Conquering fear and pursuing a new life path, at 10,000 feet
Ahead of the release of her new HBO docu-series ‘Edge Of The Earth’, pro snowboarder Elena Hight shares her perspective from a do-or-die Alaskan peak
Saturday 9 July 2022 By Anna Dimond Photography by Bertram Knight and Arcteryx/Aaron Blatt
Elena Hight is hanging on to the side of a mountain, snowboard on her back and an ice axe in each hand. She and two other snowboarders are just a few hundred feet from their objective: the peak of Alaska’s Mount Bertha, a 10,000-foot behemoth. But first, they must traverse this treacherous stretch with a field of rocks to their left and a 5,000-foot drop to their right. As Hight and her companions inch their way up the nearly vertical, snowy face, the stakes are palpable.
This mission, and the incredible (and yes, still dicey) ride down, is the subject of ‘Into The Void’, the first episode in HBO’s new docu-series, Edge Of The Earth. Each of the four episodes follows a team as they tackle a first descent, paddle, surf or climb in some of the most remote places on Earth.
For Hight and her team, that penultimate, narrow section towards the end of their epic journey, is known as a no-fall zone, where just one wrong move could mean the end. And for Hight, a two-time Olympic snowboarder with a 20-year career in the halfpipe, that exact moment – which followed a wintry boat trip, an endless hike, getting snowed in for days, and then, finally, hooked into a mountain at 9,000-plus feet – was the scariest of the entire trip.
Yet, despite all their endurance, determination and adrenaline, Hight insists there’s nothing special about her and her peers. ‘It’s easy to look at people doing these far-out things and think, “I’d never be able to do that”,’ she says. ‘Of course, we’ve got the skills and have honed them, but we’re no different than anyone else. It’s not that we’ve dedicated our lives to this then it becomes easy – that challenge is part of what we love about it. I hope that people get inspired to push themselves, because there’s so much human potential.’
Hight, who is a member of Soho Beach House Malibu, isn’t just speaking in hyperbole; she herself didn’t always summit big mountains. Before teaming up with Jeremy Jones, a pioneer in backcountry snowboarding who led the Mount Bertha trip, she was a career competitor who landed groundbreaking tricks and dominated in contests from the US Open to the X Games. But when she didn’t qualify for the 2018 Olympics, Jones invited her on a backcountry trip that allowed her to broaden her horizons and get out of her comfort zone.
During those first days in the wilderness, travelling on foot and riding down unmarked mountain faces, something shifted. Part of it was the call of the backcountry; part of it was watching Jones in his element.
‘He paved the way for human-powered snowboarding and he’s doing it well into his forties,’ says Hight. At the time I was one of the oldest people in the halfpipe. I think that opened my eyes to this whole new realm of possibility. I decided to retire from competing and focus all my energy on this new skill set. Backcountry snowboarding is like a new career and a new sport, and it requires so many new skills that I didn’t have before.’
In contrast to resort skiing, where runs are groomed and patrollers manage safety, in the backcountry every decision – from where to go, how to get there, how to assess risks and how to ride down – is up to the rider.
Hight, like a lot of backcountry enthusiasts, started with avalanche safety training, and then learnt wilderness first aid. But for the Bertha trip, there were other things to consider, too; technical things like how to navigate crevasses, which are sudden breaks in the glacier ice, and practical things, like how to stay warm at night in extreme cold.
Group dynamics also came into play. Hight, Jones and their third team member, freeskiing champion Griffin Post, not only put themselves through a challenging physical and mental ordeal, but also only had each other to rely on. At a certain point, trudging across a tundra for 10 hours or shovelling oneself out of a tent for days on end can take its toll.
‘Going into something like [the Mount Bertha mission], whether it’s the other athletes or the film crew, there’s a level of respect for each other’s craft. It’s knowing that we’re a team working together to create this project and we can’t do our job without each other. With people that you don’t know [going in], as you hit challenges and work together, [trust] happens pretty quickly when you’re in tight quarters.’
For Hight, one of the trip’s biggest endurance challenges was at the beginning, during their approach to base camp. Stormy weather forced the group to compress two days’ worth of hiking into one, and a white-out further complicated the trek. As the trio trudged through the snow, breaking trail and dragging their gear on sleds, the weight of deep fatigue and aching muscles weren’t a stretch to imagine. They were also the hurdles that helped forge a sense of profound pride.
‘There were moments where you tap into something,’ says Hight, ‘where there’s nothing else other than moving forward. Going through those really challenging times makes you realise how capable you are as a human.
‘This trip definitely helped me step into my own in the big mountain space. I’ve put a lot of work in over the past five years after retiring from competing and learning as much as I can, and I definitely had to use all of those skills on this trip.’
During ‘Into The Void’, that hard work is impossible to miss. The sheer mental toughness that the mission called for is clear from the minute the group sets out on Glacier Bay, where they take a boat to their target mountain range. There’s a deck full of snow; there’s banked-in fog; there’s a squall that sends them looking for cover – all before the hiking even begins.
But the elevated level of confidence that came from taking on the endeavour is a new, elevated foundation from which Hight will plan her next mission – whether it’s a mountain peak or personal growth. Whatever the objective, it won’t be an end point, but a part of the journey.
Backcountry snowboarding, she says, ‘Is a constant learning process. That’s what I love so much about the mountains – that there is no end goal. It’s really just this evolution of learning; learning more and more and as much as you can.’