Laura Adams—Professional Guide and Adventurer
FOR LAURA ADAMS, 1997 was the year that everything changed. She was a certified ski guide—just the fifth woman ever to be accredited by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides—and was working for the most well-respected operations in the country. On an off day, she was climbing Gray’s Peak in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park with her then-boyfriend Joe Pavelich, a ski patroller. When Adams reached the summit ridgeline, she expected Pavelich shortly afterward. But he never arrived. Adams down-climbed and found him crumpled on a rock ledge, unconscious. He appeared to have fallen about 100 feet.
Pavelich survived, following a helicopter evacuation, but with significant brain injuries. Four months later, Adams, as a member of search and rescue, got a call to help locate the body of 23-year-old Michel Trudeau—younger brother of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who had been backcountry skiing with friends when a slide swept him off the mountain. A year and a half after that, another friend died in a climbing accident when a large rock fell and struck him on the head.
“It was a lot of loss in the mountains in a short period of time,” says Adams, now 51. “And while I accepted the fact that the outdoors is a dynamic environment that you can’t control, I was also interested in learning about the things you can control—how we make decisions in these environments.”
So Adams took a break from guiding and enrolled in a master’s program in leadership and organizational change at Royal Roads University, in Victoria, British Columbia. While there, she interviewed more than 70 of Canada’s top guides and avalanche forecasters about their experiences in the mountains. The year was 2004, and the mountaineering community was still very much focused on the physical sciences, like weather and snowpack and terrain. Adams’ social science approach—looking at how people make sound decisions and what human factors (like ego) influence them—was somewhat novel.
“I heard Laura present at International Snow Science Workshop,” says Diny Harrison, the first Canadian woman to become an internationally certified mountain guide. “It was the first time in my career that I heard someone speak of ‘human factors’ as something we needed to develop in avalanche education.”
Adams’ groundbreaking work earned her an award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and a job offer from New Zealand to lead the country’s fledgling office of outdoor recreation and adventure tourism. It was a dream come true—she’d wanted to be a guide since she was 15, and had taken off after college to rock climb in Australia and New Zealand and test her mettle on some on Nepal’s 7,000-meter peaks. So Adams moved with her young son (she and the boy’s father had since divorced) to Wellington. While there, she discovered kitesurfing, and with her trademark intensity learned the sport. Within two years, she had become New Zealand’s women’s national champion.
Today she lives in the Kootenay region of southeastern B.C. and is one of the most sought-after guides in the world. Last year, for example, when Weber Arctic launched the first heli-skiing trip in the Arctic, on Baffin Island, the outfitter could have chosen practically anyone to serve as its lead guide. They picked Adams, both for her personable nature with clients and ability to read terrain, but also because of her unassailable judgement with group dynamics while exploring terra incognita. Individually, she leads small-group tours by invite only to little-known mountains like those in Japan. In January 2019, she’ll run her most ambitious expedition yet: the first commercial backcountry skiing tour in China’s obscure Altai Mountains.
“I’m really curious about ancient mountain culture, places where people have lived in the mountains for thousands of years,” Adams says.
She’s also exploring new personal connections to the mountains. Following a string of Arctic expeditions in 2018, Adams produced a series of oil paintings of the massive granite peaks and landscapes there. Her father, who died of cancer in 2014, produced hundreds of paintings in his lifetime, and Adams suspects that her newfound passion is a way of coping in a constructive way. “I think that’s maybe the key,” she says. “To be open to what is, rather than wishing for what isn’t. Taking new wisdom from these experiences and looking forward, not back.”Back to top