Reaching Great Heights

’63 alumna finds strength, deeper appreciation for life while conquering the Adirondack’s high peaks

Carol White '63

Carol White '63 is the author/editor of several books on mountain climbing.
click photo for expanded view

Mountaineering captures the imagination like few other sports. From the simple Zen belief that no man scales the same mountain twice to the chilling account of the ascent of Everest in “Into Thin Air,” the uncertainty and sense of accomplishment that accompanies gaining a summit—whatever its elevation—stirs a passion to achieve in devotees and observers alike.

Carol White ’63, philosophy major, community volunteer, political activist, policy expert, advocate for economically-disadvantaged craftspeople, author, and Susan B. Anthony Legacy Award winner, has pursued her mountaineering passion with uncommon zeal—even in the rarified air of true climbing enthusiasts. Along with husband, author, and fellow winter climbing expert David S. White, she has added to the history and lore of mountaineering in the Adirondack Mountains, White Mountains, and high peaks of Colorado.

She and Dave have spent many days in the mountains: 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks twice, including winter; 35 peaks of 3,500 feet or more in the Catskill Mountains of New York State; 111 peaks of 4,000 feet or more in New York and New England; 48 winter peaks of 4,000 feet or more in New Hampshire’s White Mountains; and eight of the 14,000-foot-plus peaks in Colorado, including 14,450-foot Mount Elbert, the state’s highest peak and the second-highest summit in the Lower 48.

Carol White on the summit of Mt. Elbert

White’s exploits are remarkable. She earned the official Adirondack Mountains “Winter 46er” designation at age 56, becoming only the 20th woman and 157th climber to earn that honor (as of November 2009, the roster stands at 445), and completed her conquest of the winter White Mountain peaks at age 65, earning her place on the rolls of the “4000 Footer Club.”

White is not alone in pursuing the sport later in life; in fact, many of her mountaineering friends are in their seventies and eighties. Perhaps it is the restorative effect climbing has on body and soul. “I climb because this keeps me in strong shape—I notice it when I slack off,” she said. “And this is what Dave and I love to do together, spend days in the mountains—we call it re-creation.”

Carol and Dave on the summit of Mt. DemocratWhite’s avocation and subsequent career as an authority on winter mountaineering began in July 1989. After hiking for years with their children in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Carol and Dave decided to tackle the challenge of climbing a mountain. “Our first serious mountain climb was Mount Marcy, New York’s highest peak at 5,344 feet,” White said, adding, “It was a life-changing experience. You are over seven miles from any road; and you can see 44 other peaks, hundreds of miles of unbroken forest, and Lake Tear of the Clouds, the source of the Hudson River.”

White felt an overwhelming desire to climb some of those other fascinating-looking peaks, as did her husband. “We abandoned our previous weekend pursuits and began studying the mountains, trails, maps and compass route-finding, gear, tents, everything one needs to know and have to explore the Adirondack High Peak wilderness,” she said.

Later, White found her mountaineering Muse among those bitterly cold slopes as she completed the winter ascents of the Adirondacks. “Each day out there, many in sub-zero wind chill conditions above the tree line, merited a story,” she recalled. “I submitted a story to Eastern Mountain Sports, and they sent me a $100 gift certificate. The mountaineering pants I purchased really helped on the more exposed New Hampshire high peaks.” As she continued to chronicle her climbs, White carried on a tradition started decades earlier by the first president of the Adirondack 46ers, Grace Hudowalski, who urged hikers to write about their experiences because “if you do not, you will not remember.”

In 1997, when a roster of Winter 46ers arrived in the mail, a seed was planted for White. After noting that only 19 women had completed the 46 climbs before her, she assumed that they, too, had inspirational experiences while climbing and had heeded Hudowalski’s advice. Four trips to the New York State Library archives and 19 enthusiastic replies to her letter of inquiry later, she began to write “Women with Altitude: Challenging the Adirondack High Peaks in Winter” (North Country Books, 2005).

Book cover - Women with Altitude by Carol White“In the stories are surprising answers to the question of ‘why climb?’” she said. “Many say it is the most spiritual of their pursuits, while others expressed support for causes such as climbing Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson to support the well-being of breast cancer survivors or hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise $16,000 for trail maintenance.” As she conducted the research for the book and listened to the stories of her fellow mountaineers, the focus became less about “peak bagging” (the term used to describe the goal of summiting peaks above a certain elevation within a region) and more about the unknown and its inherent challenges.

In the foreword to “Women with Altitude,” White writes, “Climbing 3,300 feet to elusive Hough Mt. through six miles of unmarked forest on the shortest day of the year, we joked: ‘Why do we do this?’ Descending miles in fading light will be arduous and possibly dangerous because we ascended the wrong way; we will have no tracks to go back in, one of the distinct advantages of winter climbing. We won’t know what adventures the new terrain has in store for us. We’ll do what is required—sometimes profanely but often cheerfully—for the mountain teaches patience, acceptance of what is at any given moment on the mountain or in our psyche, pleasant or not. In return the mountain transports us to states beyond the usual in its lavish beauty.”

Carol White in the Adirondacks

White is just as willing to take on a societal challenge as a 14,000-foot mountain. As a volunteer for local schools, Literacy Volunteers, and the League of Women Voters, White has spent a lifetime making an impact in the central New York region. She is also working to market products made by artisans in developing countries. In recognition of her work in the community and in schools, White received the 2007 Susan B. Anthony Legacy Award at the University of Rochester. She shared the stage with Polar explorer Ann Bancroft and long distance cold-water swimmer Lynne Cox.

Those three accomplished women, each known for a pursuit that demanded unimaginable physical exertion, shared a stage and a conversation on the theme “Daring the Impossible: Strong Women Take on the World.” Their discussion, the 12th in a series designed to honor the extraordinary dialogue Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony shared as they wrote, spoke, and debated critical issues to women of their time, touched upon how they draw attention to causes larger than their own ambitions. White attributes her ability to think about a wider world, in part, to the liberal arts education she received at Randolph- Macon Woman’s College. “It opened up vast realms of human endeavor to me and prepared me to be successful in whatever I attempted,” she shared. “Something in that education also opened my heart, so that I became someone who wanted to contribute to life and help alleviate human suffering and injustice.”

Today, nearly 21 years after her first major ascent, Carol White is still climbing. Asked about her approach to mountaineering as she grows older, White shared the kind of thoughtful response you would expect from a person who relishes the absence of a marked trail on a mountain: “I like this sport because you can keep doing it indefinitely—it gets slower as time passes and that’s fine. You take time to smell the flowers and it becomes more about the process and enjoying our beautiful world rather than being goal-oriented.”

Editor’s Note: Carol White has edited “Adirondack Peak Experiences: Mountaineering Adventures, Misadventures, and the Pursuit of The 46” (2009) and “Catskill Peak Experiences: Mountaineering Tales of Endurance, Survival, Exploration and Adventure from the Catskill 3500 Club” (2008), both published by Black Dome Press; and “Women with Altitude: Challenging the Adirondack High Peaks in Winter,” published by North Country Books in 2005. White co-authored, with husband David S. White, “Catskill Day Hikes for All Seasons,” published by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) in 2002, and co-edited ADK’s comprehensive guidebook, “Catskill Trails, Volume 8” of the Forest Preserve Series, for which they measured 345 miles of trails by surveying wheel.