Audrey Sniezek: Driven to Succeed

posted by dpm on 10/02/2012

This past August I had the opportunity to climb at a crag outside of Seattle, Washington that I'd never been to before. My wife and I hiked  a well-worn path through towering cedars, moss, and ferns to the intimidating World Wall I, a massive overhanging shield of slippery gray stone located on the flanks of Mt. Si. On one of my first days there I sampled a route called Dr. Evil (5.14a). The holds were slick, the crux was burly, it was humid, it was runout, my skin got thrashed, and so I gave up. The next day I watched as Audrey Sniezek roped up below the line. I've run into Audrey before at the Red River Gorge and the New River Gorge, but this time she was looking ultra-fit and especially motivated. She cruised through the opening boulder problems, absolutely hiked the crux, and then fell unexpectedly just shy of the easy terrain.

A few days later, I was writing up a news story about the send of her first 5.14a. It couldn't have been ten days later that I found myself posting more news of her first 5.14b. A woman climbing 5.14b is elite, especially in America where only a handful have climbed the grade. But what I really found interesting about Audrey is that her success in climbing is only half the story.

She grew up in the small steel town of Lorain, Ohio, far from any real outdoor climbing. Right from the beginning, Audrey was driven toward success and she worked hard to pay her way through University at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio. She came away with a degree in Computer Science and a newfound love for rock climbing so she took a job with Microsoft in Seattle, Washington. Since then, she's managed to excel in both her career and in her climbing life.

I see a lot of full-time climbers out there at the cliffs throughout America. Some elite level climbers are making ends meet with meager sponsor dollars and maybe a bit of support from a family that wants to see them live the dream. Most fall into the dirtbag category. They might work a job waiting tables, banging nails, or guiding just to have enough to keep climbing.

Audrey stands out from the crowd. She's been able to maintain a well-paying job with benefits and climb 5.14b, simultaneously excelling in both the business and climbing world. Unlike other top-notch climbers that crawl out of the back of a truck to start the day, Audrey might swap out her heels and power suit for a sports bra and climbing shoes. On top of it all, she's found time to volunteer and make a significant impact on the rural communities surrounding the Red River Gorge.

Audrey is a remarkably motivated, energetic, and positive role model, possessing the rare ability to shine in two very different worlds. It's a challenging balancing act that she overcomes with an unwavering drive to succeed.  

Eyes locked in on Screaming Target (5.13c) Mt. Charleston, Nevada. Photo: Luke Olsen

DPM: Let's talk climbing first. Run me through some milestones in your climbing career. What were some of your memorable benchmark ascents?

AS:  My first 5.12a was Rainy Day Women at Little Si, WA. I had been a hard 5.11 climber up to that point, but I knew I could push harder. Unfortunately, I had always been too scared to take the sharp end on those harder climbs and therefore felt limited in how far I could take my climbing.  Once I changed my mindset, the climbing world opened up to me and soon I was climbing hard 5.12.

It was at this time that I thought I was strong enough to explore the variety of climbing around the world and with 2 years of planning, set off on an 18 month work-free road trip. Within the first 3 months, I climbed my first two 5.13s in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky: Snooker and Table of Colors.

In a way each one of my climbs have been a milestone because no two climbs are the same. I don’t let my height limit my vision and I have Lynn Hill as a role model to thank for that! Monster Skank in Red Rocks, Nevada is one such problem. It remains one of my all-time favorite climbs that I may never redpoint because I can’t stick the dyno in the middle. One of my friends jokes how I like to target those climbs that are naturally spanny for someone of my height. I laugh with him and appreciate that I don’t let those reaches get in the way of at least trying!

Twenty years prior to sending her first 5.14 on a 1992 climbing trip to the New River Gorge. Photo: Audrey's blog

DPM: Your drive toward progression is apparent in your climbing ticklist but also in your professional career. Talk a little about your post-college life in the work world. How did you start out in computer science? When did you start to work for Microsoft?

AS: In a nutshell, I copied my older brother’s high school curriculum before registering for my courses. He had computer science on his list so I registered for it, too.  Unexpectedly, I found something I enjoyed and was really good at. That class changed my life.

Choosing to go to University introduced some challenges because I didn’t have parental support for my decision. This meant that I had to rely on scholarships, grants, and generating my own income to pay for school. I was fortunate to have excelled in Computer Science in High School. This enabled me to jumpstart my Computer Science degree in University becoming a Teaching Assistant teaching Introduction to Computer Science in my first year. Because I held up to 3 part time jobs at a time and was taking a full-time course load, I was unable to put any extra time into my studies. At one point I took a full semester off to work full-time and get the extra finances I would need to graduate. I didn’t have time or money to get tutoring or take the extra time to study my weaknesses. Therefore, subjects like Physics, Signals and Systems and Circuits all had to be dropped. Without these subjects, I was forced to reconsider my degree from Computer Engineering to Computer Science.

As luck would have it, the Computer Science degree would serve me well. I had no trouble getting great internships at places like NASA and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Although I had a job lined up after graduation, I was still looking for something more. In particular, I wanted to start my life out West, not in Ohio. With this in mind, I researched viable companies in that region.

Despite not wanting to work for a large corporation, I ended up interviewing at Microsoft to take advantage of a free plane ticket to Seattle, WA. When Microsoft offered me a position, I graciously and a little arrogantly, turned them down. The recruiter suggested I take a temporary opportunity there through an external agency, just until I found my “real job.” Ha ha, the joke was on me. I joined a team that was a transplant from Ohio and joining that team was like finding a home. Everyone was welcoming and warm and I loved my job. One year later, I became a full-time employee of Microsoft Corporation.

DPM: When you started with the company what were you doing, and how has it changed over time?

AS: Microsoft is an amazing place to work; I can move around to work in different technologies with different teams in different roles and never lose a step with my salary, benefits and retirement packages. Further, Microsoft has development offices all around the world. I can travel almost anywhere and find a Microsoft office to touch down in and work from if needed. 

In 1999, I moved to Sweden to work for an acquired subsidiary.  This is where I learned how to work remotely.  I was building products in Sweden with part of the team residing in Seattle. Today, my development team spans China and Seattle.  I also work with companies located all over the world. I am fortunate to be in a team that has this line of work that can take advantage of my remote work aspirations.

Today, at Microsoft, I help make the world a better place by enabling big and small businesses to do cutting edge and high intensity processing of data fast! That data may cure me of cancer one day, or one of my family members, etc. It simply blows me away that I have a part in contributing to that result. With a lot of proving ground under my feet that my remote work situation can be successful , I am fortunate to be in a position to have two great careers!

Hard at work between burns on the project.

DPM: In the past, have you had an outlook of 'work first/climbing second'? Vice versa? Or are they equally important to you?

AS: Every day is a balancing act of which comes first, climbing or work; work or climbing. Sometimes I have to walk a fine line to fit in what I want to do, like squeezing in that extra pitch when I know I should be packing up and heading to work.

I’m very dedicated to both professions and will do what it takes to make sure I can get in the climbing I desire and still perform well at work. Sometimes work trumps climbing and I become sad or frustrated. But, sacrifice is part of how I learn to be smarter about making ends meet.

DPM: What spurred you to take a year off from work and travel to climbing destinations around the globe? When you returned, how was your transition back into the work world. Did your climbing suffer? Did your happiness suffer?

AS: I was envious of people who seemed to be able to travel and climb full time and I was bitten by the travel bug and wanted more exposure to all of that.

DPM: What effect did that have on your career?

AS: Leaving Microsoft was a mixed blessing. I was on a steep career trajectory when I left and leaving it all behind to head into the unknown was a little scary. Trying to define a job that I could do on the road was experimental and not very successful, so I eventually returned to Microsoft.

When I returned to Microsoft, I came back to a job that expected me to be the way I was before I left, but I was no longer the same person as when I left. I wanted more work/life balance and the opportunity to work away from the office. Therefore, adjusting my work to fit my new lifestyle goals was a challenge. Microsoft also rewards ambition, but I no longer wanted the fast track up the career ladder and was prepared for a more gradual progression, which resulted in interesting career discussions. I am very lucky to have this support from my current team because it is not something that is common in my profession as a fulltime company employee.

Screaming Target (5.13c). Photo: Luke Olsen

DPM: What effect did that trip have on your climbing? Any breakthroughs?

AS: Taking the time to focus on climbing taught me a lot. I met a lot of new and unique people, made friends all around the world, and explored a diverse range of climbing styles and locations. Overall, taking that time helped build up my confidence and skillset.

DPM: You actually did travel all over the world on that trip. Where did you start....where'd you go...where'd you finish? What were some highlights?

AS: Everywhere I went was a highlight: Smith Rocks, the Red River Gorge, Hueco Tanks, Las Vegas, El Salto, Australia, etc. Because I had a strict budget, I had to manage the destinations I could visit. First, I realized it was financially better to stay in places longer rather than being on the go all of the time.  Worried that the money would run out before the desired trip end, I opted for a major destination early on in the trip, which took me to Australia. Australia was super great and inspired me to continue climbing and traveling in different places. It was here that I learned how to trad climb on some of the finest, bullet rock I’ve touched since: Arapiles.

After the road trip, I’ve re-visited some destinations and explored new ones like Vietnam.  Vietnam was my first Asian travel experience. From what I saw of the country it is both dirty and beautiful with a lot of coastal real estate and an archipelago just offshore in the South China Sea. This exotic country has a lot of history and opportunity for climbing both on land and at Sea. It was here that I did a real first ascent of a climb, thanks to the developer’s gracious offer. Everything from the FA to the deep water soloing attempts was an adventure; one I would gladly revisit some day.

Guntower (5.12c) Mt. Charleston, Nevada. Photo: Luke Olsen

DPM: You've worked it out so that you have quite a bit of freedom in your life. You spend your fall season at the Red River Gorge. How do you pull that off?

AS: Being able to work remotely means I can be almost anywhere in the world working. However, I have some constraints like working and attending meetings on Pacific time even if I’m on the East coast or half way around the world. My team shouldn’t notice the difference in my productivity and my travels shouldn’t impact my interactions with my colleagues. It is very important that I adhere to that or I could quickly jeopardize the foundation I have built.

DPM: Tell me about your interest in the rural communities surrounding the Red River Gorge. How did that come about?

AS: I had been searching for an alternate career from Microsoft and had been training to be a personal trainer focusing on elite training and nutrition. Before leaving Microsoft, I wanted to be sure I could take advantage of all of the resources accessible to me like discounted software, matching donations and hardware.

Over the last few years I had been offering nutrition and fitness consultations at the local Recreational Center. Andy Owens, who runs the Rec Center was doing tutoring for troubled youth there as well. I’d seen the ‘home schooling’ happening and I was impressed that the community would take interest in these kids and try to help them not get behind. Their computers and software were out of date and with my Microsoft connection, I had the ability to change that.

Doing this upgrade ignited my curiosity for how I could help the town further. I went out to the vocational school and scoped out computer centers in town. The vocational school had much better equipment than the Rec Center, but when I asked what the kids were learning, I was told they were being taught to be Executive Administrators. I asked why they weren’t being taught something like web site development, and they said it was a skill their teachers didn’t have and therefore could not be taught. All of this was really intriguing to learn. The principal and the computer teacher took time out of their day on my random visit to talk with me about their programs, offerings, potential, etc. They encouraged me to return with a career talk for the Seniors, which I did several days later.

For the career talk, there were two things I heard that were important to this town that I should try to address: 1) create a vision of opportunity after High School and 2) find a way to demonstrate how skills developed in college could be applied back in their home town. The latter point was critical since the largest fear expressed by the community and emphasized in my discussions with the faculty was that educating their students meant the kids would all leave home and never come back.

DPM: What were some of your immediate goals for helping the kids around there?

AS: In actuality, I thought the career talk and maybe some mentoring was all I could offer the school, but as it turned out, Microsoft has a program that brings Computer Science to High Schools by providing an Industry Professional to teach the course. The program is called the TEALS program (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools). Always wanting to help, I had my eye open for opportunity but I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, it just happened that this came across my desk at the same time I was doing the career talk for the Vocational School.

Not long after the career talk, I met William Owens, Chairman of the Board of Education and Andy Owen’s dad. Part of his introduction included the words “I hear you have an interest in our kids.” With that connection, I was able to introduce him to the Microsoft TEALS program manager, Kevin Wang.

Kevin had been looking for a pilot distance learning opportunity when I brought Lee County High School to him. Kevin explored the opportunity while William, together with other School representatives, proved they qualified for the program. Lee County High School won the bid for the pilot program through its own efforts and with the criteria approval from Kevin. Conveniently for my climbing goals, I volunteered to be the Teaching Assistant on-site in Beattyville, Ky to help keep the program going and troubleshoot logistics. I could not, however, be involved in the nomination or logistics leading up the course kick-off because I was having shoulder surgery and would be engulfed with rehab for most of that time.

(Learn more about the Teals program on Audrey's blog or get a broader overview of the program from this recent article in the NY Times.)

Pizza man Miguel Ventura welcomes the Teals team to Kentucky. Photo: Audrey's blog

DPM: So you started this TEALS project last fall right after you sent your then hardest route, Porn Star (5.13d) at Little Si. How did your shoulder injury play into all this? When you sent Porn Star were you already injured?

AS: 2011 would turn out to be one of my most challenging years of my life. Every aspect of it was under fire. I started off strong, climbing stronger than I ever had. I was excited for the possibility to do my first 5.14, but life got in the way. By Spring, I had several minor injuries going into Bouldering Nationals and a major shoulder injury going into my first Route competition and Route Nationals.  Still, I managed to place well enough in the Route Nationals that I was invited to participate in the Lead World Cup in Boulder, Co. The Route Nationals was my first Lead competition, ever, and because of that, and the ensuing World Cup invitation, I was not about to let a shoulder injury prevent me from having my one chance to compete at that level.

At first I tried everything to help take care of and heal my shoulder, except surgery, but nothing seemed to work. I took 6 weeks off from climbing, did regular physical therapy and explored alternative treatments. Still, the pain was intolerable at times and I found myself regularly sleep deprived. Tired and irritated, everything around me began to suffer. Climbing became less reliable and success so inconsistent that my confidence in my ability became impacted. Likewise, the constant pain and discomfort prevented me from being productive with work and being away from the office created larger gaps in perceived output. The universe seemed to be trying my patience and snow balling me into in unanticipated life track.

With my sights set on the WC in Boulder, Co, I did everything I could to try to stay strong and maintain some fitness going into the event. I was taking advantage of some good weather in Seattle and climbing at the local sport crag up the street: Little Si. Little Si is the tiny peak below the “Twin Peaks” TV show’s larger mountain known as Mount Si.  Little Si is a really good fitness cliff and I had my sights set on the perfect fitness route: Porn Star. I used this route to help me get strong and fit for the WC and was psyched that I could do it despite the setbacks with the shoulder.

DPM: After Porn Star, did you go to the Red again? You mentioned being 'under the knife' by November. What were your expectations from the surgery? How did your inability to climb affect you?

AS:  Shoulder injuries are a common ailment of climbers and although I had a number of opinions (professional and non-professional) on what I should do about it, I had to make the difficult decision with no concrete evidence suggesting surgery was the right course of action. I weighed my options, considered the risks, and soon it became clear to me that surgery was most likely my best option. I was not sure what to expect from surgery but I hoped for a full recovery with a return to my full fitness.

Walking away from my one international Route World Cup experience was tough. It was the last piece in this competition journey that I was seeking and I was throwing it all away to chance a better performance down the road. Taking a break from climbing was good but there was a lot of trepidation about losing the fitness I had worked hard to gain to that point and uncertainty for how quickly I could get it back once lost.

DPM: How did you go from surgery and being incapacitated to sending your hardest route in just 8 months? What was the recovery and training like?

AS: Before surgery, I made sure I had a really good medical and rehabilitation team lined up. These people made all the difference in my before, during, and after surgery care. My recommendation to others facing similar challenges is to have patience, listen to your body and be smart about nursing yourself back to health.

A little bit of 5.13 leads to  a brief shake before the crux. Audrey on Dr. Evil (5.14a) at Little Si, Washington. Photo: Bryan Moncada

DPM: Explain the process of sending Dr. Evil? How'd it feel at first? How'd you break it down? What was it like on the send go?

AS:  Dr. Evil is roughly a 25m long climb that shares the start of the 5.13b classic, Chronic. At the third bolt, instead of heading straight up, as for Chronic, you trend right with spanny moves between thin holds with feet that seem to be nonexistent or facing the wrong way. Climb through this thin crimpy section for 3 bolts and launch up into a small roof. Make some powerful moves to pull the roof and climb through a small boulder problem for two bolts then head into the meat of the route.

While I found the whole route pretty cryptic, the crux simply had me stumped. I couldn’t figure out how to negotiate the span between holds, let alone see how I could get my feet in a position to help me. Throughout the route, the start into the crux took me the longest to piece together, even despite having gaston undercling beta from Jonathan Siegrist.  With some creativity, I discovered I could ‘mantel’ myself up maximizing use of the crimp for my right hand. It was the most interesting set of powerful moves I’d ever had to pull on a route and when this last piece came together, I was bubbling over with excitement.  The route was possible and that’s all I cared about until the send. After the crux, there are some stacked boulder problems, but in all, it’s probably not more than mid-5.12 to the chains.

The day I sent the route, I knew it was going down. I had fallen one move from being home-free just 2 days prior. But, on this day, I was not feeling well and had gone home from work early to rest. I wasn’t even sure I was going to go out and try the route, but decided it beat sitting home and figured the hike might just help me feel better. At the wall, my first go on the route was terrible. My timing was off, my footwork was sloppy, my headspace was rattled and I was missing my tunes that often help me focus. At this point, I was worried my confidence in sending was being shaken and suggested I just give it up for the day and try again next time. My climbing partner, Chelsea, didn’t try to talk me out of it and began packing up, harness off and everything, as I continued to sit under the route with my climbing shoes in my hands. 

In the crux of Dr. Evil (5.14a). Photo: Bryan Moncada

After some moments, I turned to Chelsea and told her that I always do this to myself: that I don’t give myself a chance; that I sabotage myself before I’ve even tried. I told her, the send simply does not matter and that I should at least climb the route one more time. Thankfully she understood and suited up for the belay. I climbed the route the best I’d ever climbed it, without hesitation, and I tried hard in the gaston moves and before I knew it, I’d found myself at my high point. I intentionally paused a split second to make sure I’d make the move I’d fallen on two days prior and before I know it, I’m clipping the chains. I’d done it! I sent my first 5.14.

With this under my belt and my confidence for the crux moves high, I set about taking down the extension, which went down only 3 weeks later and goes at a grade of 5.14b. The extension was more straight forward than Dr. Evil was when I first approached it, though overall I found it more challenging, falling at the chains once before sending it 2 days later.

(Audrey's personal account of sending Dr. Evil can be read on her blog here.)

Resting up before the easier finish of Dr. Evil (5.14a). Photo: Bryan Moncada

DPM: Will you be at the Red again this year? What are your climbing goals there?

AS:  Yes, I plan to be at the Red River Gorge again this year, working with the High School in Beattyville. I don’t know how much time I will have for climbing though as you can imagine, I’ll be trying to squeeze some in every free moment I have. My climbing goals include cleaning up old projects and having fun while I am out there. The Red is one of my favorite climbing destinations and I look forward to visiting each year.

DPM: What are your goals for the Teals program in Beattyville?

AS:  I hope the program continues into the spring and into next year and I hope they get AP Computer Science added to the curriculum.  I will do what I can to support the program, but my role is pretty complete. It’s really up to the school and Microsoft to keep the success going. Maybe I’ll try to kick start a program in another great climbing destination. 

DPM: Where would you like to be in 10 years with your career and climbing?

AS: I’d like to train athletes. I want to be a personal trainer or somehow merge my tech skills with that profession. I absolutely love doing clinics and have enjoyed training climbers. I find this work super rewarding -- helping others explore their potential. Athleticism is all about an individual and while it takes a supportive community to assist an athlete with being successful, it is the athlete’s dedication, drive, determination and demeanor that ultimately decide their fate. These characteristics speak to my core values and working with like-minded individuals inspires me to continue to seek my own potential, which is what I think I’ll be doing with climbing, even 10 years from now.

DPM: Audrey, your drive is infectious and I hope that our readers find motivation toward success on their personal paths, whatever they may be. Any final words?

AS: I just remember looking up to Lynn Hill and Katie Brown and some local legends and thinking someday, if I could achieve a fraction of what they have done, it would be something considerable for myself. Then, to have Lynn belaying me at the World Cup in Boulder, Co last year, I couldn’t think of a higher reward for all of my hard work. At this rate, I can’t imagine falling out of love with climbing anytime soon. 

Key ingredients for success: laser-point focus, determination, fitness, and...color coordination? Audrey Sniezek has what it takes on Guntower (5.12c), Mt. Charleston, Nevada. Photo: Luke Olsen

Audrey is sponsored by: Metolius, Sterling Rope, La Sportiva, Blurr, and Petzl. You can follow her on her Facebook athlete page and on her blog