- by Ann Bennett
Climbing From a Different Angle
"The popularity of rock climbing has exploded in this country, and that's one reason we feel there's room for a school and guide service like ours in the Mt. Washington Valley," remarked John Bouchard, who, with fellow climber Rob Blatherwick, has established Mt. Washington Valley Mountain Guides.
"We also have a different focus," added Rob. "We're interested in big faces, and big mountains - rather than just rock and ice for its own sake."
To pursue that interest, the pair intends to offer a guide service unique in the East. Not only will John and Rob instruct students locally, but they are also looking forward to several extended expeditions within the next year, and two have already been scheduled to Peru next summer.
"There is no one offering services of this sort on the East Coast," Rob pointed out, "and John and I are qualified to guide almost anywhere, from the western United States and Alaska, to South America, the Alps, Africa, and even Nepal. If we haven't climbed in the location that someone wished to go, one of our friends has, and we can arrange the trip," continued Rob, 33, who started his own climbing career as a youngster in his native North Dakota. Since then, he has climbed extensively throughout the United States, has made four treks to South America, most recently Peru, and several to East Africa.
John, on the other hand, is from Lowell, Massachusetts, and acquired his early expertise in the White Mountains.Today, however, at the young age of 27, he is considered one of the foremost American alpinists in Europe. He has already climbed many of the most difficult routes there, as well as in the U.S., and has numerous first ascents to his credit. Bouchard is also one of two American members of the Groupe De Haute Montagne, an elite European body that enlists member alpinists by invitation only.
As Rob explained, "Technical climbing in Europe is an entirely different world. Over there, your well known alpinists are comparable to baseball or football stars in the U.S., and are held in the same esteem," he continued. "In the Alps, there is a union of professional guides, and their prestige is tremendous. People acknowledge their experience, and make reservations far ahead to climb with a particular guide. The sport in this country is experiencing a period of rapid growth, but compared to Europe, we're still way behind."
Still, Rob and John hope to model their enterprise on the European system, since they feel it has definite advantages. "Safety is a major factor," Rob noted, "since we have first-hand experience with the routes we guide on, and there is no substitute for that knowledge."
"Inherent in that familiarity is also a sense of confidence," John added, "which is a key to the success of any climb. When someone you're guiding senses your experience, it's contagious. It imparts confidence to them, and they often accomplish far more than they thought possible initially."
Though a graduate of Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School, Bouchard's approach to the business of climbing is less than hard-nosed. "Of course our personal drive will have to carry the guide service," he stated, "and our reputations, but I have little doubt that they will. More importantly, starting the business is a way of supporting ourselves at what we do best - climbing - and being able to share that with other people," he continued. "To be really good at it, you have to be out there every day, climbing and keeping in tune. In that sense, the business serves our mutual interests, and our love of climbing. It certainly isn't the money, since we could make much more doing other things."
The Mt. Washington Valley Mountain Guides' first extended expeditions are scheduled for next summer, when the pair plans to lead several month-long trips to Peru. Rob explained that each group of climbers will leave from New York and fly to Lima, whereupon a bus will transport them to the Cordillera Blanca Mountains, a section of the Andes. "The Cordillera Blanca has 11 peaks over 20,000 feet, and are very rugged, glaciated mountains," he elaborated. "With the coastal plain to the west, and the Upper Amazon Basin on the east, they are also the most beautiful in the Andes," added Rob, who visited the region last summer.
The size of the groups is extremely flexible, and despite the height of the range, Rob indicated that almost any climber could qualify for the trip. "We can accommodate anyone, starting from hikers and trekkers right up through high altitude mountaineers," he said. "Extra guides can be added according to the size of the group." Rob explained that the average guide/client ratio for an expedition is one to four, ranging to one to two for more advanced climbs. "Locally, it's the same," he added, "except with beginners, we generally keep it at one to three."
The cost for the Peru excursion is $1650 for the month, including airfare from New York to Lima, and the two climbers remarked that response to date has been encouraging. "We'll have people from all walks of life," John said. "You'd be amazed at the diversity. They range from businessmen who have the time and money but who lack expertise, to your average working person who saves all year for trips of this sort."
As a warmup, Rob and John plan several major climbs this winter. In February, they'll head to Europe to ascend the legendary Northface of the Eiger, and they are also currently discussing several first ascents on Cannon Mountain in Franconia.
In the meantime, they'll concentrate on cultivating a clientele for local climbs. "It's an essential part of the business," John remarked, adding that many frustrated skiers should consider giving ice climbing a try this winter. "It's the way I got started 10 years ago," he said, "and there are many similarities between the two sports. Both put an individual against the elements, with equipment as the intermediary. People who enjoy skiing will very likely find climbing appealing."
Mt. Washington Valley Mountain Guides offer ice and rock climbing lessons in the White Mountains by either the half or full day, as well as providing students a tent site on Bouchard's property near Cathedral Ledge. After that, the globe's the limit.
**NOTE: According to his LinkedIn profile, John Bouchard is currently living in Bend, Oregon, and is the Youth Program Planner at COIC. And, according to the Special Operations Association listing, Rob Blatherwick is currently living in North Dakota and "still climbs occasionally".