Andrea Charest, 33, is co-owner of Petra Cliffs Climbing Center and Mountaineering School in Burlington. A Mammut-sponsored athlete, she is seeking to become certified at the highest level as a Rock Guide by the American Mountain Guides Association. She teaches mountaineering and climbing in Vermont and beyond.
We profiled her in Winter 2015-16’s Q&A. The following is the extended interview.
VL: How’d you get introduced to climbing?
AC: I didn’t know climbing was a sport until I was 18, but I had always been a climber. I climbed trees, rocks, I dabbled with climbing things that I wouldn’t climb now without a rope. I had some friends that found an indoor climbing gym in Pittsburgh — where I’m from — my senior year in high school. So that was the first time I tried indoor climbing. I had decided at that point in high school that I was coming to UVM for school, so I started looking into work study opportunities and found one working at the climbing wall at UVM. I started working there and through the outdoor community and the Outing Club, I linked up with people who were climbing outside, and started doing more outdoor climbing.
VL: What attracted you to UVM?
AC: Partly location. Mostly location. … I had been looking all over New England at schools and looked at Burlington, looked at UVM, applied early decision, got in, didn’t apply anywhere else. I totally fell in love with Burlington, mostly the ski opportunities.
VL: What was your major?
AC: I originally went in with a chemistry major, but then switched to psychology.
VL: That must come in handy with your profession.
AC: Oh yeah. Your mind limits you a lot more in climbing than your body does. So breaking through some of those barriers can be challenging but it feels really good when you do.
VL: Do you have a preference for rock or ice?
AC: If I had to do only one for the rest of my life? I would rock climb.
VL: What do you love about it?
AC: So many different things. The challenge for sure. It’s a problem, kind of a puzzle that you have to work out. It feels good physically while you’re climbing, but it’s very mental too. You get to try to work something out, look at it, think about it, make a plan, readjust if it’s not working. Sometimes you fail, but most of the time you get to try again. I really like the places it can take you to. It’s a little bit different everywhere you go. It’s not like going to a soccer field or a basketball court, where you have these dimensions and the game is relatively the same every time you play. With climbing it’s different every time you get out there — different types of rock, different scenery, different cultures. It’s a lifelong sport too. You don’t have to have a whole team to do it necessarily.
VL: What are your favorite climbs in Vermont?
AC: For ice, Lake Willoughby is an amazing place. It’s just steep, unrelenting, vertical ice. And Smugglers Notch, I call it our little slice of Colorado, or little slice of big mountains in Vermont. There’s a lot of hidden treasures and pretty real alpine conditions: bad weather, cold.
VL: And for rock?
AC: The Bolton area is really awesome. A good mix of sport climbs and traditional climbs. Bolton is “The Land of Boulders and Bears,” that’s the town motto.
VL: What makes a great climb in your opinion?
AC: I think just having fun on it, really. It can be “type two” fun also, like while you’re climbing you get frustrated and the challenge element is there but then afterwards, it just sticks with your brain and you keep thinking about the one move that you need to get or how to do something a little bit differently so you have success. But it all comes down to being fun, whether it’s hard or easy.
VL: What’s the highest point you’ve been to?
AC: The highest I’ve been is Mount Whitney, California, via the Mountaineer’s Route, 14,505 feet, while co-leading a Lyndon State College group in 2008. Mountain climbing, “peak bagging” or getting to high elevations isn’t usually my main goal; I really don’t like walking back down! Climbing or skinning with skis up and skiing back down is way more desirable. Valdez, Alaska is one of my most favorite places on earth for this, but it’s relatively low elevation, which makes acclimatizing easy.
VL: You seem so fearless. Is there anything that frightens you?
AC: Ha! I’ve been called stoic before; apparently I exude a calm front, even when I’m scared or stressed. Sometimes I get scared when I climb, usually when I start thinking too much about the consequences of falling, either due to a hold breaking, ice fracturing, or my strength/technique failing me. But with mental strength being so important to climbing, in most situations I’ve learned to breathe, take inventory of the safety that I do have in place, and move through the fear. Other than that, big, loose blocks of rock scare me (I wouldn’t want to pull them onto people below), and getting caught in a big avalanche despite taking appropriate safety measures. And I usually don’t get too stressed out unless I’ve been stuck behind a desk for too long between climbing trips.
VL: How did you become sponsored by Mammut?
AC: Part of it is being in the same community as the Mamut U.S. headquarters (in Williston, Vt.) was helpful. We always had a little bit of a relationship with them, they knew who I was and I knew who they were. I applied for an American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant. They grant everyday people small amounts of money to fund some trip that they’re interested in taking. … I had started mixed-climbing around that time, so I though I could apply for the Ouray Ice Festival Mixed Climbing Competition. So I applied for the grant and got it, and realized OK, I really have to go now! I went to Ouray in 2012, and at that festival the Mamut athlete team manager approached me and wanted to welcome me on the team. I had kind of been an ambassador before but officially became an athlete through that experience.
VL: What would you say to a fellow young professional considering moving to Vermont?
AC: It seems like a good-sized community to know a lot of people. For me anyway, I couldn’t live in a big city. [Burlington] has a city feel if you want a little of that, but it’s really easy to get out of the city and recreate. It seems like a pretty good variety of people too. I love our proximity here to other things in the surrounding area, like getting to Montreal quickly or going to the Adirondacks or New Hampshire, even Boston’s not that far. But it seems a little bit slower paced up here. It’s a good place to be. And I love the airport—it’s so easy to get in and out of Burlington!