The Journey to IFMGA Certification

Do you sometimes wonder which fork in the road led you down this wild and precious path you’re on?

Karen Bockel IFMGA

When I was a kid, I wanted to become either a Nobel-Prize winning Physicist working at CERN in Geneva or a Certifed Mountain Guide. The latter seemed so far-fetched and impossible – my only connection to the mountains was the countless hours I spent in my hometown library pouring over coffee table books of Reinhold Messner climbing the 8,000m peaks, that I stuck with Physics.

I studied atomic and laser physics and spent most of my graduate school days and nights inside a lab.  The black blinds shut out any stray light, and any sign of life or weather outside.  I spent the daytime hours tuning the lasers and solving page-long differential equations, and the nighttime hours, when everyone else and their perturbations had left the building, running experiments.  Laser cooling of atoms, Rubidium atoms to be precise, was my project, and it required a lot of planning, calculating and designing to eventually create a vacuum system containing a cloud of atoms in the crosshairs of 3 perpendicular laser beams. When everything lined up one fine day, a few weeks after having passed my Master’s thesis, the diode laser measuring the atom cloud’s temperature finally produced the expected signal, and the pale image of my Rubidium atom cloud hovered there, suspended in space, at a temperature of a few microKelvin.

Not long afterwards, I realized that, while I loved the research and academia, I missed the outside more, and something had to change.

After sneaking away for several trips into the mountains, I finally told my advisers that I was headed for the hills for good. I moved to a little mountain town in Southwest Colorado, learned to ski on leather boots and tele gear, worked as a carpenter, and spent most of the next few years either above treeline or on some rock wall, exploring all the beautiful San Juans had to offer.

I started ski patrolling and traveling to ski in far away places. I planned and took part in an expedition to ski Denali with three other women, and through two of my teammates got introduced to expedition guiding. I was intrigued. My neighbors owned Mountain Trip, a company guiding the 7 summits, and I timidly asked if I could hire on as an apprentice.  They took me on, and the next summer I found myself back in Alaska. Under the tutelage of Dave Staeheli, who when I asked him to teach me, basically provided me and the other co-guides (and even all our clients) with an entire alpine course while slowly climbing our way up the West Buttress. We got caught in a major storm at High Camp, leaving us stranded at 17,000’ for 8 days, before we fought our way back down to more livable places. It took perseverance, teamwork, and skill to get the teams down safely. The hard work of expedition guiding felt good.  I was hooked.  I was finally on my path toward this old, nearly forgotten childhood dream of becoming a mountain guide.

Karen Bockel IFMGA

The following fall, Mountain Trip offered a contract AMGA Rock Instructor course to their lead guides taught by Angela Hawse and Vince Anderson, and I, the rookie, somehow got in. I frantically tried to find some climbing partners to get ready for the course, but most my friends were runners and bikers. Nonetheless, I showed up on the first day, eyes wide open. It was great.

I’ll never forget that moment of Angela telling me when I was short pitching, braced behind a small boulder “that rock is not strong enough to hold us if we fall – look for a better solution, keep it real.”  I got that one, not just for right there, but for life!

I also remember that she taught us a ‘munter pop’ maneuver to get two clients safely established on a single rope lower – she might as well have spoken Chinese.  Mostly, though, the guiding instruction and climbing were really informative, fun, and inspiring, and I felt at home on the rock and on the rope. In the evaluations, Vince told me I had mountain sense, the ultimate compliment. I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about that ever since.  Needless to say – I’d found my path with the encouragement from these two extraordinary mountain guides.

Fast forward seven years, many vertical feet, footsteps, rope lengths and a couple knee surgeries later, and I found myself tied to my examiner and a co-candidate, breaking trail up the Quien Sabe Glacier of the Boston Basin in the heart of the North Cascades. We are on our last two days of the alpine exam, my final AMGA program on the path to IFMGA certification. It is only fitting that I finish the alpine track last, the queen discipline that combines the worlds of skiing and climbing, the one with the most tradition, the one I dreamt of as a kid. The moments of sunshine from earlier have given way to dense clouds, crevasses and handrails have disappeared into the mist, and I can see nothing, and yet somehow I see everything.  Years of training, experience and guiding days come together. I find the top of the glacier, lead the rope across the moat and climb onto the ridge above. We keep going into the clouds, in the cold wind, a fresh foot of snow covering the rocks. As we move together, chilled to the core, precariously but perfectly counterbalanced on the ridge, the sentiment I felt on Denali years prior returns: we are at home in the mountains.  For me, the exam finished on a high note in a wild and amazing place. I couldn’t have been more stoked.

It’s been an amazing path, and I have been lucky to share the rope with great friends, co-guides, mentors, and clients.  I have also been lucky to work for a number of great guide services.  I am thankful for every moment (except maybe the many hours on the trail down from the Grand Teton). In particular, I want to thank my Chicks Co-Owners for our partnership and friendship.

  • Angela Hawse for encouraging me at the start and always having my back
  • Bill and Todd at Mountain Trip for opening the door to the guiding world
  • Kitty Calhoun for climbing El Cap and becoming friends along the way
  • Dan Starr for letting me tell him all my guiding reflections and for practicing rope tricks in the garage
  • The Telluride Ski Patrol for the best early morning ski runs and letting me stick my head into the snow
  • Eric Larson for being there for me in spite of telling me not to become a guide
  • Emilie Drinkwater for an amazing climbing trip to the Alps
  • Larry Goldie for turning me loose in the Cascades
  • Thomas Olson at Howard Head Sports Medicine for getting me back onto two legs
  • And for my family who allowed me to take the fork less travelled.

Iceland Sailboat Skiing

iceland sailboat skiingI’ll never forget the moment I first laid eyes on the Aurora Arktika, Captain’s Siggi’s beautiful, modern but historic merchant Dutch style sailboat, anchored in the harbor of Isafjordur.  It’s two masts swayed gently above the wooden deck and the red and black painted hull.  Two small hatch doors were open to the area under deck and up came Captain Siggi to greet us and load our skis and gear onboard. 

We started by sailing across the waters to the Hornstandir Natural Reserve, a beautiful, remote mountain area where snow covered slopes lead directly to the fjords below.   Yearning to explore, we set anchor in a small fjord, caught a ride in the zodiac to shore and began to skin up perfect spring snow into the mountains.  We headed for a high pass that would connect to the basin on the far side, planning to meet the ship after Siggi would sail around the rugged coast to meet us.  Clouds had formed at that moment, and Siggi called us on the radio to make sure we were up for the adventure.  Of course we were, unable to resist the curiosity of wanting to see the other side of the mountains.  We gained the pass after a couple hours of skinning uphill, climbing over a few rocks near the top, and were greeted with stunning scenery and a long, winding ski run down a large alpine basin, carving turns past waterfalls and cliff bands.  Far below in the fjord, we could see the Aurora anchored.  Siggi picked us up from shore and once back on the sailboat we dug into a big dinner of fresh fish and stew.  Content and happy, we relaxed in the cozy dining area below deck.  The Aurora felt so welcoming and comfortable, that it did not take long to call the boat our home. 

For the next six days, we skied.  We explored anything from big open slopes to enticing couloirs, climbed up to high peaks and passes, and anchored in a different fjord each night.  Even during a couple days of mediocre weather, we were able to get out and enjoy good snow.  We took sea kayaks and paddle boards out on the water to watch seals play, we hunted for mussels, and we sat on deck with a glass of wine enjoying the purple midnight sky of the long Nordic spring days.  We felt like pioneers.  Sailboat skiing in Iceland was an unforgettable experience.

Why Choose Chicks?

On the fence about attending a clinic this winter? We sat down with Chicks Co-Owner and Guide to get her insight on what makes Chicks unique.

The Ouray Ice Park. Photo by: Bill Grasse.

The Ouray Ice Park. Photo by: Bill Grasse.

Chicks started in 1999 with a vision to help women experience ice climbing, and like a fine wine we have aged and matured over time. Our vision is unchanged: We want to empower women through mountain sports. On rock, ice and snow, we are committed to teaching women to take the lead in the outdoors and in life.

Chicks offers a very unique experience that is often imitated but never duplicated. We provide a supportive atmosphere which creates a positive learning environment. We feel strongly that through education and skill development, we can create a community of confident women who are independent leaders in climbing and skiing.

Why choose Chicks?

  1. All Levels are welcome. We operate in the Ouray Ice Park, home to 200 ice climbing routes of varying grades. It’s the perfect venue to learn how to ice climb for the first time or advance your skills. We offer 4 levels of instruction offer a progression of skills, so you will be paired up with others of your same experience and goals. Choose from The Jiffy (2 day), The Sampler (3 day) or The Complete (4 day) day programs.
  2. We will dress you warmly from head to toe. Patagonia and Outdoor Research provide clothing for you to demo at no extra cost. You can show up in your street clothes, and we can outfit you for climbing.
  3. We provide all of the technical ice gear. Petzl, Black Diamond and Camp all supply tools, crampons, helmets and harnesses for you to use at no extra cost. La Sportiva, Asolo and Scarpa provide boots for you to demo too. This is your opportunity to try the sport and all the newest gear on the market and you don’t have to buy a ton of new gear to sign up.
  4. Ouray, Colorado is a picture perfect town located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains.

    Ouray, Colorado is a picture perfect town located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains.

    Delicious meals and cozy lodging. Our evening meals are catered at the Secret Garden B&B. You will be taken on a world culinary tour each evening, starting out with soup to warm your bones, a main course and dessert. At night, you’ll rest your head at the Victorian Inn, located walking distance to the Ouray Ice Park.

  5. Experienced Guides. The Chicks guides are the best women ice climbing guides in the field. Each guide is educated, experienced and reputable. You’ll enjoy getting to know each of them and they are sure to inspire you.
  6. Community of women. The all female environment is supportive and encouraging. Allowing each woman to excel and break through barriers. You’ll be sure to make new friends and connect with other Chicks Alumni. Many women walk away with new climbing partners for future adventures.


Our Goal at Chicks Climbing and Skiing is to help you become confident, competent and independent on the ice (rock and snow). So what are you waiting for? No more excuses. Sign up for a Chicks program today and join us in Ouray.

Avoiding a Ground Fall & DIY Stick Clip

Written by: Dawn Glanc

Bolts. They are the protection that make face climbing possible. However, the first bolt is often placed higher than you may feel comfortable climbing to unprotected. A high first bolt can result in a ground fall if you fail to clip it.  The consequences can be so high, that a climber may decide to retreat from the route. There is no need to be reckless at the crag – use a stick clip to help you mitigate the risk of a ground fall!  Here is a quick stick clip recipe to help you send those beautiful routes that have high first bolt placement.

How to make a stick clip:

 

StickClip1

Ingredients:
1 extendable painter’s pole
1 spring clamp
2 hose clamps
Various stickers are optional

Tools needed:
Flat head screwdriver

Step 1:

Slide hose clamps onto the painter’s pole (do not tighten yet).

StickClipStep1

Step 2:

Slide spring clamp onto pole, trapping an “arm” of the spring clamp into the hose clamps.

StickClipStep2

Step 3:

Tighten hose clamps with the screwdriver to secure the spring clamp. Alternate tightening each hose clamp to be sure you make the hose clamps as tight as possible. Decorate handle of pole with stickers if you so choose.

StickClipStep3

How to Use the Stick Clip:

Step 1:

Insert top carabiner of the quickdraw into the spring clamp. Use spring clamp to hold the top carabiner of the quickdraw open. Clip the rope with a big loop of slack into the bottom carabiner on the quickdraw.

StickClipUse1

Step 2:

Extend the pole. With patience and grace, hook the bolt with the carabiner.

StickClipUse2b

When the quickdraw is secure to the bolt, pull down on the stick clip with force to free the spring clamp of the quickdraw.

Once the carabiner is hooked, pull down on the stick clip to pull the quickdraw from the spring clamp. The first bolt is now clipped and you are ready to climb!

StickClipUse3

Dawn Glanc is a co-owner and a guide for Chicks Climbing and Skiing. Dawn has been climbing rock and ice for nearly 20 years. When she is not working you can find Dawn out climbing with friends. She loves sport climbing and considers herself a cragger at heart. “I have been using a stick clip for years,” says Dawn. “Sport climbing is meant to be fun, there is no need to risk a ground fall.  You can use this ‘stick clip’ trick to help keep yourself safe whether you are rock climbing or mixed climbing.”

Dawn and the other guides will be hosting a variety of rock clinics this fall in some of the premier climbing areas in the U.S. Look for Chicks in the Red River Gorge, Keene Valley, Red Rocks and Rifle. Beginner to advanced climbers are welcome. Don’t miss your chance to learn new skills and techniques from some of the best female guides in the industry.

The Evolution of Dreams

As many of you know, when Head Chick Kim Reynolds takes off her helmet, harness and crampons, she is a Certified Life Coach.  She recently wrote the below article which started my wheels turning, so I thought you all would enjoy as well.

prayer flagsThe information highway is ever-expanding and there seems to be no limit to the material available on the internet.  My friends and family often send me links to articles they think will pique my interest, and I even still get an occasional newspaper article in the mail from my dad. Recently, I received a blog post called “10 Habits of People Who Follow Their Dreams,” and since I want to be intentional about this next phase of my life, I decided to review the column in hopes of insight and inspiration.

I read the 10 statements and it was easy to agree with all of them. However, I noticed the scale was tipped toward the twenty- to thirty-year-old perspective. It is clear that as I evolve, so do my dreams and my approach to them. This particular article is anchored in personal achievements and getting somewhere, that lively conquer-the-world kind of spirit. I appreciate this type of tenacity, yet I am simply observing that I just don’t have that same edge anymore. Over time my edge has softened and my approach to the world has naturally morphed into something new. I don’t want to conquer anything or anyone, anymore.

I’d like to play with a few examples from the list to illustrate how my viewpoints and approach to following my dreams has matured:

Article: They (who follow their dreams) create their own rules instead of fitting into society’s norms. They make decisions from a place of what they want to have instead of what they think they can have.

Kim: I think there is a natural period of disobedience when following rules, and norms just aren’t very appealing. This comes earlier in life when we are seeking individuality and putting our unique stamp on the world. Some of us hold onto this longer than others. It’s out of respect and going with the flow of life that we learn to do the right thing by operating within the guidelines of the structure that has been created for us. If we didn’t have regulations, we’d have chaos. Simply put, most humans just aren’t disciplined enough to stay in alignment with what is right and what is wrong.

I also see a form of entitlement with this generation around the things they want – setting themselves up for instant success instead of having to work towards a goal. There is a deeper sense of appreciation when we put in the mileage to slowly progress up the ladder of life. I think the digital world has offered an illusion that everything is at our fingertips and we can access it quickly, right now.

Article: They (who follow their dreams) see life as a game. Having this vision of life opens up space for playfulness and creativity instead of limitation. This also cultivates qualities of resilience, problem solving and confidence that helps them take risks to get to the next big place.

Kim: Life can hold a wonderful sense of fun and innocence that naturally begins to dim as we age and occasionally get ‘run over’ by life experiences. It is a sacred space to be in and appreciate; we are meant to be filled with joy and a sense of unlimited possibility. This is always available to us and yet we have to learn to navigate the unexpected bumps in the road with this being the true place of creativity, resilience and problem solving.

We gain confidence through our successes and learn profound lessons from our mistakes. There also comes a time when life circumstances become more immediate and we are faced with our changing bodies, aging parents, a shift in energy, interests and even finances. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t feel like a “game” anymore. It feels like I have really had to step up and be the best I have ever been as I get older and honestly, this is not easy and I want to approach this with as much humility and grace I can muster.

Article: They (who follow their dreams) have teachers, mentors and role models. Having teachers increases their awareness. Having role models and mentors helps them quickly identify where they’re stuck so that they can immediately change their results.

Kim: It can be a pivotal experience in life to have someone we respect and admire point us in the direction we want to travel. A role model can inspire and give us new tools, they inherently hold us accountable for what we want. The shift for me is wanting to mentor and encourage people to shine and be their best. To live my life with the integrity and inspiration that will pave the way for others to go beyond. That, to me, is true evolution.

In closing, it feels important to me to honor change and look at it directly instead of trying to skirt around it. Avoiding the inevitable usually backfires, hardens us and causes resentment. Acceptance and creating new dreams is a place of peace, self-actualization and learning – it is the act of following the water that is flowing downstream.

Kim Reynolds is a Certified Life Coach living in Ridgway Colorado. To learn more about coaching, call 970-623-2442. Read more on her website.

Author of Women Who Dare to Present Jan 27

WomenWhoDareWe recently caught up with Chris Noble, author of Women Who Dare: North America’s Most Inspiring Women Climbers.  Of course, you can see just from the title why Chicks loves this book, but it also happens to feature some of our Girly Guides.  In addition, Chris will be presenting in Ouray during our Sampler clinic.  The presentation is Monday, Jan 27 at the Ouray Community Center and is open to the public so please join us!

Why did you write Women Who Dare?

The short answer is because I love women and I love climbing.  Together, the two make an irresistible combination.

The broader answer is that I’ve been working with women athletes for years and I feel that too often women do not receive the same level of media attention their male counterparts do.  Case in point, no one had produced a book that examines the climbing lifestyle from a woman’s perspective.

Why climbing?  What’s the appeal?

My work is all about re-connecting people with nature. I believe the earth is literally dying due to our lack of connection.

I also believe that a fully realized human life (whether one is male or female), requires not only a strong, regular dose of nature—but liberal injections of adventure, challenge, courage, commitment, and community as well— and climbing is one of the few activities remaining that offer us all those benefits combined.

I love the realm of adventure and the people who make their homes there.  I want to help those individuals share their stories, their struggles, their passions, and what they’ve learned.

And I want to inspire readers to find their own personal connection with the wild, to follow their own hearts, and become the hero of their own stories.  In fact, I would say modern Americans are starved for heroism and meaning in their lives, a need pop culture does little to satisfy.  Instead, our culture tells us the opposite, that rather than heroes, we are at most needy little consumers, and that if we feel something lacking, the best we can do— is to go shopping.

What did you learn from writing Women Who Dare?

The biggest thing I learned was to fully embrace my own inner climber.  By spending time with the women profiled in the book I realized I was still partially operating under an outdated point of view inherited from my parents— that climbing and similar activities are something we eventually grow out of.

But the women profiled in Women Who Dare clearly demonstrate the power of embracing one’s passions, and what can be accomplished when we do.  In fact, as Britanny Griffith points out in her chapter, if one orients all the different aspects of life around a central axis such as climbing, then all the other spokes of the wheel— relationship, career, community— are much more likely to properly align.  Most of us do the opposite. We push our passions off to the side, then wonder why nothing else is working.

The second big lesson I learned was how open and unguarded women are when it comes to climbing.  Unlike men, they are not continually trying to shield their egos.

Why don’t men ask questions?  Because they don’t want anyone to know that they don’t know… everything!

But again and again, the women I interviewed talked about how they are continually asking questions, how they are endlessly striving to learn more, about climbing, and about life.  These are some of the most accomplished climbers in the world, but they are not resting on their laurels, not hiding behind their reputations or accomplishments.  They are not afraid to admit their fears and weaknesses.  In fact, these women demonstrate that the best way to overcome a weakness is to first acknowledge what it is, and second to address it directly.  In that way, women are far more courageous than men.

What was the biggest challenge in producing the book?

By far the biggest challenge was scheduling.  Herding cats is a cinch compared to trying to get full time climbers (who will jet off on a new adventure at a moment’s notice), to commit to a date then stick with it.  The flipside however, was that once they did commit, everyone profiled in the book was a consummate professional, and gave 100% if their time, attention, and talent to making the project a success.

Chicks tribute to Holly Mauro

Holly's snow angel, Stony Kill Falls. First snow of the winter, December 2010. Photo by Carolyn Riccardi

It is always hard to hear news of a Chick passing; we become so connected so quickly with the life-long friends and climbing partners met at clinics that it affects all of our alumnae in one way or another when we say goodbye. On Tuesday evening, 32-year-old Chicks alumna Holly Mauro passed away after a week-long hospitalization. She was an East Coast chick that impacted so many of our alumnae’s lives, especially Carolyn Riccardi, who wrote about Holly’s spirit and zest for life and adventure. Thank you for sharing it with us Carolyn, so we can pay tribute to this amazing Chick.

I first met Holly at a wilderness first aid class at the Mohonk Preserve. I told everyone in the room I was new to the area and wanted climbing partners especially for ice. Holly became my first ice partner. An alumna of Chicks with Picks she strongly encouraged me to go to a clinic. I remember Holly telling me about the very cool pink softshell jackets the girly guides had and how much she wanted one. During my weekend at Chicks I was introduced to many of you and also the White Mountains.

Though an accomplished climber, Holly always encouraged me to take the sharp end and go for it. She always wanted to see women succeed and connect with other women climbers. Holly was a firecracker on Wall Street and an accomplished musician. She loved crappy chick flicks and was an exceptional cook. And she loved to climb – especially in Yosemite National Park. Her new home. Holly introduced me to many wonderful people across the U.S. and in Europe. I am lucky to have met you all and call you friends.

Holly at Bridal Veil Falls. Photo by Carolyn Riccardi.

Last time I saw her was on a busy Saturday night at the Brauhaus. She was dining with her mom and trying to get a table. It was during the holidays and I was all grungy from a day of guiding. She asked me how work and life was in the Gunks but the noise and the crowds made it hard to have a real conversation. Holly had a great smile and we hugged before I left.

Holly’s family is holding a memorial in California this weekend. A small gathering of her friends are getting together this saturday night in the Gunks. Details of the NY event are to be announced.

Life is terribly short. I hope you all are well. Please take good care. Sending you love and support.

We will provide an update with the details of the NY event in remembrance of Holly when we get them.

A Life Ascending

The DVD to A Life Ascending was recently released and we want to tell you all about it! The film chronicles the life of acclaimed ski mountaineer and mountain guide Ruedi Beglinger. The film follows his family’s unique life in the mountains and their journey in the years following a massive avalanche that killed seven people. Check out the trailer to the film below along with a letter from director Stephen Grynberg on how he was inspired to make this project.

A Life Ascending [Official Trailer] from Ptarmigan Films on Vimeo.

Six years ago I had the idea of making a documentary about Ruedi Beglinger. I was living in Santa Monica, far from the snow-covered majesty of the Selkirk Mountains where I had first climbed with Ruedi ten years earlier and I was curious. I wanted to know how this renowned mountaineer was coping three years after a tragic avalanche killed a number of his guests.

I am interested in stories about people, about what makes them tick, about how they come to terms with the hurdles in life, and about how they transcend life’s challenges. It was that interest that brought me to Banff to meet with Ruedi and his wife, Nicoline, to talk about making a film. On a long hike we discussed my desire to capture the beauty of a life lived in pristine yet unforgiving mountains and the difficult process of opening one’s life to a camera. I don’t think they knew exactly why they agreed to do it but we trusted each other enough to get started three weeks later.

At that point, I didn’t know Ruedi very well. I had witnessed his incredible drive and his gifts as a mountain man, but I could only sense what lay buried beneath his sun-drenched skin. I wanted to better understand his connection to mountains, his relationship to fear and his dedication to the simple yet physical life that he lived. And I knew that I was also looking for answers to some deep questions I had about my own life.

Mountains have always held a paramount place for me. Growing up in Denver, mountains framed everything. From every rooftop or vantage point, the Rockies called out to be explored. At six, my father carted me up the hills of Winter Park for the first time and pushed me down. That was the start of a life long affair with mountains.

A Life Ascending honors that part of my life, and explores the complexities of that relationship. But to say this film is just about mountains would be missing the heart of it.

My father is a holocaust survivor who lost much of his family in World War II. That legacy was passed silently down to me and as a result, loss is in almost everything I write and create. A Life Ascending is no exception. The exploration of how a family comes to terms with heartbreaking loss was captivating and cathartic for me. That process was also profoundly elevating, as I was able to witness the power and grace of the human spirit as it transcends hardship and grief.

The journey of this film has been incredibly fun, challenging and rewarding and I am grateful to the talented and courageous people who were part of its creation. I sincerely hope that you will enjoy it and that it might just inspire you or touch you in some meaningful way.

“A Life Ascending” is now available on DVD, we highly recommend you check it out!

Aconcagua; going full circle

Chicks guest blogger Nicky Messner is a high altitude mountaineer with five of the seven summits under her belt, including Mt. Everest. She has recently decided to share her climbing experiences with other women. Her goal is to expand horizons & change lives through alpinism. She successfully led her first all-female team to Kilimanjaro in July of this year and has another trip scheduled for June 2012. Visit her website Be the Exception…not the Rule for more information.

One online dictionary states that ‘If something or someone has come full circle after changing a lot, they are now the same as they were at the beginning’.  You can post my Aconcagua summit photo by that definition; I can’t imagine a better way to describe my recent climb.

Nicky and Bob on Aconcagua summit

When my climbing buddy Bob mentioned that his December Aconcagua expedition had an opening, I jumped at the chance to go back and my visit my old mountain friend.  Aconcagua, The Stone Sentinel, stands 22,841 feet tall in the Andean mountains of Argentina.  My first major mountaineering expedition was to Aconcagua in January of 2003 (I had climbed Cotopaxi in 1997, but that was a one night gig, not a full length trip).  I really had no idea what I was getting into; I just saw a documentary on tv and decided I’d like to give her a try.  We were living in Baku, Azerbaijan at the time, and none of my friends had ever done anything like this.  Nor did I have a local REI that I could pop into for advice.  It was just me, the gym, and my online gear purchases, trying to figure out what the heck we were doing.  That trip changed my life.  I am not sure if the expedition released a ‘me’ that had been hiding within, or if it created a new ‘me’.  Either way, I was not the same person when I came home.  In brief, I came back an expedition junkie.  Hooked.  Addicted.  Needing more.

Aconcagua summit from Camp 2

I’ve since gone on to climb five of the seven summits, including Mount Everest.  I’ve followed the standard progression: a winter seminar on Rainier, a climb of Denali, and a jaunt up Cho Oyu.  I didn’t have Everest on my radar from the beginning, I just enjoyed taking each climb a bit further than the last.  In doing so, I added more skills and altitude to my resume, therefore adding to my confidence level.  And added to my climbing craving, of course.  So when my husband suggested I try Everest (yes, I blame him), my addiction was strong enough, and my confidence just high enough, that I only said no once.  I capitulated the second time he brought it up!

I have always, mistakenly, confused acknowledging my skills with being arrogant.  It took a couple of years for me to openly discuss my Everest summit with people without my feeling like a braggart.  Some of my fellow teammates had written books and been on tv before I admitted to my success.    Just recently however, I came to terms with being an ‘Everest Summiter’, and started to appreciate that I was truly an experienced, and pretty darn good, climber.

The shadow cast by Aconcagua as the sun rises on summit day

This was the climber who returned to Aconcagua, to the scene of the crime, to the place where her life had originally changed forever.  It was a passionate reunion, to say the least.  We started up a different valley this time, and when we joined my 2003 route, I started crying like a baby.  It was a joyful yet teary-eyed confession that I am a climber, and always will be.  That I still love every ounce of pain, filth and oxygen deprivation associated with expedition length high altitude climbing.  It was an admission of, and a resignation to, the fact that mountains and mountaineering now own me.

I knew then, at that very moment where our routes joined, that I had gone full circle with my climbing.  I had certainly changed a lot, gone from novice climber to Everest summiter, and was back at my beginning.  Back in that first space where Aconcagua took hold of me and my love of high altitude expeditions was born.  After all my changes, I am just as enthralled with mountaineering, every bit as enamored with expedition life, as I was the first time I climbed Aconcagua.  Hooked.  Addicted.  Needing more.  Full circle.

For more about Nicky and her upcoming all-female climbs, please visit her website www.betheexception.net  A Kilimanjaro trip is scheduled for 6/23/12, and Nicky is currently putting together a ‘Hiking & Haciendas’ trip, with climbing add-on, in Ecuador at the end of May. If interested, please send Nicky an email at nicky@betheexception.net

Caroline George on pregnancy, ski touring – perspective

Photo courtesy of Caroline George

Pregnancy has been one of the best journeys of my life. It’s not over, but I am already starting to feel nostalgic about not seeing my belly grow everyday, accompany me on adventures or where ever I go. But I am also excited to meet the person who lives inside of me. I mean, how weird is that? I think I can grasp that there is someone growing in my belly because of the kicks, the undulating waves under my skin, my bulging profile, but maybe you just can’t come to the full realization of what is really happening until the wee one is in your arms. I don’t know that yet. And that’s the magic of it all: not knowing, being accepting to what ever is coming your way and making the best of the adventure you started on.

And what an adventure it’s been! My baby isn’t born yet, but it’s been to the top of many climbs and mountains with me, while I was guiding this summer and later climbing for myself. When climbing stopped feeling good, I switched to biking, hiking and swimming. I wanted this time of my life to be about exposing myself to new things – since my life has been all consumed by climbing and the mountains for most of my life – because it’s what I would like my child’s life to like. So, I traded my climbing shoes for pedal and bike cleats to ride in California and Utah and later, for paddles while Adam and I discovered sea kayaking together in the Bahamas, and eventually for cross country skis with my mom in Finland. But I missed the mountains and when winter hit our home in Chamonix over Christmas, I was all excited to get back on my skis. Hiking downhill was a little painful because my baby pushed down heavily on my pelvis because of the impact of each step I took, so skiing came as a relief!

Photo courtesy of Caroline George

Ski touring is a lot like hiking, only you’re on snow, pushing skis uphill but you get to enjoy the rewards of your hard earned climb, cruising down beautiful untracked powder. Of course, being pregnant, you need to pick what you ski and how you ski it:

– avalanche terrain is not appropriate unless you know that conditions are really stable; this has been a great opportunity for me to explore more mellow tours that I could later come back to and do with clients;

– you need to reel it in, skiing at a slower pace, keeping your eyes doubly peeled for what is coming: rocks, branches, trees, holes, etc. Skiing in a whiteout can also be a concern but I usually send my partner ahead so they can show me the way and give the terrain perspective with their track;

– listen to your body: it’s never easy to turn around, but what matters is to listen to your body and feel good about what you are doing. I know that I can tour a few thousand feet uphill before the baby seems to be stretching in all direction making it uncomfortable to keep going. It feels like the baby is putting its hands out and saying: “ok, that was good, let’s go down now, am over it”.

– find partners to join you on your adventure: when I’m not guiding, I often go ski touring on my own and I love it: you can go at your own pace, listen to an audiobook, go up, go down and be home whenever you want. But really, sharing outdoor adventures with friends is one of the most precious things in life and this has taken a whole new meaning for me during pregnancy. I went out with lots of different friends and they always watched out for me, making sure I was ok, worrying about me and it felt good to be on other side of the fence. Although guiding is my life and I love every minute of it, it also felt really good to be indulging in my passion with friends whom I didn’t have to watch out for and just be enjoying ski touring for what it is, without worrying about pleasing other people or about being out there training for guide courses. It’s been an amazing way to reconnect to what I love to do and why I love being in the mountains so much.

– the best thing has been to take my little bump along on the journey. who’s to say if she enjoyed it like I did, but I get a feeling that she did. Of course, it’s my interpretation of it but have you ever been out with someone when everything is flowing, and seeing how good they feel and how much they love being out is contagious? that’s how I feel when I go out with my bump. So, who’s to say…

Phpto courtesy of Caroline George

The hardest part about my “adventurous ” pregnancy has been people’s judgments on how I chose to live my pregnancy. I’ve had an amazing pregnancy, suffering very little from the symptoms that women usually suffer from. Maybe the main reason for that was that I felt I was doing a good deed by taking my baby out for rides, ski tours, and many other adventures, breathing in fresh air, sharing my love for the outdoors with her. “Happy Mom, Happy Baby” is the saying, right? These have been times of deep connection with my baby-to-be. It was hard at first, because I was guiding a lot and sometimes taking risks that I felt were inappropriate for my baby and knowing that didn’t feel good. Once the guiding season was over, I was able to listen to my body and to what felt ok for both me and the baby. Although I appreciated people’s concerns for both of our health, I also felt that it was really intrusive that people had an opinion on what I should or shouldn’t do. I live in ski resort and the mecca of alpinism, Chamonix, France – and my doctor here deals with more athletic people than probably most ObGyn will ever see. When I asked him if what I was doing was OK, his eyes popped wide open, a smile came to his face and he said: “I only wish I could come along on the tours as well! What you’re doing is great for you and the for the baby. Just don’t go skiing at resorts where there is a risk of people skiing into you. But there is no counter indication to ski touring!”. So, I have seized this opportunity and ran with it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo courtesy of Caroline George

I know that this is only the start of people judging what they perceive parenthood should be like. What has held me back for so long from having children is people always saying how much your life is going to change, how your life is going to end. But I strongly believe that you chose your life – parenthood, pregnancy, work, etc. – and you make it what you want it to be. My mom was cross country skiing the day she went into labor. My parents kept traveling and climbing despite having children and all our shared adventures is what made me who I am today: they opened my eyes to new cultures, to adventures and traveling, to living a life outside the norm and it’s made my life that much richer. I am sure people judged them for their choices, but they stuck to what they thought was best for them and for us and that has inspired me more than anything in life. Taking the path less traveled is not always the easiest solution, but it might just be the richest. I hope I can offer at least as much to my child.

Keep up with IFMGA/UIAGM Guide Caroline George’s alpine adventures on her website Into The Mountains and on the First Ascent blogInto The Mountains is Caroline’s guiding site where she and her husband, Adam George, share their passion for climbing with others by offering guided trips and instruction on rock, ice, and alpine climbing in the European Alps and North America. Check it out!