(Eddie Bauer First Ascent/Celin Serbo)
Professional climber Caroline George was skiing the steeps near Mont Dolent in 1997 when a snow slough swept her into a 1,200-foot fall. She survived, barely. She suffered a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, and a shattered ankle. After two months flat on her back, a surgery that had 24 pins placed in her leg, and two months of rehab, she returned to climbing with a renewed vigor. Soon she began competing on the World Cup ice circuit and today is one of only seven women in the U.S. to be IFMGA credentialed for ski, rock and alpine guiding. We caught up with the 34-year-old before a trip to Jordan—which she details on the First Ascent blog—to get her list of the top 10 climbing spots in the world.
10. Norway and Iceland
Scandinavian countries have some of the most "exotic" ice climbing in the world: a combination of fjords, steam beds on actively volcanic grounds, very ephemeral ice lines above the ocean, climbs so big you could break your neck looking up at them, and still many, many first ascents to be had. Some of my all-time favorite climbs are in Norway: Hydnefossen in Hemsedal and Lipton.
Thailand is climber's paradise in it's own way: coconut trees, monkeys jumping from branch to branch, some of the best food in the world, lagoon-like water on white sand beaches, amazingly featured limestone with tuffas climbing, and so much more. Although Thailand has perhaps become overly popular, it's still possible to climb away from crowds. Something unique to Thailand is climbing straight out of a longtail boat onto your chosen route. We climbed "For the Members" on the ThaiTanium Wall and felt like Robinson Crusoe lost on an island of rock in the middle of the Andaman Sea (the only difference being that we had a boat waiting for us beneath!).
8. Kalymnos, Greece
The perfect sport climbing destination on the Mediterranean Sea: soft grades, good bolting, overhangs with big holds and tuffas, views on the ocean, delicious food, commuting to crags by Vespa, a cheap cost of living, nice climate, friendly people... I was there twice in 2004, and no place I've traveled to since has come close to matching the climbing on this Greek island. A fond memory was sending my project the night we were flying out. Sometimes the pressure of knowing it's your last chance is just enough of a kick in the butt to pull it all together.
7. The Grand Wall, Squamish, B.C., Canada
I am no granite expert, but this is one of the best crack climbs I have done. Every pitch on this route is unique and offers great exposure, with Squamish below and the ocean beyond. The name of each pitch tells a story: a great journey on The Chief.
6. Freney Pillar, Mt. Blanc, France
To the Alps, this time on the south side of the Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe (4810m). Although that aspect offers a lot more sunshine, it's also way more committing. There is no easy way into that side of the range. You walk up from the valley floor, and getting to the Eccles Hut is an adventure in itself. The hut is perched half way up a 50+C slope and barely held up by metal cables. Starting the climb at 1 A.M. is much like jumping into a bucket of cold water. It snaps you right out of your dreaming. The climb is long (over 1000m) and very sustained. The most difficult part is called The Chandelle (the candlelight), which overhangs the first 600m of the climb, offering hard climbing in big boots and with a heavy pack. It felt all the more eerie with the resonating sound of seracs falling beneath. When I reached the top of the Chandelle, I thought I was home free, but 300 more meters of mixed terrain waited to take me to the Brouillard ridge, which then leads to the summit of Mont Blanc, a solid hour away. One of the few climbs after which I felt fully satisfied to have climbed it and knew I wouldn't need to climb there again.
5. The North Face of the Drus, Chamonix, France
The Drus is the most iconic peak in the Chamonix valley, stretching high above the valley floor like a flame burning in the darkening dusk. There is no easy way to the top. The north face was the greatest ice challenge when it was put up two decades ago, and to me is the most beautiful alpine line I have climbed: snow to ice, to mixed, to an overhanging aid pitch (it goes free too!) and more rock, to a perfect arc-shaped ice line taking you to the summit of the Drus. No sun there, but a view stretching down to your bivouac down below.
Going to Antarctica is like going to the moon, I always say. It's so remote and logistically complicated to go there that you should feel so lucky if you get to experience it once in your life. In January 2011, I got to guide Mount Vinson, the highest peak on the continent (4895m?), in perfect bluebird weather, albeit extremely cold, approximately -60C with wind chill. The view stretching out 360 degrees over the icecap and surrounding unclimbed peaks. It's a first ascent lover's paradise. I left with four first ascents under my belt. Nothing hard, but the feeling of being the first anywhere in the world is exciting no matter what the grade is.
3. Canadian Rockies
The ice Mecca: gem after gem of long ice climbs of all levels—an ice climber's right of passage. I have visited the Canadian Rockies on many occasions and haven't done the same climb twice. My highlights there were doing multiple link-ups of hard climbs in a day (Nemesis and Suffer Machine, Nightmare on Wolfestreet and French Reality, Weeping Wall, Weeping Pillar and Curtain Call, etc.) and getting the first ascents of amazing lines such as The Shadow on Mount Patterson, Jacob’s Ladder's pillar (WI6), and a trip to the Icefall Brooke, a remote horseshoe-shaped canyon below the Lyell Glacier with three other girlfriends and Jon Walsh, where we did eight new routes in 10 days.
2. Moonlight Buttress, Zion, Utah, United States
Although I haven't sent it, I have never felt this strongly about a climb. I didn't know that I wanted, but when I knew I couldn't have it, it felt like the world was coming to an end. I had belayed my husband on it and felt that maybe I could free it, too. The thought came and went until a friend asked if I'd go on it with her. I had no expectations of myself, but with the realization that I could do it came the pressure to send, and it got the better of me. Then temperatures dropped, and I couldn't find anyone motivated to brave the cold with me. Letting go of this dream has been one of the most difficult things to do for me, but it's also taught me that I need to come back not necessarily stronger physically (well, that too!) but mentally and not let the fear of failing—and falling—get in the way of my dreams. I have traveled to many places and climbed many routes, but the one place I need to explore the most is my head!
1. Three Great North Faces in the Alps
Just like I started ice climbing by competing in the ice climbing World Cup, I started climbing big north faces by climbing the north face of the Eiger in winter (which is the time to do it these days). A week later, I was standing on the summit of the north face of the Matterhorn, and that summer I climbed the Walker spur. These are the ultimate classic north faces in the Alps, all over 3500ft (6000ft for the Eiger), offering mixed terrain, read ice, snow, and often loose rock. Only in the Alps can you find "roadside" climbs of this caliber