Each winter, Chris Hayward plays an epic game of King of the Mountain, eschewing chairlifts and racking up as much vertical footage as he can. Who says going down is the fun part?
By Jaed Coffin Photographed by Jamie Walter
At 6 a.m. on a sunny, windless day last winter, Chris Hayward stood in a deserted parking lot at Sunday River and stretched climbing skins onto his skis. Above him, the morning sky was neon blue, the chairlift silent and still. “This is just how I like to wake up,” he said, taking in the quiet scene. “Get some fresh air, see the sunrise, get a fresh lap before breakfast when no one else is around.” Then, he clicked into his bindings and started climbing. A lone figure shuffling up an empty hill, he looked like the protagonist of a post-apocalyptic movie about the last skier on Earth.
Hayward started this morning ritual six years ago, typically getting in a first run by late October, using an app to track how much ground he covers in a season. The goal is 100,000 vertical feet — that’s 31/3 Everests — by the time the snow is gone. His usual route spans 1,500 vertical feet, which he’s scaled in 27 minutes at his fastest. Once, on a pristine powder day, he did three laps in a row, starting before sunrise, wearing a headlamp.
The 44-year-old grew up in Alna and started skiing on the Nordic trails at nearby Hidden Valley Nature Center. Now, he lives in Bethel, where he’s director of experiential learning at Gould Academy. He’s also a Registered Maine Guide as well as a member of Sunday River’s ski patrol and the Mahoosuc Mountain Search and Rescue Team. A few years ago, he recorded one of the first skiing descents of Mt. Katahdin’s treacherous Chimney Couloir. More recently, he ran the Hundred Mile Wilderness, knocking out the normally weeklong trek in 38 hours.
Most mornings, before lifts open, Hayward has Sunday River to himself, but not all the time anymore. “More and more people are earning turns,” he says — that is, hoofing it up the mountain in order to lay fresh tracks. “If a storm falls at the right time, you’ll see 20 people up here.” Some days, he brings students with him, one time leading a crew of 27 (“Get them away from their phones,” he says). Other days, two friends — Rob Manning and Bob Harkins — climb with him. The three have a friendly competition to rack up the most vertical feet, comparing stats as the winter goes along. It’s not so much about winning, Hayward says, as about “pushing each other to make sure we ski a ton.”
Within an hour of starting out, Hayward reached the peak. It was late in the season, and the whistling of a white-throated sparrow was the only sound. Hayward stripped off his skins and checked his watch: 98,000 feet. “By the end of the week I should have it,” he said. “Maybe Wednesday.” He hadn’t given much thought to how he’d mark the occasion — besides, by now he’s already reset his odometer and started all over again.
“I’ll probably drink a beer,” he decided. The silhouette of Mount Washington floated behind him like a hologram. Then, he took a sip of water and skied back down.