Interview with Florian Hill: New York City’s Resident MountaineerBy Avi David Edelson Posted in - Interviews on July 17th, 2014
Interview With Florian Hill: New York City’s Resident Mountaineer
Florian Hill, the New York City-based mountaineer, is well known for tackling tough new routes in Alaska, South America and Central Asia. During our recent conversation, Florian shared his thoughts on being a professional athlete, the importance of taking your mother’s advice, and how to follow your own path—even if it means ruffling some feathers along the way.
- Avi David Edelson, Traverse
Avi David Edelson: What does it mean to be a professional mountaineer?
Florian Hill: As a professional mountaineer you make a living by climbing. That comes along with sponsors who support you with money, allowing you to focus on formulating your expeditions. As a sponsored athlete you don’t have to work in the traditional sense—you pursue sponsors so you can focus on what you need to do to launch a successful expedition. And by not having to work a regular job, you’re able to train harder, which is incredibly important for bigger expeditions.
But, as a professional mountaineer you’re also a marketing tool. While this is a reality, I try to see it in a way that’s productive for me. For one, I don’t use the term professional mountaineer. In many ways what I’m doing is just living my life. Even if you find sponsors and receive money to pursue expeditions, it’s a conscious choice to see it as a lifestyle and a philosophy for life. I’m passionate about what I’m doing, and that’s what I choose to focus on. Not the marketing end of things.
Avi: But you could have chosen to pursue the life of a mountaineer in obscurity. Why do it this way—why do it professionally?
Florian: I’m going to answer this question in the most direct way possible: because I can. I work with sponsors because I find it easy to work with them. I think I have the right personality to do it. Also, I’m probably the right age and have the right look for it. And, I have the right marketing attitude, which makes working with sponsors relatively easy. Not everyone who wants to be sponsored gets sponsored. A lot of climbers I know would like to be pro athletes; there is just something that keeps them from making it work. What I’ve learned is that you have to have a marketing personality to find, and hold on to, sponsors. The benefits of being a pro athlete are that you have the freedom to focus on your training, which is what’s necessary for tackling harder climbs. The money I receive from my sponsors allows me to do just that.
Avi: Because you’re marketing yourself, much as one might market a product, do you ever see yourself as a product?
Florian: This is one of the moral dilemmas one faces pursuing this life [laughs]. On the one hand you want to be free to determine your own course, and on the other hand you’re locked into contracts, which require you to market for the brand, attend meetings, and everything else. I’m also expected to run lectures—something I really enjoy doing. I enjoy talking about mountaineering; I find that audiences like my presentations too. During these talks I don’t have to promote products. I talk about my experiences in the mountains, which is what people want to hear. It’s not some marketing pitch.
But, to come back to your question, yes, it’s a moral dilemma. I think what you can’t do is complain about the expectations of your sponsors. Complaining about your sponsors, while getting money from them, isn’t right. Look at it this way. As a professional athlete I work hard during the year. I have many obligations that I need to tend to. But, when those things are done, I’ll spend a portion of the year doing what I love—climbing. It has to be a compromise. That’s a normal part of life and work. Professional mountaineering is no different.
Avi: Let’s say you’ve just summited a big, challenging, peak. What’s that experience like? How are you feeling?
Florian: This is a common question. Most people assume you’re elated and feeling a bit like a hero. You’ve overcome all the hazards and you’ve conquered the mountain. In actuality, I’ve never felt like I’ve conquered anything. It’s crucial to remember that even when you’ve reached the top, you’ve only done half the work. You now need to get back to basecamp. And if you’ve gone up a steep face, you may have to repel down, which means that you’ll have to locate strong anchor placements. There is an element of danger there, requiring total focus. What I’m saying is that even if you’ve reached your goal, you still have a lot of work ahead of you. It’s when you’re back at basecamp that you have that feeling of being done.
What’s interesting, however, is that even when I’m back at basecamp, I still don’t feel that I’ve conquered anything. After a year’s preparation, and 6-weeks of climbing, everything is over. You don’t have a goal anymore. So almost immediately after you’re down, you’re thinking about the next climb. If I’m not producing a new idea for an expedition, there’s nothing.
Avi: That’s very interesting. So, when you’re back at basecamp do you feel more excited then when you left, or are you feeling somewhat empty?
Florian: It’s definitely a kind of emptiness. A kind of melancholy. The most interesting thing about climbing, or traveling for that matter, is that there is no final destination. Traveling goes on, and on, and on. When you get back to basecamp, you’re forced to come up with another idea. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. You’re already thinking about the next project.
Avi: So, once you’ve reached your goal, you’re already thinking about going down. And when you’re back at basecamp, you’re already thinking about the next climb. What then is the apex of the experience? It seems hard to celebrate when you’re thinking about future projects.
Florian: Interesting question. What we’ve been talking about is really the best case scenario. That you’ve had a successful expedition and you’ve reached your goal. But it’s important to keep in mind that 40-50% of your expeditions are not successful. You’ve had this long preparation, often months, and maybe you weren’t able to reach your goal. What I’m trying to say is that it’s a process, and it always starts with preparation. Even if you’re not successful, you’ve still been on a journey and that’s something that you learn to appreciate as you become a more experienced climber.
Avi: I’m happy you brought that up. How do you know when it’s time to turn back? You’re attempting to reach your goal, but something has changed: the weather, a health issue. When do you know it’s time to go down, and how do you make that decision?
Florian: There are some conditions and some situations that require you to break up the expedition. But most likely—and this is very interesting—it’s intuition. What is intuition? I don’t know. Some people have it, some don’t. For me, even in other parts of my life, it’s the thing I’ve learned to pay attention to. I just feel it. When things are getting dangerous, or I have this feeling that something is getting out of control, I just know it. And in actuality, I’m afraid anyway. Mountaineering is really intimidating. It’s cold and dark and there is alway the danger of avalanche or rockfall. But if my intuition says something’s really wrong, I go back. I cheated on my intuition twice, and twice I had accidents [laughs]. I think that says a lot.
Avi: That is interesting. You mentioned fear; what is fear and how do you use it to your advantage?
Florian: It’s an instinct that we need for survival. If you’re out in the field, fear is your life insurance. You have to deal with fear. But you also have to keep it in perspective. You have to contain fear–control it. But you can’t survive out there without it.
Avi: What is pain and how do you manage it?
Florian: Pain is subjective. Everyone has a different threshold for suffering. Expedition climbing is suffering. If you’re a mountaineer you have to be willing to accept it as part of the experience. Pain is a crucial element of this sport. But you adapt as you train. You toughen yourself as you train. But pain can also be an indicator that something is really wrong. If you have too much of it, or major problems with your stomach, you’re probably experiencing altitude sickness, which means you’ll need to descend. It’s like I said, sometimes you need to push yourself and sometimes you need to get over your ego and go down.
Avi: Is there a ritual that you go through each time you climb?
Florian: Before heading out on a new expedition, my mom gives me something to leave at basecamp: a small stone. She’ll find them on walks and then at home she’ll write something on them. Usually it’s like “be protected” or “don’t be stupid” or “come back healthy.” She says it’ll keep me safe and healthy.
Avi: Have you ever not left one at basecamp?
Florian: Yes, once. And, oddly, it was the one time I was hit by an avalanche [laughs]. Very interesting, right? And I don’t even believe in all that mystical stuff. Now I always do it. The rule is, never argue with your mom [we both laugh].
Avi: I know you have a home in Haines, Alaska. An amazing area with access to some of North America’s best climbing. But you also live in New York City part of the year. Why’s that?
Florian: I’ve always wanted to live in New York City. I wanted to be here because it’s the most influential city in the world. Art, culture, politics—it’s here. New York City is a very interesting and exciting place. And, I wanted a change. For a long time I was looking for solitude, which I found in remote communities. I decided to be in New York City because I wanted a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. Also, New York City is a pretty extreme place–something I like. Maybe as I get older I’ll want to settle in a place with more isolation. But for now, New York City provides me with opportunities to do many interesting things. It’s a fun place to be. But it’s a challenging place to be too; you have to want to be here.
Avi: Changing gears slightly; you’re a fit guy. What’s the most unhealthy thing you’ve done in the past month? The kind of thing that would make your trainer say, “Florian, what are you doing?”
Florian: It’s not that I’m eating unhealthy food. It’s good to have a burger here and there. Also, I like having chocolate every once in awhile, but that’s not particularly bad. I’m not a smoker or a drinker. Hmm, the most unhealthy thing… It’s probably that I’m not sleeping enough. When you don’t sleep it affects your mind, and how you’re feeling. Getting enough sleep is very important.
Avi: Why aren’t you sleeping?
Florian: I’m busy and sometimes my mind is very active. And, I’m working a lot. It comes along with the New York lifestyle. You eat late. And maybe your friends want you to go out with them for a cocktail. Also, when I’m not training it’s hard to have a regular sleeping regimen.
Avi: Well, of all the things you could be doing that aren’t healthy, not sleeping enough is pretty tame.
Florian: That’s true [laughs]. Once I said it I realized, hey, I’m actually pretty healthy.
Avi: Is there anything else you’d want people to know about you that they might not otherwise know?
Florian: Well actually, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about freewill and its relation to my work as a professional athlete. I’ve been following the work of a neuroscientist who’s been doing some interesting research on the topic. I find his line of study very insightful, especially in the way it applies to my work as a sponsored mountaineer. For example, I sometimes find myself thinking, “Why did I do this expedition?” Even if I enjoyed the experience, I’ll consider the factors that led me to undertake it. And, obviously I’m forced to consider the role of my sponsors in that decision. While it’s difficult to think in these terms, it’s helpful to question your motivation from time to time.
On this, I’ve gone through much of my life thinking, hey, “I’m a free person.” But the other side of the coin is that I’ve been marketed as a free person. My sponsors market me as free. They say, “He’s doing what he wants. He’s living the dream.” But if you’re an introspective person you end up asking whether you’re doing this for yourself, or if you’re allowing someone to define you for their own purposes. It’s hard to face that reality when you’re doing something you love, but you’ve got obligations to do it in a certain way.
Avi: I imagine that’s very tough. You’re very committed to having a defining experience in nature, in an environment that is incredibly dangerous, and you don’t want that to be influenced by your professional obligations. As you stated before, it’s easy to feel like a product when you’re a sponsored athlete.
Florian: Yes, it’s a dilemma. It comes from the responsibilities you take on as a paid athlete. A lot of people think, “Here’s this guy. He must have the best life ever. He gets paid to have fun.” First, I don’t have fun on my expeditions. Expeditions are tough. I love having the experience of being out there. But, it’s work. No one gives you money to just live your life. There isn’t a company in this world that gives you money and lets you do whatever you want. When sponsors provide you with money they expect something in return—it’s a business they’re running, and I’m part of that. When professional mountaineers say, “There’s no pressure, you create the pressure,” it’s total bullshit. Sponsors create pressure and I’m not afraid to say that. And I’m not afraid to criticize the extreme sports industry.
For a lot of athletes the only way to get sponsored is to go bigger and faster. And the sad reality is that a lot of these guys kill themselves trying to do just that. That’s obviously not what the sponsors want, but it’s an effect we’ve seen from time to time. In many ways sponsors create the pressures that cause athletes to do risky things. This is particularly difficult for younger athletes who feel that they need the attention if they’re going to make it. The result is that they’re more likely to do stupid things.
Avi: Have you ever had to drop a sponsor for this reason?
Florian: Yes, and I’m happy about that. I’m happy that I drew my line. While I lost money by passing on the contract, I can’t cheat on my morals and values. I can’t. That’s not the kind of person I am, and it’s not the kind of athlete I am. If everything fell apart for me, I’d still have my values and attitude toward life. And that will never go away.
Photo Courtesy: Florian Hill