Emilie Drinkwater’s name is synonymous with the Adirondacks: she’s literally on the cover of the guidebook, and for good reason. Whether it’s ice, rock, ski descents or alpinism, Emilie charges. She’s been coming to the Mount Washington Valley Icefest for seven years or so now. It’s always a pleasure to see her taking excited clients out for their first day of ice climbing. I caught up with this busy Alpinista in between bouts of guiding for a quick q and a. Check it out!
Emilie, you’re quite the ice climber, rock climber, skier, and alpinist. What, in your opinion, makes a good all-round climber? How do you prepare for all these different disciplines?
The thing about being an all-arounder is that you’re never spectacular at anything but you’re a little bit good at all of it. Because I get bored easily and lack the focus and drive to work really hard at one thing, dabbling in all disciplines has, by default, turned me into an all-arounder. And of course, I love rock, ice, and alpine climbing, each for a long list of reasons.
I think one thing that makes a good all-around climber/skier/alpinist is someone willing to get out in the mountains and enjoy doing whatever is appropriate given weather, conditions, and available objectives. For example, if you make plans to ski in the backcountry and the day before you go it’s pouring rain and 50 degrees followed by -20 that night (like what happens in the Northeast all the time), then you have to have the flexibility (and desire) to say that maybe the skiing won’t be that great and you should go ice climbing instead.
As far as preparing for all the disciplines…well, it can pretty hard and I’m not one for ‘training’. Luckily I grew up skiing in NH (starting out first as a downhill skier/racer as a kid and then switching to nordic skiing/racing in high school and college) which has given me countless hours on skis. Climbing happens easily for me because it’s everywhere and because, as a guide, this is the bulk of my work. Even on a busy day I can get a few laps in (ice or rock) due to our abundant roadside crags and easily accessible terrain. Additionally, there is plenty of challenging backcountry climbing in the Northeast for bigger days or longer adventures. Higher altitude climbing and big, big mountains mean traveling elsewhere (which I do a lot of).
You’ve got your own guiding service over in Keene: Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides, run with your husband, Jesse Williams. What’s it like guiding and climbing over in the Adirondacks?
Wow, this is a difficult question to answer in few articulate sentences! The climbing is abundant, traditional, unassuming, and weather/condition dependent—perhaps more so in the NE than other parts of the country. The guiding is like anywhere; you (read, I) probably won’t get rich doing it, but the lifestyle isn’t too bad. If you design your schedule correctly, it’s a mix of binge work and binge free time (the latter of which means you usually run out of money but get to climb a lot). These days I’m in the Adirondacks and NE for about seven months of the year. The rest of my time is spent chasing work in other places, mostly Alaska and the Tetons (and right now I’m doing a stretch in Ouray, CO).
You’ve been coming to the Mount Washington Valley Icefest for a long time now. What makes it such a cool event?
Like our Adirondack Ice Festival, one of my favorite parts about this event is the camaraderie; it’s a chance to see all my climbing friends, sponsors, and clients/participants in one place during a really fun weekend dedicated to ice climbing. It’s a good reminder of our phenomenal community of Northeastern climbers (and I’m a huge proponent of Northeast climbing, especially in the winter) and the energy people have for a sport that frequently involves so many discomforts—cold, wind, heavy packs, and sharp things!
You had a pretty cool trip to India a few years back with Janet Bergman (now Wilkinson) and Kristen Kremer. You shared a base camp with Mark Richey, Steve Swenson, and Freddie Wilkinson, too! Sounds like you guys got on some pretty neat objectives. What was it like going on a big expedition with fellow crushers?
There are too many adjectives I could use to describe this trip with this all-star team so I’ll just keep it to this: this was an amazing opportunity for me that came about at a time when I really needed to get out and do something big and far away. Prior to his trip I’d come to the depressing conclusion that I’d never climb in the Himalaya due to the many complicated logistics including finding good partners, good objectives, wading through the foreign permit and visa process, and biggest of all the huge expense of getting there and back (after all I’m a mountain guide not a professional climber…money is hard to come by!). This was a serendipitous opportunity that allowed me to join an incredibly strong, experienced team of mostly northeast climbers who dream of exploration, adventure, and new routes the same way I do…just on a scale larger than I’d been accustomed to. Janet, Kirsten, and I were fortunate to have recieved a Polartec Challenge Grant in addition to lots of help from our sponsors (Outdoor Research, Mountain Hardwear, and Sterling Rope) so that help offset costs of an otherwise very expensive but very rewarding trip. I’d do it again any day!
You’re teaching a Women’s Steep Ice clinic on Saturday for the Icefest. Any advice for women just getting into ice climbing?
Tons of advice! Most of it comes down to managing warmth, something with which most women struggle. Obviously there’s a lot of technical information as well—things like climbing movement and rope management— but you’d be better off coming to a clinic to learn these than having me bore you by writing it all out. However, I did recently write an article for Verticulture on staying warm while ice climbing. It comes out February 4th, so check back then!
What bit of OR gear are you really psyched on this season?
My Incandescent Hoody. It’s 800 fill down, super warm, light, compressible, and stylish. I haven’t taken this off since October!