Hank Bilous is one of the stars of the FWT these days, with an envious schedule of living life to the full skiing the globe, or surfing the chilly South Island waters otherwise.
We featured Hank in Snow Action as a 13 year year old back in 2013, as the lead spread of a feature on the World Heli Challenge in Wanaka. Last winter he reversed the usual trans-Tasman snow flow, hopping over the ditch for the North Face’s Western Faces short film by Lachlan Humphreys and Rob Norman produced by Clean Line Productions And Knack Studios.
We caught up with Hank for the lowdown on why Kiwis are ruling FWT, what he thinks of Aussie backcountry and more.
We ran a lead spread of you for a feature on the World Heli Challenge from 2012, you must have only been 13 or 14. How did you manage to get going in big events so young?
I guess primarily through hanging out at the Hawea Pub as a kid ha ha.
Back then the World Heli Challenge was based out of the Hawea Hotel/Pub. One of my friends from primary school’s dad owned and managed the pub at the time, so we spent countless hours there terrorising guests and drinking raspberry cokes until we felt sick. It was always like the circus rolling into town when the Heli Challenge gang rolled in and super exciting for a 13 year old.
We would always hang around the Heli Challenge when they were around being the frothy little goms we were and they were kind enough to include us in some of their down day activities. One of these was a scaffolding ski jump from the terrace above the pub down onto an airbag in the car park (this was still the early days of the airbag and the set ups were pretty sketchy).
I did a few flips and stuff and I guess Harro saw some kind of potential. The way the heli loads shook out the next year they needed someone light to fill a load. Being a scrawny 13 year old, I fit the bill. That same year he also brought down Australian Super Grom Mitch Reeves and Harro thought it would be cool if he had someone else his age to ski with.
So it was a bit of a right time, right place thing with some free thinking & generosity from Harro to make it happen.
The FWT ski lineup is full of Kiwis and you guys have been getting great results, especially Craig Murray and yourself. What’s the Kiwi secret – terrain, attitude, club fields?
One thing I think that definitely helps kiwis on the comp circuit is our comfortableness pushing our limits in crap conditions. In Europe and North America it makes sense to wait for forgiving conditions like good snow and light to push it.
If you took that same approach in New Zealand you might only be letting your hair down a handful of times a season which would be frustrating and take a long time to progress. So instead we just grit our teeth & get on with it in all conditions.
This approach may not be the best for your knees but it sure does give you a solid set of skills to deal with less than ideal conditions, which is often what you get in a competition environment.
On the terrain front seems like a lot of the younger Kiwi freeskiers – the MFC crew in particular – are on missions to summit and ski the gnarliest peaks you can. Have you got any favourite mountains you have done and any big ones on the agenda for the future?
I think the MFC crew venturing higher, further & deeper is just an extension of what we have always done from a young age at the ski field. Luckily we grew up in a place with a lifetime of adventure all around us waiting for us to grow into.
What we are really on a mission to do is to keep growing, supporting each other to do that and have as much fun as possible along the way. I don’t know where that will take us but I look forward to going there 🙂
Everybody knows NZ has great mountains and serious terrain. Not so much for Australia though. Did you have any pre-conceptions of the Aussie terrain and conditions you hit for the North Face Western Faces movie – we noticed you packed the beach shirts?
I had no idea what to expect going for a backcountry ski trip in Australia, which was super exciting. I packed my beach shirts simply because I usually bring a party shirt whenever I go on a trip, you never know when you are going to need one.
It was really unusual to be going away for an extended period with no idea what you were heading to. I really enjoyed the feeling of setting off with all the gear we needed to be self-sufficient for the 10 days with the mystery of not knowing what we were up against.
How do you rate it there now you know it?
I was blown away (quite literally at one point) with the terrain accessible in Australia! If you managed to line up a decent spell of weather after some fresh snow there would be some outrageous lines to be had in the Kosciuszko National Park. However, we found that can be easier said than done. Being the main range in the area it is extremely exposed to the elements and on our trip there we felt the full vulnerability of that exposure. There is definitely great backcountry skiing in Australia but weather is important, be prepared and have a good time.
Everyone in NZ grows up knowing who Sir Edmund Hilary is. Did you know of Tim’s achievements before you met up on the movie?
I didn’t initially, but got a crash course on some of Tim’s feats from our mutual friends at The North Face Australia office before we met. I was excited to meet him and get to know him (sharing the same toilet bucket as someone for 10 days is a great way to get to know someone).
He goes pretty good for over 60, and he sure nailed stack-of-the-shoot. Looked like you guys got on pretty well, what did you mainly talk about?
Does he ever! It was really inspiring to see what a life dedicated to the mountains looks like once you get to Tim’s age. It is a strange environment for a human living in the snow in a tent, but not for Tim. His comfort in that setting was obvious, it is his world up there and I felt lucky to be there with him.
Yeah we did, Tim’s a funny cat and is full of outrageous yarns. Us talking in the tent at night was predominantly Tim talking and me listening, hearing his first hand account of the missions he has done was riveting and hilarious stuff.
The guy knows how to get himself in a sticky situation.. And purely through his grit gets himself out, always making for an entertaining tale.
How about with you and Finn, do you get to ski much together? Must have been a pretty full-on rivalry growing up, but he’s gone the World Cup/Olympics route and your are FWT, how did you choose those paths?
When we were growing up we always skied together and I’d credit most of our progression to that. It was less of a rivalry and more of us both wanting to be better and if one of us could do something, why not the other?
There was never any distinction for us between disciplines in skiing, it has always just been skiing for us and still is. Finn competes in Slopestyle & Big Air now (with some great results – no pressure, but definite medal shot, any colour possible, for next Winter Olympics) and I compete in Freeride, but we are still both just as happy to ski Treble Cone or the park at Cardrona together when we get the chance.
Unfortunately we don’t get to ski together as much anymore due to our diverged competitive paths. But when we do it’s still the same as when we were 5 years old, except the jumps are bigger and the hot choccy is swapped for beer.
Don’t miss Western Faces by the North Face, great footage and insights.