Wild Ideas Worth Living

Adventuring at Any Age with Laurie Watt

Episode Summary

Laurie Watt is an ice climber and mountaineer who became a professional adventure guide at age 55. She is teaching us all that getting older doesn’t mean that we have to forgo our wild ideas. Some of us might even get better and wilder with age.

Episode Notes

Laurie Watt is an ice climber and mountaineer who became a professional adventure guide at age 55. She spent most of her adult life indoors- parenting and working as a physical therapist. In her forties, she found her way into the mountains. Now, Laurie  is teaching us all that getting older doesn’t mean that we have to forgo our wild ideas. Some of us might even get better and wilder with age.

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Episode Transcription

Shelby Stanger (00:03): 

On this podcast, we often interview athletes and people who make a living accomplishing incredible  physical feats. For many serious athletes and honestly even for me, there's always something looming  over us. We're aging. It's inevitable. As we age, we come up against physical limitations that can impact  our athletic performance. But getting older doesn't mean that we have to forgo our wild ideas. Some of  us might even get better and wilder as we age. 

Laurie Watt (00:34): 

Our bodies, they need care, they need support, stretching and strengthening, all those things. But if you  support your body, it is going to perform for you at any age. And I would just encourage people to seek  out whatever support they need, whether it's PT or yoga or nutrition, sleep. All of those things are  incredibly important. But if you're asking your body to do something that is supportive of your entire  wellbeing, meaning it feeds your soul, it feeds your spirit, feeds your brain, your body's going to do its  hardest to support that and make it happen. 

Shelby Stanger (01:14): 

That's Laurie Watt. Laurie's an ice climber and mountaineer who became a professional adventure guide  at age 55. Life as a guide can be pretty demanding. You're carrying heavy bags of gear and keeping  people safe in dangerous conditions. When Laurie started mountaineering, a lot of guides she knew  were young men who'd been climbing for a long time. Laurie, on the other hand, didn't quite fit this  mold. She'd spent most of her adult life inside, parenting and working as a physical therapist, but  eventually she found her way into the mountains. I'm Shelby Stanger, and this is Wild Ideas Worth  Living. 

Laurie Watt, welcome to Wild Ideas Worth Living. 

Laurie Watt (02:00): 

Thank you. I'm happy to be here. 

Shelby Stanger (02:02): 

You became an adventure guide at age 55. 

Laurie Watt (02:05): 

I did. 

Shelby Stanger (02:06): 

That's badass. 

Laurie Watt (02:08): 

It's unusual, that's for sure. 

Shelby Stanger (02:10): 

Well, tell me, what was your gateway to adventure? Did you grow up with an outdoorsy family? Like  when did you first discover your love of the outdoors?

Laurie Watt (02:20): 

When I was a kid, I was about seven or eight, I had an uncle who lived in New Hampshire, and he would  take me out on day hikes and backpacking overnights. And I remember one in particular where we  climbed a mountain, got to the top, had our reward of M&M's at the top, as you do when you're seven  or eight. 

Shelby Stanger (02:40): 

Yes. You need those things. They're important. 

Laurie Watt (02:43): 

Yes. Yes. And I was with my whole family; my parents, my brother and my uncle, cousin. And it was time  to head down, and I just started running. And I ran the entire descent and I felt like I was flying, and it  was the most incredible feeling. And I did not wait for my family and did not wait at trail junctions. And  so I waited at the car, and when my parents got there, they were pretty angry. 

Shelby Stanger (03:14): 

That's awesome. Not awesome, but awesome. 

Laurie Watt (03:17): 

It was worth it. Some things are worth getting in trouble for. 

Shelby Stanger (03:20): 

Okay. So you had this incredible experience with the outdoors when you were young, but then  childhood, you played soccer, and then as an adult? 

Laurie Watt (03:30): 

Yeah. I just got into the rhythm of what my family and cultural expectations were. So, you go to high  school and you play the team sport and then you go to college and then you have a career, you get  married, you have kids, you have the house, and I just was going along on that path that was expected,  and I enjoyed it. I made all those choices willingly, and I don't regret any of them. But during that time, I  was neglecting this whole side of myself, which is the side that needed to move in the outdoors and be  in the outdoors. And so it wasn't until my kids were a little bit older and we had this incredible  opportunity through my husband's job to move to Switzerland. 

Shelby Stanger (04:18): 


Laurie Watt (04:19): 

Yeah. Mountain person's dream. Yeah. And my husband was working. I did not work while I was there as  a physical therapist, which is my career because I didn't have a work visa, I didn't speak the language. So  my days consisted of dropping my children off at school, going hiking in the Alps and going and picking  my kids up at school at the end of the day, which was pretty amazing. And it totally reignited my love  and desire to be in the mountains.

Shelby Stanger (04:49): 

That's epic. That's probably one of the most beautiful country of mountains ever. 

Laurie Watt (04:54): 

Yeah. It's better than the postcards, if that can even be possible. 

Shelby Stanger (04:58): 

Okay. So how old were you when this happened? And how old were your kids? 

Laurie Watt (05:02): 

So, 2006, I was 41. My kids were in fourth grade and sixth grade when we went, and we were there for  three years, and it was amazing. And I just kept getting deeper into it. I did a lot of hiking. I was not a  climber then, but I was a hiker. And I met a lot of other moms from the school who we would go hiking  together every day. And one of the moms had a dream to hike Kilimanjaro or check on Kilimanjaro, and  she was looking for someone to go. So I of course said, absolutely, I would love to go hike Kilimanjaro,  having no altitude experience and only hiking experience. 

Shelby Stanger (05:48): 

So in 2009, Laurie and her friend flew to Tanzania and they began climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. At 19,340  feet, Kilimanjaro is often an entry point for hikers who are venturing into the world of mountaineering.  It was Laurie's first big mountain adventure. And after that, she was hooked. She loved getting out in the  elements, exploring new places, and proving to herself that she could take on some pretty big  challenges. The freedom Laurie felt in the mountains made it clear that it was time to prioritize getting  outside. So, okay, this happened in your early forties, this passion reignited, this flame from age eight  reignited at age 40-something, but then you became an adventure guide at 55. 

So for years in between, you were a physical therapist, which is so cool because you said  something about at eight, you loved how your body felt and when it ran and the strength you felt inside  of you, which makes perfect sense that you would become a physical therapist based on your love of  your body movement. 

Laurie Watt (06:52): 

Yeah, that definitely was clear to me, even graduating college and thinking about a career. I had to be  moving. I couldn't sit all day. And I was really intrigued by the body and muscles and anatomy and  physiology. So, physical therapy was a great fit for me for that respect. I didn't have to sit all day, and I  could wear pants and not have to dress up. So, yeah, it was a great fit. And I worked as a physical  therapist from the time I graduated from school up until a year ago. 

Shelby Stanger (07:23): 

So what made you want to quit your job, which a lot of people do on this podcast, but then you became  an adventure guide at 55? 

Laurie Watt (07:33): 


Shelby Stanger (07:33): 

How did that happen? 

Laurie Watt (07:34): 

It was a process. It was definitely a slow process. So after Switzerland, we moved to London, which is a  great city, but not so much if you love mountains. But I kept getting out into the hillsides and climbing  there. And I expanded by going on trips. I went to Chile, to Patagonia, Torres del Paine, and I trekked  there, went to Nepal, and trekked in Nepal. So I kept feeding this desire in me while still doing the mom,  family, physical therapy thing. 

Then when we moved back to the States in 2011, I decided I wanted to expand my skills into  winter experiences. So I signed up for an REI trip, a summit at Mount Washington, a winter ascent, and  they contracted with a small guide agency in New Hampshire. And I was hooked immediately by The  Winter Experience. Being up on top of Mount Washington in the winter is like being on the moon. It's a  completely different landscape. It's no joke as well. 

Shelby Stanger (08:38): 

Mount Washington's in New Hampshire, right? It's the tallest peak in New Hampshire. 

Laurie Watt (08:42): 

It is. It is. And it's the tallest thing between the Rockies and the Atlantic Ocean. And it's also the  convergence of three major wind patterns. And so even though it's only a little over 6,000 feet tall,  Mount Washington has the highest recorded wind speed of anywhere on the planet. 

Shelby Stanger (08:59): 

And a lot of injuries and accidents that happened there. 

Laurie Watt (09:03): 


Shelby Stanger (09:04): 

Oh, amazing. So you do need to go with a guide, if you can. 

Laurie Watt (09:07): 

Or a lot of skill. 

Shelby Stanger (09:08): 

Or a lot skill. 

Laurie Watt (09:09): 

And a lot of good decision making. 

Shelby Stanger (09:10): 


Laurie Watt (09:11): 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But there was something about putting yourself up against those elements, learning  to manage them, learning to stay comfortable and move through those elements. And with those,  taking the mountain as whatever she gives you, and interacting with the mountain on its terms. That  was incredibly appealing to me and challenging. 

Shelby Stanger (09:35): 

So I still don't understand, how did you become a guide? Like how did this happen? 

Laurie Watt (09:39): 

So after that trip, I... I loved the guides that were on that trip and I reached out to them and then I  would go out with them. I'd hire them a few times a year to try. I just tried rock climbing. I tried ice  climbing. I just decided I wanted to learn new ways to interact with the mountain environment. And at  this point. I dabbled for several years, where I just go out a couple times a year. So, just for fun, and  learning a little bit, but I wasn't in any way, shape or form thinking I was going to become a climber. I  was old and I was female and I was middle aged and I was suburban, and all those things were in my  head. And I got involved with some women's groups and we'd go out climbing and hiking. 

And a lot of times we were hiring the same guides. We developed relationships with this  company and these guides. And at one point I was on a navigation course with them, and there's this  young male guide, which most guides are young and male. And at one point during the course, he kind  of looks at me and he just says, have you ever thought about becoming a guide? And that was the  moment, because I'd been harboring this secret desire that how could I make this a job, how could I  shift my life, so I can be outside in the mountains every day and get paid for it? But I was, it seemed so  improbable that I couldn't really allow myself to go there. And when this person said this to me, it just  flipped the switch. 

Shelby Stanger (11:09): 

Talk to me more about this. I just love that it was a young dude that got you to think it was probable. 

Laurie Watt (11:15): 

When I looked out all the trips that I had been on, whether it was Nepal or wherever, Kilimanjaro, all of  the guides that I saw for the most part were young and male. And so I didn't see any middle aged female  guides anywhere. And being a guide, as you might expect, you need to be really strong and really fit,  capable of managing lots of people in a very difficult environment. And also I didn't grow up climbing. I  didn't have that background. And so there were a lot of skills that I didn't possess that I thought I  needed for being a guide. So that's why it felt improbable. 

Shelby Stanger (11:55): 

That makes sense. Tell me about this kid who was like, why don't you try guiding? 

Laurie Watt (12:00): 

Yeah, his name is Andrew. He's awesome. At the time he was probably 23 and he was fresh out of an  outdoor program. And I tease him that he didn't yet have his prefrontal cortex and, but he, for whatever  reason, he saw some skill in me and he saw the passion in me because he'd seen me out in the mountains a lot. And, yeah, I don't know why he said it, but it was the switch, and I give him all the  credit for it. It was just the right thing at the right time. 

Shelby Stanger (12:30): 

I think you also started, my guess is putting yourself around other people. You've hang out with a lot of  guides. How did you go from getting this idea, like he's giving you permission to basically go do it and  then you actually had to go do it? 

Laurie Watt (12:48): 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And even when he said it, it was the moment that the switch flipped in me,  but I wasn't yet ready to own it out loud. So what I did was the following week after he said that to me is  I emailed the owner of the company. His name is Alex Teixeira. And I emailed Alex and I said, don't  laugh, but I have an idea. I would really like to be a guide, and I'm asking you if you think it's possible.  And if so, is there a place for me in guiding? And Alex wrote back a very thoughtful, kind, thorough  email. I was expecting a polite, eh, probably not, but that's not what I got. I got a very thorough, kind,  supportive email that said, this is the lifestyle. This is what it means to be a guide. These are the skills  you need. This is the work you're going to need to do. And if you do that, there's absolutely a place for  you in guiding. 

Shelby Stanger (13:52): 


Laurie Watt (13:54): 

And that was another doorway that opened for me. And that was another encouraging push. So I  followed up with Alex and I started mentoring with him and some other guides at the company. And  that relationship has continued to this day. And now I work for Mooney Mountain Guides, and he's still  my mentor, and now he's a great friend. And I will be forever grateful for him for creating not just a  space in his company, but also showing me their space for me in this industry. 

Shelby Stanger (14:31): 

After Alex hired Laurie, more women started signing up to do trips with their agency. Laurie especially  loves leading beginner programs and showing women that they can get outside at any age. When we  come back, Laurie talks about life as a guide, staying in shape as we age and her advice for taking care of  your body, if you have a desk job. 

Professional mountaineering guide, Laurie Watt, is 56 years old and she began training to be a  guide just five years ago. Laurie didn't start mountaineering until later in life, but she quickly fell in love  with the freedom and the lifestyle she found in the outdoors. The process to become a guide is  extremely intense. In addition to physical training, Laurie also had to learn a ton about nature, about  adventuring outside, and dealing with dangerous situations. 

Ice climbing is like, if someone slips and fall, the ice slips and breaks off. It's not something you  can control. There's a lot out of your control when you guide. 

Laurie Watt (15:44): 

I think becoming a guide, some of the mental blocks were, am I strong enough? Am I fit enough? And  the big thing that I still carry every time I'm out there is, am I going to know what to do? Am I going to see the risks and manage them well? And if everything goes south, am I going to know what to do and  manage that appropriately and well? So I think with more experience, you get more comfortable with  those, but it's always there, right? Because you don't always know what's going to happen. It's a  dynamic natural environment that is not controlled. And you can't always foresee the risk. So I think  that's something that's a mental block that I still carry, or maybe not a mental block, but maybe just a  consideration that I carry. 

Shelby Stanger (16:37): 

Sounds like a natural consideration of the job. 

Laurie Watt (16:39): 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The fit enough thing and the strong enough thing is something that I really  struggled with early on. And one thing I did that I completely forgot to mention was before I became a  guide, after I did the Mount Washington thing, I decided to just jump in the deep end and go climb  Denali. And I went on a guided trip, but to climb Denali, you... There are no Sherpas. There is no help.  You carry everything. And I did this. I was 48 years old. I had to carry a 60 pound backpack and pull a  sled that was 65 pounds. 

Shelby Stanger (17:21): 


Laurie Watt (17:22): 

Yeah. And I trained for nine months for this, and I kept up with my team. I kept up with everyone on my  team. We did not summit because of weather, but I was fit enough and strong enough. And that was a  huge learning for me at 48 years old to decide to do that. 

Shelby Stanger (17:45): 

That's so intense. How can we all become badass women like you hauling 120 pounds of gear up a  mountain? 

Laurie Watt (17:51): 

So, the thing that I wanted to say about the body and about fitness and strength and about age and  about gender. I'm a physical therapist and I am now in the best shape that I've been in my entire life at  55. Actually, I'm 56 years old now. I am in the best shape of my entire life. I am stronger and fitter now  than I have ever been. And I think it's really important. And this is both my PT brain and my guide brain  and mountain athlete brain speaking. In our sedentary society, we get... we don't move very much. And  as we age, we've accepted the narrative that, oh, you just get weaker, you just get... you can't move as  much. You're stiffer. Things hurt. You're not as flexible. And I would just encourage people not to just  accept that narrative at face value. I think that our bodies, they need care, they need support and they need stretching and  strengthening and all those things. But if you support your body, it is going to perform for you at any  age. And I would just encourage people to seek out whatever support they need, whether it's PT or yoga  or stretching or nutrition, sleep. All of those things are incredibly important. But if you're asking your  body to do something that is supportive of your entire wellbeing, meaning it feeds your soul, it feeds your spirit, it feeds your brain, your body's going to do its the hardest to support that and make it  happen. You just have to support your body. 

Shelby Stanger (19:34): 

I have so much hope. Thank you. I'm so excited to get older and age because I think there is this  narrative that like especially as an outdoor athlete, that it's just going to get worse. And maybe you're  peaking now because you're forties, so you better just enjoy it. And you're saying no which is really cool. 

Laurie Watt (19:54): 

I'm saying no. Yeah. I'm not in total denial. Right? Things get harder. You have to do things differently as  an aging athlete. You need more rest and recovery. Sleep really matters. Stretching really matters, but it  doesn't mean, you don't just have to give up, you just do it slightly differently and support your body  differently. 

Shelby Stanger (20:18): 

Adventuring outside can be tough on your body and leading trips can be even more grueling. If you've  ever been mountaineering, ice climbing or rock climbing, you know that these activities are hard. They  require strength, body awareness, and concentration. On top of that, when Laurie guides a trip, she has  to take into account how her clients are navigating the terrain. It's a lot of work and Laurie doesn't just  guide a trip here or there, she works a ton. 

How often are you out guiding? And when are you training? 

Laurie Watt (20:49): 

It's quite seasonal. And the seasons that I am super busy in probably January to March is ice climbing  and winter mountaineering season. And during those months I am taking people out in the field three to  four days a week. That's the busy time. The spring and fall in New Hampshire are quiet times, and that  has to do with conditions. So now I'm out maybe once a week doing some rock climbing. In the summer  for the whole month of July, I head to the Pacific Northwest and I guide on Mount Baker, which is a  glaciated mountain, so we do three to five day trips up there. Then I'll come back. And August,  September, October are prime rock climbing months. So again, then I will be out probably two to three  days a week guiding. Like a lot of guides, I piecemeal different jobs together. 

So I also work for a local boarding school with their climbing team during the spring and fall. And  so my training is not consistent because when I'm in those super busy times of guiding, there's not a lot  of juice left over for training. It's more recovery stuff, it's the stretching and the yoga and the sleep,  which is super important. During the spring and fall when it's quieter, I do do heavy training blocks that  are preparing me for the next season. So whether that's ice climbing or rock climbing. And so that  involves more climbing specific training programs. And so I would train maybe four days a week, and  doing some trail running, mountain climbing, that kind of thing. So a little bit of everything. 

Shelby Stanger (23:15): 

I have a question. Why are you working so much? I feel like you could be retired if you wanted to. 

Laurie Watt (23:23): 

It's so true. I work this much because a couple of reasons, I absolutely love it. I'm still building my guest  list, even though I've been doing this for five years. I'm still building that group of guests who want to come back more and more and more. So I feel like I want to take in new people because I can develop  relationships with them. And I'm still trying to figure out what the balance is for my own body. So this  winter, I worked X amount of days and I reflected on that and I'm like, that was the max. So I'm still  figuring it out. Also with guiding because it's seasonal, it's feast or famine. So when the work is there, I  want to take advantage of it. And then I have periods where I can be a little bit quieter, like now. 

Shelby Stanger (24:17): 

I want to ask you one question about guiding. Do you make a lot of your money on tips? Because I think  that's a little bit of a thing that not everybody understands. 

Laurie Watt (24:28): 

Yeah, definitely a significant amount is in tips. My particular company pays a really good wage for the  area. Guiding, you don't make a lot of money. An entry level guide for a day might make $125 for the  day and you figure that's an eight hour day of life threatening risk. And that changes a little bit based on  geographic and that kind of thing, but it's not a lot. So yeah, tips. Tips are definitely a huge part of it, and  while we don't expect it, it's greatly appreciated if that's part of what people would like to express their  thanks for our service. 

Shelby Stanger (25:22): 

Any advice on becoming a guide at whatever age? 

Laurie Watt (25:27): 

Yeah. Guiding, it's not an easy occupation especially in the Northeast, it is seasonal work. It is not secure.  There's no health insurance. It's definitely a bit risky. You're traveling quite a bit. You are working  weekends and holidays because that's when people want to hire you to go out. And for me, I think you  need to be really clear if you want to guide that you are doing that to provide a facilitated experience for  people. You're not doing it to climb what you want to climb. 

And if you are, then you're not necessarily giving the guest the experience that they're looking  for. So you need to be clear on your goals and motivations. And I think historically, a lot of people got  into guiding because they're like, I just love climbing and I want to climb every day, but you don't climb  what you want to climb. You climb what the guest would like to climb or needs to climb. But what I  would say is like anything entrepreneurial, if you love it and you provide a great experience, you are  going to cultivate a guest list of people who keep coming back more and more. 

Shelby Stanger (27:11): 

You talked about how creativity and intention can help people who have a nine to five job, maybe a desk  job, stay active. What's that look like? Give us some tips. 

Laurie Watt (27:21): 

One would be just to get up and move at regular intervals. So if that's setting some kind of alarm on  your watch, it beeps every hour, you just get up and you do a couple stretches or you do 10 jumping  jacks, or you walk around the office once and then come back, just build it into the day. And I've never  worked in the corporate world, so I'm sure that a lot of corporate people are going to tell me this is not  realistic, but again, that atmosphere of you need to be accessible at all times, I say, put some boundaries around that. I say, take your lunch hour and go for a walk or go for an exercise class or close your office  door and do some body weight exercises on the floor, do some meditation or yoga, whatever. 

Put some boundaries around the other things that pull your attention because your body  deserves that attention as well. It's your health. And I think that a lot of the issues that plague us as we  age are insidious. You don't notice your balance is going until you fall over because you never try. You  never use it. Or you don't notice you've lost range of motion because you haven't lifted your arms up  over your head in a week. And so your body deserves that attention if you want it to function well. And I  think we just need to make it a priority. 

Shelby Stanger (28:44): 

What does it look like to prioritize movement in our everyday lives? Maybe it means standing on one leg  while we're brushing our teeth or stretching out a little before bed. Our bodies are incredible and  resilient. With a little extra care, they can carry us a long way. Laurie Watt, thank you so much for  coming on Wild Ideas Worth Living, your love for the mountains and your positive relationship with your  body is so inspiring to me. I'm looking forward to climbing Mount Washington with you one day. If you  want to learn more about Laurie Watt, check out her Instagram @laurie_ wattclimbs. Wild Ideas Worth  Living is part of the REI podcast network. It's hosted by me, Shelby Stanger, written and edited by Annie  Fassler and Sylvia Thomas of Puddle Creative. Our senior producer is Chelsea Davis and our associate  producer is Jenny Barber. Our executive producers are Paolo Mottola and Joe Crosby. As always, we  appreciate when you follow the show, when you rate it and when you write a review, wherever you  listen. And remember, some of the best adventures happen when you follow your wildest ideas.