Chalk it up to nerves … or maybe he was distracted. But when backcountry ski and mountaineering guide Steve Charest proposed to his wife-to-be, Andrea, while skiing in the Jay Peak sidecountry some 15 years ago, he toppled over into a tree well.
Both were working at Petra Cliffs Climbing Center & Mountaineering School in Burlington, Vt., back then, so it wasn’t unusual for them to be spending time together on skis. It would be unusual if they weren’t. They met at Petra Cliffs, their first date was a day of skiing at Jay, and their honeymoon after being married in 2006 was spent ski mountaineering in the summer snow around Portillo, Chile.
The Charests recently celebrated eight years as co-owners of Petra Cliffs and are in the midst of an expansion that is doubling the size of the climbing gym, offices and yoga facilities in their new space in south Burlington. And, most important of all, their 3-year-old daughter is now part of the team, gaining experience each and every day as a skier on both the frontside rope tow-served groomers and exploring the Vermont backcountry with mom and dad.
So, when New England Ski Journal wanted to help its readers discover how they might get their own kids safely involved in backcountry skiing — whether it was even feasible with the equipment challenges, the terrain and skill challenges and, of course, the parenting challenges — what better expert to get ahold of for advice than Steve Charest.
In addition to being a dad, Charest, who has been backcountry skiing for 23 years, has a degree in outdoor education from Johnson State College (now Northern Vermont University) and has completed the NOLS Outdoor Educator’s course for Mountaineering and Climbing. He is an Aspirant IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations) guide, a Certified AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) Ski and Rock Guide, and Assistant Alpine Guide. He is AIARE (American Institute or Avalanche Research and Education) Pro II, Lead Instructor and Provider. And, he has completed the Heli-Ski US Mechanized guide school.
New England Ski Journal: Tell us how you got your start in skiing.
Steve Charest: I was the first person in my immediate family to learn to ski at age 10 when I was the catalyst for a close family friend to learn as well. I was immediately interested and involved in anything ski related — ski clubs, joining friends and neighbors, and eventually ski racing with both high school teams and USSA events around the country.
NESJ: What brought you to Vermont and, more importantly, the Vermont backcountry?
Charest: My high school team pre-seasoned at Smugglers’ Notch every Christmas break and I fell I love with the area. Local race club members even introduced me to the sidecountry into the Notch and gave me my first “missed” practices to explore powder rather than run icy gates. So, when I discovered JSC and their outdoor education degree track paired with a D-1 ski team, I was instantly hooked.
NESJ: Did you compete at the collegiate level?
Charest: Unfortunately/fortunately, my freshman year they dropped the team and cut it completely. So I “red-shirted” my freshman year and planned on transferring to a different university, but in the meantime, I got a job at Smuggs, a telemark set-up with skins, access to freeskiing (no formal practice) and I helped create a freeride club at JSC in which we competed in freestyle and big-mountain comps throughout the Northeast. While at JSC I found mentors, switched to AT “fat skis” (88 mm at the waist, ha!) and traveled in search of new backcountry terrain, and even started an internship at Petra Cliffs Climbing Center & Mountaineering School.
NESJ: So much of your life, your family, is invested in Petra Cliffs. Where are some of the places this lifestyle has taken you and Andrea over the years?
Charest: We’ve explored as much of the Northeast backcountry as possible, from the Adirondacks to the Greens, Whites and even a trip or two to Katahdin. We also expanded throughout the West every season as opportunity presented. We eventually landed in Alaska, and I fell in love with the Chugach Range outside Valdez. I spent almost every spring exploring new zones throughout Alaska. Not much has changed for favorites, but skiing out the front door into the Bolton backcountry, around Mount Mansfield, Camel’s Hump and Big Jay get the most visits. When possible, we travel to destinations, to some local areas like the RASTA, NEKBC, the Adirondacks and Mount Washington region. I love hut trips up in the Gaspé and the Chic Chocs, heli-trips up in Alaska and ski mountaineering throughout British Columbia and the Alps.
NESJ: Your daughter is now 3 years old and with you and Andrea as her parents, I can only imagine that backcountry has always been an important part of her life.
Charest: She skinned up and skied down for the first time at 7 weeks old, strapped in an Ergo Baby to my chest. She has skied in a backpack strapped to mom or dad for more adventures than I can count. We are currently experimenting with Brian Mohr’s Mama Poma-like system — ours includes a climbing harness — but terrain and ability have limited the exploration so far. (Mohr and wife Emily Johnson live in Moretown, Vt., and together own EmberPhoto.)
NESJ: Alpine touring equipment for kids is scarce, it isn’t cost-effective, and it is quickly outgrown. Are there ways around these hurdles?
Charest: Binding inserts like Camp Contour Binding adapters for their alpine set-ups is my go-to with a modified kicker-style skin. If parents are hardcore, choices do exist like Hagan, which has made rail-style and pin-tech bindings aimed at kids. If you can find a small enough boot for pin-tech systems. Back in the day I have helped parents chop springs to lower DINs on Dynafits and even cut rail-style bindings short to fit minimal mondo points. I can’t recommend this, but improvisation is key. Local ski swaps are still the best deals, but availability is limited. I have already been picking up gear when I see a deal for long into my daughter’s skiing future!
NESJ: Every year we read about the tragedies that occur in the backcountry, even in New England. How do you approach teaching children about all the backcountry has to offer while also introducing a healthy respect for the risks?
Charest: As an avalanche educator, I can honestly say teaching the skills to my daughter is both the scariest and mixed with endless horizons of opportunity. Snow science and avalanche awareness are great teaching points but must match our children’s actual listening and decision-making skills. I cannot stress enough on how important (it is) that the entire process is balanced. Education, fun, success and failure are all critical. Getting kids interested in weather and snow, but also trees and animals. Navigation and route-planning on a large scale — like where we are actually going and creating options, to micro features of where to look, spotting your line and obstacle avoidance. Getting kids excited for the possibilities, the processes and hardships. Learning to stay warm/how to tolerate cold. Get them into the mindset of being self-reliant and share in the adventure. Sometimes the adventure is not about actually skiing but searching for Gruffalo’s tracks and fairy hideouts. Sometimes it’s 20 minutes of exploration rather than a full day suffer fest.
NESJ: Try as we might, parents don’t always make the best instructors for their own children. How do you contend with these challenges?
Charest: Honestly, even as a guide and backcountry aficionado, I do not have the parent/child game sorted or planned to perfection. I am still trying — and failing sometimes — to find the boundary where outside instruction and modeling is better than parental instruction. Parents should take classes and model that this whole life is a teachable moment and growth is a possibility. If you want to visit Tuckerman Ravine, or try a backcountry hut trip, or try out ski mountaineering, then parents should indeed be willing to take and try new experiences. When age- and skill-appropriate, they can share that experience with their children. Introduce them to guides, instructors and mentors that can share their experience and plant the seed of the next generation of backcountry traveler.
Learn and adapt is the name of the game. Keep the options open, expect equally failure and success and, most importantly, listen and stoke their interest. Sometimes it’s simply about being together, in the mountains. ′