Words by: Matt Coté
Photos by: Greg Hill
“How’s the road?” I ask, peering past Greg Hill’s white knuckles and onto an even whiter Highway 33, near the town of Viktor, Idaho. We’re only a small hop from our final destination: the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. One of the biggest snowstorms in a decade is pounding while we roll in a tiny two-wheel drive electric car, 1100 miles and four days from where we started in Revelstoke, B.C. His pupils dilated, Hill scoffs at my question and answers, “How does it look?” It’s been a long, hard road to Jackson…
For a man given to doing hard things—like breaking almost every mountain–travel record you can with a pair of touring skis—this is a whole different journey. In 2017, he launched his electric adventures campaign: a bid to curb his carbon footprint while proving these new vehicles could work in the mountains. His goal was to climb 100 summits “electrically,” forsaking all forms of combustion travel until done. When we left Revelstoke three days ago, there was just finally enough charging infrastructure to leapfrog a 250-mile-range Chevrolet Bolt from Revelstoke to Jackson Hole… with 500 miles of detours, plus the charging time. The idea was to “top up” in places we could ski, and maybe bag a peak or two along the way to add to his then tally of 64. Like all things Hill does, though, it turns out it’s not that easy.
Rewind three days, and the landscape dissolves into night on the windy road past the Galena Bay ferry, just south of Revelstoke. All our gear is stuffed inside the car to avoid air drag from a rooftop box and get the maximum miles out of each charge. Because of this, I make us pull over three times to fend off car sickness. When we finally settle for the night (along with my stomach) in Nelson, B.C., Hill fights his own fight—refusing to use the hotel soap to avoid throwing away its wrapper.
The next morning, clear of nausea but not body odour, we slow creep up Whitewater Ski Resort’s notoriously rugged access road with aims for Ymir Peak. Electric vehicles (EVs) have no hulking metal engines over the front tires, and traction can be dubious in places like this. Two trucks overtake us and Hill laments out loud, “I’ve really realized what a different driver this car has made me into,” not used to being passed in any walk of life.
Eventually the Silver King Chair gives us a small bump before skins take us the rest of the way to Acidophilus: a classic, 300-metre, steep tree run off the back shoulder of Ymir Peak. Conditions are no good for the summit, so we instead braid turns in a forested haze of fresh dust before I hopelessly chase my chauffeur back up the skin tack. By noon, with a few thousand feet of vertical bagged, it’s already time to hit the road again.
We stop once in Salmo, B.C., before making it all the way to Spokane, Washington, where I begin to understand the EV community relies on information exchange the same way the ski-touring community does. There are apps and websites that show the location and status of chargers all over the world. But, like an avalanche bulletin, it can be flawed. A little farther down the road, in Connell, Washington—our only option for one last spark for the night—the charger is broken. “I’ll have to limp us to Kennewick,” Hill concedes, soaked from trying to charge in the rain. We manage to roll into our hotel on e-vapors, to the tune of eerie elevator music warning the battery is critically low.
In the morning, Hill tells me he woke at 4:30 am, moved the car over to a fast charger on the other side of town and jogged back. The hotel charger never freed up—just one of several ways to get shut down in an EV. Regular vehicles often block chargers for the sake of parking and vandals frequently drill out charging couplers in strange outbursts of contempt. Not everybody is stoked on the future, but we cruise in that direction anyway, into Oregon.
Over the grassy, snowless plains, we pass miles of poverty. “You drive through these places and it’s no wonder people don’t care about the environment,” Hill says pointedly. “They can’t. These people are living paycheck to paycheck.” But by the time we hit Huntington, Oregon, it feels like we’re the sad sacks. An entire bank of fast chargers isn’t working, threatening to leave us stranded. Hill gets on the phone to sort it out (it’s often a software glitch), as a passing local asks him about his car. Hill tells the scruffy local he can drive 200 miles, then it takes an hour to charge. “That sucks,” the guy barks back. “Depends what you care about,” Hill answers gruffly.
An hour later we leave town full of electricity and diner food—the phone call worked. In the slow-rolling hours that follow, I stare endlessly at the two long hairs on Hill’s passenger-side cheek he missed when he shaved this morning. I say nothing.
“Every small town has a coffee shop ski–tourers meet in,” Hill assured me as we down breakfast in Ketchum, Idaho, just outside Sun Valley, where friend and local Natalie Spencer comes and collects us. We load her into the Bolt by storing our excess gear in her truck for the day, and head to Galena Pass. While the fresh snow—coupled with being out of the car—is divine, we once again spend the day avoiding avalanche conditions by wiggling in the trees. No peak for us.
Later that night, as we near Idaho Falls, Hill makes me stand in for Siri because he’s sick of her voice. But I keep missing our turns. “That’s OK, it’ll only add five minutes,” I assure him. “Not minutes, dude,” he pleads with me, “think miles, we only have so many miles!”
Sitting in a restaurant in Viktor, Idaho, we commiserate with other road warriors that Teton Pass is closed due to a storm. A local recommends we ski Oliver Peak while we wait, and Hill hits the snow running the moment we park. He’s adapted to driving slow, but can’t ski tour that way. Within minutes he disappears on the savagely steep Wyoming skin track. We keep up this cat-and-mouse game for three hours and three 1,500-vertical–foot laps in waist–deep blower before the road opens and we finally make it to Jackson. Just in time for the Academy.
Over the four days it took to get here, we didn’t manage to bag any peaks, and even Hill became weary. Just like road trips can crack people wide open, they can straight-up crack them, too. The next morning, though, with almost every Arc’teryx athlete across North America pouring into town comfortably by plane, Hill’s already loading friends into his electric car and singing its praises. He insists on being the one to drive out to the four feet of snow waiting in Grand Teton National Park.
Join us and Greg Hill in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the 2020 Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy February 6th – 9th.