A view to a thrill

Elliott Mazzola ’09 thrives on adventure

Skydiving over Lodi, Calif., on his 96th jump
Elliott Mazzola ’09 skydiving over Lodi, Calif., on his 96th jump, and above, on Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France.

Even in the death-defying world of extreme sports, there are few wake-up calls like nearly being swallowed by a glacier.

For Elliott Mazzola ’09, it happened in August 2012, when he and a climbing partner were traversing the more than 100-mile Haute Route, an alpine trail whose 23 ice sheets stretch between Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland.

The pair were hiking “off rope,” confident they were safe from the glacier’s hundreds of crevasses—perilous cracks, sometimes hidden by fresh snow, that can plunge unwitting climbers more than a hundred feet into nothingness.

That’s when the ground gave way under Mazzola.

“My foot went all the way through and all I saw was this void beneath me. It was a really dumb mistake on our part, and luckily nothing came of it,” he recalls, noting that alpinists are supposed to scan the terrain hundreds of feet around them for gaps not covered by snow, evidence that a crevasse is near. “You kind of laugh it off, but it could have been the end.”

For Mazzola, the near miss was hardly enough to keep him from coming back. Living on the edge of fear can be “meditative,” he says from Chamonix, which acclaimed mountaineer and writer Mark Twight calls “the death-sport capital of the world.”

Mazzola resists notions he’s courting danger, but neither is he shrinking from new opportunities and possibilities—a message formed in no small part during his days at Wheaton. The liberal arts have been described as a voyage of self-discovery, and it’s up to each individual to get the most out of life and see the world in a unique way, Mazzola says.

“Wheaton was a highly transformative period of my life,” he says. “A liberal arts education is a great way to experiment with different interests and try new things.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Mazzola adds. “If you want to be a photographer, take lots of photos. If you want to be a BASE jumper, go get lots of skydives. It’s a simple concept, but it’s not often easy. But I think that with self-discipline, sacrifice and the occasional stroke of good luck, I can realize all my dreams, and most other people could, too.”

For Mazzola, the dream starts in Chamonix. It’s no ordinary slice of paradise.

Elliott Mazzola on the Haute Route, an eight-day Alpine expedition from Zermatt to Chamonix
Elliott Mazzola on the Haute Route, an eight-day Alpine expedition from Zermatt to Chamonix

The region, in Europe’s southern Alps, draws types ranging from extreme skiers who hurl themselves down 60-degree slopes, to “wing suit” flyers, who jump off cliffs wearing “bat wing” sleeves and a parachute.

Mazzola has been fascinated with the area since he visited his grandparents in Europe when he was 14: “The landscapes are spectacular. It’s like no other place I’ve ever been.”

The Haute Route is only one stamp on his extreme passport. In 2010, he spent 30 days mountaineering in South America’s Patagonia, where bad weather made every step “agony.” Last summer, he competed in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a mountain “ultra-marathon” through France, Italy and Switzerland. In true Mazzola fashion, he decided at the last minute to compete in the 100-mile event.

“I didn’t even register for the race,” he says. “I was giddy and running too fast down hills and things like that. It was a big challenge, but I did finish.”

Mazzola is now working to log 150 to 200 skydives—he’s tallied 63, at last count—before he tries his first BASE jump, in which extreme athletes jump, with a parachute, from Buildings, Antennae, Spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs).

Experts advise that number of skydives before BASE jumping, “basically to minimize your risk of dying,” Mazzola says. “I’d like to have a solid foundation and progress slowly so I can continue to enjoy these passions.”

He leads a vagabond life, hitchhiking to new extreme feats around Europe. He subsidizes his adventures through odd jobs and doing sales and acquisitions—on his computer—for Beverly Hills, Calif.-based House of Film, a distributor of independent movies.

The thrill seeker running in the mountains of Chamonix, France
The thrill seeker running in the mountains of Chamonix, France

He is philosophical in the face of danger, perhaps a given since he was a philosophy major at Wheaton.

“Fear is a good thing to keep you in check,” he says, “it keeps me alive. But it’s overcoming fear that lets me live.”

One of his former Wheaton mentors, Associate Professor of Philosophy John Partridge, is similarly ruminative about Mazzola’s exploits.

“Socrates said that practicing philosophy is preparing for death,” Partridge says. “One might say that Eli is the most promising philosopher Wheaton has ever produced.”

That the Keene, N.H., native has turned to a life of derring-do may come as a surprise to many. Mazzola lived a decidedly staid childhood by comparison. He didn’t take his first camping trip until high school, and it didn’t inspire confidence.

“We forgot matches, it was raining, and we had no fire,” Mazzola says. “It wasn’t your ideal camping experience.”

But it gave him enough of a taste to want to give the great outdoors another try. He dreamed of traipsing across Canada or wandering the Appalachian Trail after high school, but the idea of delaying his higher education to his mid- to late 20s held no appeal.

Mazzola applied to several colleges, looking for a picturesque campus with strong academics. He also wanted to be part of a tightly knit community—”nothing too big.” Wheaton fit the bill. He was admitted, but deferred enrollment so he could take a gap year.

Mazzola set out for one more adventure before diving into coursework. He took a job with Czelusniak et Dugal, Inc., a Northampton-based organ builder, for whom he roamed New England building and restoring pipe organs. Mazzola grew up playing the instrument at church.

“It was cool, but the whole schedule got to me,” he says. “I realized I could never do another 9-to-5 job.”

He chose to enroll at Wheaton because he loved the idea of having a “quintessential New England liberal arts experience.” The college also would allow him to work closely with professors and meet peers from diverse backgrounds.

But that wasn’t all. Wheaton was a portal to the world. As a junior, he studied in Jordan through the SIT Graduate Institute. While in the Middle East, he visited the West Bank and made a documentary of the Arab-Israeli conflict from a Palestinian perspective.

Despite his range of experiences, he was unclear on a major when he arrived in Norton. Then, his sophomore year, he took an ancient philosophy course taught by Partridge.

“There was a great debate about the Greek term eudaimonia, essentially meaning ‘the good life,’ and how that was achieved,” Mazzola says. “According to Aristotle, humans achieve this through excellence in our highest capacity: reason. That resonated with me, and I always joke that I have to rationalize my life every day as a semi-professional ski bum.”

He was further influenced by Partridge’s ancient Greek philosophy class, which required students to complete writing assignments “to express our own ideas and formulate them in ways that made sense,” Mazzola says. “I realized there was a philosopher inside me.”

“Eli could do the rigorous analysis we teach our philosophy students to do, but he was also a synthetic philosopher,” adds Partridge. “He made connections, sometimes surprising connections, between the things he studied and his own experience. Eli’s final paper sought to move from Aristotle’s metaphysics to questions about the meaning of life.”

Beyond the books, Mazzola found meaning in movement. With energy to burn, he competed on Wheaton’s rugby team all four years, earning the nickname “Crazy Legs” for his madcap dashes on the pitch. At a lithe 5 feet, 11 inches, and 160 pounds, Mazzola says he was forced to run “in all kinds of crazy diagonals to avoid contact.”

He also went running for hours at a time, recalls August Avantaggio ’09, who first met Mazzola when the two were paired as freshman roommates at Young Hall.

“He was always running. You could never wear him out,” says Avantaggio, of Damariscotta, Maine, who remained Mazzola’s roommate throughout college.

His pursuits didn’t stop with the athletic. Mazzola would play middle-of-the-night Bach toccatas at Cole Memorial Chapel, once drawing the attention of public safety officers, who came to investigate the sound of pipes piercing the night.

“People knew that if the organ was playing at midnight, it was Elliott,” Avantaggio says with a laugh. Adds Mazzola: “I had access to the church back home, and I often played the organ in the middle of the night when no one was around. It was more of a convenience to go then, but it is kind of eerie when you’ve only got the one light from the organ and you’re shaking the whole building.”

Few defined iconoclast like Mazzola.

“He was not a person to take the simple route,” Avantaggio says. “He was always off doing something; he’d never sit still. He did his classwork, but he would always want to take advantage of his free time and go off and forge his own path.”

He had one other notable passion during his Wheaton days: Mazzola loved to explore abandoned buildings, particularly in Boston’s Back Bay. He once asked Avantaggio if he wanted to tour the abandoned and dilapidated Metropolitan State Hospital in the woods of Waltham, Mass., but the skittish roommate demurred.

Mazzola typically took a video camera on such trips, an interest he cultivated as a young boy. He’d make his own short films with the footage. Mazzola even collaborated with Wheaton playwright-in-residence Charlotte Meehan on three of her multimedia plays, creating material for each production. (Sweet Disaster, was staged in Providence, R.I.; Looking for George and 27 Tips for Banishing the Blues were performed in New York.)

“He’s just brilliant, utterly brilliant,” Meehan says. “Eli sort of came to Wheaton ready-made, and he left the college understanding that he wants to experience life and it’s OK for him to do that without climbing some ladder that’s invisible. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Eli would do extreme sports because he’s so good at everything.”

Mazzola had more than an inkling he’d return to France once he got his degree. “As soon as I didn’t have anything better going on in my life, I decided, that would be the time to buy a ticket,” he says.

He figured he’d spend a ski season in Chamonix before returning home. That was more than three years ago. Chamonix cast its spell on Mazzola the same way it has on thousands of other outdoor enthusiasts. The first Winter Olympics were held there in 1924. Mazzola’s memories of skiing the area when he was a senior at Wheaton are vivid.

“When you’re high in the mountains, you feel humbled by the beauty and grandeur that surround you,” Mazzola says.

Towering 15,781 feet above sea level, the fabled Mont Blanc looms over the Chamonix valley floor near the borders of France, Switzerland and Italy. Clearly, these aren’t the White Mountains. It didn’t take long for Mazzola to feel part of the milieu, as extreme skiers and other daredevils readily mingle with admirers.

“For me, it always seemed like a pipe dream to participate, but when you finally realize these are normal people, it becomes a more realistic dream to have,” Mazzola says.

Still, the dangers are real. In Chamonix, there’s a fine line between adventure and foolhardiness. More people die on Mont Blanc—up to 100 a year—than on any mountain in Europe, data show. Causes include avalanches, exposure and falling.

None of it is lost on Mazzola, who is drawn to high altitudes for many reasons, but this one in particular: “You get a sense of peace and quiet in the mountains that’s hard to find these days.

“I think I’m naïve in a lot of ways, which is why I like to find climbing partners who are more cautious and conservative in their decisions,” he adds, “someone to temper my eagerness and enthusiasm. Sometimes you think you’re doing something that’s just fine, and it’s not.”

Climbing mountains is only one part of the journey. Getting down is another, and what better way than to run down the face? To casual observers, the humorous sight of runners with their flailing windmill arms belies the real danger.

“You have to be hyperfocused on the rocky trail in front of you,” Mazzola says. “It’s quite chaotic, and you’re a bit out of control. It’s one foot in front of the other, hoping you don’t fall. Every time, I have a close call.”

Mazzola calls his parents the “quiet worrying type, which is nice. I’ve got friends whose parents worry vocally.” His father, Frank Mazzola, keeps his concerns closer to home.

“I’ll do an expedition that crosses 23 glaciers over a hundred miles in the high mountains in the middle of the wilderness, but then I come home to visit, and I’ll kayak on the Ashuelot River, which is an incredibly tame, flat river, my dad starts to worry,” Elliott Mazzola says. “It’s ridiculous.”

Frank Mazzola’s nerves are calmed by his son’s circumspection on his more dangerous adventures.

“Even though it’s a dangerous path for people who aren’t careful, Elliott doesn’t take unnecessary risks,” he says. “He knows his limits.”

Adds Elliott: “We’re all going to die at some point. I don’t want to die on the mountains, I try not to, but I don’t let that notion of death keep me from these precious moments of life.”

Spoken like a true rationalist.

Andrew Faught is a California-based freelance writer.