An interview with

Sarah Hueniken

Alpine Guide

True To Me Too: I read that you went on a your first Outward Bound trip when you were 15?

Sarah Hueniken: I had done a canoe trip with my uncle before that and I had really liked it.  You’re in high school and you’re a teenager and I felt like I really wanted something adventurous to do so I pretty much saved up for that trip and paid for it myself.  I really wanted to go.  I ended up being in an all girls group, which wasn’t what I wanted, at all, (laughs) but that ended up being really empowering and I think I learned a lot about my own abilities and leadership and how to be more independent.  It really affected me a lot and I guess helped direct me towards all this in some way.

Once you made up your mind that working outdoors and doing these types of adventures and trips was something you wanted to do with your life, how did you go about pursuing it?

I didn’t really know about the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides until I was probably mid 20s.  It wasn’t like I always grew up dreaming about being a guide, I didn’t know anything about the mountains coming from Ontario.  I would say that it was always evolving.  I knew I wanted to pursue something outside so I started working for Outward Bound.  That led me to work for the National Outdoor Leadership School and that led me to work for a university and eventually I found myself in Canmore, Alberta working towards a guiding certification.  I don’t think it was something I knew all along but once I decided that kind of grew, I thought I wanted to be a rock guide and before I knew it I was training with alpine guides.  It kind of evolved.

You took outdoor recreation as well as natural sciences at Lakehead University, are there similar programs are available at other schools?  What should someone look for when choosing a post-secondary outdoor program?

Nowadays they’ve got all sorts of different programs. I think the best one is Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, definitely if you want to work as a guide it gives you the best practical skills for that. College of the Rockies is another one. I’m sure there are a lot of schools that have outdoor programs within them, you can still get a regular degree in them but still be involved in outdoor programs. They’ve become a lot more popular, that’s for sure.

What are some of the more useful things you learned in school that help you in your career today?

If I were to do it again I probably would have got a degree that is a good backup career from what I’m doing, like engineering or something.  I personally wouldn’t push or suggest that people do a 4 year outdoor recreation or parks and tourism degree because you don’t really come out of it with something super tangible.  I guess you can make something work but really it’s just a fun degree to take.  I guess it gave me the confidence in someways to keep pursuing my passion and what I like to do and learn about things I like rather than learning about things just to try to get a job.  I guess in that way it was useful to keep living an honest path of pursuing what you want to do.

You designed the climbing program at St. Lawrence University, what was that experience like?

That was an awesome opportunity.  I really loved the job. I was able to start a climbing program and design a bunch of other programs and the school was a really nice, small, private school.  Very different than the education I had, they had pretty privileged students there so I found it a little frustrating, just the lack of responsibility some students had at that age, in terms of signing up for things and then just not showing up, or hiring people to work at the gym and them not coming for a shift.  It was challenging that way because it wasn’t really the culture I was brought up in but it was a great opportunity for me to design a program and watch a bunch of students who may never have had the opportunity to go climbing and explore the mountains to give them that opportunity.  I still hear from some of them today and keep in touch with them on Facebook so it’s nice that a lot of them are still pursuing it.

You started in Ontario and you started with canoe trips, how did you transition into climbing?

In university there was a climbing gym and I started to go there and really liked it and went into a competition at the end of my 4th year.  I met a couple other climbers and they encouraged me to join them on a road trip and we drove from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Joshua Tree, California.  I was pretty much hooked after that.  All I wanted to do was go on road trips and climb and live out of my car.  After that I still worked for Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership Association but I learned pretty quickly that I would become unhappy if I went a long time without climbing.  I learned that a 21 day canoe trip would put me into misery after  awhile and I really needed the fix of going climbing.  It’s really addictive.

What were some of your first jobs out of school?

I did the usual waitressing thing.  I started to work for Outward Bound pretty soon after school.  When I moved to Canmore I ended up working 5 jobs just to exist here because it’s quite expensive, selling new homes, working at the veterinary hospital, working at the climbing gym, lot’s of different things (laughs).

You mentioned the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), what does that program offer students?

It’s for all ages not just university or college students but as a college or university student you can get credits for your school, which is kind of nice.  I think it’s really different than Outward Bound, which is a lot about personal growth, metaphors, learning about yourself through challenging yourself in the environment. NOLS is more about learning the hard skills to travel safely in that environment.  I kind of liked that switch because I was more into the technical skills.  I think students get a lot out of it whether they take a 35 day course or they take a semester, it’s going to be very thorough and they’ll learn a lot about whatever environment they choose, whether it’s mountains, or sailing, or white water paddling, horseback riding, there’s all sorts of different things.  You’ll learn to be pretty independent in that skill by the end.  Plus you learn to work in a group, which is always an added bonus.

I noticed they have a Leave No Trace program, which teaches students to respect the environment and particular ecosystems as they are moving through them.  You’ve been doing this a long time have you noticed the effects of climate change in your industry?

The most obvious thing around here working in the mountains is seeing the change in the glaciers every year.  It’s pretty clear to see  changes just within a year.  You’re climbing the mountain yearly and you can see these changes pretty visibly.  I think our winters have still been pretty full on but this summer we had pretty major floods.  It’s defiantly become more unpredictable.

You mentioned you worked with at risk youth and if you can climb a mountain you probably feel like you can accomplish anything.  What does that program do to boost kids confidence levels?

I think a lot of the youth at risk courses that I worked had mostly to do with working with each other, that was the biggest challenge for them, that and being in the outdoors.  What’s great about doing it outside is that the students are removed from everything else, they get immediate consequence for their actions.  Not just from the group but from nature and the environment.  You can’t be lazy or you’ll be cold, if you do one thing maybe you won’t eat or you won’t sleep.  It’s all the basic needs but you really have to earn them in some ways.  Just learning to deal with each other in the group because there’s no escaping, you’re just in it. You have to work together to meet a common goal.

You have you own guide business now, how does it feel to take people out climbing and help them learn and watch them succeed?

It’s definitely the perk of the business.  Often people go into guiding because they love to climb or they love to ski and they start working and realize they aren’t doing what they want to be doing that day and they don’t last very long with the job.  You really have to love sharing it with people and love seeing someone have success or accomplish their goal or be challenged or be super satisfied at the end.  If you can enjoy that then guiding is for you, that’s what it’s got to be about.  It’s super rewarding.  I think often how fortunate I am that every day I go to work I get so much appreciation.  So many other people go to work and maybe once a month someone pats them on the back and says “good job” but here I have people giving me hugs or crying, there’s a lot of emotions and I get to be part of that and feel a ton of appreciation for what I do.  I think that’s probably the highlight of my job.

For some people who might never think about challenging themselves with a course like that what would you say to try to get someone who might be apprehensive or nervous to get them out there to try it for the first time?

It’s not for everyone.  I wouldn’t say everyone needs to go out in the mountains and try and push themselves.  I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to relate to someone who doesn’t want to do that (laughs) aren’t curious at all how that would feel? It doesn’t take much to get someone to have that feeling, it really doesn’t, even if it’s just tying into a rope and moving up a couple feet and then trusting the rope to get lowered down, that could be life changing for someone, giving up that control and trusting the system.  It only takes something small to trigger something and make you want to come back to try a bit more.  I think everything in life you’ve got to just put a toe in the water and see how it feels.  Just give it a go, you never know.

You did an M12 route last year, how did that feel?

I surprised myself really.  I wasn’t thinking that I was capable of doing those things and then I had a really good winter and it just soft of came together.  I just kept trying to climb something harder and harder and it culminated in being able to do that grade at the end of the winter.  That drives me to see what I can do next winter.

A lot was made of the fact that you were the first North American woman to do an M12 climb, obviously it’s a huge accomplishment but are you comfortable always having that attached to your accomplishments? What’s the gender split like in the industry?

I’m always torn between celebrating first female ascents of things for a couple reason.  Often because to climb something, like a mountain, it’s a partnership between two people to get up something.  When an all woman’s team celebrates being the first to do that it kind of diminishes the co-ed team to do it before them, where a woman was involved.  That part of celebrating first woman ascents kind of bothers me but with this climb where it was just one person climbing and achieving a grade it’s a bit different.  I think it’s good to note first female ascents, or getting a certain grade or climbing at a certain level because I really think it opens the door for other women to see that this is now the new standard, this is the thing to push, and it seems to get more people involved.  But in the long run women, at least with mixed climbing in North America, are obviously way behind men.  In Europe they’re climbing a lot stronger mixed climbs.  It’s a tough one to celebrate something as a first as a female.  I’d love to be the first male or female to do it.

You also have an all women’s program that you run as a guide.

That sort of stems from when I was 15 on that Outward Bound trip and ended up being with all girls.  I think that enabled all of the girls in that course to try things that we might not of had there been boys in the course.  And vice versa I’m sure boys in the all boy group had a different experience as well.  You don’t fall into gender roles.  This is a generalization but I think women often need a bit more of a push to go out front or feel comfortable trying new things in front of others and it’s a safer environment for them in an all women’s group.  It helps allow them to make mistakes and to learn you have to be willing to make mistakes, so it’s a bit of a circle.  It’s a common bond as well out there in those courses.  It’s a bit of an escape for women to get away and challenge themselves in the mountains.  It’s a bit more of a supportive environment.

You’ve worked with the same people a few times, Will Gadd and Kim Csizmazia, how important is it to make these friendships and these working relationships with people in the climbing community?

Those are two big names for sure, people who have accomplished big things in the mountains.  I don’t think that’s so much what it’s about, it’s more about finding people that you’re psyched to be around and that you feel supported by and encouraged by and who create a positive environment to climb in and you trust them.  It’s super important to find good partners. When you have a goal just on your own and you don’t have a partner to do it with, it’s super frustrating.  It’s nice to share a goal with someone and work together towards that and find someone who is on the same path as you.

What kind of training and physical work outs would you recommend to aspiring climbers?

It all depends on your goal.  Climbing has so many different facets, there’s ice climbing, mixed climbing, rock climbing, mountaineering.  It really depends on what your goal is.  I think for me the idea of training is just to stay focused and try to not get lazy about it.  To try to create space in your schedule to make the most of even a small window of time to keep your energy going towards your goal.  To me that would be going to the climbing gym or going for a run.

You’re an Outdoor Research Athlete and a Mountain Equipment Co-Op Envoy, what is the relationship and the collaboration process like with those companies?

I’m also with Sterling Rope, Hot Chillys, which is a long underwear company and Scarpa, which is a shoe company.  Outdoor Research is my main sponsor, I’ve been with them for almost 10 years.  We do product testing and give them feedback and help work on the design and materials and function and fit.  In return also do clinics and things at festivals.  They provide great product for me and my courses, they give jackets to all the women on the courses in the summer and the winter, which is really nice.

Is that something where you approach them or they approach you?

It can work both ways.  I’ve been really lucky and have known the right people or have been approached at the right times. If someone really wants to get sponsored you’ll want to take the time to write letters, I’m sure they get a lot of letters, so it helps to know some people in the industry or to create a bit of a name for yourself before you just ask for things.

You have a lot of certifications, how important are those for someone looking to work in the industry?

They’re crucial.  Out here in western Canada you have to be certified to get insurance, to get permits to work in the mountains here. It’s as much as a profession as being a lawyer, doctor, or teacher, you have to have the certification.  To get certified is quite a long expensive process, if you want to be a full mountain guide, which is rock, alpine, and ski, there’s assistant and full levels to each of those.  The average person takes 6-10 years and about 40 grand to accomplish being a mountain guide, so it’s a pretty lengthy process.  It is regarded as a real profession out here, which is nice.

What’s involved with becoming certified?

Lots.  You have to come with a pretty good resume of years of experience and meet certain credentials.  Then you do a 10 day course where you’re practicing all of the skills outside with your examiners and if you do well in the course you do the exam, which is also 10 days.  It’s all practical skills where you’re out in the mountain either doing the rock exam or the alpine exams.  If you fail you have to wait another year before you can do it again.  There’s that process for each, alpine, rock, and ski, for an assistant level and then that same process for the full level.  It’s time consuming and it’s hard for sure.  It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever went through.  It’s physically demanding but also just mentally you need to stay focused on it.

It sounds like you’ve travelled a lot, what are some of your favourite places you’ve been?

I would love to travel more. It’s been awhile. When I went to China to climb the Genyen area near Tibet, that was challenging for sure because of the remoteness of the area and the language barrier. It was also stunningly beautiful and an amazing experience to get so far away from everything. I did a recent trip to climb the Seastacks in Newfoundland , I had always wanted to see the Canadian side of the Atlantic and it was everything that I thought it would be. It was a really beautiful landscape and the people were awesome and the climbing was fun.

You settled in Canmore, why did you choose it?

I chose it because to work as a climbing guide year round, which means ice guiding in the winter, rock in the summer, and alpine, it’s pretty much the ideal location.  Anywhere else it would be really hard to get year round work.  This is kind of the mecca for ice climbing and we have a really long winter so I can get year round work here.  I can be 5 minutes from going climbing, even for myself.  It’s a good guiding community and it’s only an hour from Calgary, which has a good airport.  And it’s beautiful (laughs).  It’s hard to leave.  I don’t know if I will leave.

Do you have any upcoming goals or plans?

It’s hard when I’m working a lot to stay focused on my personal goals because I get tired from working and to be motivated enough on my days off to go and push myself is hard. I would still like to climb a certain rock climbing grade that I’m working on. I definitely and excited for this winter to see what I can do with mixed climbing again, whether that’s competition climbing, or this place called Helmcken Falls, which is spray ice, I’d like to go back and work on climbs there. I’m excited about those things.

Do you have any final advice for climbers or people looking to get into the outdoor guide business?

My only advice would be that I definitely started a lot of jobs in a volunteer position and eventually made a little bit of money doing it and eventually, eventually, eventually now I own a business and have a career.  If this is something you’re entertaining be patient, show humility, try things out, be okay to volunteer, be okay to not live super lucratively for awhile but live happily and pursue your dream.  Doors just keep kind of opening if you stay open to it.  I never had a set path but it hasn’t proven me wrong yet to take the next step and see where that goes then take the next step and see where that goes.  I’m pretty happy where I’m at right now and I don’t think I ever had that global vision from a distance. It’s high quality of life versus working for the future, you’re just living now, and to me that’s the ultimate goal.


Date: July 9, 2014 • Category:
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