FEATCanada 2015: Speaker Showcase (Part 4)

For Parts One and Two, or the special FEATuring Kids article, click on the relevant links.

Our final instalment of the fantastic storytellers in this year’s FEATCanada involve a survivor, a runner, and a climber.

Susan Oakey-Baker: Author, Survivor


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A few words come to mind when one describes Susan Oakey-Baker. Whole-hearted author, guide, mother, and survivor are just a few! Growing in up in Vancouver, BC Susan became passionate with sports and arts. Graduating with a degree in French Literature and Language Education, Susan used her academic skills and talents to develop into a great author, teacher, guide and painter.

Susan has twenty years of outdoor experience, having spent time ski touring, mountaineering, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, whitewater rafting and biking all over the world. Her adventures, photographs and writings have been published in Pique magazine, the Alpine Club of Canada Gazette and the Canadian Alpine Journal to inspire all outdoor enthusiasts. She has also worked as a nationally certified hiking guide in Africa, Nepal and North America. Her guiding career includes hiking with more than 150 people, ranging in age from sixteen to eighty-five, to the top of Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, for the Alzheimer Society of British Columbia.

Susan now lives in Whistler, British Columbia, with her husband, Joe, and their eight-year-old son, Sam. Her first book, Finding Jim, was launched in October 2013 by Rocky Mountain Books.

ML: Describe your FEAT presentation in 25 words or less.

My talk will be about what I have learned from sharing the outdoors with others and what I have learned from loss. In a nutshell, my main message is: “We connect more with each other through our vulnerabilities than through our strengths.”

ML: You’ve had a truly illustrious career – what has been the most exciting time for you in the outdoors? 

Thank you.  I’m not certain whether “most exciting,” and “near-death” are synonymous, but certain adventures bubble to the foreground; rafting in Nepal on a swollen river, camping with grizzlies in Alaska, stormbound and out of food in the Himalaya… Many experiences in the outdoors have stirred my emotions to the boiling point and pushed me to reveal who I am. The wilderness is an honest place.

If I had to choose one experience, I would say guiding people from all walks of life up Mount Kilimanjaro over the past 18 years for the Alzheimer Society of BC has been my most moving time in the outdoors. Each team epitomizes to me the strength of the human spirit, the ability of a group to achieve more than the individual and the power of contributing to a common good.

ML: Have you seen similar adventurous traits emerging in your son?

My son skis, mountain bikes, plays hockey and soccer and overall is a typical 8 year-old Whistler kid. Any outdoor adventure we go on, whether it be winter camping or canoeing the River of Golden Dreams, he is game. His curiosity and love of learning are palpable. Once, when we were backpacking north of Pemberton, he scampered along the trace of a trail, hopping over boulders and logs and proclaimed, “I love this world. This is my favourite hike. There are no signs. It’s freedom. It’s risky.” He considers the forest his backyard. He inspires me to give life everything I’ve got.

ML: Writer to writer, how did you feel when penning ‘Finding Jim’ – was it difficult to get the words onto the paper or did it all just tumble out so fast that your hand struggled to keep up?

I would say both.

The day after Jim was killed, I began to write to him. Everyday, for several years, my words free-flowed into more than thirty journals. After I met my present husband Joe, and we had our son, I was ready to take the next step and craft my journals into a book. I joined the Vicious Circle, a talented group of Whistler writers. It was a slow and painful process revealing my past, word by word, to them. But it was as if another force took over and propelled me forward. Sharing my story would be an important contribution and give me some purpose. Through grief, I learned we connect more through our vulnerabilities than through our strengths. I remember sitting around the critique table, ready to discuss my first submission: chapter one of Finding Jim. I had slept poorly, my hands and voice shook. I almost collapsed when it was over. The group coaxed twelve drafts out of me over 6 years. I wouldn’t have done it without them.

ML: Do you have any more adventures lined up for the near future- either getting out there, or getting another book on the shelves?

I’ve just completed a draft of my second book set on Mount Kilimanjaro, told from the point of view of the guide and the porters. I am having fun making up scenes this time, as opposed to writing non-fiction. This September, I will guide the 18th annual fundraising climb up Mount Kilimanjaro for the Alzheimer Society of BC (particularly exciting because Whistler local Erika Durlacher is on the team). Looking back on my life, one of the most challenging and rewarding adventures I have embarked upon is parenting. Every day is an adventure with my son. As a family, we plan to travel the world in 2017. I can’t wait.

Vikki Weldon: Climber, Nurse


Growing up in a family full of climbers, Vikki took to climbing at a young age and was soon excelling in the climbing gym and competitions. Her drive and determination led her to seven consecutive national championship titles and the opportunity to represent Canada at six Youth World Cup events, with her best result placing 5th in Beijing 2006. In the bouldering arena, Vikki has earned three Open National victories and multiple podium finishes.

Growing up in Calgary, AB, close to some of Canada’s best sport climbing, Vikki quickly discovered the joy of climbing outdoors. Her addiction to the rock and a willingness to push personal limits led to quick successes. Vikki climbed her first 13a at the age of 15 and has since redpointed multiple 13d’s (8b) and bouldered up to V10. Last year, Vikki became the third Canadian female to redpoint 5.14a (8b+), with her ascent of Eulogy in Maple Canyon, UT.

While enjoying a career in pediatric nursing, Vikki always keeps the mountains close to her heart. Recently having discovered the joys of difficult multipitch climbing and traditional climbing, Vikki plans to continue living a fulfilling and exciting life in the mountains.

ML: Describe the subject of your FEAT presentation in 25 words or less.

I will explore the concept of mentors as keystones to the progression of sport, and how my climbing career has been shaped by these individuals.

ML: You’ll have climbed all kinds of terrain. Is there one that presents particular challenges to you as a climber?

Climbing is a versatile sport, with so many different genres; sport climbing, bouldering, traditional, alpine.. The list goes on. I grew up focusing mostly on sport and bouldering, and this is where my comfort zone lies. Since moving to Squamish, I’ve been climbing more traditional routes. Climbing granite cracks and slabs is whole new ball game, and I find it far more challenging.

ML: You’re also a Registered nurse in your “spare” time. Have you ever had to Macguyver together an emergency quick-fix while on a rock face?

Luckily the most I’ve had to do on a rock face is bandage up some cuts and tape up some tendon tweaks.

ML: Recently, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson successfully completed the ascent of the Dawn Wall (a 3000ft ascent and the hardest in Yosemite Valley). Did you think you’d see the day? What in your opinion is the next “impossible” ascent?

Honestly, I never really thought that the Dawn Wall would ever be completed. Even Tommy Caldwell himself thought it was impossible. Yet that is what makes this ascent so groundbreaking and inspirational. Despite their doubts, these two put in years of effort and pulled off one of the greatest ascents in climbing history. Next up, I’m rooting for Will Stanhope and Matt Segal to come away with a free ascent of the Tom Egan Memorial on Snowpatch Spire in the Bugaboos. People say that one is impossible too. But what do we know? In the sport of climbing, the reality of an “impossible” ascent is becoming more and more possible.