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Remembering Karen Stolz (1955-2021)

Karen Stolz guiding on the North Face of Pitchoff, Adirondacks, 2015. [Photo] R.L. Stolz, Vertical Perspectives Photography

Karen Stolz guiding on the North Face of Pitchoff, Adirondacks, 2015. [Photo] R.L. Stolz, Vertical Perspectives Photography

A bright light in the Adirondacks went out on April 1 with the passing of Karen Stolz from pancreatic cancer. She was 65. Karen co-owned Alpine Adventures with her husband R.L., and she was one of the earliest and longest-serving female guides in the region.

“Karen’s professional mountain guiding career started in 1982 when we ran a small rock climbing school for three years in Pennsylvania, prior to Alpine Adventures,” R.L. Stolz told Alpinist. “All told, she guided 37 years and around 5,000 days.”

In addition to her guiding, she was also respected as a yoga instructor, photographer and a maker of mean brownies. But the real essence of Karen Stolz, the guide, was the relationships she built with her clients. So many other guides play the role of guide, hiding behind their tick lists, hesitant to be vulnerable and, especially, hesitant to allow a candid exploration of the vulnerabilities of clients. Because Karen was so real, she inspired her clients to be likewise. Her guiding days didn’t end when the last rope was coiled. Instead, Karen brought her clients home. She made gorgeous dinners, got to know their families. Throughout, Karen reveled in their growing tick lists, not her own. “She guided people, not routes,” R.L. told me.

Born in 1955 in Syracuse, New York, Karen grew up in a family that “was decidedly not a climbing one,” R.L. says. “She lived abroad in Italy and Peru (her father worked for the United Nations) and there were a few car-camping stories but nothing that led her to climbing. She was always athletic (soccer and other team sports in high school) and she was an avid paddler when we met. She was interested in climbing and that’s how/why we met. It turns out other interests blossomed as a result, climbing was one of them.”

Stolz guiding on Cascade Pass, Adirondacks, 2014. [Photo] R.L. Stolz, Vertical Perspectives Photography

Stolz guiding on Cascade Pass, Adirondacks, 2014. [Photo] R.L. Stolz, Vertical Perspectives Photography

Climbing is about partnership, and as R.L. would write, “Karen and I wove our lives together as tightly as we could. We did nearly everything together, and we enjoyed it more because of the closeness. Our individual lives were as much a product of our unified one as they were of our separate existence, probably more. Our decisions and direction were the result of two minds operating as one.”

That partnership began in 1979 when Karen and R.L. met at the Syracuse University Outing Club, where R.L. was leading rock-climbing outings. After college, Karen went first to corporate America, working for McNeil Consumer Products, while R.L. took a job in a therapeutic youth adventure program. In retrospect, these different starts gave the pair many of the tools required of a successful guiding business. R.L. often provided the vision and inspiration for new ventures, but he knew Karen’s practicality would bring them to fruition. They traveled broadly and built on their skills as climbers and skiers.

Their biggest leap took place while the pair was hunkered down in a multiday storm on Mt. Cook in New Zealand. It was there that they chose to come back to the States and create a business in the Adirondacks. Alpine Adventures (originally Adirondack Alpine Adventures) was born in 1985. The business plan they scrawled on a brown paper bag during that storm served as a blueprint for their company and for their lives.

The 35-year journey of Alpine Adventures was, by its own definition, very successful. In addition to their local Adirondack guiding, R.L. and Karen completed over 150 climbing and skiing trips on six continents. They stopped marketing the company in 2000, having achieved the life they had envisioned back in that storm-bound hut. They defined the operation as more of a life than a business; and rather than carefully maintaining boundaries, they happily tore them down. They built a wide network of friends (or clients, as other guides would have defined them). They shared dinners and trips, admissions, personal discoveries. Karen was even part of a birthing team for one of her client/friends.

Starting in 2014, Alpine Adventures began giving way to their next venture: Vertical Perspectives Photography, with their first book, Classic Adirondack Climbs: Rock, Ice & Slide Climbing Photographs from the East’s Largest Wilderness. The guiding business that began in a storm on Mt. Cook and that essentially ended with their shift to photography was just one of the intentional products of those “two minds working as one.” At 65, neither was going to engage in the intense physicality required of guiding forever. Gracefully, smoothly, and consciously, R.L. and Karen were well along their career shift when Karen became sick.

Even in her last days, they made it clear to their friends that they were up to the challenge. On Karen’s Caring Bridge web page R.L. wrote, “We intentionally chose to make this journey (which Karen and I found ourselves on unexpectedly) more than a private voyage. Adventures to unknown places have always defined us and, since they were a huge part of our passion and in many ways drove our lives, it seems natural to include all of you. My goal is to include everyone in this process as it unfolds, without requiring anyone to participate beyond their comfort level. Loss on this level is not (at least I certainly hope it isn’t) a part of daily life. Maybe, by chronicling what I go through, others will be able to see behind the grief and loss and into the silver lining.”

Five days before she died, Karen suffered a stroke, leaving her unresponsive. R.L. used those five days as she would have hoped–to be together in their home in Keene, to reflect, and to appreciate, right to her last breath. The deliberate and forthright way that the couple faced Karen’s dying process came as no surprise to those who have known them.

The void Karen Stolz leaves is big and unknown territory for those who knew and loved her. We wish R.L., their son Kevin and his wife April all the strength and wisdom they’ll need. Others can still see Karen through her photography at the Vertical Perspectives Photography gallery in Keene and through her many community services. Karen was a guide, but in ways far beyond knots and belays. Through her generous authenticity she showed us the bigger things.