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Geoffrey Smith: Rock climbing and ski pioneer

April 22, 2010
BY YVONA FAST

Geoffrey Smith's love for the mountains, skiing and climbing began in early childhood. When Geoff was a child, his father was stationed as a military attache at the American Embassy in Switzerland.

His mom remembers when he looked up at the Swiss Alps at age 4 and said, "The mountains make my heart leap."

He learned to ski before he went to school, and was skiing in the Alps in the 1950s before the era of ski lifts. Geoff's life spans the modern ski industry.

Article Photos

Geoffrey Smith
(Photo — Yvona Fast)

Geoff was very sick as a child. When he was 10 years old, the doctors thought he had an enlarged heart. This is when they discovered he had a rare condition, transposition of the heart and blood vessels, or a "reversed heart." Geoff had heart surgery in 1959, and was told to stay away from athletics.

For a 10 year old boy, this was just not acceptable. "At age 10, I made a vow to God, 'If you make me healthy, strong and able to participate in sports, then I will serve you after I turn 30,'" Geoff said. "God was faithful and kept his part of this vow."

When Geoff was a teenager in the 1960s, his father, a pilot and base engineer, was stationed at the Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Just 15 minutes from Plattsburgh is Poke-O-Moonshine, a two-mile-long cliff popular with advanced technical climbers.

In his late teens, Geoff discovered rock-climbing and backcountry skiing, sports that became a lifelong hobby. He loved to push his limits, loved the excitement and adventure of first ascents in rock climbing and first descents on skis. According to Adirondack Rock by Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas, Geoff Smith and John Turner "figure most prominently in the development of rock climbing at Poke-O-Moonshine."

After high school, Geoff attended the small, academic Bowdoin College in Maine. When he transferred to the University of Colorado in Boulder, a large university with 20,000 students, he brought eastern mountain trail ski techniques with him to Colorado. After graduation, he moved to California for skiing and climbing with friends. He managed to climb the Nose Route on El Capitan in Yosemite in a storm-lashed six days, losing 18 pounds while on the mountain.

When he returned to the Adirondacks in 1976, he spent hundreds of hours at Poke-O-Moonshine, getting to know every crack of the cliff face.

"Once I hung on a rope for 10 hours scrubbing with a wire brush to remove debris," he recalled.

Today, there are almost 150 established routes up the precipitous cliffs. Geoff pioneered many of them, including Fastest Gun, Freedom Flight and Sailor's Dive.

Over the years, he has been an inspiration, guide and friend to many climbers. He and the Poko boys - local climbers mentored by Geoff - applied modern climbing techniques in unique ways. Even after his heart weakened, he pioneered the route Ancient of Days in 2002.

Geoff met his wife Teri in 1976. They skied and climbed together, and married in 1982. True to his vow to God, he dropped out of climbing for awhile. Geoff's mom was a devout believer who loved Israel and the Jewish people, and had made eight trips to the Holy Land. Geoff had traveled there with her as a teen.

The newlyweds set off for Israel, where Geoff did work in political science at Jerusalem University College (then known as the Holy Land Institute).

"Living in this anthropological museum piece was a powerful experience," Geoff said. "The final world conflict will be fought over Jerusalem."

Their oldest son, Timothy, was born on Jerusalem's Mt. of Olives, and their second son, Silas, was conceived while they were living there. In 1985, when Geoff's parents became ill, Geoff and his family returned home and settled in Lake Placid, where he taught at Northwood School.

In the 1990s, he worked with juvenile delinquents in the challenge-based state program popularly called "Hoods in the Woods," using his outdoor skills, camping, skiing and rock climbing with these guys. "One of my educational techniques was reading and discussing inspirational literature, like the biography of John Newton, who wrote 'Amazing Grace,'" Geoff said. "I wanted to inspire the teens, just as I had found inspiration in the mountains and in the God who walks upon them.

"Many mountaineers have experienced an unseen presence accompanying them on the heights. Even Ernest Shackleton, on his desperate crossing of South Georgia Island, recounts: 'It seemed to me there were four, not three of us.' (Alexander, Caroline: 'The Endurance, Knopf,' 1998, p.169): 'He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth - the Lord God Almighty is his name.' (Amos 4:13) is one of my favorite Bible verses."

For Geoff, a return to the Adirondacks meant a return to skiing and climbing. Despite his vow to God, work and family responsibilities, the compulsion to climb perilous rock cliffs in summer and ski down steep mountain slopes in winter remained strong.

"I took my boys up Marcy when they were very young," he said. "At six and a half, Silas was probably the youngest to have ever skied Marcy."

Aware that he was a walking/skiing miracle, Geoff took Scripture cards with him into the mountains to meditate, leaving them on summits and ledges where they would be discovered. He was a trailblazer, pioneering extreme backcountry skiing in the Adirondack High Peaks. He first skied Marcy in 1970. He has 70 winter ascents of New York's highest peak, and is familiar with every turn, each rock slide and every streambed on the mountain. He is most pleased with his solo first descents of many Adirondack High Peaks: Nippletop/Bear Den/Dial, Colvin, the west face of Haystack and several slides on the west face of Colden.

One of his most challenging solo skis was the Triple Crown - Marcy, Colden and Algonquin - in 14 hours and 29 minutes. Another challenging first descent was Leap of Faith, a gully on the west side of Mt. Colvin. On one of his later trips, on the east face of Haystack during the storm of the century in 1998, Geoff was hindered from reaching the top by an exhausting two hour arrhythmia episode from his strained heart.

His last attempt to summit Marcy in 2006, with his 16-year-old daughter Joanna and his son Silas, was cut short due to another long-lasting arrhythmia. But Geoff says, "God is faithful. He is with me on the heights and in the valleys, on the rock, on skis, and in my vow."

This article is based on an interview with Geoff Smith. Yvona Fast can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.

 
 

 

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