|Abby ice-climbing Haffner Creek. Photo by Jimmy Chin
Golden, British Columbia, Canada
Music: Thievery Corporation, Verdiís La Traviatta, Ani Di Franco, Spearhead's "Variety is the spice of life!"
Books: The Heroís Walk, by Anita Rau Badami
Achievements: First ascent of Changi Tower (5,800m), Pakistan, with Vera Wong and Nicola Woolford. Numerous podium finishes in international ice-climbing competition, 2000 to present.
Favorite thing about spring: The feel of the sun as it gets higher in the sky. Getting my mountain bike out of the basement and riding for the first time of the season. Ski mountaineering high up in the alpine in spring sunshine.
Since she began climbing in 1988, Abby has excelled at just about every kind of climbing imaginable. In 1996, she and fellow Australian Vera Wong set the Women's Speed Records on The Nose of El Cap and the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome, a record which stood for eight years and was recently beaten by fellow North Face athlete Heidi Wirtz. She also has a mile-long list of competitive titles she's taken home over the years: second place at the 2004 Ouray Ice Festival, third place at the 2002 Ice Climbing World Championships, first place at Festiglace du Quebec in 2001, first place at the Ouray Ice Festival in the combined category, and the U.S. Speed Climbing Championship in 1996. In 1998, Abby took her skills to the mountains of Pakistan and promptly completed two first ascents in the Nangmah Valley. Perhaps her background as a dancer and gymnast has helped to fuel her fire, or maybe it's the fact that she grew up surfing and swimming in the oceans of Australia. Itís no question that her raw talent and passion for adventure allow her to continuously add to her impressive resume of successes.
For all her achievements, however, she remains fully grounded: "The most important thing for me has not been the end results...I am far more interested in the relationships I have created through climbing, and also the humility with which climbing has helped me approach the world." You'll find Abby sharing her talent and experiences through her Alala Womenís Mountain Adventures (www.womensmountainadventures.com) clinics and her job as a mountain guide; sheís a certified Alpine Guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. Off the mountain, Abby performs with the Vancouver-based aerial dance company, Ariosa Dance.
Mark Synnott Talks with Abby Watkins
Like most members of The North Face athlete team, Abby Watkins is not someone who spends her time behind a desk pushing papers. Instead, you'll find her climbing and skiing just about seven days a week around her new home in Golden, British Columbia. I was beginning to wonder if I'd be able to find her when I received a tip from her husband, Rich Marshal, who also happens to be a member of The North Face Team. I finally located her at a friend's house in Jasper, deep in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Lucky too, because an hour later and she would have been on her way up the East Ridge of the nearby Mt. Edith Cavell.
Mark: I'm glad I got a hold of you. Tell me about your upcoming mission on Edith Cavell.
Abby: Well, I'm training to be a guide up here in Canada. On this trip I'll be the assistant guide. In the US you don't have to have any type of certification to become a guide, but up here it's a full-blown profession and the certification process is extremely stringent. It's called the UIAGM -- it's the same system they have over in Europe. It takes five years and costs $20,000 to get the certification, so it's not something to be taken lightly. I'm really enjoying what it's bringing to my climbing. I'm learning so much because people who have been guiding for longer than I've been alive are training me. These guys are so slick and their mountain sense is so fine-tuned. In the long run I'll be a better mountaineer because of it.
Mark: How close are you to being finished?
Abby: I started two years ago so I still have a ways to go. There's a really strong component in ski mountaineering, and since I'm kind of a lousy skier, that's probably the part that's going to involve the most work. I love powder skiing now, so it's certainly going to be a lot of fun to work on getting better. And the skiing around our home is some of the best in the world.
Mark: So, I assume they test you at some point. Tell me a little bit about it.
Abby: The alpine certification is by far the hardest thing to pass. The exam is two weeks long and during that time you're pretty much going from morning to night with no rest days. You're climbing lots of big alpine routes, gaining 5,000 feet of elevation every day, crossing glaciers, pulling people out of crevasses, short roping and switching constantly from snow to rock to ice.
So, what happens once you are finished? Do you go into business for yourself or do you have to find some company to hire you?
Abby: Actually, Rich and I already have a company. Rich is already fully certified, so as I go through the exam process I can work under him. Basically, I can guide anything that he feels I'm capable of doing. He's like the overseer. There are tons of great guiding opportunities up here in Canada. And because of the certification, the money is a lot better than what people make down in the states. A guide can easily make $350 to $400 a day up here.
Mark: Wow that's awesome, even if it is the Canadian dollar. I can tell you from first hand experience that guides don't make nearly that much around here. So, I take it then that you work as a paid apprentice guide to help pay for the certification?
Abby: That's right. Rich and I have been really busy this summer. In fact, right now we're working on setting the course for the Eco-Challenge Canadian Championships. It's all going on around Golden. Actually, just today Rich was out in the backcountry working on a leg of the course by himself and he got in between a grizzly bear and its cub. I just talked to him and he was like, "Oh my God, Abby. I was nearly eaten." Apparently the mother bear was roaring. Rich ran away, and luckily she didn't chase him. Rich has lived here his whole life and has never had an encounter before.
Mark: So, tell me about Golden? What is it like around where you live?
Abby: For years I was looking for the perfect mountain town where I could settle down. I lived in both Boulder and Mammoth, and while I really liked both places, I just didn't know if I wanted to settle in there. Then I met Rich, and I guess you could say that the town came with him. Golden is right on the western side of the Canadian Rockies and sits in the middle of the Columbia Trench, where the Columbia River has its source. To the west we're bordered by the Purcells and Selkirks -- we're only an hour away from the Bugaboos. There are a lot of other granite intrusions around here, like the Adamants and the Gothics. The powder skiing here in the winter is unbelievable.
Mark: Are you worried that guiding all the time will diminish your passion for climbing on your own? I know some guides who are just too tired or burned out to go out climbing on their days off.
Abby: Not at all, probably just the opposite in fact. Guiding just means that I'm out there in the mountains a lot, and the truth is that I just really love being out there, whether it's for work or play. And when you spend that much time in the mountains, you start to get a really good feel for conditions, what we call mountain sense. So this can only make me a better, safer climber. You also get really fit doing these big alpine climbs and that seems to help a lot with rock climbing.