The legend of Tom Amaral
isn’t whispered on the wind or told in some old book of fairy tales. It’s screamed shirtless from the mountaintop, with a can of beer in hand and a baseball cap covering his mane of unruly hair, after running up whichever mountain suited his appetite that day. No, we didn’t mean to say ‘hiked’ – he definitely ran, and it’s likely he didn’t stop much either. This break at the mountain peak, to stare bare-chested in defiance at the world, is only a short interlude as well. He’ll be running back down the mountain shortly.
Tom is living one mountain at a time, taken at breakneck speed and with minimal gear – usually just a pair of sneakers and a bottle of water, and sometimes a shirt. In the last few years he’s run up, down, and across his share of rock faces both in Alberta, where he calls home, and around the world, from Mexico to the French Alps. But he’s no mountain man by design. Underneath the baseball cap and sheen of sweat is a young man from suburban Toronto who took a round-about way of getting here – mostly through 4 summers of maintaining pools in the Yukon.
“Every time I worked in the Yukon, we drove there from Ontario. So we drove through Banff and Jasper,” which was admittedly the long way, but a route they took because it was the most epic thing to do. This is how most of Tom’s decisions are made – experience over convenience.
After the fourth summer in the Yukon, where he serviced pools in rural, sometimes rough communities, he decided not to go home to Ontario. Nothing there for him, not compared to what he’d seen. He settled in Banff, and found a job working for the Banff Arts Center as a lifeguard at the rec center. Since then it’s been a series of peaks and valleys taken very quickly. What started as a desire to make films and become a conflict journalist in Afghanistan has been replaced by dreams of conquering mountains wherever he goes.
“I didn’t have to travel to Afghanistan to get what I was looking for. I could get a rush, a challenge here. This place really did it for me.”
That rush comes in a myriad of forms for Tom. In 2014 he ran the CCC, a 101 Km 6000m elevation gain race that’s part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc through the European Alps, starting on the Italian side and running into France. Other days he’s more spontaneous, waking up on a Saturday morning to lace up his running shoes, grab a water bottle and run up the nearest mountain.
When I sit down with Tom at the Banff Art and Creativity Centre in Alberta, he’s cut off a lot of his hair. Gone with it is some of the wild man I saw in his pictures, who leaps mountains in a single bound and stops to laugh as he downs a beer at the top. But even without the hair I can see the spark in his eyes, the one I assume is responsible for pulling his compact frame up and down mountains at a runner’s pace.
“I started off as a normal hiker, for sure. Big pack and everything,” he says.
Somewhere along the way he found a blog post by Anton Krupicka about linking up mountains and trail running, and Tom was an instant convert. He ditched the pack, opted for running shoes, and has been going pretty hard since then.
“Something switched in my mind where all of a sudden I was looking at maps and thinking about everything from a trail running perspective, looking in the hiking book like ‘Ok, well can I run here?’”
The resemblance between him and Krupicka is striking. Same wild and unruly hair (until he cut it), same wiry frame, same lively but peaceful look in his eye, like he’s found ‘his thing.’
Despite all this risky behavior, Tom says he’s not a courageous person. He insists he’s pretty influenced by fear of things going wrong. Sometimes that leads him to cancel his plans the night before, or even at the foot of the mountain, as he stands there with his runners and water bottle, realizing he may be in over his head. That happened this summer when he was planning a monster bike ride up Icefields Parkway to conquer Mount Temple (11,627), Mount Athabasca (11,453), and Mount Edith Cavell (11,033), but stopped himself the night before.
“For me it was being in the middle of Icefields parkway with no energy left, no cell phone reception,” he says.
Other times he forges on despite the fear. That’s what happened in Mexico, where he went to conquer new terrain and mountains of higher altitude. Always chasing the next challenge, the next progression. But when he got there, Tom doubted whether he could really handle the wilderness he’d thrown himself into.
“The first day I got there I was overwhelmed, and when I got into my tent and had nothing to do but go to sleep, I was just like ‘What am I doing here? Am I even gonna do any mountains on this trip?’ Way out of my element.”
Then he woke up and did the first mountain, and conquered a major hurdle for himself. For Tom, it’s not so much about being unafraid of the challenge, but pushing through and doing it anyways. Not being fearless, but also not letting fear stop him.
He’s currently planning next summer’s adventure, either another unfettered trip, this time to climb peaks in Peru, or another Ultra run in Europe. Even these options, both grueling in their own way, represent that same split for Tom between what’s scary and what’s safe.
“I’m more drawn towards going to Peru or Mexico, and doing something that’s more of an adventure, than doing an organized race, with medical personnel and all that. It’s more of a packaged experience.”
As I listen, more questions about this curiously driven mountain runner come to mind.
Like what does he eat to get through these journeys?
He’s not too shy to admit burgers and poutine are a big part of his diet, although when he prepares for the longer, more professional races, he tries to clean up what he eats.
“If you are what you eat, and I’m going into a 50 or 100 km race, and I’m burger and beer? That’s not gonna work very well.”
So the secret to conquering multiple consecutive peaks is a solid Canadian diet: meat, potatoes, and cheese curds.
How about on the mountain - is he running the entire time?
Yes and no. It’s a mix of hiking, running, and sometimes scrambling. But the goal is always speed, to hit a good time, and of course to enjoy getting there.
And for a guy who runs up mountains in his spare time, what is the point of life?
“Having fun, living a life that’s enjoyable and fulfilling,” he tells me. “Generally I don’t get fulfillment from my job. I can’t really think of a job that would give me the fulfillment I get from this.”
Tom’s blue plaid shirt and thick mustache aren’t a costume - he’s just a humble dude who came to the mountains and found something he loves.
But I have to wonder where it all ends, what he sees as his peak among peaks, the final goal of this whole thing. Surely you can’t run up mountains forever. There has to be a limit.
This question gives him some trouble. Maybe that’s because he hasn’t thought that far ahead - too busy living for today. But if there is an end game, Tom sees himself moving beyond running and getting further into mountaineering, mastering more aspects of the mountain life, whether that’s climbing on glaciers or just more rocks. “Eventually you get to mountains that are inspiring and awesome, but you can’t walk up them,” says Tom.
In other words, there is no ‘end’ for Tom – as long as he can still get himself up a mountain, he’ll do it, whatever which way he can.
As we wrap up, I take another look at the guy in the blue plaid shirt and mustache across from me. To my eye there’s almost no semblance of the suburban Toronto youth he left behind, but it’s got to be in there somewhere. Those pieces of us don’t go away, they just get reworked, evolve with our experiences until we’re not a different person, but a different version of ourselves.
And if Tom keeps chasing mountains like he’s been doing, that evolution isn’t about to stop. If we meet again next year, I have no doubt the man across the table will again be subtly changed, somehow improved, more experienced.
So long as there’s another plate of poutine or a well-grilled burger around, and possibly a can of beer to wash it down.
So long as there’s another peak out there, calling his name.
Find Tom on Instagram @scree_dust