Women Who Crush It: Andrea Charest

Andrea Charest is a climber, skier, and co-owner of Petra Cliffs, an indoor climbing center and mountaineering school. We caught up with Andrea at her Bolton, Vermont home over some backyard bouldering with the family, which includes her husband and business partner Steve, 18-month-old daughter McKinley, and their Swiss Mountain dog Skadi.

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All photos by Rachel Cohen

goEast: You and your husband Steve own a climbing gym and guiding service in Vermont. You must wear a lot of hats! Would you tell us a little more about what a typical day is like for you?

Andrea: A lot of hats and helmets is a good description. And, now with the “mom” hat, I’ve realized that I need to get up earlier to fit everything into the day! Most days, I get up and make coffee, return some emails or do some other work, get McKinley up, have breakfast, prepare lunch and toddler meals, and, on work days, either head out to the rock or ice climbing area to meet a client or head into the gym. The guiding days are all different, depending on the guest, but my favorite days are when we’re climbing a multi-pitch route or two, and we get to be high off the ground for hours.

In the gym, I’m working on the accounting side, promotion/advertising strategy, planning events, or, especially now, working on the new gym project planning. When we get home, we’ll play, cook dinner, do dishes, catch up on emails again, watch a movie or go in the hot tub, and go to bed! Steve and I are fortunate to have three days of care for McKinley per week, and we each spend one weekday home with her, so we get a lot of “training weight” hikes in with the baby backpack, which, of course, Skadi the Swissy loves, too.

goEast: Over the years, you have held lots of roles at Petra Cliffs, all the way from gym rat to running the whole show. Today, the success of your climbing gym and guide business determines your livelihood! It seems like you are part climbing professional, part business owner, and part climbing enthusiast. So, how has your relationship with the sport of climbing evolved through all these professional changes?

Andrea: I’m finally getting better at having conversations with people who don’t climb—especially now that I have a kid—but sometimes, going to gatherings of non-climbers is a challenge to find conversation topics. My life definitely revolves around climbing! But, being a business owner has tied me in a lot more with the Burlington community, and now, planning a project in the city has connected us to an even greater variety of professionals. I’m very thankful for this, and it’s fun to see those folks looking to us as the local experts in our industry. We need to be fully immersed in climbing to be able to promote the sport and business the way we do!

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goEast: What’s been your favorite role over the years?

Andrea: Overall, just working with people, whether that’s been coaching the climbing team, teaching women’s clinics, and even now just guiding. Getting out is where I’d prefer to be, but I’ve also grown a new side of myself that loves being a total nerd, where seeing accounting numbers line up can be really satisfying! So, I don’t know if I’ve had one favorite position, but working with all these people who love the sport of climbing is great. It’s hard to have a really bad day at Petra Cliffs, ‘cause people are doing what they love!

goEast: I bet it can get confusing sometimes with what is work and what is play. How do you balance those two? How do you draw a line between what is just for fun and what is for work?

Andrea: Family and play are definitely important to me, but our business is our baby, as well, and we want to see it grow and thrive. It’s hard to completely turn off the work brain, because we wear our logo on clothing, and even on most of our “off” days, we still strike up conversations that lead back to Petra Cliffs. There’s not a hard line between the two, and that’s why we chose this lifestyle, because, even when we’re working, we’re getting to do what we love, with people we enjoy. So much of our life is our work. There’s not always a border—it’s so much of a fluid thing. We’re always moving between the two.

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goEast: Where’s your favorite place to play here in Vermont? Favorite local crag, or somewhere not even climbing?

Andrea: Locally, Bolton and Smugglers’ Notch. Though I’ve climbed there a ton, they are two areas where I still have yet to investigate everything there is to offer. Smugglers’ Notch has definitely been a sleepy little secret, but it’s gaining popularity with more route development. And, right here at home in Bolton, there is really great rock. And, then, within 45 minutes of home offers so much quality adventure, from climbing mellow to steep multi-pitch ice, four-pitch rock routes to skiing incredible backcountry, and then, playing on Lake Champlain or in all of our cold little mountain streams! I love being in between the White Mountains and the Adirondacks. Here in Vermont, we’re lucky, because we’re right in the middle of the two.

goEast: The lure of big mountains in the West and in Europe is enticing for so many of us. What keeps you settled here in Vermont?

Andrea: Steve and I always thought we’d move out West together, but things were just always too good to leave. The longer we’ve stayed here, the better things have gotten. Being able to have a consistent job and being able to guide have kept us here. We can balance indoor work and guiding, and make it into a year-round position, whereas a lot of guides are nomads chasing the work. But, for us, when the weather is bad, indoor programs benefit from that. Then, when the weather is good, we all get to be outside, so it’s really complementary. And, then, we get to come home and sleep in our own beds. Enjoying our jobs, having seasons, good-quality climbing, being within a few hours of family, and having a convenient airport nearby, so we can get out when we need to, are all parts of why we stay!

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goEast: On your worldwide list, where is one place you still want to climb or ski?

Andrea: The highest on the list of climbing big routes are the Bugaboos, the Cirque of the Unclimbables, the Sierras, Patagonia, and back in the Alps. I’d also settle for sunny sport climbing in Greece and Spain! I need to go do some ski mountaineering in Chamonix and Switzerland. And, I’d love to get back to Alaska.  

goEast: You “crush it” in so many ways—in the business, out climbing and skiing, and now as a new mom! What would you want your daughter to know about what being a “woman who crushes it” is all about?

First, I always think it’s funny that I’m considered a woman who crushes it, but thank you! For McKinley, I would tell her to let experience guide her. There will be success, and when things don’t go quite as you’d like them to, you’ll learn something for the next time. Don’t let that discourage you from trying again. I often think about the Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto, which ends by saying, “I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you.” I think that women who crush it are both kind and confident. That’s how I hope she sees me, and what I’m able to show her.

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10 Tips for a Successful Group Adventure in the Backcountry

So, you have a sweet trip idea, and a few buddies have said, “I’m in!” You’re ready to rock and roll—but wait! Ahead of time, it’s worth giving a little bit of thought to the team you’re going to be bringing along into the backcountry.

Group dynamics make or break a trip. When traveling as a party of two or more, co-planning and divvying up trail chores are both essential for success. Here are a few tips to ensure that everyone gets the most out of this shared experience.

1. Create a shared objective

Get everyone together ahead of time to check out the maps, talk through potential routes, and chat a little about your goals. Taking the time to do so will get everyone on the same page about logistics and the daily routine, setting you up for success from the get-go. Further, it allows each person to voice their goals and objectives, and opens the door to talking about safety and level of acceptable risk—essential conversations if you are heading into technical terrain. Are you trying to go fast and light? Are sunrise or alpine starts part of the program? How much mileage are you aiming for? How much cash is everyone expecting to spend on food, transportation, campsites or huts, and other expenses? Are there any behaviors that are totally off limits? To avoid some serious backcountry awkwardness, be clear about expectations before hitting the trail.

2. Get organized

To avoid carrying extra, unnecessary weight, a shared Google document or spreadsheet can easily help you determine who owns what group gear. Of course, everyone will need their own clothing and personal items, but extra bulky gear, such as first aid kits, stoves, and water purifiers, is probably overkill. Repair kits, for skiing and biking, are one exception. These should be specific to each group member, so that everyone has what they need for their own repairs.

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3. Share the load

Divvy up the group gear, so that each person is carrying weight proportional to his or her size and strength, regardless of who owns what. If you’re heading out hiking, split up the bulky stuff, such as the stove, pots, fuel, the tent, and poles, so that each group member’s pack is comfortable and feels manageable.

4. Who’s on chef duty?

The old adage that you can have “too many cooks in the kitchen” definitely holds true in the backcountry. When one person assumes planning and cooking responsibilities for an entire meal, things run so much smoother. Find a spot on your Google doc to outline the breakfasts and dinners you’ll have on the trail, and then, each person can claim responsibility. Sure, the chef can recruit “sous chefs” and others can pitch in to do the dishes, but giving one person full autonomy usually leads to a more efficient suppertime and happier bellies.

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5. Streamline lunch

Group meals are great when you’re settled at camp, but can be tricky when you’re out in the elements. During the planning stage, talk through how you want to manage the midday meal. If you anticipate that everyone will need something different throughout the day, letting each person plan and pack their own lunches and trail snacks might be the way to go.

If you’re all committed to eating the same thing at lunchtime, on the other hand, pre-made wraps or at least pre-sliced sandwich fixings in freezer bags fit way better into each person’s pack, compared to lugging around whole veggies. When it comes to dessert, no one says you can’t toss a surprise into your pack to share with the group. “Dried mango, anyone?” “Pass the bag of M&M’s!” Yes, please!

6. Leader of the Day (LOTD)

In some situations, especially in larger groups, it makes sense to assign LOTD responsibility to one person. These may include planning the route and briefing everyone the night before, determining the wake-up time, carrying the map and navigating throughout the day, setting the pace, and deciding when and where to take breaks. Giving one person the autonomy to make these calls helps avoid paralysis by over-analysis.

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7. Split up!

This might go against the whole point of a group trip, but don’t be afraid to split up into smaller groups. One night on a recent five-person, multi-day ski trip, two of us opted for an evening jog to shake out our legs, while the other three took some bonus runs behind the rental house. The result? Fun stories to share and a refreshing mix-up of group dynamics.

8. Manage group dynamics

A nightly check-in often ensures that everyone stays happy and healthy, and helps deal with any inter-group disputes proactively. My friends and I make a habit of asking such questions during the dinner conversation: “How did the route feel to everyone today?”, “How was the pace?”, “Did everyone get enough to eat and stay hydrated?”, “What worked well that we should do again?”, and “Anything not work that we should adjust for tomorrow?” These questions might feel a bit awkward at first, but a simple and informal check-in helps to address minor hiccups before they become real problems and provides space for each group member to voice preferences and concerns as the trip progresses.

Credit: Rachel Cohen
Credit: Rachel Cohen

9. Celebrate in style

The party doesn’t have to end when the hike is over or the route climbed. Instead, find a great swimming hole or ice cream stand to hit on the way home. This is especially important on longer trips, as it helps the group ease back into the real world and provides closure on your time together. Often, this is when everyone shares their favorite memories from the trip and begins to plan the next one!

10. Share your photos

After groups trips, my friends and I always create a shared album in Google photos. Google photos lets everyone add what images they like, comment on them, and download their favorites. Plus, it’s super fun to look back on the adventure through everyone else’s lenses and see pictures of yourself that your friends took when you were in the moment.

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