Rochester DemocratandChronicle.com

Women embrace climbing challenge


Gary Fallesen
staff writer

(December 7, 2006) — Ordinary people often do extraordinary things. Sometimes without thinking they are doing anything special.

Mary Warchocki of Rochester was on her way to becoming a Winter 46er (a person who climbs all of the 4,000-foot mountains in the Adirondacks during the winter months) when Carol Stone White's book, Women with Altitude, was published last winter.

The book, a story of 29 women who faced the challenge of winter mountaineering in the Adirondacks, provided more inspiration for Warchocki.

"I'm pretty excited to finally meet her," Warchocki says about White, who will speak at the Adirondack Mountain Club's Genesee Valley chapter meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Rochester Museum & Science Center's Eisenhart Auditorium.

"Many folks tell me they find the biographies and adventures in Women with Altitude fascinating," says White, 66, of Clinton, Oneida County. "Reading about women who are not necessarily athletes, but who get in shape and venture out into new endeavors, encourages people to begin the active life at any age and participate and excel in these activities."

White is the poster-woman for this.

She avoided physical education in high school and college, smoked for 33 years and got out for some exercise only when she had to go hiking with her husband, Dave, and their children. Then her life took an upward swing.

"Dave and I first fell in love with winter mountain climbing in 1993 when we were required to climb four peaks in the Catskills in the winter in order to receive our coveted patch from the Catskill 3500 Club," White recalls. "That is the only mountaineering club that requires its members to climb four peaks in winter to qualify for membership.

"Although we thought buying snowshoes wasn't a bad idea in order to keep in shape, we also had to buy full crampons to go on club hikes in winter — and we did so with some trepidation."

But the Whites found winter mountain hiking "delightful, beautiful, exciting, and rigorous enough to really whip us into shape," Carol Stone White says. "We have climbed in winter ever since."

When she set her sights on the Adirondack 46, she was 54 — the latest starting of the 63 women who have completed the Winter 46. She was the third-oldest to finish, which she did in 1998 at the age of 56. Elsie Chrenko, the original woman Winter 46er (from 1973), was 65 when she completed the circuit.

"The great thing about this sport is that you can keep doing it into what some may consider old age," says White, who did New Hampshire's 48 between the ages of 60 and 65.

White and Warchocki are part of a growing number of women who are heading for the hills, no matter what the time of year.

In the 1970s, two women completed the Winter 46. In the 1980s, there were eight. In the 1990s, the number rose to 24. From 2000 to 2006, there were 29. Many more, including a handful from the Rochester area, will be on their way this winter.

Warchocki believes more women are drawn toward the sport for several reasons: Beauty ("Can't beat the snow-covered spruce trees and rime ice to give the trails a surreal beauty"); the challenge; and the fact that it's an attainable goal. "If you are in good physical/cardio condition and have basic winter survival/hiking/camping skills, it's a doable challenge," she says.

"It really seems to have as much to do with mental as physical. A lot of women may not be as physically strong as the average man, but they sure can have a strong mental drive.

"In a weird sort of way, I always feel especially strong — with a kind of inner serenity — after sleeping in the snow and cold for a couple of nights while bagging a few peaks," Warchocki adds. "I am not sure which ones I prefer: those tough trail-breaking peaks, where I get sucked into a few spruce holes along the route, or those easy day-hikes, where the trail is broken with wonderful footing. Both have their own special appeal, I guess."

You don't have to be Wonder Woman to do either.

But that's not to say that nature doesn't have a way of extracting the exceptional that might not otherwise emerge from an ordinary person.

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Women in the wild

White says that more women are attracted to winter mountaineering because:
  • Winters are milder.
  • More people are out in the winter now. Trails are broken, people are winter camping, and “one feels a bit safer.”
  • Gear and clothing have improved dramatically.
  • People want to stay in shape year-round.
  • Word has gotten out about the incredible beauty of the mountains in winter.

Learn more
The Adirondack Mountain Club offers a Winter Mountaineering School (www.adk.org) and the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Club offers the Outdoor Leadership Workshop (www.adk46r.org).