Caroline George on achieving a lifelong dream

Photo by Mark Falender

Guest post by Chicks Climbing Girly Guide Caroline George on her IFMGA certification

Becoming a full IFMGA certified guide has been my lifelong dream. A few years back, I took a friend up the beautiful Forbes Arete on the Aiguille du Chardonnet in Chamonix. She had never climbed any mountain and I was in charge of the whole climb. I loved how taking someone up and down a mountain required so much problem solving: what time do we need to start, how do we get to the base, what are the hazards and how do I manage them, how much rope should be out on the glacier, on a steep snow section, on a rocky ridge, what should I use for protection, where does the route go, what is the most efficient yet safe way to do this section, how do I care for my friend, etc. Each climb is a different puzzle with different solutions. I loved that about the mountains. Sitting on the summit, basking in the sunshine and in the joy of having accomplished what I had set to climb, I thought: “And guides get paid to do this. That’s what I want to do with my life”.

The American Mountain Guides Association (www.amga.com) is a member of the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association: (http://www.ivbv.info/en/), which is the international governing body responsible for guiding standards and education around the world. The AMGA provides training in alpine, rock and ski each year. Being IFMGA certified means that you have taken and passed a series of courses and exams and are certified in all three disciplines. In most countries, this certification is required to guide legally.

One of the perks of the AMGA/IFMGA certification process is how much you get to travel to train and take courses and exams. I love being on the road, so this suited my lifestyle perfectly. Over the past two years, I have learned, refined and applied many skills: terrain assessment, recognition of hazards and risk management, navigation, proper use of terrain and gear for protection, route finding, client care, rope tricks and rope management, snowpack assessment, weather patterns, guiding ethics, waste disposal and many more tricks of the trade. I have climbed more routes in Red Rocks than I could ever have hoped to climb there and have grown very fond of the contrast between the wilderness in Red Rocks and the craziness in close-by Vegas. I have also had to adapt to the pure style of climbing that you seldom find in Europe: chimneys weren’t my forte and climbing the likes of the ultra classic Epinephrine was a nemesis that I learned to embrace. Through the Alpine process in the Cascades, I have also discovered what it means to really be self-sufficient in the mountains. Carrying my “home” on my back and learning how to build rescue shelters has been one of the most constructive tools I have taken away from this process. Because truth be told, if something happens in the mountains, you are going to need to be able to figure it out on your own. The ski process has provided me with great insight on how to assess different snowpacks. We skied in the Chugach and the Talkeetna mountains, covering terrain from Valdez to Girdwood/Turnagain Pass to Hatcher Pass – ski mountaineering, heli skiing and doing multi-day overnight trips on massive glaciers.

Photo by Mark Falender

But it’s not all fun and games either. Getting a certification means that someone is assessing you and that can be destabilizing. It’s hard to have someone look over your shoulder constantly. Most examiners do a great job of pretending that it’s just a regular day out and you’re just doing your job guiding. Yet, when you’re in the lead, a million thoughts go through your mind and you are constantly second guessing yourself, wondering if you’re doing what you think the examiner wants you to do. Throughout the training, all candidates take turns being in the lead and playing clients. This was a personal challenge as I found it hard to consider my peers as my clients, telling them what to do and how to climb or ski when you know that they know what they are doing and don’t need your guidance. Some of the courses last up to 12 days and you have to be on your game throughout the whole time: you wake up early, meet early, go for big days in the alpine, on rock or skiing, get fried by the sun or worked by the wind and cold temperatures, get back to an hour long debrief with the candidates and with that day’s examiner (you are seen by different examiners), plan for the next day, pack your bag, cook a meal and repeat the following day. I find dealing with stress always harder to manage when I am tired.

I am often asked if the process is harder for women. There aren’t many women with this certification throughout the world. There are a little over 50 women in the world currently, with only 7 in the USA. During this last exam, Angela Hawse and myself became the 6th and 7th women to achieve this status in the USA. Obviously, the profession is very male dominated. But there are definitely some advantages to that. I never felt like being a woman made the process any harder or that my examiners judged me on that. Since I am smaller, they would righteously sometimes point out that with two clients on my rope, I needed to add more security at times, because of the weight ratio. I think it’s important to acknowledge the differences between men and women and guide accordingly.

Photo by Mark Falender

This April, I flew to Alaska to take my final exam: the Ski Guide Exam. Prior to the exam, all the candidates went and explored the areas that we thought we might ski on our exam. Snow conditions were pretty bad since it rained very high up and Hatcher Pass – one of our destination –  only had 50% of its normal snowpack. The exam was challenging in that we encountered difficult skiing conditions (thick breakable crust), whiteout navigation, rain, etc. Overall, I felt pretty good about my exam, but you never know for sure. It’s scary to get so close to your dreams. As a new rule, the AMGA no longer gives out results on the last day of the course or exam. Candidates have to wait two weeks to get their results online. Each day though, I checked to see if my status had been updated. But always read : “Not Submitted Yet”. Every time I clicked, my heart would start pounding, only to slow right back down. On the D day, I looked so many times, that the AMGA page must have gotten the most hits it’s ever had in a day! At 6 p.m., I clicked again, and there it was: “Passed”. And that’s all it took – 6 letters – for my lifelong dream to come true: “Passed”. With this last exam, I completed my full IFMGA certification. The certification process has been the most rewarding achievement of my life. Yet, although this an end in itself, it really is only the beginning of my career. And now more than ever, I should remind myself of this adage: “Guide, the mountain doesn’t know that you are a guide!”

About Caroline: Caroline George is a full time guide. She shares her time between guiding in Europe, in Salt Lake City, in Ouray and in the Cascades, together with her husband Adam George. Find out more about Caroline on her website: www.intothemountains.com and follow Caroline’s adventures on her blog:www.intothemountains.com/blog.

Photos: All photos by Mark Falender. Top photo: Caroline touring in the Goat Mountain Area during the ski exam portion of the IFMGA certification. Middle photo: Conditions during the April 2010 ski exam were “super windy, hard to stand up with gale force winds” as the group prepared to climb down a chossy ridge. Bottom photo: Caroline, finding her way in a complete whiteout during the ski exam.

Chicks guide Caroline George reports in after Mount Rainier avalanche

– Photo by Caroline George

Chicks Climbing Girly Guide Caroline George is currently working as a guide for RMI on a Mount Rainier expedition and has just reported in after an early Saturday morning avalanche on the mountain that narrowly missed her team, leaving them in the cloud.

The Seattle Times reported that the avalanche started at 12,500 feet about 4:45 a.m. Saturday, June 5. The avalanche began on the east face of the mountains on Ingraham Glacier and sent snow sliding down approximately 1,000 feet.

Caroline described the avalanche as being “400m wide x 800m long avalanche.” She said there were “11 victims, 4 burials, one person still missing. Our 18 clients and 6 guides (no victims) were just to the east, on the Ingraham Flats and were spared. We were able to initate rescue immediately and the guides dug out three burried people. The rescue team and victims were helicoptered out by the Army.”

Authorities confirm that one of the victims is still missing, thought to be a European male who did not register with authorities before starting a solo climb.

We are relieved Caroline and her group were not only spared, but able to assist in the rescue effort and are anxiously awaiting word on the last victim.

A Fine Balance

DSCN7720by Lisa Nelson
It’s late afternoon when Jason and I arrive at the crag. Looks like rain, but we have decided to hike up the sleep slope to get a few pitches in before dinner anyway We’re exploring a new area in our home state of Colorado, and Zane, or 14 year old son, doesn’t want to leave the van. Arguing seems futile. The weather looks like shit and the hike looks like work, enforcing my decision to let him stay. Besides, our van is “home” many weeks out of the year and he is able to entertain himself quite well. Lately, getting him excited about climbing and spending generous time in the outdoors has become more and more difficult. When he was small, I looked forward to a time when he could “keep up with me”. Now that he is physically able to do just that he wants nothing to do with climbing. Last weekend he stayed home from a weekend trip for the first time. All went well. I climbed without distraction for two whole days and Zane got to hang out with friends. This has been a summer of letting go and realizing he is his own person.

It seems my life has always been about balancing climbing with motherhood. Although I know there was a time when Zane was not with me, I just can’t remember it anymore. I love being Zane’s mom and have no desire to trade lives with the 20- something climber living out of the back of a truck. But I love to climb, and I want to climb well. In my journey of balancing climbing with being a mom, I just wish I had met more women like me. How great it would be to have another family to go to Indian Creek with and trade off kids so the moms could rock those towers! Zane is not new to travel. He’s probably clocked more time in Indian Creek than most adult climbers, traveled all over the Western US as well as Peru, Thailand, Spain, Australia and Mexico. We usually spend several weeks, if not months, roaming the country in our van. Spending time together this way, without material distractions makes us a strong family and gives Zane a different perspective on life. We have been home schooling for the last three years, which allows us endless flexibility.

Climbing in SpainToday at the crag, Jason and I talked about going to Lotus Flower Tower next summer, one of many places I have dreamt about for years. Already I am thinking about how I can make this possible. My immediate family is busy and hard to pin down for childcare, so perhaps a camp. He will be 15 so there are lots of options. Better start planning and saving now, though.

Each summer Jason and I try to do one big trip together, but this takes lots of planning and coordination. Although I feel very lucky to be able to have those adventures to look forward to each summer, I often go into them feeling totally under prepared, both physically and mentally. I find it hard to train for big days like Half Dome when I usually need to leave the crag early to cook dinner or to entertain Zane. Finding both partners and time is always a challenge. My lead heads a continual roller coaster. Parenting often leaves me so completely spent mentally I couldn’t imagine getting it together to lead a hard climb. But I’m realizing motivation will go a long ways, even if I haven’t been able to properly train, and in the end determination plays a bigger part than preparation in the success of my big of adventures.

Zane on 5.11 at Indian Creek (before his hands got to big)Over the years we’ve managed to experience many wonderful places; Elephants Perch, La Esfinge in Peru, Big Walls in Yosemite and Zion, The Incredible Hulk in the Sierras, several peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, The Black Canyon. Yet even when I am in the backcountry or on a big wall, I’m concerned about being unreachable – a constant reminder that I’m first and for most, Mom.

I feel so blessed to be living this life. I relish the adventures I have had because I have worked so hard to get them. The memories of those trips put a smile on my face and fill my heart when I’m frustrated with parenting and everyday life. I meet many women who have given up climbing to be a mom and when I hear them talk about how they used to be a climber it makes me sad. While their husbands are off on climbing trips, they are content to stay home with the kids, finding other physical and emotional outlets. I guess my life would be easier if going to the gym and scrapbooking filled my bucket. My big adventures are why I can’t stop being a climber and I listen longingly when other women talk about first ascents in far away countries.

I’m happy we choose to live our life a bit differently and want that to be an example for Zane. Even more than teaching him Math and Language Arts, I hope to teach him honesty, responsibility, and how to be happy in life. I want him to know the satisfaction and joy of working hard and digging deep to achieve a goal. I know he sometimes misses his friends in Ouray and part of him longs for “normal” life, complete with TV sitcoms and Kentucky Fried Chicken. He is doing great, however, learning and growing like me. When I watch him socialize with the other climbers and hear their comments about what a great kid he is, I’m proud of him and proud of me. I’m doing it, and doing it well. I’m happy and raising a great kid, balancing the two things I love most; being a mom and a climber.

Tips, tricks, and ideas to make it easier:

*Pick areas that are kid friendly. This will be age dependent, of course.
Western areas include:
Rifle
Shelf Road
Indian Creek
Joshua Tree
Ten Sleep Canyon
Bishop
Vedavoo
Red Rocks (single pitch stuff)
Pennitente

International places include:
Rai Lay Beach in Thailand
El Potrero in Mexico (single pitch stuff)
Grampians and Arapoles in Australia
Gandia and Sella in Spain

*Go easy on yourself. Do your best, but don’t beat yourself up if you’re having a bad day. I continually remind myself that I climb because I love it, not because of a grade.

*Don’t give up if you have a bad climbing outing involving children. The great thing about kids is that they change. What seems impossible (like taking a 2 year old to Indian Creek) will be fine down the road. At every age there will be both easy and hard times.

*Don’t push the climbing – gradually build on it. I would be psyched if Zane loved climbing like I do, but we have never “forced” him to climb. Bribed? Yes. The first time he climbed the Flat Irons we hid skittles in the cracks! Get creative and try to incorporate favorite games into this great learning experience.

*Climb in a party of three whenever possible. This will make it incredibly easier on everyone. Since you’re either belaying or climbing with a pair, three people allows a nice break when needed. This way I can enjoy time with Zane, reading or playing.

*Bring lots of entertainment to the Crag. Zane has a bag FULL of goodies…books, art supplies, hula hoops, juggling rings, juggling rings, poi, throwing knives, even those evil handheld devices. We recently added a unicycle and a mountain board to his bag of tricks.

*A two way radio has been a great investment. If Zane wants to wander down to the van early, I can still connect with him. In Thailand, we took one up on a multi-pitch. He thought it was a blast to talk to us while we were up there.

*Own a van. We own a campervan and although it’s not a cheap vehicle it has been our most treasured investment. I would sell my house first! This one thing has been the biggest reason we are able to live the life we do. Our life would just not work with a tent.

*Get out with the gals. Make sure you have time to yourself, away from the husband and kids. It’s great for me to be on the sharp end with no distractions.

*Have time alone with your significant other. We plan one trip together each year and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

*Be OK with a bored or grumpy kiddo. They are not going to be happy 100% of the time regardless of where you are. I would rather Zane be bored in a beautiful place than sitting at home in front of the TV. Downtime leads to creativity.

*Lastly, relish the time you have with your children in these spectacular places. Some of my best memories are of hanging out in the van at camp with Zane at Indian Creek or Joshua Tree. There is no house to clean, no laundry to do, we are just spending time together. As he grows up, I cherish the memories we share and look forward to making more.

Defining adventure

by: Sarah Goldman
My words hung, suspended in air above the table. I could see each member of my fire department duty shift processing what I had just said. “I am resigning, effective immediately. I’ve accepted a contract firefighting position in Iraq.“ The only thing louder than the silence in the room was my heart thumping in my chest and my throat. I watched the words sink in; I could see the judgments forming. It was the same each time I had told someone about my decision and upcoming adventure.

What makes me, a woman on the brink of my 30s with a solid secure job and the freedom to find as many climbing days as the calendar allows, chuck it all and travel 8000 miles away to a seemingly endless, unpopular war with zero opportunity to climb, enjoy a microbrew, or sport a nose piercing? Change? Risk? Adventure? Opportunity? Hope? The pursuit of a wild dream? All of the above?

As I think more about these words and the spirit behind them, I realize these are the reasons so many of us are drawn to climb. As climbers and adventurers, we look at a massive granite spire and think, “what if?” It is in the same spirit that we eye a job opening in Boulder from home in Cincinnati and think “why not now?” I left stability in Virginia and came to Iraq because I was due for an adventure and even more ready for change.

I’ve known it was time to shake things up since my first Chicks With Picks experience nearly 2 years ago. My life, while exceptionally comfortable and one no doubt worthy of envy, had left me feeling cornered, firmly entrenched in a rut and just plain bored. I liked my job as a firefighter, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be my life’s work. I’d spent the past 20 years in Virginia and finally accepted its highest point tops out at barely 5000 feet, so I knew a change of scenery was needed. I suppose I was happy enough, but passionate? Excited? Energized? Not so much.

There are many who don’t understand why I would walk away from what I had, but these often seem to be the same people who don’t understand why we clip bolts, plug gear and stick hard ice. For the most part these same people value, consistency over spontaneity, financial stability over chance, and resorts over road trips. Adventurers are people of courage, people of faith. Faith that things work out, that the universe will provide. They are doers and decision makers. Most often they are not shy and they are not timid. They act when others choose to idle. They choose the risk, when others choose security. Adventure is both a state of being and a state of doing. It is in some, and definitely not in others.

I applied for the position in Iraq and kept expecting for it to somehow not work out. When the doors kept opening and the reality set in that this decision was now going to be up to me, and not the universe to make, I knew, being me, I had to take the chance. Just as any of you cant deny an offer to scope a new crag, or try a new route. I got the call while sitting on a park bench in Calgary, after three amazing weeks in Alberta. My life in Virginia was literally and figuratively thousands of miles away.

I have been in Iraq now for nearly 3 months. The time both crawls and flies depending on my mood. I live in a firehouse on an Army Forward Operating Base with around 25 other firefighters. Each day is the same. Morning meeting, eat, train, eat, work out, eat, call home, dream, repeat. The work is not hard, and I feel fortunate that through my adventure I have the opportunity to support and protect thousands of men and women in the military. Whatever your views on this war, these men and women are sacrificing on our behalf and that cannot be overlooked or underappreciated.

Unlike the members of the military, who do not have an option, I don’t plan to be here long; as I mentioned, being a firefighter is not my life work. I‘ll be here until next summer, or maybe a bit longer. For me, this is a year of transition. It is my first move. Due to responsibilities back home, changing my life couldn’t happen overnight, and I’ll venture to say for anyone over the age of 21 this is probably the case. If it, the adventurist spirit, is in you, which, if you have found your way to this blog it most likely is, and you feel the stink of stagnation into your life, then act. Consider your wildest dreams; consider the life you wish you were having. I don’t know what is next for me, but I take comfort in knowing what is not. I plan to pursue my wildest dream, or dreams as it may turn out to be. As we say in climbing, make the first move, and the next will appear.

Perhaps one of the greatest compliments I have ever been given came from the Head Chick when I told her I had skipped the states and would be working in Iraq. She called me a true adventurer. Thank you Kim, and all of the Chicks touting picks. I didn’t get here alone and Ill enjoy the help finding my way home. Leave the anchors set, I’ll be back soon.

How’s it Hanging?

Look here for the latest ice conditions in the Ouray/San Juan region this winter! We’ll let you know what the Chicks think.

Where Have you Been?!

If there is anyone out there who is getting after it, having fun and kicking axe….it’s our Chicks Alumni! We love to get news of the latest “Chick Sightings” and now we want to hear what you are up to and where you have been on our Blog. Email us your stories and rad photos to info@civi-chicks.biz

Who wants to Know?

This is for all of you information nuts (should I say nerds) who love to collect the facts. Chick Trivia will be an on-going “project” and everyone knows that climbers love a good project.  Look to this category for fun facts, history and trivia on women’s climbing… past and present. Please email info@civi-chicks.biz with your historical beta.

When you’re hot, you’re HOT!

Join us here to discuss Hot Topics that are important to women and women’s climbers. We will have one sizzling topic per month to discuss, share ideas, expertise and the latest oppinions. Imagine that, a woman with an oppinion. Please let us know what Hot Topics you could warm up to….we are gathering ideas before we launch this Category. What would You like to read about?

What Do Chicks Like Anyway?

Stay tuned for gear reviews from our infamous Girly Guides, the Head Chick and our up-in-coming fledglings.  Hear what the girliest girls think about the latest, greatest gear in the outdoor industry. What do Chicks like anyway?  Hmm.

My new climbing partner

Mr. X

Mr. X

I love climbing with women and by the nature of my work, I do quite a bit of it but this winter I was blessed with a new climbing partner…a cute, humorous, 39 year old, unavailable, cop from Crested Butte. Quite the package deal wouldn’t you say.  Practicalities aside, I was certainly ready for a little excitement in my life…especially since he let me do all of the leading.

So here’s the deal, when I turned 50 I didn’t feel as if my life was suddenly passing me by or I needed to head on some major adventure that would put me on top of a symbolic summit to my soul. Instead, I felt grateful for my life and the fact that I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do.  Even so, I still  felt like a total looser for not setting any “goals” for this milestone. With that said, I quietly decided it would be fun to lead all of the major backcountry ice climbs in the San Juan’s and ski some of the classic north faces of the peaks I gaze upon everyday.  Somehow the simplicity of this goal, close to home, sounded perfect and besides, I found a new belay slave. Sweet.