Interview: Climbing Guide and First Ascentionist Sarah Hueniken on Training, the Importance of Women's Programs, and if Climbing Guides Get Scared

(photo courtesy of Sarah Hueniken)
AI: “Have you ever had a real “oh shit” experience?”
S: “Oh yeah, probably more than I even recognize.”

Sarah’s been in the outdoor industry nearly her whole life, beginning with an Outward Bound course she took when she was 15. She worked as a mountain instructor for NOLS, created a climbing program at St. Lawrence University and now lives, plays and works in the climbing mecca that is Canmore, Alberta. She’s always had a passion for being outside and sharing it with others. There’s a big difference between loving climbing and wanting to guide it, and Sarah believes “you really have to enjoy the rewards of someone else’s experience” to enjoy guiding.

“When I’m out working,” she says, “I love climbing and I love the outdoors, but the day isn’t about my experience and I’m able to separate myself from that. I’m lucky that I enjoy seeing someone else have a great day and know I was able to provide that for them.” Sarah truly enjoys helping others take their climbing to their own next level. “I don’t know too many other jobs that get as much appreciation as I feel I get after a day of work.”

“Women learn differently, and I find that they need a bit more space to put themselves first, and if that space is filled right away, they’ll always sit in the back.”

Sarah guides programs for Chicks Climbing, and when asked why she thinks women’s programs are important, she emphasized different learning styles and the need for camaraderie among women. She says, “Women’s programs give women more of a chance to step forward and to appreciate their different learning style. Women like that sense of community that a group of women can create - encouragement, support, non-competitive nature, helpfulness. And then, the act of seeing one woman do something often makes another woman feel like they’re more capable.”

Sarah never felt as though being a woman put her at a disadvantage in the guiding world. “If anything,” she says, “I think there’s a slight advantage for women because there are fewer of us, so I think there’s a big desire to have more women get involved.” She’s excited to support women with a passion for adventure and those with a desire to advance their climbing careers.

(photo courtesy of Sarah Hueniken)
"There are so many more men out there who push their climbing and sometimes with women, you’re a bit of an anomaly. The more we talk about it and share our passion, our fears, etc. it’s good for all of us to be recognizing it more.”

Sarah spoke of friend Carlyle Norman, a Canmore area climber who was killed while climbing in Patagonia early this year. “She was really really driven and motivated. She’s touched a lot of people here. It’s always a shame when someone so’s just a shame regardless.” With respect to accidents, Sarah knows that the longer you’re in the guiding profession and in the climbing world as a whole, the more accidents you’ll see. But events like Carlyle’s accident don’t prevent Sarah from wanting to take her own risks. “ I think it’s good to reflect on it and try to learn everything we can from it, but an accident is an accident. Some of it can be prevented and some of it cant, and we’re all aware of that.”

"I think an overall fear in climbing is a totally natural thing. I don’t think anyone’s who’s never feared climbing.”

Despite the fact that climbing guides can seem immortal and immune to fear, Sarah assured me that she does get scared. When she’s pushing her own climbing limits, she does have days where she doesn’t trust her abilities as much as she’d like to. “There’s always going to be a moment where there’s some fear,” she says, “and it usually just comes from an unknown place within you. Sometimes it’s completely valid, and other times it’s not.”

But she doesn’t experience as much fear when she’s working, unless there’s a significant hazard she can’t control, like rock fall or avalanche hazards. She’s noticed many women she’s guided have mentioned having fears that prevent them from really pushing themselves on lead. “They’ll go climb 5.11 on toprope but can only lead 5.9, and they’re always wondering why that is.” Sarah hasn’t completely worked through her fears. “I’ve definitely had that in my climbing career... you’re so scared and just don’t want to push, your brain shuts off, you hang on the bolt and cry for a while...” Those days are fewer and farther between for Sarah. “Now, those days I get that feeling, I don’t try to push through it, I just accept it as part of that day, which I never allowed myself to do when I was younger."

(photo courtesy of Sarah Hueniken)
“Being the first to do it necessarily wasn’t really what was driving me. For me, whenever I climb, that’s a first for me, and that’s often more important, but at the same time, it’s our reality in climbing. We climb something because we want to climb it.”

Sarah has four first ascents to her name, including two ice routes in Iceland and one unclimbed peak in Western China (Schacun, 5.10+, M5, 19,570’). For her, it’s a great feeling being the first to climb a route, but she’s more driven by the idea of pushing her own limits and achieving her own goals. “It wasn’t anything I’d thought out, I just got lucky and got on this expedition with friends. But once I was there, once we tried the peak once, I knew I had to go back and finish it, more just because that’s what you have to do!” Another draw of first ascents for Sarah is the idea of testing the route she imagines will work at all. “When no one’s done it, then you start to question whether it’s even possible. Every corner, every move, it’s all unknown, which is exciting.”

“In the past, I never really thought I needed to train, but the older I get, the more I’ve realized that if I want to continue to improve, I need to train more specifically.”

Before alpine season, Sarah works on getting herself in cardiovascular shape for longer days. For ice season, she likes the idea of CrossFit as a training tool because “it gets you comfortable with the uncomfortable. When you have ten minutes of complete, all-out exhaustion, it’s totally different than going for a long 40 minute run.” She also spends time dry tooling on overhanging indoor structures when she’s not out in the mountains.

(photo courtesy of Sarah Hueniken)
As for future personal goals, Sarah described how it can be a challenge to stay motivated when you're spending the best parts of the climbing season working. "Guiding can be really tiring, and...if you only have one day off, all you really want to do is try and let your body recover, go to the chiropractor, unpack, repack, it’s really hard to set your alarm to go into the alpine again for personal goals, or go to crank on 5.13 when you’ve been guiding 5.9 every day all summer." But that certainly isn't stopping her. "I do have some personal goals, but I don’t even want to put them out yet until I know I’ll stay motivated to at least try them!" Whatever the goals are, Sarah, we know you'll get there. 

Read more about Sarah, her adventures and how to contact her for guiding opportunities on her website. Also, keep an eye on Chicks Climbing clinics for both Sarah and one of her role models, Kim Csizmazia. What other questions would you ask Sarah? Leave a comment!


chicksclimbing said…
Great interview, Katie! Sarah is one of the most popular Chicks Climbing guides - ever. She's served as a real inspiration to everyone in the program, including the Head Chick. She's really a fantastic role model for climbers everywhere!
Meghan J. Ward said…
Superb interview, Katie! 
vanessa said…
totally dig this. :)
Katie L said…
so glad, Vanessa, thank you!
thanks so much, Meghan!
I can definitely understand Sarah's popularity after speaking with her. She's amazing! Thanks for the kind words.