Skiing the Tallest Volcanoes in the World

Alumni6 MIN READ

Most hikers celebrate at the summit, but that’s where Ben Freeland ’20 straps on his skis and starts heading down

After graduating from Colby, Ben Freeland '20 challenged himself to summit and ski seven of the tallest volcanoes in the world. In 2022 he conquered Monte Pissis at more than 22,000 feet, located in the Puna de Atacama range near the border of Chile and Argentina. It is thought to have been skied by fewer than 100 people.
By Kayla Voigt '14Photography by Facu Rodriquez
January 10, 2024

It’s 5 p.m., and instead of closing his laptop and heading home for the day, Ben Freeland ’20 hurtles down the icy, glacial slope of Argentina’s Monte Pissis. After days hiking and acclimatizing to the 22,283-foot volcano, Freeland skied the peak in late 2022, joining an elite group of adventurists who have successfully done so. There is no official record, but Freeland believes he is the first American skier who has successfully skied the peak.

This is all part of a challenge Freeland set for himself after graduation. He plans to summit and ski seven of the tallest volcanoes around the world. So far, he’s completed Monte Pissis (22,283 feet) in Argentina, Pico de Orizaba (18,620 feet) in Mexico, and Mount Ararat (16,854 feet) in Turkey.

“Each peak presents a completely different challenge,” Freeland said. “For my next volcano in Hawaii, for example, I have to swim in the Pacific Ocean and then put a backpack on my skis to hike overnight 12,000 feet before skiing. Contrast that with Monte Pissis in Argentina, which was a two-week-long endeavor at extreme elevations with the closest rescue helicopter over 1,000 kilometers away.”

Graduating during the pandemic inspired him to attempt a challenge like this. “I had planned to travel internationally after college, and of course that was impossible [because of the pandemic]. I knew in 2020 that at some point there would be a light at the end of the tunnel, and I let myself build this grand vision of what it could be. I’ve always had a passion for skiing,” he said. 

Ben Freeland stretching his legs at 14,000 feet during a long backcountry drive to Monte Pissis. He traveled on mining roads used by multinational corporations as they harvest minerals like lithium.  

His love of skiing began at a young age and continued through his time at Colby as a member of the Ski and Outing clubs. “I grew up ski racing in Sunapee, N.H., and skied competitively all through high school,” he said. “I loved doing it, but for me, it was always a means to enjoy the outdoors.”

His original plan included the seven tallest volcanoes—a feat only a few dozen people have completed. But if there’s one thing Freeland has learned in the last few years, it’s the art of the pivot.

The tallest volcano in Europe, Mount Elbrus, stands 18,510 feet tall in southwestern Russia. Similarly, the tallest volcano in Asia is technically Damavand (18,402 feet tall) in Iran. It’s one thing to ski a gnarly route and another to ski straight into a war zone. 

Instead, he plans to summit and ski Mount Kazbek (16,512 feet) in Georgia’s Caucasus range, bagging the second-tallest volcano in Europe. He’s already attempted to summit Mount Kazbek once and has his sights set on a second go this April. He’s already bagged Damavand’s slightly shorter cousin in Turkey, Mount Ararat.

For Freeland, it’s less about doing the biggest, splashiest thing and more about where in the world he gets to go. Being the first American to ski some of these volcanoes is exciting but not the point of the project. Said Freeland, “Each volcano, to me, is an anchoring point for exploration, rather than seeing each peak as a must-have moment where if I fail to summit it, it’s a complete disaster.”

“At Colby, I really learned how to become a leader in my own life.”

Ben Freeland ’20

Most skiers who attempt challenges like this are professionals, sponsored by gear companies or participating in slick documentaries. Instead, he’s doing this mainly on his own, or training with friends and fellow alumni Ian Peterson ’21 and Joey Searle ’20. “I don’t want to professionalize this or make income off of this dream,” he said. “Each volcano brings me to a different place in the world, with a unique culture, history, and people. In Mexico, I hiked on trails at 12,000 feet that the Olmecs used 3,000 years prior. It’s an avenue to understanding a specific place in the world rather than just tick off a list.”

Skiing these peaks is a far cry from Narrow Gauge or Flume ski runs at Sugarloaf—and there isn’t a roaring fire and fresh donuts at the bottom, either. Instead, Freeland faces extremely dangerous conditions that vary based on geography, from snow blindness and frostbite to dehydration and altitude sickness.

“I’ve had life-or-death moments multiple times. I saw the ghosts of family members on Pico de Orizaba, basically hallucinating from oxygen deprivation,” said Freeland, who took three attempts to successfully complete the Mexican volcano. “You have to wade through this gray zone of needing to continue moving upwards and staying conscious. On Monte Pissis, my ski popped off midway down the glacier and I had to use ice axes to save myself from sliding to my death.”

Ben Freeland ascends a glacier as he climbs Monte Pissis.

The privilege of traveling around the world to tackle these peaks isn’t lost on Freeland. His first volcano hike—a spontaneous excursion in Indonesia—made a distinct spiritual impression. Standing at the top of volcanoes few others have reached is a surreal, awe-inspiring experience. Nothing humbles you quite like walking a tightrope of adrenaline where one false move means game over. 

Freeland has always been the type of person to try to do more—and do it better. The government major served as class president his junior year and founded Colby’s Spikeball Club before joining fintech startup Dosh (now Cardlytics) to work for Jen Millard ’90 after graduation. He credits his time at Colby for giving him the confidence to attempt a challenge like this. 

“At Colby, I really learned how to become a leader in my own life,” said Freeland. “My leadership style is collaborative and based on enthusiasm and dreaming big. I was the one asking, ‘How can we make campus even better?’ That’s the energy I always tried to bring to every conversation.”

Next up for Freeland? He’s heading to Hawaii to summit and ski Mauna Kea (13,803 feet), checking off the fourth volcano on his list. Said Freeland, “I have other dreams for myself for my career and personal fulfillment, but I know that I have this moment, right now, where I have the ability to follow this dream while I’m young.”

The Full List

What he’s completed:
North America: Pico de Orizaba, México: 18,500 feet, November 2022 (three attempts) 
South America: Monte Pissis, Argentina: 22,200 feet, December 2022 
Asia: Mount Ararat, Turkey: 16,800 feet, June 2023

What’s next: 
Oceania: Mauna Kea, Hawaii: 13,800 feet, March 2024 
Europe: Kazbek, Georgia: 16,500 feet, April 2024 (He attempted it June 2023 but descended when conditions deteriorated) 
Africa: Mount Kenya, Kenya: 17,000 feet, July 2025 
Antarctica: Mount Erebus: 12,500 feet, January 2026