by Lauren Jonik
There’s a lot of stigma and mystique around both writers and climbers, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself. It matters what you write. What you climb. What you do.
Lauren Jonik: What first inspired you to begin mountaineering? What was the first mountain you climbed?
Charlotte Austin: I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, where mountains dominate the skyline. I didn’t realize how important that was until I spent some time in the Midwest, where everything is flat. This might sound silly, but the first time I spent Christmas in Ohio I actually got vertigo! I kept asking: how does anybody know where there are when we can’t identify the cardinal directions in the night sky?
Anyway, while I grew up in the mountains, I didn’t really start truly mountaineering until I was in college. I felt like an outsider, and I gravitated toward the mountains. I wanted intensity; I craved truth. The mountains were a place where I could be myself, whatever that meant.
The first mountain I climbed? Gosh, I wish I had a better answer. Mount Rainier, maybe. Or my ego. It’s all relative.
LJ: In addition to a degree in Environmental Studies, you have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. How does your writing life intersect with your hiking/guiding life?
CA: They’re inextricable. Guiding is physical, intrinsically social, and involves near-constant external stimulation. Writing is solitary, largely (though not always) sedimentary, and requires excruciatingly precise reflection. For the past five years, I’ve spent roughly half of my time in the mountains and half of my time at my desk, and it’s been a wonderful combination. After all, what do all these experiences mean if you don’t give yourself time to process, reflect and learn from them?
I also think a lot about what Faulkner said: “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” Having two parallel professions really keeps me honest, I think, because I’m constantly hungry to make sure I’m competitive in both fields. I don’t have a desk job that I plug into; I never get credit just for showing up. Every part of my professional life is based on the things I produce, create, build, climb, and do. There’s a lot of stigma and mystique around both writers and climbers, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself. It matters what you write. What you climb. What you do.
LJ: Congratulations on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro! That is quite an accomplishment. What was your experience like?
CA: Thanks! I spent the summer of 2016 guiding in Tanzania, where I led three back-to-back expeditions to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s an interesting mountain—because it’s the most straightforward of the so-called “Seven Summits,” it attracts a very wide variety of climbers: families, relatively inexperienced hikers and trekkers, travelers who are curious about mountaineering and want to try their hand at high-altitude adventure. Those mixed groups are both fun and (in some cases) a liability.
Also, the locals actually do say “hakuna matata.” For the first three days, I was pretty sure they were fucking with me—but it actually does mean “no worries” in Swahili.
LJ: How do you prepare physically for intense climbs? Do you have a certain training regime or diet you adhere to optimize your strength?
CA: Great question! Because I’m in the mountains 6-8 months each year, most people assume that it’s easy to stay in great shape. That’s true in some respects—but only to a certain extent. Expeditions often involve weird food, funky sleep schedules, long hours of sitting in cars and airplanes, and lots and lots of walking slowly uphill. From a training perspective, that’s considered Zone 1, or a cardio base. So I generally have strong legs and a solid base, but I have to work hard to prevent injuries, maintain flexibility, keep up upper body strength, and push high-level cardiovascular fitness. When I’m home, I spend a lot of time in the gym: high-intensity interval training, barre and yoga classes, and upper body strength work. I’m expected to be able to climb any of the mountains on my roster off the couch and I take that seriously. It’s very important to be strong enough to do what’s required to keep people safe.
LJ: You’ve lead expeditions around the world including North and South America, Europe, Nepal and Patagonia. What have been some of your most memorable moments?
CA: Watching the sunrise — any sunrise — from the side of a mountain. Making peace with the simple pain of walking uphill. Smiling at a baby elephant learning to use his trunk in the Serengeti. Staring, awestruck, as red-hot balls of lava rolled down the flanks of the Mexican volcano Popocatépetl. Watching the ground ripple during the earthquake in Nepal in 2015. Smoking a Cuban cigar on top of Mount Elbrus (18,510’), the tallest mountain in Europe. Learning to trust myself. Vomiting in the Kathmandu airport. Getting drunk in Mongolia on vodka made from fermented camel’s milk. Falling in love. Giving my partner the explosive diarrhea I got from vodka made from fermented camel’s milk.
LJ: What role does clear communication play when you are leading others on a climb? Have you observed differences based on age, gender or personality?
CA: Communication is deeply important to a team’s success in any high-consequence environment, and climbing requires accountability, closed-loop communication and accurate self-assessment. It’s incredible how much most people bullshit every day and I’m so grateful that the mountains have taught me that it’s more important to be honest and kind than it is to be nice.
LJ: Mountaineering is a field that is largely male-dominated. What obstacles, if any, have you faced being a woman? How have you navigated them? And, have there been instances in which your gender worked to your advantage?
CA: I’d be lying if I said that gender wasn’t a factor in many working environments, including the outdoor industry. Honestly, I don’t want to be known as a “female guide” or a “woman who climbs” — I just want to be a climber and a guide. But that’s not how the world works sometimes, so I’ve read and written a lot about gender in the mountains. (Examples are here and here).
LJ: I would imagine that ascending and descending a mountain requires a certain level of physical preparation, steadfastness and mental resilience in order to do so safely. What qualities make a good climber? How do you cultivate those qualities both on and off of the mountain?
CA: Climbers need situational awareness, a strategic, forward-looking mind, and to both have and be a partner who anticipates and understands the needs of his or her teammates. Those are all things that can be practiced at any elevation.
Also, I can’t overstate the importance of managing your blood sugar. It’s harder than it sounds at altitude, because most people don’t feel hunger above 8,000’.
LJ: How long does a typical trek last?
CA: It varies depending on the objective: sometimes I’m just out for a day; other times I’m leading a six-week expedition.
LJ: If an amateur hiker finds herself lost in the wilderness, what are the top 3 most important steps she can take to increase the odds of survival and of being located?
CA: Safety starts at home. Plan your trip carefully. Leave a detailed route plan with somebody you trust. Give specific instructions about what to do if you’re not back at a pre-determined time. Think carefully about what you’re packing, even for a day hike. If you had to spend a night out, what would you need to survive?
If something bad does happen, think of an expression that’s often quoted by mountain guides: “[…] step away to smoke a cigarette.” I don’t advocate nicotine use, obviously — but if you do stumble into a scary situation, there’s huge value in the idea of pausing for thirty seconds to get your bearings, control your breathing, and let your body process some adrenaline before you start making decisions.
LJ: During the time you’ve been guiding in the Seattle area, have you noticed any shifts in weather patterns or changes to terrain? How is climate change impacting the field of mountaineering overall?
CA: Anecdotally, the mountains are becoming more volatile. We’re seeing more rock and icefall, less predictable glacial conditions, dramatic swings in annual snowfall. Ascertaining which phenomena are caused by climate change is above my pay grade, but I absolutely know that many people in the outdoor industry — including me — are terrified and deeply concerned. The alpine world is a delicate, powerful, irreplaceable environment and it’s disappearing fast.
LJ: You so eloquently write, “When you reach a summit, you only find the things that you have carried with you…And you will love deeply the things that have survived that journey.” What has mountaineering helped you to shed? What has it made you more able to hold on to?
CA: Shed: ego. Hold on to: priorities.
LJ: What mountains—both literal and metaphorical—do you still long to tackle?
CA: Well, I always said that I’d spend my twenties exploring the mountains and my thirties exploring the oceans and starting a family. This year I turned thirty.
That, and Olympus Mons. I’d really like to climb that bad boy. Someday.
LJ: Lastly, you mention that on your bucket list is circumnavigating the globe with your trusty pup, Huckleberry in a sailboat. If Huckleberry could speak, what is one thing he might tell the world about Charlotte Austin?
CA: He’d have an awful lot to say about my snuggling technique.
To learn more about Charlotte’s work, visit http://www.charlotteaustin.com.