Peak Experiences

The Charests have been to the mountaintop

by Keith Morrill

petra_cliffs_charestMarch 2016In 2012, Andrea and Steve Charest bought Petra Cliffs Climbing Center & Mountaineering School, the Burlington business that had employed them almost since its beginnings in 2000.
Photo: Brad Pettengill

Andrea and Steve Charest’s relationship is perhaps more adventurous than the average marriage. At its best it’s a climb up a sheer cliff; at its worst, an expedition fraught with near-death experiences and grievous injury. These aren’t the byproduct of marital strife, but rather the Charests’ personal and professional pursuits, the sometimes natural consequences of lives spent clinging to rock faces, skiing mountainsides, and otherwise dedicating themselves to outdoor adventure.

Experienced and accomplished outdoor athletes and guides, the Charests are the owners of Petra Cliffs Climbing Center & Mountaineering School in Burlington’s South End.

Petra Cliffs was opened in 2000 by Chip Schlegel, but Andrea and Steve have been fixtures at the center since soon after it belayed its first climber. Steve came aboard at the end of 2001 as an intern while he was pursuing his degree in outdoor education at Johnson State College. 

He was supposed to stay only a year — until he graduated — but Schlegel liked Steve’s work so much that he offered him employment. Steve agreed to work through the summer, but, come fall, he found no compelling reason to leave. “Every time I’ve had an opportunity to ask that ‘What is the next thing?’” explains Steve, “Petra Cliffs always seems to provide a good reason for me to stick around and continue my education.”

In mid-2002, just a few months after the start of Steve’s internship, Andrea came on board. She was a chemistry major at The University of Vermont with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher. Her work-study gig at the UVM climbing wall had roped her into Vermont’s climbing community, which was how she ended up volunteering at Petra Cliffs. She soon discovered that she preferred rock time to lab time and switched majors, graduating in 2005 with a degree in psychology. 

About a year after they started working together — April 3, 2003, to be exact — Andrea and Steve hit the slopes of Jay Peak on their first date. The lift tickets still hang prominently on the wall of their home in Bolton. They assured Petra Cliffs management that their personal relationship wouldn’t affect their work, and following their marriage on August 12, 2006, the Charests cemented their commitment to their professional and personal lives.

In the intervening years, they have performed just about every task required to operate the business, from washing holds to cleaning bathrooms, from instructing climbers indoors to guiding them outdoors, from organizing outdoor and youth programming to managing the books.

All the while, Steve pursued a vigorous course of study through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), obtaining certifications as a rock and ski guide. He need only pass the exam required to become a certified alpine guide in order to achieve the AMGA’s highest designation, that of American Mountain Guide. That rank will allow him to legally work wherever the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) permits.

During this time the Charests experienced their most harrowing adventures outdoors. Every hardcore outdoor enthusiast is accustomed to being bruised and scraped, and most seem to have that one story about the time Mother Nature almost killed them. For Steve, it came in 2009, when he was leading a ski tour at Thompson Pass in Valdez, Alaska.

“We spaced out because it was a bit snowier,” he says, “and I happened to find the weak spot.” The snow fractured around them, and they were soon caught up in an avalanche that spanned a mile and a half. Fortunately, Steve and his two companions were at the edge of the avalanche, and when the snow stopped, the first skier was untouched, while Steve was only partially buried, with his head and arm free. The third skier was completely buried. Steve and the other skier were able to dig her out in under 15 minutes, and miraculously she only suffered a twisted ankle.  

Andrea’s incident came in 2011, during a rock-climbing expedition to Indian Creek in Utah. After a few days, the crew’s hands were too shredded and raw, so they switched to mountain biking. On a hostile trail known as Porcupine Rim, Andrea took a nasty, head-first spill off a drop-off and broke her neck, sustaining an avulsion fracture. Fortunately, there was no damage to her spinal cord.

Neither incident slowed the Charests or quelled their passion for the outdoors. In the year following Andrea’s injury, she says, she felt the strongest she had ever been as a climber, and they were looking to push their professional lives in a new direction.

“We were talking about what was next in our life — whether it was going to be completely uprooting and figuring out where we were going next, or what was next for us at Petra Cliffs,” she says.

After much debate, they decided to reach out to Mike Anderson, who had bought the business in 2005, and see if he had any interest in selling. The timing was perfect for Anderson, who was interested in stepping away from the business. He asked the Charests to make an offer, which he accepted in what Steve describes as near-record time. By the end of 2012 they were the owners of Petra Cliffs.

As new owners, they were dedicated to maintaining the community feel of Petra Cliffs as a place where anyone can come and have a sense of belonging. Customer Lisa Bresler says they have achieved that goal.

“I have known many faces that have come and gone at Petra,” says Bresler, “but one thing has always remained — the welcoming excitement you are greeted with when you enter the door. I believe Andrea and Steve create a community that encourages folks of all abilities. Their warm, genuine way attracts like-minded employees. No matter if it’s the gym or a course, I feel like you are going to get that experience.”

The challenge for the Charests is to keep that community vibe while pushing Petra Cliffs into the future. To that end, they decided to home in on three essential elements: the climbing center, the mountaineering school, and the youth summer camp.

They gave the gym a face-lift, adding new climbing walls in an unused corner, upgrading safety measures, remodeling the facilities and flooring, and streamlining the membership process. They broadened the offerings of the mountaineering school with the aim of expanding it further when Steve achieves his IFMGA guide status. They have cultivated and nurtured their youth programs, including a summer camp leading roughly 500 kids on climbing, hiking, kayaking, and other outdoor adventures over a 10-week period.

Over the years, John Limanek and his family seem to have partaken in all that Petra Cliffs has to offer, starting with his son’s 10th birthday party 16 years ago. Since then, he says, both his sons, Taylor and Thompson, have become regulars, joining the Petra Cliffs climbing team, participating in climbing competitions at the center, attending the summer camp programs, and even working there in high school and college.

“They had great mentors at Petra Cliffs who taught them their climbing skills, but just as importantly, many of their life skills,” says Limanek. “They loved the people at Petra Cliffs and always said that they never met a climber they didn’t like.” He adds, “Steve and Andrea have been great role models for our sons,” pointing out that both of his children now live in Bozeman, Montana, and are avid outdoorsmen who maintain relationships with the Petra Cliffs community.

To keep all of these programs going, Andrea and Steve employ 25 to 40 staffers, depending upon the season. They include three employs who work nearly full-time hours: Sarah Fox, youth program coordinator; Tim Farr, whom the Charests describe as a jack-of-all-trades; and Craig Morrill, who is part front-desk manager, part event coordinator, part marketer. “We make people wear many hats,” says Andrea.

“Those are the kinds of people we look to surround ourselves with,” adds Steve.

It’s one of the reasons that, in addition to their standard programming, Andrea and Steve are also able to manage the Bolton Adventure Center and the Smuggs Ice Bash, plus work on the “pro staff” at St. Michael’s College’s wilderness program.

Still the Charests have their eyes on more and hope to expand their offerings. For example, they’d love to add a café and workout facilities and yoga programs, but feel they have maxed out the potential of their current location. The hope is to move to a larger building that would double or triple their current size, although they admit it is difficult to find affordable warehouse space in Vermont. A larger space would allow them to cater to the needs of a wider community, something that is important to them. “It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, abled or differently abled, we can do a program for you,” says Steve.

“We pride ourselves on making climbing accessible to everyone. Whether it be their first time getting up the birthday-party wall, or whether it be their first ice climb, or climbing a peak in Alaska — those are the kinds of opportunities we want to have people say, ‘Wow! That was life-changing!’” •