053: Evan Phillips: Merging Music And Mountain Climbing

June 8, 2018

FYS 53 | Silhouettes Rock Album

Evan Phillips climbed mountains until an injury took him out of the game. Now he pours his energy into making music after his last critically-acclaimed hit, Silhouettes, which represented a new energy for Evan Phillips, one of Alaska’s most enduring rockers. Music became the tonic for Evan Phillips’ soul after the injury. He changed his mindset, learned to play the guitar, and successfully revived his creative impulse. Now, Evan runs ‘The Firn Line,’ a podcast about the lives of climbers, artists, and adventurers.


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Evan Phillips: Merging Music And Mountain Climbing

We have an interesting guy named Evan Phillips. Evan, how you doing? 

I’m doing great, Mark.

We’re going to get into all this, but Evan is a very interesting guy. He’s a mountain climber, a musician, a podcaster, and a lot of things. We’re going to get into his adversity that he had to get through and get over to get on with life. There are a lot of parallels evident as I was reading your story about what you went through and what I went through when I got done playing in the NFL. Let’s start back on your mountain climbing. We’re talking to you from Anchorage, Alaska. Are you from Alaska? 

Yes, I grew up here. I’ve lived here my whole life.

What was that like? The thing that’s crazy that a lot a lot of people don’t know, I was up in on Denali, which you’ve been on a course, in the great state of Alaska; and it literally never gets dark during that time of year.

Alaska, as you know, is really a land of extremes. At the height of summer, it doesn’t get dark. In the winter, the flip side, in late December there’s only four or five hours of light. It’s pretty intense, but it’s also pretty cool.

It is as beautiful as I’ve ever seen and experienced. On my expedition, I climb with a number of guys who’ve been in the Himalayas. From their point of view, it’s more scenic than what the Himalayan mountain range presents. Another thing that a lot of people don’t know is that the Alaskan range is six million square miles, which is bigger than the state of Massachusetts. It’s just this mammoth thing. You’ve got to grow up in that. You’ve got to grow up in that environment. You’ve got to grow with bears, all the sea life, and all that stuff.

I was really fortunate. I grew up in a pretty outdoors family. My mom and dad pretty much raised me hunting and fishing. We have a family cabin down on the Kenai Peninsula, which of course is known for its great sport fishing. I got to grow up being exposed to a wild country and the outdoors. I was not a mountain climber when I was a kid. That happened maybe in my late teens. I think just being outside in the wilderness predisposed me to that lifestyle.

Let’s kick in about your mountain climbing because the reason why we’re talking to you is because of your mountain climbing and what happened. I want to get into that. It was around sixteen or seventeen years old when you discovered climbing. Was that at a field trip or did a buddy invite you along? How did that happen?

I was on an adolescent group trip of some sort and we were back in the Chugach Mountains doing just a backpacking trip. We’re at a place called Eklutna Lake. That lake is a glacial-fed lake that’s about ten miles long and surrounded by 6,000- and 7,000-foot glacier capped peaks. I literally remember it was almost like having a light bulb moment being like, “This landscape is in my back door and I had never made that connection that beyond those mountains behind Anchorage was a lifetime of adventure.” A switch flipped in me and I was just obsessed with mountain climbing when I was seventeen years old and that’s the road I went down.

When you’ve got obsessed with mountain climbing in Alaska, I assume you were in high school, so every weekend you’re like, “Where am I going and what’s the new mountain to climb?”

I was devouring books. I was devouring literature. At the University of Alaska, they used to have an outdoor program and I did a wilderness first responder like a first aid training. The summer before I was a senior in high school, I did a big glacier traverse class where we did about a 40-mile traverse over glaciers in the Chugach. That winter I did an ice climbing class. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve got some instruction and then I met a couple of buddies and we just started going out and doing it on our own pretty much every weekend.

Did that lead then to you becoming a guide? 

Yes. When I was 22 years old, I basically just lucked out. My climbing partner at the time got hired to be an assistant guide on Denali. Two weeks before he went, he broke his leg. He just mentioned to those guys like, “My climbing partner could do it.” That’s how I got a job as a guide in Denali at 22 years old.

How many times have you been up to Denali? 

I have been to the summit three times and I guided six trips. I made it to the top with clients half the time and the other times we got pounded by weather.

FYS 53 | Silhouettes Rock Album

Silhouettes Rock Album: If the weather moves in, you’ve got to listen to the mountain. You’ve got to wait it out. That means sometimes you can’t go to the top.

That’s what happened to me. What a lot of people don’t understand is that just to get into position at that 14,000-foot camp that you’ve been at six times, I had to carry, I’m sure you did too, 226 pounds between your back and which you’re dragging in a sled going up those motorcycle hill and those other ones. It’s intense. You’ve got to bring your game. 

It’s a lot of work to climb a mountain like Denali. One of the guides I used to work with on the first trip, he gathered us all the way all around him and said, “I just want you guys to know that if you shuffle all the letters of Denali around, it really spells denial.” What he was trying to say is you can be the best climber in the world and you can have all the skills; but if the weather moves in, you’ve got to listen to the mountain. You’ve got to wait it out. That means sometimes you can’t go to the top.

We got up that 2,000-foot phase to get up to 16,000, we buried a bunch of stuff up there, and I was feeling so strong. The bottom line is Mother Nature won that round. There was this big ugly-looking lenticular cloud. It looked like the wicked witch was flying around on a broomstick 400 times in five days. We’re down there in our tent. People who don’t mountain climb don’t really understand the amount of patience it takes. It’s much as a physical journey that you have to go through and put your body through, it’s also an emotional and mental task. Of all the time and the downtime and you’re freezing and all those things. You’ve got to have your game on. 

One of the things maybe that folks that would do expeditions like that don’t prepare for is, “How am I going to deal with it when I get pinned down in my tent for three or four days and the winds are blowing 100 miles an hour? How am I going to deal with that?” That takes a toll on people. I’m sure that you’ve experienced that on your own. I’m sure that you saw people around you may be struggling with that.

It even leads to one point more, which is something I experienced in football, which is all about teamwork. What people sometimes don’t understand about mountain climbing, it’s just not the individual; but you’re tethered between at least four people. If one of those team members that is on your rope line is not strong, quits, gives up, like what happened to me, it just jeopardizes your situation, your safety, and everything else. Really trying to find that right teammate or teammates is so critical in climbing.

Partnership is a big thing. Definitely one of the things I talk a lot about on my podcast for sure is the importance of partnership.

I love that word. You climbed all over the world from there. It sounds like you were down in South America a bit and some other places around the globe. This is your passion. You wake up, you go to sleep every night, and this is exactly what you dreamt about from the first time you went up you saw those glacier lakes. You’re at 27 years old and what happens?

When I was 27 years old, the short story is I got injured. I wish I could say that, “I had this big fall and broke my leg.” What happened is I was rock climbing down in the desert basically on my off time. This was before I was going to go on Denali to guide for the season. I tore a muscle in my groin. I’m sure, as a football player, you know that those are bad injuries. At the time I was like, “I just pulled a muscle.” I was at the height of my physical powers when I was 27 years old, probably had a fairly big ego, thinking like I’m this tough guy. A couple months later, I was slated to go work on Denali. I went up there with that injury not being fully-healed, got up that head wall that you were talking about up to 16,000 and I started having pain in that injury and realized I had re-injured it. At that point in time I was responsible for guiding people. To make a long story short, I had to come down. Over the course of that summer, I didn’t go see a doctor or anything and I re-injured that injury a couple more times. By the end of the summer, I was in so much pain that I could hardly walk. That’s was when I first started to go see a physical therapist. It was a chain reaction of events over the next year. I basically developed a chronic injury from that muscle tear that effectively ended my climbing career.

I can relate to that a little bit. In my case, I started playing football and other sports when I was five or six. I’m like every other kid around America or throughout the world. I’ve got a ball in my hands, I’m always out there with my buddies, and were playing. It’s going great. I get through high school, I’m playing football, goes into college, and goes into the NFL. One day, I can’t do it anymore. There’s this story after story after story in that at the sport that I played in the NFL of guys just going into this depression. Also after college it’s just like, “Where do you go from here?” You’ve been doing one thing for so long and then all of a sudden, you’ve got to change your skill set. Many of my friends, by the time I was just getting out of football, they had been developing their careers since they were 21 years old. I was 28. I can identify with what you’re saying in terms of that. What happened to you in your case?

You mentioned depression. I’m 42 years old. This was 15 years ago. I can look back and see things clearer now. I got really depressed. My whole identity, my whole life, I was planning on being a mountain climbing guide. I was planning on living my life in the mountains doing that work. It was a shocking thing when it happened. I went through all the hopeless feelings. Honestly, I was in denial for a long time. I think that’s one of the reasons why the injury got bad because I didn’t believe it was really happening to me. I didn’t believe that if I keep doing these activities on this injured part of my body, maybe it might not get better at all. I don’t know how else to say it. It was devastating. It was challenging to deal with.

The word frustrating I’m sure is a light word. What’s interesting to me about your story is it’s not like you broke your back. It wasn’t like an abstract injury, you can see it on the X-ray, go in, and diagnose it. You’re in this mysterious land of what do you about it and how do you fix it.

If you have anybody who’s ever been through like chronic pain or something, I think that’s a frustrating thing about insidious chronic injuries that’s maybe hard to diagnose. It’s very frustrating and you actually start to question yourself like, “Am I making this up in my brain or something?” I did a lot of research. I actually went down to the States and saw high-level sports medicine doctors. I actually saw some surgeons for NFL teams. I was seeing great doctors and surgeons. The best diagnosis that I’ve had is like, “You tore this muscle and then you tore it up multiple times after that.” They think some nerve stuff happened and it is complicated. That’s why I was saying I wish I could say, “I had this spectacular injury.” I just did it to myself over a period of time.

It just got tweaked and got worse sounds like. The pod is called Finding Your Summit. It’s all about overcoming diversity and finding your way. That’s a terrible phase of your life to go through but you’re emerging out of it. How did that all happen? 

I honestly feel I had to hit my own bottom. For me, that was maybe about seven or eight years ago. It was the worst part of dealing with that injury. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t work. I couldn’t tour. At that point in time, I was doing music and I was touring around the world, Europe, and the US. Playing in bands and stuff and it was going really well but the injury was always bothering me through that stuff and it got bad again so I hit bottom. I couldn’t work. I was in a lot of pain for a period of time. I had to move in with my parents. That was tough. I was in my early 30s, and for a period of time, I was not able to take care of myself. That’s when I had to make a decision in my mind, “You used to be a guide on Denali. You were doing all these great things. You’re 32 years old, living with your parents, and you’re in so much pain you can’t even take care of yourself.” I decided that I was going to figure out a way to make it work. It’s been multiple years of me relearning how to live my life, essentially living with a bit of a disability. That’s the short version of how I got to where I am today. I had to change my life. I had to learn how to ask for help. I had to learn to admit that I wasn’t as strong as I used to be. I had to squash my ego down a bit.

[Tweet “I had to change my life. I had to learn how to ask for help. I had to learn to admit that I wasn’t as strong as I used to be.”]

It’s very humbling when you’re living with your parents in your 30s and you’re asking yourself, “Where’s my career going?” You did something that was amazing, which is really change that mindset. That whole mindset just got you to a different place. I think we all have to do that. I had to do that. Another thing that you said that was interesting was you learned how to ask for help. I think that is so key because a lot of times we all just isolate ourselves with our own problems. We don’t understand that there are so many people, thousands of people, millions of people out there that are going through the same thing. It might not be your exact thing, but they still have those emotions of isolation and they don’t feel successful in what they’re doing. Maybe there’s a career change and a lot of things like that. You need the power of people to come together, socialize, share, and then have them help you get over those different things that you’re challenged with. It sounds like you did that.

It’s an ongoing process. I did do that. I learned how to ask for help and I also learned how to say no to people. That was one of the reasons why I had a hard time getting the initial injury to heal is because what I should’ve done probably was be like, “Maybe I don’t go Denali this year.” I felt so much pressure that I put on myself and I didn’t want to let people down. That’s another big lesson for me that I’ve had to learn through that. It’s learning how to say no and being okay with that and setting boundaries essentially.

What kind of instruments do you play?

I primarily play acoustic guitar and electric guitar. I’m a singer and a songwriter so I write songs, make albums, perform, and do that stuff. I’m not tour touring around as much, but I have made a career that works for me here in Alaska.

I was going to jokingly say the one bummer about your injury is you couldn’t do the Eddie Van Halen kicks and get it going.

I never did those anyways. I used to get pretty rocking on the stage.

What kind music is it that you play?

Folk rock Americana. It’s like Tom Petty type music. I call it good rock and roll driving music.

What you’re telling me is that you changed this mindset. You learn to play the guitar and some of the creativity was coming back into you. You start producing and you start writing music; and that music became part of the tonic for your soul to bring it back in.

Because I couldn’t climb anymore, there was a void in my life that I needed to fill in. For me, it became music and creativity. I like to work hard, set goals and achieve things. Music is a great way for me to do that. We’re fortunate we live in the era with the Internet. It’s easy to share music. I’ve been lucky to have been able to license some of my music on TV shows and stuff like that. It’s a mindset. It’s just like learning how to adapt and learning how to make things happen.

On your music side, do you primarily stay in Alaska or do you travel around?

I primarily am staying in Alaska. That might change, partly having to do with the podcast. I’m sure we’ll talk about the podcast a little bit, but that started to open some doors for me. I’m starting to see that there’s some crossover because I write the music for my podcast. All the people who are listening to the podcast are realizing, “This guy does music and performs.” I feel like I might end up doing some touring where I do some playing and maybe do some The Firn Line, some podcast stuff, all in one show.

I actually should have asked you to do this, but I did a podcast on a guy named Steve Azar and he’s country blues and he has a Delta soul. It was so much fun because this guy had a number of top ten hits on the country charts. I used to see him way back when I played down in New Orleans and we go up to LSU and see him play rock. He figured out it was not the right lane for him and went back to his true roots of Mississippi. Anyways, I did a podcast on him and we went through it. We did a VH1 Storytellers style where he’d actually be playing and singing some riffs. It was just such a joy for me because I love music. It was cool the way that we did that. First of all, I want to go back to your climbing. You were disabled in a way that you couldn’t go back and obviously guide. Where are you with the injury now? Can you go back in the mountains? Can you climb? Are you still on the sideline or what?

I’m pretty limited with the things I can do physically. Anything that’s repetitive, whether it be like climbing up something or skiing, irritates that part of my body where I got hurt. I’m really not able to do any climbing. For me, what I would consider simple things like going on hikes and stuff like that, I can’t do that stuff in my life anymore. The way I look at it is I got to climb at a very high level for ten years of my life from when I was seventeen to 27. During that time, I fit in a lifetime of climbing and adventure. That’s just how the dice rolled for me. No climbing for me these days.

I don’t know if you see this as a joy or torture to live in Alaska in Anchorage and it’s just like a postcard of mountain scenery right behind you. 

There was a lot of years that I sold all my climbing gear, I had thousands of slide film photos that I took over the course of my climbing career and I buried all that stuff away for a long time. It’s just been in the last couple years where I’ve made peace with that and I’m okay with it now. I am grateful for that ten years of my life that I got to spend. I got to do things that people can only imagine. I spent my life climbing big mountains at a very high level. I look at that now and I’m just so grateful that I’ve got to do that. It shaped me. It made me the person that I am. Honestly, I think the skills required to climb Denali and to climb at the level I did prepared me for the adversity that I’ve had to go through in my life with the injury. I’m clawing my way back up after that.

FYS 53 | Silhouettes Rock Album

Silhouettes Rock Album: You can’t fly high if you’re carrying a lot of weight on your back.

The thing that’s wonderful about this story is that you haven’t let a negative define you. As you know, you can’t fly high if you’re carrying a lot of weight on your back. To shut that, to release it, to embrace it, and be grateful for your experience of those ten years plus in the mountains and all the pictures and things you did. You’re right. There are not many people who’ve actually been able to experience on that level. A lot of my buddies, guides, and other friends who’ve done Everest have told me that they feel like Denali is actually a tougher mountain. Short of the altitude then whatever’s present.

There’s something raw about Alaska. Maybe it’s the scale of the geography that you talked about. It’s just so big. It’s so hard to comprehend how big those mountains and those glaciers are until you actually land on that glacier and you look up and look at Denali. It’s just massive. I grew up in Alaska so I was always around that. When I go down to the States and see the other beautiful mountains down there, they’re big but they’re not big and they’re not raw like Alaska.

I was on Rainier. That was cool. It’s just one big mountain sitting right there. It’s incredible, but it’s not gigantic. It’s stacked on top of each other. Mount Rainier’s six million acres. Let’s talk about your podcast. You had this progression. You’re all about climbing, you couldn’t do that, you eventually came into the whole music scene, and you’re a famous rock starWe’re onto your podcast. Your podcast is called The Firn Line. The first thing let me ask you about is what does that mean? What’s The Firn Line mean? 

Firn line is a geologic feature. It’s basically the line on a glacier where the snow melts up to in the summer. Below the firn line is where all the snow melts and it’s just bare ice. Above the firn line is where all the winter snow stays over the summer and it doesn’t melt. It’s a geologic term. The reason why I named the podcast that is because I like the abstract idea of walking on a line where you can go one way in your life and make a decision to go one way or you can take another route and go the other way. That’s why I named the podcast that because it’s a little bit abstract, but it’s also a mountain term.

I didn’t know that. As a mountain climber, I know now.

I may not have explained it very good. If you look it up on Wikipedia or whatever, it probably explains it better than that.

Tell me what your podcast is all about. 

The Firn Line is essentially a podcast about the lives of mountain climbers. What I do is I do interviews with people who live their lives in and around the mountains. I try and go deep and they ended up being pretty personal stories. I produce them because audio producer by trade. I write my own music for the episodes. Basically, the live interviews with narration and music that I produce, I craft these interviews into artistic stories.

There’s another podcast, I think it’s Outside Magazine or maybe it’s a TED Talk or something, that they do something like that and it’s cool. The way I’m doing this with you is very simple because we just flip on the switch and we’re talking to each other and they put it all together and that’s it. When you put a narrative through there, it’s a much more complex process.

I’m glad you asked me about the podcast, because for me, the podcast has ended up being a full circle experience for me. I was into the climbing, and then when I gave it up, I blocked it out of my life for a long time because it was just upsetting. It was upsetting to not be able to do that stuff. As I went along in years and I started thinking I missed that part of my life. I miss that community. I was just like, “I’ve got all these skills. I’m a songwriter. I know all these climbers from back in the day. I am a professional audio engineer.” I just had this idea in my head. I was like, “I think I could do this.” I’ve been doing it about six months in and I’m having a similar experience as you with your podcast. It’s taking off in a way I never would have imagined.

You’ve got so many skills. That’s all about the power of positivity. That’s all about the power of belief. That’s all about the power of taking a step back and saying, “What are my skill sets?” Look in to your case, and in to my case too, you put all those things together and then you’ve got this thing going. Next thing you know, it’s taken off in a place that you never could have imagined. It’s fulfilling too.

I couldn’t be happier with what I’m doing. The podcast is opening doors for me. I’m getting opportunities. I’m getting to chat with people like you who I probably never would have gotten to chat with.

Truth be told here. I found you through Instagram. I have an Instagram account @NFL2SevenSummits. Somehow or another, you came up or I found you. I started stalking you and it’s all these amazing pictures mostly of Alaska. I’m like, “What’s this whole thing about Firn Line?” That’s how I reached out to you and that’s I think how the conversation going. It’s a treat for me to meet somebody with your skill set and what you’ve been able to experience and to share back on. Not just that you’re a mountain climber, but you ran into some friction where you couldn’t do what you wanted to do and that was your passion, and here you are in this wonderful spot. 

Life’s good and life is always getting better. I’m just grateful for the opportunities that I’m getting and at the same time, I’m also aware that it has come because of hard work and commitment too. I know you know that, being an NFL football player and probably the other things you’ve done in your life. People have no idea the work that goes on behind the scenes when you make things happen in your life. It doesn’t just happen. It happens because there’s a lot of work and there’s a day-to-day commitment. I respect that and I try and live my life that way.

[Tweet “Life’s good and life is always getting better.”]

I’ve had a lot of that come my way where they go, “You’re just lucky. You cut the last second touchdown,” or whatever it might be. I was just like, “You have no idea the amount of nights I spent running those stairs in the room when nobody was around and it was pitch black.” You said it perfectly about the discipline, the rituals, the consistency and the hard work that you have to put in to make something happen. Where can people find you?

If you want to check out the music side of what I do, you can check me out at EvanPhillips.net and there are links to all my albums and all the music stuff I do. If you want to check out The Firn Line podcast, the website is TheFirnLine.com. I’m on iTunes and all that stuff too. You can just Google Evan Phillips, Alaska and all sorts of stuff will pop up.

Evan, thank you so much for being on the show. We continue to get just rock stars like you. It’s fun to interview and find and learn how you found your way into a very successful life. 

Thank you so much, Mark. It’s my pleasure to be with you.

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