Uphill Athlete is delighted to introduce Elite Coach Carolyn Parker. A lifelong endurance athlete and accomplished climber, Carolyn owns and runs Ripple Effect Training Center in Carbondale, Colorado, where she shares her expertise in strength training and muscular conditioning with hundreds of mountain athletes. Her goal is to be a catalyst for positive change—from the individual outward.
By Elite Coach Carolyn Parker
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi. Pair Gandhi’s insight with “The mind is primary,” a phrase my friend Mark Twight coined years ago at Gym Jones, and you get the essence of my driving philosophy: wherever you’re coming from to wherever you want to go, there has to be a level of mental focus and commitment to make the change. Train the mind, cultivate that desire, and the body will follow.
I see this indomitable will in my athletes every single day, and I’ve long felt it within myself. It is not just about being faster or stronger, it is about being a more conscious human being.
My family moved from the beaches of Southern California to the mountains of New Mexico when I was five years old. They say location is everything, right? This was the catalyst for my love of mountain adventure. In Los Alamos, which I would call home for 12 more years, I had limitless wilderness beckoning to me right out my back door. So off I went—exploring, running, biking, scrambling, pestering my parents to let me learn to alpine ski. I wouldn’t have put it this way at age 10, because I did not yet understand, but I was always looking for something to seed the innate risk-taker in me.
When it was time for me to go to college in 1986, I ended up at the University of New Mexico, which offered in-state tuition and a great mechanical engineering program. Once away from home I found a group of friends who raced bikes. Two years of road bike racing later, I was on a team and progressing toward racing as a Cat 2, but it wasn’t doing it for me, and neither was mechanical engineering. I transitioned into mountain bike racing, attracted to the wilderness and the higher risk of the sport. My degree focus also changed. I began taking the classes I wanted to: genetics, anatomy and physiology, biology and chemistry, anything to do with human performance.
And then it happened: At age 20 I was exposed to the world of climbing in a college course. There it was, the thing that asked enough of me mentally and physically to satisfy the risk-taker, the scholar, and the athlete in me. I set my bike aside and devoted all my time to climbing.
A semester before graduation from college I had to ask myself what I wanted, and it wasn’t grad school. I had a passion for sport performance, the outdoors, and especially climbing. I loved to teach and I loved the science of fitness. (There’s a genetic predisposition there: my mom was a teacher, my father, a physicist.) Having been coached as a bike racer, with a self-started education in athletic performance, I launched on my own journey to become an outdoor professional.
First, using my stronger skill set, I started up a business teaching women’s mountain biking classes. But by then I was a climber, less of a cyclist, so I also set forth on the path of becoming a mountain guide.
My obsession was climbing—traditional climbing, long days in the mountains, alpine climbing, ice climbing. It fed my soul, as did learning my craft as a guide through my mentors and the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA). I soaked up all the experience and knowledge I could, and it wasn’t long before I moved away from teaching cycling and started guiding full-time.
As I progressed as a climber and guide, I wanted to perform better on the hard trad, mixed, and high-altitude climbs I was drawn to. I befriended Mark Twight and Steve House around the same time in the mid-1990s, when Steve and I were both guiding for the American Alpine Institute in Washington. There weren’t a lot of female guides back then (there still aren’t), nor were there a lot of women in the world of ice and trad climbing. There also weren’t many of us focused on “training” specifically for sport performance, so I had to figure out how to train myself. To that end, I was fortunate to have a lot of really awesome mentors and close friends: Mark Twight, with his obsessive nature and knowledge of training; Larry Horton, my climbing partner and a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, who fixed my broken parts countless times and imparted the wisdom of balance; Timy Fairfield and Brandi Proffitt, two exceptionally driven friends who boulder, sport climb, and coach climbers; my chiropractor Michael Pendleton; my dear guide friend Angela Hawse; Davito Hammack, who taught me how to big wall climb; the list goes on.
Every ounce of knowledge I have has come from practice, patience, and this exceptional community, which now folds in Scott Johnston, the guru of all that is endurance training.
From college through my guiding days, I was always pushing. Hard high-altitude rock pitches; guiding from South America to the Alps, then Nepal; living on the road—it all took its toll, and I began manifesting imbalance injuries. No major injuries, but injuries I had to fix, which is how I found many of my mentors. Sustaining my body launched me down a path of deeper understanding beyond just the science of training, periodization, loads, and training cycles. I learned about balance, health, and wellness—how to support the body to keep doing these intensive sports. I absorbed everything I could on structural alignment, mobility, massage, yoga, nutrition, Ayurvedic science, and Eastern medicine.
I trained, traveled, learned, read, experimented, fixed my sport-driven imbalances. I followed my passion for teaching, guiding, training, pushing, and helping others. That was my life.
Somehow I knew I didn’t want guiding to be my life forever. It’s hard on the body, and as much fun as guiding and traveling internationally can be, I didn’t want to be doing that when I was 50+.
My exit strategy involved becoming my own boss: I started a New Mexico–based guide service; a women’s ice and rock climbing program called Climb Like a Girl; and a mountain athlete training center, AthenaFit Training, where I conducted one-on-one and small-group strength conditioning sessions for men and women. I juggled these businesses from my mid-30s into my early 40s. The training business in particular exploded, and between it and Climb Like a Girl, I averaged a thousand classes and clinics a year.
The training business drew on my years of competitive athletics in multiple sports, guiding and world travel, training and pursuing climbing as a passion, and the knowledge I’d gained from coaches, mentors, medical practitioners, high-end athletes, travel, and the many books I’d carried onto glaciers. I rolled it all into a training machine; it was a natural progression.
When I relocated to Carbondale about four years ago, I rebranded my mountain athlete training business to Ripple Effect Training. I have always wanted to be that drop of water that is the catalyst for positive self-change in people, whether it’s gaining confidence and courage or strength and capability—to be that drop of water and see it explode into somebody’s essence. That is the source of my passion for what I do. Wherever you’re coming from to wherever you want to go, there has to be a level of commitment to make the change. A coach has your back to help that happen; a coach can be that drop of water.
Around 160 athletes—men and women; kids from the age of nine to adults in their 70s; runners, climbers, cyclists, skiers—come through the gym each week in Carbondale. I get hits of joy from these folks every day. The best thing about being a coach is seeing the people you help walk in super stoked, beaming about whatever it is they just accomplished.
When Steve reached out about coaching for Uphill Athlete, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I’ve always led from the front, advancing the world of women’s climbing, starting my own businesses, mentoring athletes and coaches at my gym in Carbondale. I am a lifelong learner and a leader, and leaders need inspiration as well. I couldn’t have asked for a better partnership to continue my education and share my expertise than to work with Scott and Steve. As a coach, I see my most significant contribution to Uphill Athlete being my specialized fitness knowledge of strength and muscular capacity, especially for women.
I start from a place of love with the athletes I train: my promise is that I will be there for you. I will give you the best I can on any given day. I can’t do the work for you, but I will encourage you, I will teach you, and I will pick you up emotionally when you’re feeling down. I’ll bring things into perspective, bring you back from an injury—you name it. I will stop the world if I have to. Most of the time that is what you need from a coach: knowing that person has your back. You can have all the science in the world and not be a good coach; you need a lot of heart.
Carolyn’s proudest accomplishments (plucked from her many accomplishments):
- Redpointing my first high-altitude 5.12 trad route (Autumn Ivy, Sandia Mountain Wilderness, New Mexico)
- Making the first ascent of The Promise Land (VI 5.12c) in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness at 10,000 feet—my first grade VI, FA
- Being a climber and the Trip Sponsorship Coordinator for the American Makalu Expedition in 2001—my first 8,000-meter peak expedition
- Sending Sisters of Mercy (M8) at Ouray Ice Park—my first M8
- Climbing Iron Hawk (VI 5.9, A4+) on El Capitan in Yosemite—my first El Cap route
- Coming in first in women at the 1994 Sandia Crossing Marathon—my first mountain marathon
- Catching my first wave when I learned to surf at age 40