Wouldn’t it be Easier to Take a Helicopter?

When I tell people my plan they either instantly get it, or they don’t. The ones that don’t, start asking questions. “do you count the feet¬†skied, hiked, or both?”, “can you take lifts?”, “how many miles is that?”, and my personal favorite “wouldn’t it just be easier to take a helicopter?”

Some of the answers to these questions are pretty straight forward, “No, I cannot take lifts”, but others are a bit more nuanced, so I will do my best to answer them as fully as I can.

What am I counting?
The goal is to earn 2.5 Million vertical feet of skiing. This sounds simple enough, but actually has a couple complexities. Assuming I start and end the day in the same place (most days), I can count either the up or the down, but not both. For simplicity sake I will always count the up.

On the occasional day where I start and end at a different location, it is not as simple. If I end below where I started and take a car back up to the trailhead, essentially that vertical was not earned, so it does not count. However if I start below where I end and take a car downhill then… I am not sure to be honest. I will have to contact Greg Hill and see.

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South American volcanoes, not Washington…

There is another case as well. Lets imagine it is spring and I am skiing a volcano in Washington. I start the day hiking 4,000 feet through the forest with skis on my pack. Then I hit the snow and skin to the summit. Then I take a few laps and ski down, then hike the 4,000 feet back to the car. Does that 4,000 feet count as earned vertical. I certainly earned it, and I had skis on my back, but I didn’t ski… Again, I have to ask Greg Hill and see what he did. I will follow whatever rules he followed.

Joey Camps. Holds the FKT for the Cali section of the PCT!

Joey Camps. Holds the unsupported FKT for the Cali section of the PCT!

As a short tangent. Breaking Fastest Known Times (FKTs) is a new wave in the ultra running scene. It applies to short hikes and long trails (ie The Appalachian Trail). In this community one of the ways of hiking is unsupported. There is no hard and fast definition of what an unsupported hike is, so whoever attempts an FKT must follow the rules that the previous person followed/created. The rules that the new FKT follows must be equal to or more stringent than the previous rules. It is this logic that I am following in conforming to Greg Hill’s rules.

Distance
The question of how many miles often comes up. I guess this has two answers. I will be hiking 473.5 vertical miles and skiing 473.5 vertical miles as well ūüôā That is 86.1 Everests from sea level.

However, I think the question people really want to know is how many horizontal miles will I be walking. And I don’t really know. Some tours have long approaches and other are just straight up and down all day. Last year I kept track occasionally and it seemed that it was about 1-2 miles per 1,000′ of vertical. And I would assume about 1/4-1/3 of that is the skiing itself. So a very rough estimation would be about 1.25 horizontal uphill miles per 1,000′. So for 2.5 Million feet that is 3,125 miles of hiking. I have no idea how accurate this is.

A long day from last winter. I think this tour was 32 miles.

A long day from last winter. I think this tour was 32 miles.

The real take away for me is that the mileage is really not a concern. Walking uphill 10K per day is the difficult part if that 10K is over 10 miles or 15 miles it doesn’t make too much of a difference. Most importantly though no matter how many miles I hike, I still only get to ski the vertical feet. So bring on the steep skin track!!

Earned

Skinning with a pine bow

Skinning with a pine bow

I will be hiking, skinning, boot-packing, climbing, mountaineering, postholing, side-stepping?, and likely any other self-powered way of going uphill you can think of, for 2.5 million vertical feet. Using these forms of travel to ski makes the skiing earned. I like using the word earned. In many ways the earning of the turns is why I enjoy skiing in the backcountry. It doesn’t diminish unearned turns. I mean if I was walking down the road and someone handed me a slice of pie, I would gladly eat it. But the pie I pick the berries for and rolled out my homemade dough and make a woven top for is just going to taste better.

When earning turns there is no choice but to be where you are at that very moment. As one ski moves in front of another on repeat, every gust of wind is right there. When it’s snowing and the wind is from the South as you walk East along a ridge, the whole right side of your face becomes coated in snow. There is no doubt that the north slopes are becoming loaded and should be of concern. Or skinning up the South face in the morning, it starts rock solid and you are kicking yourself for leaving the ski crampons at home. But right as you crest the ridge it begins to corn up. Now is the perfect time to drop, and the skin back up will be easy, then on to north facing slopes for the rest of the day.

Sometimes, what can be noticed when earning turns is the smallest of things. There was one day a couple years ago, where there was a light breeze coming up Little Cottonwood Canyon from the West. It was a warmish day with a thick layer of fog. I was planning to ski a Southwest facing slope. On the way up I noticed a very, very thin crust beginning to form on the west-facing aspects. The fog was laying down a thin rime crust, not enough to ruin a run, but enough to notice. The due south slopes were enough out of the breeze that they remained smooth and soft. On my descent I carefully stayed just on the South facing edges of the sub-ridges and had a perfect run down.

[Inset picture of me mooning a helicopter]*

So while taking a helicopter may seem easier, the truth is not so simple. Would I have been able to perfectly time a spring corn run? Maybe. Would I have noticed the thin rime crust? Ignoring that fact that helicopters would not have even flown with that much fog, likely no. A helicopter is certainly less strenuous, but it could never provide the experience that I’m looking for.

 

*while I have done this, there is no photo evidence… yet.

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Why?

I started talking to friends and family about my plan to ski 2.5 Million feet about a month ago. About a week ago I officially announced that I would be going for the record. When I tell people my plan the most common question they ask is

“Why do you want to earn and ski 2.5 Million feet?”

You might think I have a great answer all lined up, but it’s not that simple. There are a bunch of reasons that all go together that made me decided to go for it.

Among the reasons I decided to do this is for the challenge itself. Often it doesn’t matter what the challenge is, what matters is doing something that is difficult. I get¬†a lot of satisfaction in setting a difficult goal and working to achieving it.

If that was the only reason though, I could have just tried to become the best chess player. That’s certainly a hard challenge. So there must be more to it than just the challenge.

I grew up skiing on family vacations. In high school I started alpine racing. During this time I started to fall¬†in love with skiing. I began heading north with friends on weekends to ski and chase powder, as best as a high school student can. When I got to College I was so hooked. I started backcountry skiing and leading trips around New England. I almost skied my first 100 day season my senior year (I’m still a little bitter about the March thaw that year.)

hsracing                                                    A young Aaron ready to bash some gate [2006]

When I graduated, I got a well paying job in my field, which I quickly quit and I moved to Alta to be a ski bum. This became a theme for the next couple years. Over these few years I learned that skiing was truly what I wanted to do with my life, at least for the not too distant future.

I love skiing more than most other things in the world. I love skiing untouched snow. I love the peacefulness of standing atop an empty mountain peak for sunrise. I love skiing spines, and jumping off cliffs into a bed of stellar dendrites who’s sole job in life is to catch a falling skier and then decompose into some lesser fragmented form. And my love for all of this is amplified when I spend hours hiking uphill for each turn.

1425400_10151906153436891_1045415107_oStanding on mountains [Photo: HardcastlePhotography – Wolverine Cirque, UT]

So, if I had to summarize that into one sentence I would say, I love skiing and skinning more than most other things and what better way to enjoy it, than by skiing as much as I can fathom in a year.

But that’s still not the whole story. Since hearing about Greg Hill setting the record for most vertical in a year, I was super impressed. But, I always said it doesn’t take being a super athlete to do what he did. People who¬†run 100 mile trail races, and sub 4 minute miles are super athletes. However to walk uphill with skis on for 10 hours a day just take commitment. OK, not just¬†commitment, there is a certain level of fitness required, but as a non super-athlete I firmly believe it is much more a mental battle than a physical one.

Very few people have the combination of passion for skiing, physical fitness, mental craziness, willingness and ability to commit and free time to make aiming for this goal a possibility. For me the timing for all of this is perfect right now. I am young and free of responsibilities that tie me down. I have been training both physically and mentally the past 3 years for this, albeit I was unaware I was doing so.

408388_636102922781_407410201_nOld stomping grounds new angle [Photo: Adrienne – Cardiac Ridge, UT]

One person I was chatting with the other day about why i wanted to do this, asked if I was attempting the record to set a new high bar that would be hard to beat. I didn’t think to long about my answer and quickly said no, I am doing this because I love skiing, and the record just happens to be a nice way to quantify the whole process.

However in thinking about that question a bit more, I realized there was still more to it. While I am not trying to break the record in order to set the new high bar, there is an added benefit that the sport of backcountry skiing will be pushed a bit. People will see the potential that backcountry skiing offers.

Backcountry skiing does not necessarily mean less downhill than lift-serve skiing. As skiers we can backcountry ski and still spend a huge amount of time on the downhill and do it all self powered and in perfect or near perfect conditions with less crowds.

patagonia2014Down in Patagonia skiing pow with great new friends!

So why am I trying to ski 2.5 Million vertical feet in a year? Skiing is my biggest passion and it is what I love to do and what makes me the happiest. I love challenging myself physically, mentally and emotionally. I do think that by setting a new high mark for backcountry skiing it will show others the realm of possibility that the sport offers. And lastly the timing is right. If I don’t try now then when?

superiorridgeteague2013Aaron on the south ridge of Superior at sunrise [Photo: Teague Holmes]

 

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2.5 MIllion

So, I’m doing it! I want to officially announce that I will be attempting¬†to ski 2.5 Million self-propelled vertical feet in a year. I plan to start December 1st.

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What has gone into this decision? I have been saying for the past few years that, while impressive, it would not take a super-human to break the record for most vertical. It would only take someone with the right amount of time and commitment. Luckily for me as a not-so-super-human, I have made myself the time to do this and I am giving myself the opportunity to prove that I have the commitment.

Over the past couple months I had my annual spring time “crisis”. You know, when skiing stops occupying all of your physical and mental space and now you have time to think about what you are doing with your life. For me this happens every spring. One year, I decided to get a desk job. Another spring I decided to follow a girl and when that didn’t work I took the opportunity to head to Patagonia for an endless winter.

This spring I was on the fence again. Work? in VT? software? in CO? guide? Climb? Pimp out a van and live in there? or commit fully to the insane endeavor of trying to break the record for most vertical feet earned in a year? After a few weeks of clearing my head in the desert, climbing, mountains biking, and even skiing a bit, I had made up my mind. It still took me a couple more weeks to really understand that this was my decision.

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Once I was in and knew it, I started getting ready. The past few weeks, I have been working on a website, planning for the year, and talking with companies and non-profits to work with. This has been close to a fully time job over the last couple weeks. I have been living in my friends basement, picking up random craigslist jobs, working just enough to break even.

So what does this mean looking into the future? Achieving this goal is as much, if not more, a mental battle as is it physical. I plan to ramp-up my training as the summer progresses. The training will reflect the goal. For example, I have decided to jump in the creek behind my house everyday. Jumping in a freezing cold creek is never easy, especially if it is wet out, or night time. However, nobody has ever regretted the refreshing feeling after dunking in a mountain stream. Just as skiing a straight month of 10k days is will never be easy, it will be incredible rewarding if I can overcome the mental battle each morning to just jump in.

I also plan to start pushing the length of my mountain bike rides. 3-4 hours on a mountain bike can be exhausting, but I want to be able to go 6-8 comfortably by the end of the summer season. I think this is a good reflection of the pace of backcountry skiing. I also have a couple trips planned for the summer to keep me on my toes.

I will be posting near daily updates to Instagram @airandrice, on Strava, and right here at airandrice.com

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