Becky’s Diner. Portland, Maine.
Colin and I met in New Zealand during the 2013 World Heli Challenge–he was competing and I was reporting. At the time, Colin was living in Wanaka with his then-girlfriend Sofia, an Argentinian beauty. Our meeting was one of those “of all the gin joints,” small world moments–minus the romantic overtones, obviously–because though we were both in New Zealand at that point, we both actually considered Sunday River in Maine to be our home mountain. Colin had also just qualified for the Freeride World Tour, a prestigious, high-stakes international competition circuit featuring the world’s best big mountain skiers and snowboarders. Colin has since moved back to his home state, Maine, made Sofia his wife, and become a dad. His son, Alfonso, definitely has the best name of any of the babies I’ve encountered lately. Colin’s ranked fourth on the FWT after his second season, easily requalifying, and he works as a marketing consultant when he’s not continent hopping, a pastime facilitated by the possession of both British and U.S. passports, and NZ permanent residency. We recently met at Becky’s Diner in Portland to discuss life-and-death situations (literally) and why karma’s not such a bitch.
So, why are we at Becky’s Diner in Portland?
Well, I don’t go out to eat too often, and I’d heard about Becky’s. I’ve biked past it quite a bit, and I thought it would be your classic Maine diner experience. And when you look at a place that’s been around for like 50 years, there’s got to be something that’s pretty good about it.
You had a really good season this year on the Freeride World Tour. What was your biggest takeaway?
Just don’t take anything for granted. It’s a real honor to be a part of an international circuit like that and if you don’t enjoy the moments that you’re there, even if you’re stuck in a hotel room in Haines, Alaska, or wherever it is, holed up for 10 days and, you know, it’s raining out, and everybody’s over it… If you’re not enjoying it, you shouldn’t really be there, I don’t think. For me, now that I live in Maine, and I’ve probably only snowboarded four days this year in Maine, I don’t really have to remind myself every time I go on a trip how lucky I am.
And the times at home—I look at my son now, and you can’t take those times for granted, either. He’s twice as big as he was four or five weeks ago, and it’s those moments that you’ll never have back, either.
What’s the number one American thing that you’re happy to have back in your life?
My gut instinct is to say Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups… but, I believe they’ve started to show up in various places in New Zealand. So, I guess, the opportunity here is pretty impressive. You can really do anything. In New Zealand, maybe it was just the stage of life that we were at, but it felt harder to go out on your own and start something–because it’s expensive, because there aren’t a lot of people around, and in Wanaka, you’ve got huge expenses and not much revenue opportunity, whereas in the U.S., I mean, it’s a totally different story. What I’ve been doing this past year, people want startups, they want to create scalable businesses, and people are really welcoming to different skillsets.
Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing now.
I have a marketing consultancy, working with mostly other start-ups. A lot of [my] clients are so focused on the delivery of their product or service, that the last thing they think about is how to stay true to what it was that they started, and to grow their business through marketing.
Would you rather spend three years in prison or 20 years in a flat, landlocked desert?
Three years in prison.
Huh. I thought that would be harder to answer than that.
Nah. Three years is a pretty short amount of time, and I think you could figure a lot out about yourself with three years in prison.
Do you have a favorite compliment that you’ve ever received, that you still think about?
No. [Laughs]. I don’t. I’m trying to think of something that somebody said to me yesterday that surprised me.
What did someone say yesterday?
I have no idea. I guess they thought that I just live in a way that it becomes a normal part of life for you to do good things for other people, [and] you exceed people’s expectations to the point that they go so far as to compliment you. [Laughs.]
Have you ever been in a situation where you actually feared for your life?
Probably. When was the last time I feared for my life? In Chamonix this year, we had a pretty good scare. We did something very stupid, Neil Williman and I, and this photographer who I didn’t know from Austria.
We were on one of the last trams up Brévent and I had been looking over to these two lines for two years, and I knew that you had to rappel into one aspect of it, but the other side had the appearance that you could just ski right into it. I asked Neil, who had lived there, and he’s like “Oh yeah, we can ski right into that. No problem.” So it was like 4:00 p.m., and we struck off into the backcountry of Chamonix–in mid-winter, so there’s not too much sun anyway. We dropped off the front face and it’s an, I don’t know, 5,000-foot descent to the valley floor? Maybe even more. And, um, [laughs], I immediately knew that it didn’t feel like we were in the right place, but Neil was like, “No, this is where we went last year.”
We pressed on and dropped into this couloir, and the snow was very good. There were no tracks. We have this view over Mont Blanc. Everything’s all good. But as we went on, the couloir started to tighten up, and there were a couple of mandatory airs in there–basically, you know, vertical rock walls that were frozen waterfalls. I wasn’t too concerned about Neil or myself–well, that’s not true. As soon as we got in there, I was like, “We might have to call a helicopter to get out of here.” But then the kid in front of me just wasn’t at the same skill level, and he was doubting himself. He wanted to take his skis off and I had to convince him that that was not an option. And then when he got to the 30-foot ice cliff at the bottom, with no other option because the walls in the couloir were so high, he… he did it, which was impressive. We all had to drop it. Fortunately, it opened up [then]. We made a couple of navigational errors, but we found a trail and hiked all the way down to the city by dark.
What time was it by the time you got back?
I don’t know, 8:00? So, that was just a very foolish thing to do, to drop into terrain in one of the most extreme places to ride in Europe without a rope, without a harness, with someone you’ve never ridden with before, and, yeah… but it worked out fine and we only went down a couloir with a 30-foot cliff. And a few other smaller ones. But we could have very easily gotten into a choke… Fortunately, you can just call a helicopter there and they’ll long-line you out, but…
Have you had to do that much?
No. Never. But I know a lot of people that have. And you feel like an idiot when you do something like that. It’s one thing if you do it and you get hurt, somebody breaks a leg. It’s another thing when you just do something as foolish as that and then in the newspaper the next day in Chamonix it’s, “Freeride World Tour Riders… are retarded.”
Did you hear about what happened here over the winter, with the woman from New York in the White Mountains? It was sad, but so weird.
So, this woman comes up from New York and she wants to hike between two of the mountains in the Presidentials. It was the worst weather I think we had all winter. It was like 100-something mile-per-hour winds [at the top of Mt. Washington] and so cold, like -79 wind chill. Nuts. So her husband drops her off and within a few hours, her emergency beacon is going off, and I don’t know if this is possible, but from what I understand, it sounded like the crazy weather was interfering with the signal and they couldn’t find her, and the helicopter was having problems because of the weather, and all of this stuff, and they found her a day or two later and she had died from exposure–apparently pretty quickly. And there was this whole big thing, like, why was she going? I mean, I think people were kind of annoyed by the resources used and that other people were put at risk to try and help her…
I have two things to say about that. One is that you get somebody who has this idea in her head, and she says, okay, I’ve been training for six months to do this Presidential walk, climb Everest, climb Denali, swim 1,000 miles–whatever the thing is. You get to that moment where you actually have to take the first step, and there’s so much force behind it–all of this pressure that, pretty much, you’ve put on yourself. When you take the first step, everything’s telling you, “No, it’s negative 79 degrees outside, the forecast is terrible,” and people have told you this is a really bad idea, but you can’t separate that from this momentum that’s been building behind you. And for people who are not in that position all the time, I feel like it’s hard to say no. Even people who are in that position all the time–that’s one of the hardest things that we have to do on the mountain and, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at that in the past couple of years: Just saying no. Knowing that on certain days, I don’t want to be dropping 40-foot cliffs, I don’t want to be chasing certain guys around the mountain, because my body or my mind–something–is not sharp enough. That’s a hard decision to make, but if you’re not in that position all the time, it’s almost impossible to say no, so I think that she would have suffered from that.
Also, last year, kind of the same thing happened, but on a different scale. A family was sailing in the Pacific, they pulled an EPIRB, a plane came through and dropped four emergency medical technicians, and four days later, the boat showed up–like the U.S. Navy. It blew up on the news and all of these people were saying what terrible parents they were, taking their two children (one of them was like six months old). “How could they do something so foolish? And what a waste of resources.”
And on NPR, I heard the other side of the story. [The father] was a very, very well trained guy who’d lived on his sailboat with his wife [for] years. They were very experienced; they knew exactly what they were doing. [Put yourself] in that position: You’ve got your daughter who’s sick and you don’t know what’s wrong with her, your boat is not seaworthy–they’d been struck by a wave and they were taking on water. And then their radios also were not working, so they were in a “perfect storm,” and their daughter wasn’t getting better… what would you do? Of course you’d pull the fucking EPIRB. And when you see all of these news anchors saying what terrible parents they are, it’s really frustrating that people would boil it down so simply without actually hearing the full story.
And then, at the end, they had to sink their own home and all of their personal belongings, so it was actually really sad. You know, you could tell [during the interview] how much of an emotional decision that was. So coming back to the woman in New Hampshire, the search and rescue capacity in our society is there for a reason, and if you’re ever in that position, you want to know that if you push that button, somebody’s going to come to your rescue. I think that people often point fingers and say what a bad decision it was, and yeah, it was a bad decision, and should they be responsible to pay for it? I don’t know. But you’d rather have somebody alive than dead.
Right. That’s a really good point. Unfortunately, we won’t hear her side of the story, but there’s probably a lot more to it than what you’re getting in that 300-word article. Last question: Do you believe in karma?
Yeah… yeah. I think so.
Do you have a reason why?
I don’t know if it’s karma or optimism, but when you’re doing good, it seems to come back, and when you’re doing bad, the cycle continues. If somebody helps me with something, I want to find a way to repay him, and whether that’s conscious or unconscious, it’s just the way it is. I do think that there’s a subconscious level where things seem to always come out in the wash. It may not seem to connect, but it does.
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