Crystal Crag, Mammoth Lakes, CA 5 Sept 2009

Her favorite color is orange. If you knew her, you’d understand why she has such an affinity to it. Bright, spirited and with an endurance built to last, Laura Molnar, a physical therapist by trade, spends all her free time in a mountainous sanctuary. Living in Bishop, she is fortunate to have them right at her doorsteps and they beckon her out to play every weekend (in fact, I kept interrupting her with my emails on her recent Ouray, ice climbing trip!).

When I went to her house, upon entering her cozy habitat, her passion is markedly seen from the many photographs she shot herself of the great outdoors hung on her walls. Who needs to buy souvenirs when you can create a permanent picture of where you’ve been? Also in the setting of her home is her extensive library of mountaineering and climbing books that include the works of John Muir to the book, “Leading Out; Stories of Adventurous Women” by Rachel Da Silva. And don’t ask me why, but I have a funny hunch that she even uses her JetBoil over her stove at home…..

Having ticked a large number of summits under her belt in just the three years she has been consistently mountaineering, she has incredible stamina – most men wouldn’t be able to keep up trekking and would get lost without her navigation skills anyway. Her frame may be striking at a height of 5’11 feet, however, we all know it’s just that there is more to adore and be inspired from about her……..

Summit of Charleston Peak (11,918ft), NV; 9 Jan 2010

RRRG:  Where were you born? Where were you raised?

LAURA:  I was born in Mountain View, CA., and raised in Belmont, CA. at the foot of the Santa Cruz mountains. My family loved to car camp and hike, and we would spend most weekends in the summer doing just that. Portola State Park was a particular favorite, but we also ventured to the White Wolf area of Yosemite.

RRRG:  How long have you been mountaineering?

LAURA:  I think the safe answer here is a little over 3 years. My first backpack (a one-night overnight in the San Gabriel mountains of Southern CA) was at the end of March, 2006; my first solo backpack and summit of Mt. Whitney was in August, 2006. The following year, 2007, I really started more peakbagging, getting off trail, and winter travel skills, which is what I consider to be more of actual mountaineering.

RRRG:  How long have you been rock climbing?

LAURA:  My friends first threw me on the rock in Joshua Tree in October, 2007. My friend had an alpine bod harness that just barely fit around my thighs, and they wouldn’t let me come down until I finished the routes. I was terrified! I really thought there was no way the rope and gear was going to hold me if I fell. This past summer, I spent a lot more time on the rock around Yosemite, Tuolumne, Joshua Tree, Tahquitz, and the Alabama Hills and got a lot more confident in what the gear can do. I also met some terrific climbing partners and leaders that were open and willing to teach me the skills I needed to be safe when climbing. My latest passion is ice climbing, which, to me, is a natural extension of the rock skills. But they are also different enough to keep me training and wanting to learn more about technique in both arenas.

RRRG:  What inspired you to start trekking in the mountains?

LAURA:  I got a divorce in 2006, and I was looking for a group of people with whom I could hang out. There was a local Sierra Club group that would plan regular trips, but I soon found myself wanting to go for longer and harder hikes. When I summitted Mt. Whitney in 2006, I saw it as a parallel to the events going on in my life at the time. I mean, here I stood, at the highest point in the lower 48 states, and I had gotten myself there. I was completely self-sufficient. After being attached in a bad relationship for so long, I was looking out across a whole new horizon and gained a new perspective on my own strength. After that, I knew that anything is possible, and all I had to do was put my mind to it. But there was more. I’ve always been a tall, strong woman, but suddenly there, in the backcountry, it was OK for me to be so. There are so many social and self-limiting stigmas attached to being a larger woman. But in the backcountry, where I could lug around a huge pack, set up camp, prepare all my meals, determine my own path, and carry out my plans, being strong was admired by both men and women alike.

There was also something inherently sacred about being up in the mountains. You have to work to get there. You earn your vistas, lakeside campsites, that fish for dinner. It was a feeling of belonging to something bigger than myself, and it helped me connect with my own soul. I get as much inspiration from the mountains sharing their time with me, from the meadows full of flowers in which to lounge, the streams from which I drink.

Laura ice climbing in Whitney Ice Falls, Mt. Whitney Mountaineer’s Route; 21 Nov 2009

RRRG:  How did you learn about the vital factors for safe trekking….like navigating in the wilderness, identifying crevasses, reading weather patterns, etc….did you take a course? Learn through friends?

LAURA:  I learned the basics of navigation back when I was at the Naval Academy, then more from the Wilderness Travel Course through the Sierra Club in Los Angeles. I’ve read countless books covering all sorts of topics, taken an Avalanche Course. I’m reading up on glacier travel now with the prospect of heading north to some peaks in the coming years. But the best education has been to actually head out and experience the wilderness both solo and with friends with experience. I read trip reports and guide books about the climbs and areas into which I head, weather reports right before I head out the door. But there is nothing like getting to an area and seeing the rock first hand, or watching the clouds blow in and accumulate above a ridge. I think a lot of people nowadays look to devices (GPS, barometers, altimeters, etc) instead of pick their heads up and look around them to figure out what they are doing. Books can describe situations, but experiencing the situations really drives the point home.

RRRG:  Who do you normally trek with?

LAURA:  Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know some amazing partners. As my horizons expanded in terms of technical skills (hiking vs. rock climbing vs. snow vs. ice) the partners have changed and shifted a bit, but the great thing is that I can choose what sort of challenge I want from any outing. I definitely have go-to people for certain types of trips.

But I also adore heading out solo. There is something about the quiet both inside and outside of me when I am alone in the backcountry or on a peak. I connect with my own soul, I think. I move at my own pace, make my own agenda, make changes as I see fit for myself, and that is comforting in a way. I also really know how to listen to my gut about what I’m doing. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I also know what my limits are and I’m not willing to compromise my safety.

Mt. Langley (14.026ft), CA; 25 April 2009

RRRG:  What have you summited recently?

LAURA:  I think my biggest summit recently is realizing that what I do is pretty amazing. Yes, standing on the summit of a mountain is hugely rewarding, and I love saying that I’ve stood on top of a peak and soaked in the grand vistas in all directions. I’ve come to the conclusion that while peaks are the mountains’ gift to the adventurer, it’s the journey that garners the greatest reward.

RRRG:  Beautiful answer…… do you have any particular goals for this year climbing, trekking and otherwise?

LAURA:  Oh, I always have goals! This year I want to try to be the first woman to complete the Sierra Challenge, which is a 10-day “event” held here in the Eastern Sierra. 10 days, 10 peaks, averaging 15 miles and 5000vf (or so). No woman has ever finished the year’s list. But mainly, I want to continue my streak of getting out to do SOMETHING every weekend (over 2 years now) and keep exploring this grand range in my backyard.

RRRG:  Good luck with that challenge!  We’d like to follow up with you about it. However, what goes on in your mind if you don’t meet your goal at the moment? When you first started trekking and before developing the more positive outlook you have, how would you react if you didn’t make a summit and how would you process it?

LAURA: I have a tendency to be really hard on myself; kind of a flaw that I really need to work on. In fact, I used to talk to myself really negatively and be super critical about my own abilities. It was driving me to work harder, but for the wrong reasons. I had a lot of luck in the first few years, and I was able to make a lot of summits.

I remember one attempt at Mt. Whitney in the winter, where a dicey traverse made me turn around. The guys in the group, all of whom were significantly smaller and lighter than I, were able to make the traverse, but warned that any of the steps could have given way under my weight. I turned around and started heading down, and I even stopped halfway down and cried a bit because I was so disappointed. It was a cloudy and snowy day, but all of a sudden the clouds parted all the way down to the Owens Valley, some 8 or 9000 ft below me, and I took a good look around me. “Look where you ARE, Laura,” I thought to myself. “No one got you up here but you, you’re safe, and you made the right decision.” I think that was a turning point for me. So now, success is not necessarily measured by the summits. It’s measured by the beauty around me, and the strength to get there, as well as use good judgement while on the mountain.

I’ve been going through another spell recently of being really hard on myself, and one of my best friends called me on it. So I’m still learning how to keep a positive attitude about myself all the time.

RRRG: I wanted to ask you about the changes going on in your environment.  Do you see the affects of global warming affecting your treks?

LAURA:  I see the glaciers of the Sierra shrinking and growing dirtier, possibly from increased rock fall, but I can’t say for sure if that is from “global warming” or not. The data out there is somewhat obscure. What I do see are the effects of a number of drought years in the Sierra: streams running dry earlier, bathtub lines around lakes.

RRRG: What are your favorite areas in the Sierra? And please tell us why it appeals to you?

LAURA: I get this question quite a bit, since I like to get out and explore so many different areas of the Sierra, and I live in a very central location, so I can pick and choose where to play every weekend. There is so much that I have yet to see! I think a lot of people assume I’ve been doing this for a long time and seen everything, but that’s FAR from the truth.

One of my favorite areas is the Ansel Adams Wilderness area below Mt. Ritter and the Minarets. It’s extraordinarily picturesque, with running streams, meadows, flowers, lakes, forests, and the granite rising starkly overhead. There is an energy of rebirth there, a feeling of something new each time I pass through. I could easily go back to that area to just hang out every year, which I have done since 2007.

But my favorite place so far has been the Evolution Basin. The John Muir trail runs through there, but if you explore just a little to the east or west, it’s vacant, devoid of any other people at all. The mountains form huge cirques, funneling streams into high lakes, often carrying ice far into summer. The peaks aren’t the highest, but they are separated enough from one another to allow for vast vistas in all directions. Last summer, I caught an almost full moonrise during sunset when I was camped at Evolution Lake. After snapping a bunch of photos, I just sat in the quiet of my campsite and watched the orange fade to the darkest red on Mt. Spencer, almost like the mountain was on fire as the moon crossed the range. There was something exquisitely powerful about that sunset. I will go back there again this summer, if only for a big dayhike, but that region definitely calls to me.

RRRG:   It sounds amazing! Have you had any scary moments while out? If so, please tell the story…and also please tell us how you were able to combat the fear and deal with it using a calm head.

LAURA:  Check out the Day 2 section.

I was sliding down a glacier with a full pack on. I was lucky to not start tumbling.

Umm….yeah. That’s pretty high up. Laura on the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney (14,497ft), CA 28 June 2009

RRRG: Have you hiked out of the country? What peaks do you have on your hit list when you do venture out?

LAURA: I actually haven’t ever BEEN out of the country, except a few short times in the Ontario, Canada region. No real peaks over there…

But the more I get out and explore my own backyard, the more I start thinking about traveling abroad and clambering around different high countries. I think some of the most intriguing areas to me are the Dolomites, the Highlands of Scotland, the Southern Alps of New Zealand, Patagonia, the Canadian Rockies. But this has happened so fast that I just can’t believe that any of this is in my radar at all.

RRRG: Is mountaineering still a male-dominated sport?

LAURA: I think so, at least in what is reported publicly. I mean, I look at lists of sponsored athletes and there are women there. But I don’t see much in the arena of videos, documentaries, etc. Check out the Patagonia catalogues and you’ll see some awesome things being done by women, maybe a trip write up. But I’d love to see more being posted by women.

RRRG: If you are in a group of males, how are you treated?

LAURA: That’s a funny question, since I’m such a “one of the guys” person. Honestly, I think I put more pressure on myself being female than the guys do. When we’re in the thick of a hike or a climb, I’ve never been necessarily treated differently because of my gender. Part of that may be because I can carry as much weight or really push myself hard like the guys. I have never asked anyone to carry anything extra of mine, or expected extra time or other allowances because of my gender. Sometimes I feel like a bit of an outsider if there are more than 3-4 guys in the group, but I’m comfortable with that. Often, in camp at the end of the day, or during the hike, I will drop back or find a way to split away from the group a little to give the guys some space. But I also think that’s about finding my own comfort and peace when I’m in the backcountry. It stems back to my enjoying solo time and the quiet I am able to achieve.

RRRG: How did your nickname ‘Moose’ come about?

LAURA: 7th grade, lunchtime, playing touch football with the guys. I knocked one guy down to intercept a pass, and he looked up at me from the ground and yelled, “Molnar, you’re such a friggin’ MOOSE!” The name just stuck. It was terrible at first: I mean, here I was, a tween, taller than all these guys, a tomboy, trying to fit in, and they are all calling me Moose. I think there are still parents of some of the people I went to school with who think that’s my actual first name.

Moose has had a number of different incarnations for me, though. I’ve hated it, then embraced it, then had fun with it. When I started mountaineering, I thought it would be a funny shtick to put on my silly moose hat when I reached the summits, and I sign the registers with “The Elusive California Moose strikes again!” It kind of caught on, and now I’m getting known as that “Moose Lady”. It’s a fun thing.

Fresh Snow above Minaret Vista, Mammoth Lakes, CA 23 Jan 2010 – Photo by Laura Molnar

RRRG: What is the first thing you like to do when you are done with a long trek and you get home?!

LAURA: First and foremost: a relaxing moment on my tailgate to soak in what I’ve just accomplished. That’s just the best feeling to be sitting back in civilization, knowing that you have arrived safely and now have a tremendous story to tell.

Then a nice hot shower and grimacing at the mess of gear I need to put away.

Then a phone call home to my folks to tell them I’m ok.

RRRG: Who are some of your inspirations in the climbing/mountaineering world?

LAURA: Most of my inspiration comes from the past, actually. While I’m in awe of what some people are attempting today with highly specialized equipment, when I read about Clarence King, or Fanny Bullock-Workman, William Brewer, Norman Clyde, Ruth Dyer Mendenhall, John Muir, I am inspired by their love of adventure and the outdoors. They had so much to overcome and so little to do it with. They were seeing the world on high with fresh eyes and had to trust themselves alone to complete their tasks. That, to me, is the true spirit of adventure. Not that I mind having good ropes and gear, mind you!

I also garner inspiration from the people directly around me. Some of my climbing partners have done some amazing things in the mountains, or overcome their own internal mountains to be able to climb at a very high level. I’ve met some of my best friends through posting my trip reports on the internet, and hearing about their adventures; it keeps my own fires burning and wanting to keep pushing my own envelope. There are so many people who have taken me under their wing the last few years and have taught me so much about how to survive and thrive in the mountains, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

RRRG: How does your family feel about your passion for mountaineering?

LAURA: Oh, my dad told me straight up recently that I’m nuts. But they have a love-hate relationship with it. They love being able to see the backcountry through my photographs, as I go to places they will never see themselves. However, they worry about the dangers and risks. They really appreciate that phone call when I get home. Both of my parents love the outdoors and were the ones who instilled their love into me. In fact, when I started all of this, one of the first questions my mom asked me was, “When do I get to see Tuolumne in winter?” So I know they love that I’ve found something about which to be so passionate.

RRRG: Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us, Laura……you definitely gave us a unique insight of your incredible experiences! Safe trekking to ya!

For more photos of Laura’s adventures, you can check out her flickr site: Laura Molnar’s Flickr

Russell-Carillon Col, Mt. Whitney in the back, 17 May 2009

Scrambling up the East Face of Charleston Peak, NV, 9 Jan 2010

Tokopah Falls, Sequoia Natl. Park, CA 13 June 2009

Ice Climbing in Lee Vining, CA 2 Jan 2010

Laura all cleaned up!