In the summer of 1997, Zoe Hart took a backpacking trip to Yosemite National Park in California, oblivious of the rock climbing mecca surrounding her. Ten years later, firmly entrenched in the center of that very scene, Hart returned to climb the Half Dome in Yosemite in one day. In just over a decade, she has become a highly accomplished alpinist and the fourth of only nine female American IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations) Mountain Guides. Based in Chamonix, France, with her fiancé, Maxime Turgeon, Hart's passion for the mountains is paving the way for more females to conquer the intimidating world of mountaineering.
espnW: How did you get into mountaineering and climbing coming from Princeton, N.J.?
Zoe Hart: In 1997 my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack on a run at the age of 43. Things kind of flipped upside down in my family. The normal university scene and Division I sports I was playing [softball at Boston College] lost their luster for me. I had always dreamed of going out west and exploring the mountains. In 1998 I signed up for a monthlong NOLS [Natonal Outdoor Leadership School] course in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. It was like I had found my people. When I found climbing, I found a way to mix my athletic ambitions with the outdoors in a less rigid, less competition-based way.
espnW: The IFMGA international guiding certificate is the most highly recognized guiding certification in the world. What inspired you to work toward this certification? And what exactly does a mountain guide do?
ZH: Mountain guides take people climbing in every sense: rock, ice, alpine, skiing and ski mountaineering. From teaching people how to be more independent to learning new skills to just guiding people up routes from beginner to advanced levels. In 2000, I graduated from Boston College and moved west for the summer to work as an assistant guide on Mount Rainier. I heard about Chamonix, France, from friends that I was working with and thought it would be a good place to experience some culture and learn to ski. Chamonix opened my eyes in so many ways. I saw that mountain guiding was a respected profession in Europe. At the time there was only one American female [IFMGA] Guide, as well as a handful of other women from other countries. I just didn't understand why there weren't more women, so I decided that I would go for it.
espnW: Were you intimidated as a female to enter such a seemingly male-dominated world?
ZH: For me, gender was never a barrier, but more of a challenge. I have two brothers, am the middle child and played sports with lots of boys as a kid. I never really saw myself as different when it came to sports, so why should climbing be any different? I wanted to be a mountain guide. The fact that there weren't many women didn't really make me think it would be unique or more difficult to attain, I just thought it would be a cool job.
espnW: There must be a huge learning curve with climbing. How did you go from beginner to being an equal partner in the climbing relationship?
ZH: When I "bumped into Chamonix" it blew my mind. I started climbing in what I'd call a typical way, with boyfriends who were far more experienced than me. At some point that became less rewarding. The guiding skills I was learning gave me confidence. I felt that I could lead some stuff on my own. It took climbing with women to push me to become an equal partner, and over time I have learned how to carry that back with me into my partnerships with men, stronger partners, or my fiancé, Max. I want to pull my own weight in the mountains.
espnW: Mountaineering is said to be a very soul-enriching experience. What are the most important lessons that life in the mountains has taught you?
ZH: Over the years, I've learned endless lessons in the mountains, made amazing friendships, pushed myself in ways I could never have imagined. On one route I remember telling Isabelle Santoire [a French IFMGA Mountain Guide] I was tired and didn't want to lead. She looked at me with a little grin and said, "I'm not your boyfriend: GO!" It was a good lesson for me. I'd mostly climbed with boyfriends and much stronger partners. Isabelle was much stronger than me, but she was not willing to let me be a passive partner and she pushed me to push myself.
espnW: Your list of climbing achievements is impressive: 1938 North Face of the Eiger, the Dru in Chamonix. And you are the first female to have climbed Deprivation, a difficult route on Alaska's Mount Hunter, which you did with your now-fiancé. Which climb means the most to you?
ZH: I think that the climb of Deprivation on Mount Hunter was my favorite for a few reasons. Alaska is one of the first big ranges I experienced. You fly in on the airplane, land on a glacier and look up and there is a gorgeous, impressive face in front of you. I first tried the route with the former elite American alpinist Sue Nott. We didn't get far due to weather, but I learned a ton, and her mentorship was brief but integral.
Sue died shortly after our climb on Mount Foraker in Alaska. Max and I went back and tried Deprivation on the North Buttress of Mount Hunter a few years later. The climb went amazingly well -- it was special to share with Max and nice to finish a project that I started with Sue. I was the first woman to climb that route, and at the time we set a speed record.
espnW: Do you feel you are a good role model for budding female alpinists?
ZH: I'm not sure. I haven't really focused on that facet of it. I guess I just hope that I do inspire women. I think the women who have inspired me, such as the late Sue Nott, or Isabelle Santoire, or the super-alpinist/mom Ines Papert, have been the ones who have pushed me not to let gender be a crutch, to dream big and push myself, to not be complacent. I hope that people see my adventures, my accomplishments and feel the same inspiration.
espnW: What do your future goals involve?
ZH: My future goals? The eternal quest for balance! The balance to be strong and tough and yet soft and feminine all at the same time. To travel, climb and continue to push myself while continuing to develop other career options and to grow my brain and intellect. And finally to find the balance of having a family and maintaining my level of climbing or continuing to pursue my climbing ambitions. I haven't figured that one out yet. So far I don't need to … but I dream of it.
To learn more about Zoe Hart, visit alpineprincess.com. She is sponsored by Black Diamond, Scarpa and Patagonia.