Interview: Adam and Caroline George

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Adam and Caroline George are no strangers to hard ice climbing: the IFMGA-certified couple lives in Chamonix, France full-time with their new daughter, Olivia.  As part of a trip to the United States, they’re coming east to guide some awesome clinics at the Mount Washington Valley Icefest from February 1rst to 3rd.  I caught up with the Georges via email during their whirlwind American sending spree.

It seems like you guys are on a little US tour right now.  Any good ice-climbing so far?

Caroline: After nearly a two-year hiatus from pure ice and mixed climbing, any ice has been blowing my mind. Maybe it’s because I have a child and that anytime I get to go climbing, it seems like the best day ever, but I am enjoying ice climbing more than ever. We’ve encountered a mix of conditions but feel that we have made the best of it. Our first climb in NH was, of course, the Black Dike, which is a great way to start the season and get back on the ice. I love the yellow ice. We also got on Fafnir. the last pitch was all rock (very loose at that). We found great conditions on Dracula and then really bad conditions on Repentance but Adam saved the day when I chickened out of climbing unprotectable soaking wet moss at the top of the ice. We then flew out west to Ouray for the ice fest and climbed a bunch in the park, did some dry-tooling at the Hall of Justice and got drenched on Bridalveil Falls, which led us to turning around after one pitch. I love the ice fest there because it’s such a unique time to see the ice climbing community. That’s what makes ice climbing to me so great, as much as the climbing itself. After Ouray, we headed back to Salt Lake City, where the ice was going off all over. We took turn getting on the ice and watching Olivia. I got to climb 7th heaven in Provo Canyon (the mixed variation to Stairway to Heaven), which was one of the highlights of the trip for me. And now we have one week before the MWV Ice-Fest to enjoy the cold conditions in NH.

Adam, you’re from New Hampshire.  Any fond memory of  MWV Ice-Fest from the past? 

Adam: I worked at an ice fest in 2001 for IMCS and have great memories of that weekend! I got to work alongside and hang out with some of my climbing heros.  One day I worked with Jim Shimberg and then I helped Mark Synott with a “winter Big Wall” clinic, as if ice climbing didn’t involve enough suffering…  I stayed in Kevin Mahoney’s barn that weekend and we spent evenings drinking beer and monkeying around the old barn beams with armed with ice tools.  The years have past, but some of the same great characters will be part of the fest again and I’m psyched to be a part of it again!

Caroline: You grew up in Leysin, Switzerland, sort of an epicenter for outdoor sports in Europe. And Adam, you learned to climb right here in the Whites!  How did those specific training grounds get you ready for your current roles as professional climbers?

Adam: The Whites offer a lot of diverse climbing and challenging weather, which help build a really solid foundation for any climber.  There was (still is?) a fairly conservative attitude in the Valley when I started climbing.  I didn’t see much hangdogging and most people didn’t really try routes until they were fairly certain they could send them.  In some ways this probably slowed down my progression through the grades, but at the same time, this really helped make me a solid climber, which is fundamental when working as a guide.

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[Jon Griffith]

Caroline: Guiding is a very highly regarded profession in Europe. The terrain lands itself to training to become a guide, and to guiding in all four disciplines of the profession: ski, alpine, ice and rock. There is such a huge diversity of all four, with unlimited terrain to play on. Guiding there makes work not feel like work. But I feel that the USA offers an approach to guiding that is complimentary to guiding in Europe, since there is no hut system or readily available rescue system in case of an accident. It forces you to learn to be more self-reliant in the backcountry and in the mountains and I think that that’s a really important aspect of guiding.

What drew you each initially to guiding?

Adam: A lot of my climbing mentors were guides so it seemed like a pretty normal career.  I dabbled on and off with guiding for a few years, but mainly earned a living doing carpentry while climbing as much as possible.  Around 2006, after meeting Caroline, I (we) decided that rather than work in order to go climbing why not make a living doing what I love.

Caroline: I took a friend in the mountains once and lead the whole route and thought to myself: “Wow, I could get paid to do this!” That’s when it all started for me. But also, I think I always knew that someday I’d have a family and I felt that guiding was the best job for that: you get exercise during the day and come home to your family fully available, not needing to get out for more exercise. Also, it’s flexible and provides ample free time to play for yourself and with your child. And so far, this is turning out to be what I wanted it to be. Also, I really enjoy taking people in the mountains. So, it makes work not feel like work (most of the time). And lastly, guiding is considered a “real job” in Europe. I once had a client in the Tetons who told me that guides were teenagers who hadn’t grown up. So, I am grateful for the recognition of the profession where I live.

Last year you guys did a one-day ascent of the Eiger Nordwand.  I know it’s bread-and-butter for Chamonix guides, but for New Englanders it’s kind of a big deal.  How do you train for climbs like this?

Caroline: Hmmm, I don’t know that it’s really bread-and-butter for Chamonix guides. There’s maybe a handful of guides who guide it, but it’s not that many. Adam guided it right after we did it, possibly becoming the first American to guide it. It’s a big and committing climb with a client and some guides even offer to guide guides on it because it’s on the bucket list of many guides. It’s an intimidating climb for anyone I think, because of its history and all the literature about epic ascents of the route. I first climbed it in 2003. Like any climb, once you’ve done it, you know you can do it again. So two years ago, Adam and I decided to go for a one-day ascent of the route. I can’t remember how that came together or how we even talked about it. I’d climbed quite a lot on big alpine routes that past Fall and was really motivated and the only “training” I remember doing was randomly doing an 7000-8000ft ski tour the week before. Conditions were good on the route, we had both done the climb before, and we just did it. It was a magical day… and a magical summit in the sun. I think with alpine climbing, a lot has to do with wanting badly enough and accepting to suffer through it.

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[Jon Griffith]

Adam: New England offers great opportunities to train, just look at all the world class alpinists who live or who have spent time in the Valley.  Spend some time on Mt. Washington and Cannon and everything else will feel easy…   I think the best way to train for bigger alpine routes is to spend as much time as possible in mountain environments.  It’s important to work on your technical climbing but don’t spend all your time in 50ft mixed caves.  Doing longer moderate routes or even fast paced winter hikes goes a long way in conditioning your body to longer Alpine climbs.

You’re one of the few married couples climbing ice and alpine terrain on such a high level.  Are there any special considerations when you’re climbing as a couple?

Adam: Combine two guides (who by nature are always right), a relationship and climbing, and you are bound to have some excitement from time to time, best to keep the rope stretched out to avoid confrontation… ha!  Climbing with a loved one does alter your perception of risks and can make some climbing situations more stressful.  Nonetheless, it is great to be able to share our passion together and we have spent some great times together in the mountains.

Caroline: No matter what you do, don’t climb together! No, just kidding. I think that both being professionals and spouses can sometimes be a challenging combination. You both have an opinion, it’s easy to voice it with your spouse so you have to be ok with that and not take anything personally. I think the great thing about it though is that you really watch out for each other in ways you would maybe not think twice about with another partner. And those moments you share build some very strong bonds. But it can be hard to see your partner take risks too. So you have pick objectives that won’t be risk-wise too stressful for both involved.

You are new parents…congratulations!  How does your daughter Olivia affect your climbing and guiding routine?

Adam: The biggest challenge is scheduling everything.  It is a challenge to balance work, time with Olivia and personal climbing, but it is all possible.  Luckily a lot of the work I do is day work so I can be home at night to see Olivia.  Also, our parents have been really helpful during some busy stretches of work, which has made a big difference.  Having world class routes just minutes from our door helps the balance as well!

Caroline: My goal was to say that having a child doesn’t change your life. I feel strongly that having a child only changes your life in a way that you let it change your life and is no more impactful than any other life-altering decision you make in your life. It’s made me way more efficient with my time and way more motivated. I find it interesting when I go climbing with non-parents to see how leisurely they are about time. Suddenly, your concept of time is so rationed that every second counts and you want to milk it for what it’s worth. But it’s hard to be the time-watching partner because you have be respectful of other people’s experience too. It’s an interesting balance to strike. Having a child is making me more organized and I need boundaries in my life, so it definitely provides that. With frustration comes efficiency. But I don’t feel like it’s changed my approach to ice or alpine climbing in any way. I am still just as psyched. The only thing though is that I maybe sometimes feel guilty for not feeling more guilty to go on what is considered to be a risky activity. I justify it as it being my job as a professional alpinist but also as a guide. To be safe in the profession, you need to go climb a lot and feel comfortable in the terrain you guide. Guiding can be challenging with a child when conditions or weather don’t cooperate and you need to change your whole schedule around, and that of your child. This past summer, I was guiding and nursing. Although most of the days were single days, the overnights were challenging, pumping while on the climb or in the hut. But if you really want it, you always find a way to make it happen. This past week, I was alone with Olivia for three days and I really wanted to climb and ski, so I took her along on all my adventures and we made it work and the experience was all the richer for both of us.

Caroline: You’re teaching a Women’s Steep Ice Climbing clinic on Saturday of icefest.  Any advice specific to female climbers coming to Icefest?

My best advice to women is to make the time at the ice fest your own. Don’t be afraid to try, ask questions and just know that you can do it and that you are responsible for making the best out of your time there. Unlike other sports, I feel that gender doesn’t impact ice climbing in any way. It’s an even field.

So honestly, we’re all dying to know.  How do the whites compare to Chamonix?  Sure, there’s mile after mile of alpine classics, good weather, and instant access, but don’t you miss bushwhacking to grungy, 50 foot turf-routes?…or maybe I just answered my own question.

Adam: Both have more in common than you may think:  granite,  a Cog Railway, and I hear French spoken regularly in the MWV…  Seriously, Chamonix is world class and this is no secret, but when ice conditions are good, NH is home to some world class routes as well!

Caroline: The Whites are way more brutal than Chamonix… weather and temperatures are so intense! and you have to really want what you get when you hike in so far… but I think that the harder you work for something (no matter what the size is), the more rewarding the experience. And that’s why some of the most talented climbers in the US come from the Whites!

To learn more about the Georges, go to  www.intothemountains.com, and to sign up for a clinic next week, visit  www.mwv-icefest.com

Guest Contributor, Michael Wejchert, 26, lives in Jackson, New Hampshire and travels to Alaska, Patagonia, Peru, and other odd places to fail on large mountains.  At home, he can be found chasing ice, sport climbing, or watching Star Wars.  He believes in art, action, and large pizza from Kringles General Store.