Reader Athlete: Isa Oehry

Climbing High

Name: Isa Oehry Age: 60 Lives in: Greensboro Bend Family: Daughter, Nina Primary sports: Rock and ice climbing, skiing Occupation: a published author and artist

As a child growing up in the Alps, Isabella, “Isa” Oehry had a picture on her wall of Wyoming’s Grand Teton, a mountain that years later she would climb. Oehry came to the States and went to college in Johnson, Vt.  After studying business and traveling extensively, she settled back in northern Vermont. She earned a degree in management information systems and then went on to get a degree in psychology. She’s the author of two books, an artist and keeper of Old Clary Farm in Greensboro.

What was your first sport?

I was born in Liechtenstein so I grew up in the mountains but Liechtenstein is only 61 square miles with not that many people so it took me until I was in my early 20s to find people to rock climb with. When I was younger, I was a telemark ski racer and placed second and third at the World Championships in Austria in 1989, I didn’t discover ice climbing until I moved to Vermont, 27 years ago.

What brought you to Vermont?

I came to the United States for the first time when I was just turning 20. Liechtenstein is very small and very patriarchal. Women didn’t get the vote until 1984 and advanced schooling for women wasn’t encouraged when I was young. I was a bit of a rebel so I took a backpack and came here to explore. I went to school at Johnson State College and I always wanted to come back to Vermont. I like the greenness of the state and Vermonters are connected to the values I really love.

How did you end up at the Old Clary Farm in Greensboro Bend?

From 1992 to 2003, I lived in a cabin in the woods in Pomfret. I learned how to use a wood stove and shovel roofs and deal with frozen pipes. Later we moved to Sharon but after 25 years, I got laid off from my corporate job making marine navigation safety lights. I decided this gave me a chance to explore something different and I had always dreamed of moving to a farm in the Northeast Kingdom. My plan is to create a space that I can share and I’m putting on events that benefit people, usually for free.

What got you into ice climbing 

I discovered that the winters here in Vermont are very varied and a good year can turn into a bad year in the course of two days. I was experiencing a bit of frustration since this was different from what I had experienced in the Alps. A friend invited me to go ice climbing at Holt’s near the Dartmouth Skiway.  I thought it would be cold and uncomfortable but I fell in love with it right away. If skiing conditions are bad, climbing conditions are good and vice versa, so I really enjoy the winters here.

What are the pros and cons of rock versus ice?

If you’re burly and strong you can go pretty far on ice but rock requires more finesse and technique. I experienced the height of my rock climbing career in my late 20s, early 30s. Sport climbers were just breaking into the 5.14a grade, which was an unimaginable feat at the time. I was pushing 5.12 then. Now, I look more for pleasure climbing rather than pushing a grade. On ice I am more hesitant. If conditions are good, I can lead WI4. I have climbed WI5 many times, but am content to follow rather than lead at that grade.

Tell us about a memorable climb.

My climb up the Grand Teton was really memorable. It’s less of a technical rock climb than an achievement of getting to the top of a difficult peak. It had been a childhood dream. I saw a picture of the mountain when I was a child and it struck me as so beautiful—and this was with me living in the middle of the Alps! I cut out the picture and pasted it to my bedroom wall. I never thought I’d be on top of that mountain. It took three tries to get there. The magnet of this mountain was so strong that it pushed me up and up and it was the most incredible feeling to stand on top of it.

Are there climbs you’d  still like to do?

There aren’t enough days to do all of them. When I started climbing it was more about technical climbing rather than reaching a peak. Most climbs were up rock faces but now I want to climb the old traditional routes that may be easier, but get you to the top. I’ve never been up the Eiger, Matterhorn or Mont Blanc. I had a shoulder injury which limited me in terms of technical climbing. My shoulder is great now but my focus has shifted. My next goal is two mountains in the Wind River area—Wolf’s Head and Pingora in Wyoming.

How is the Vermont climbing scene?

There are some really good people here. The mountains aren’t as big and humidity causes lichen and slippery days but there are some good spots like Smuggs’ and Deer Leap, which is off of Route 4. Up here in the Northeast Kingdom, there’s good rock climbing on Mt. Hor and Mt. Wheeler and ice climbing at Mt. Pisgah. The Northeast Kingdom is a haven for ice climbing, with ice falls towering over Lake Willoughby. There are small ice and rock climbing problems hidden all over the Kingdom but mostly they are a secret and are humorously called “Wish I Could Tell You.”

What do you love about climbing?

One way to describe it is yoga on a vertical wall. You go from spot A to spot B and it might only be a few inches or a foot or two but it’s a problem you’re trying to solve. It takes all your focus. It’s the most relaxing and the most exciting thing at the same time: relaxing because you forget everything else and exciting because you’re heading towards a goal. The moves are so intricate. It makes you stretched out and flexible in a way that you don’t get when you’re flat on the ground. The focus is incredible and it’s a little like life. When you think you’re stuck, you move an inch or two and the entire picture changes. One thing shifts and everything changes.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get into climbing?

People often think climbing is very dangerous. It definitely is and you need to be there 100 percent.  But if you take all the safety measures, it can be enjoyable and really healthy. In Europe they are using climbing walls for back pain. There are so many different motions with big and little muscles that it’s a very healthy sport. I threw my back out a few years ago and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to climb again but I got back into it and it really helped me feel better.

Tell us about your book, “Under the Blue Moon.”

That started really spontaneously while I was at Green River Reservoir on August 31, 2012, which was a full moon, a blue moon and a super moon and my birthday. I was there by myself and I paddled underneath this incredible moon and it triggered the book which is a journey through the following year. Things began to happen really quickly and I started writing things down. It’s non-fiction and very personal. I printed it because I hoped my daughter might read it, but it seems to touch other people. I’m currently working on another book titled “Healing Lyme Disease Beyond Antibiotics” which will give people with chronic Lyme disease, which I have suffered from, some alternatives to conventional treatment.

You’re also an artist, aren’t you?

I call my work primitive folk art. I paint on windows and most of the subject matter has to do with nature but with a little bit of humor. To my surprise I’m about to sell my 100th piece. The pieces are light and they’re not too expensive. I like to be able to bring joy into someone’s day. 

Featured Photo Caption: Oehry, atop the Grand Teton in 2016. Photo courtesy Isa Oehry

Phyl Newbeck

Phyl Newbeck lives in Jericho with her partner Bryan and two cats. She is a skier, skater, cyclist, kayaker, and lover of virtually any sport which does not involve motors. She is the author of “Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.”

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