WOMEN WHO CLIMB – THEIR SEARCH FOR BALANCE
EL CAPITAN IS A MAMMOTH WALL OF ROCK that rises abruptly from the floor of Yosemite Valley. Snaking 2,400 feet up its southeast face is a climbing route of extreme technical severity called Zenyatta Mendata. As if to warn all daredevil climbers of its dubious nature, the route is named after a Police album that features songs such as Bombs Away and Driven to Tears.
A trio of veteran Yosemite climbers first tried the route in September 1981. The three men were forced to retreat and return a second time to finish it. Then in May 1983, Seattle native Catherine Freer and Todd Bibler of Tacoma set out to climb Zenyatta Mendata in one continuous ascent.
Each of 15 pitches, or rope lengths, on the route gains an average of 160 vertical feet, and most of the climb is dominated by a series of forbidding overhangs called the Lightning Bolt Roofs. During the nine days they were roped together on the sheer rock face, Freer and Bibler sometimes managed to struggle up only one pitch a day. Because Zenyatta Mendata is so steep and devoid of usable climbing holds, 10 of its pitches are rated “A4,” a chilling notation that means the wall must be climbed by marginal direct-aid placements. With no hyperbole intended, the hardware for these placements includes items called “RURPs” – Realized Ultimate Reality Pitons. They are the size and shape of single-edged razor blades.
By definition, an A4 placement holds only a climber’s body weight, providing he or she doesn’t lurch around too much while dangling from it. Hardware used in this kind of climbing may be a piton pounded a half-inch into a hairline crack or a tiny metal hook placed on a rock nubbin. So Freer was painfully aware that if she ventured too far above her last protective piece of hardware, and then suffered even a short fall, that piece might fail. And if it did, a trail of other pins, chocks and hooks placed below would ‘zipper” out as her body plunged earthward.
For more than a week Freer and Bibler traded leads on the big wall. When it was Freer’s turn to lead a pitch, she would fix a piece of protection, then attach a sling and gingerly step into it to raise herself to a spot where a higher piece could be wedded tenuously to the wall. This nerve-flaying process went on day after day. The reward for a hard day’s work was the chance to sleep each night in a hammock-tent that hung from the wall and swayed in the cold winds that strafed the face.
For the first seven days, the Lightning Bolt Roofs shielded them from the brunt of dispiriting rain and snowfall. But when they clambered over those roofs to the fully exposed upper wall, they were pelted continuously for the last two days by icy meltwater that cascaded from the rock above.
“One day I’d be leading this A5 pitch and every other move I’d be saying, ‘Ooooh, I don’t know if I can do this; I’m gonna die,’” Freer recounts. “Todd would just be sitting there in the tent belaying me and whistling. ‘You’ll do great,’ he’d say. Then the next day, I’d be in the tent whistling and Todd would be moaning, ‘Oh man, I’m gonna die.’ Both of us were absolutely terrified for days on end. We might’ve gone down except we couldn’t get down because of the overhangs.”
Whimpering and grunting, Freer and Bibler at last earned the first continuous ascent of Zenyatta Mendata. It was the hardest aid-route on a big wall ever climbed by an American woman.
IN THE FREE-CLIMBING REALM, FREER, 35, is a consistent leader on 5.11s, a rating for extremely “thin” and strenuous routes. She also has to her credit two new ascents in the Himalayas: the North Face of 21,130-foot Cholatse and the East Ridge of 2o,o9o-foot Lobuje, both in Nepal. Freer is widely respected as the grande dame of women alpinists and rock climbers in the Pacific Northwest. Although since 1981 she has spent more time in Boulder, Colorado, her mother and friends remain in the Seattle area and to her its still home.
John Roskelley of Spokane, a veteran of 17 expeditions and nine summits in the Himalayans, including Cholatse’s first ascent in 1982 says Freer’s Cholatse conquest last November is a milestone for American women. “That kind of thing is really leading Americans to the top in alpine mountaineering,” he says. “It was an excellent climb on a very difficult peak. In the United States, Catherine Freer is it in women’s technical Himalayan climbing.’!
More important than Freer’s achievements is the fact she is both role model and salient symbol for a steadily growing community of Washington state women who are choosing the mountains as a way of life. These rock-hard women of the North Cascades are lending fresh sensibilities to a once male dominated sport, while climbing routes of formidable difficulty. Interviews with a score of Washington’s top men and women climbers prove that the state is host to women who can lead precipitous rock or ice routes with the best climbers anywhere in North America.
CARLA FIREY AND MIMI STONE OF SEATLE and Katie Kemble of Leavenworth are climbing at high standards of strength and style. Julie Brugger, 34, of North Seattle, is a freelance computer programmer and a 16-year veteran of climbing in the North Cascades, the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons and Yosemite. Brugger is one of the two women rock climbers in Washington whom Freer says she most admires. Firey is the other.
Climbing isn’t everything in life to athletes like Brugger, but the spiritual freedom that it represents is their personal grail. “Climbing is a real life,” she explains. “You have only two decisions to make every day: what route
do I take and what do I eat for dinner? I would live that way all the time if I could. When I have to stay in the city to make money, that’s a vacation – but an unpleasant one. My real life is being a climbing bum.”
Brugger has been leading extremely strenuous routes, up to 5.10, since 1972, when 5.10 was the high standard for most top-flight climbers in America. She also has led 5.11s in Yosemite and across the West since the late 1970’s.
Another western Washington woman whose exploits are widely admired is Shari Kearney, who formerly was married to alpinist and guide Alan Kearney of Bellingham. She was chosen for the 1980 all-women’s expedition to Dhaulagiri in Nepal, and climbed to 23,000 feet on that 26,795-foot mountain before an avalanche swept one woman into a crevasse and buried her. After the tragedy, the team lost heart and descended. But in 1982, Kearney returned to the Himalayas to gain the 22,500-foot summit of Ama Dablam in Nepal via the South Ridge. Kearney also reached 26,000 feet on the West Ridge of Mount Everest in an expedition two years ago.
Bellingham is home to another outstanding alpinist, Kathy Cosley, who is among the most experienced female mountaineering guides in the nation. Cosley, 27, has scaled a host of peaks in the 18,000- to 20,000-foot range, including Peru’s spectacular ice mountain Huascaran, more than 22,000 feet high. Her boss at the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, Dunham Gooding, keeps Cosley on a brisk schedule each year: she guides in Bolivia and Peru from May to July; in the Cascades during August and September; and in Nepal during November and December.
Down in Seattle, Kathy Phibbs, 28, is a professional chimney sweep, wilderness guide and one of Washington’s boldest woman mountaineers. She started climbing 10 years ago. A blunt, charismatic lesbian-feminist, Phibbs is forming an alpine guide service through Woodswomen, a Minneapolis-based group through which she hopes to lead several all-women’s expeditions a year in the United States, Europe or South America.
Phibbs stands 5-foot-4; she has big powerfully muscled hands that often are etched with cracking scabs from the usual abrasions that accompany full-tilt rock climbing. She wears her red hair short and spikey. Her intelligent eyes are framed by freckles and a healthy mountain sunburn.
“My major goal is to be an old goat,” Phibbs confides. “I’d like to be like Fred Beckey [the enigmatic Cascade pioneer and guidebook author], charting new climbs in remote areas.” She already has climbed classic steep ice routes such as Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge and its seldom-scaled Ptarmigan Ridge. When she was 20, Phibbs climbed Mexico’s imposing volcano, Pico de Orizaba, at 18,850 feet the third highest summit in North America.
In the summer of 1981, Phibbs led three men and another woman to climb five Peruvian peaks with summits between 16,000 and 20,000 feet in a range called the Cordillera Vilcabamba. Her team also reached the summit physic Huayna Potosi in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real. As she stood atop that 19,996-foot summit, “This much of me was over 20,000 feet,” she says, pointing to her nose.
“I’m really proud of that trip,” she adds. “It puts you on your best behaviour when you’re a leader. It’s just that the next time I do it I wanna climb with all women. Ever read Games Climbers Play? Well, my game is climbing with women.”
One key reason why is that on past trips with men she often felt there were facets of her female psyche she had to suppress in order to flow with “the guys”. Phibbs speaks for a small but fervent group of feminist climbers who say they’re fed up with men defining the standards and new directions of the sport they love.
“For men in alpine climbing there aren’t many new routes left, and lots of men want to make a name,” says Phibbs. “So their trend is toward more and more death routes and ‘How fast can we go up?’ That’s the bastion of the 18- to 25-year-old male. It’s not inspiring to me.”
What is inspiring to her is a burgeoning organization she co-founded with two other women in 1983, Women Climbers Northwest. This Seattle-based group aims to develop women’s leadership skills, safety instincts, physical fitness and environmental sensitivity. Women Climbers Northwest has about 80 actively climbing members whose city jobs run the gamut from jackhammer operator to deputy prosecutor. They hold periodic climbing meets and publish a droll, irreverent newsletter. Some women in the group kid each other about their distorted image among men climbers; and thus originated their facetious nickname, “The Crag Hags.”
“Everybody thinks we’re all lesbians,” says Phibbs. “That’s the lavender herring that’s thrown at women’s groups all the time.” About a fifth of the membership is lesbian she says.
WHILE PHIBBS CONCEDES THAT SHE views climbing with women as a political statement, and that her own politics are “about as radical as they get,” many women climbers who are neither lesbians nor separatists share her concerns about the way women often duck leadership duties when climbing with men. These women agree that, for now, most men climbers have a keener edge of self- confidence than their women counterparts do. That, plus the fact that most women climbers first learned the sport from a male teacher, has led many women to feel it’s natural to relinquish leadership to a male climbing partner. The feminists say when women climb solely with other women, they’re more likely to reinforce each other’s growth at the “sharp” end of the rope — where the leading is done.
“If I’m out with a guy, it’s much easier to back off,” Phibbs says. “But if I’m out with a woman, I really have to be there. Nobody’s gonna bail me out.”
Another woman for whom vertical independence is vital is Gwen Hall-Hargis, 27, of Seattle, a window cleaner, part-time counsellor and board member of Women Climbers Northwest. Married to Washington rock climber and alpine guide Tom Hargis, she regularly leads 5.8 rock routes. But Hall-Hargis says her ability didn’t come from being coddled.
“Being married to a hotshot means I’ve really had to stick to my guns so I can better my skills,” she says. “Women Climbers Northwest is not a bunch of separatists; we just don’t need to be protected anymore.”
Amen to that, says Cy Phillips of Seattle, a 25-year-old rock climber who runs a jackhammer and digs ditches for the city water department. “I’m climbing because I want to take care of myself.”
Phillips started less than two years ago, and is already leading 5.8 rock climbs. She changed her birth name of Cindy to an androgynous monosyllable in early 1984 because, she says. “Cindy was too sickly sweet” She’s intrigued by the free, swaggering spirit of those male rock climbers who hurl themselves headlong at nasty routes. But she hates t it when rock jocks “sandbag” women they’re teaching – that is, deliberately underrate a route just to get women in dangerously over their heads and watch them struggle.
“That’s a bushwhack,” Phillips growls. “Pure ego. They play games so you’ll think, ‘Hey, this guy climbs really hard.’”
Alleged male ego-stokers and bushwhackers notwithstanding, most women who climb – regardless of their partner’s sex – do so mainly for the fun of it. These women say they do not intend a political statement by any climb.
One top woman rock climber who has wearied of women trumpeting feminist issues while climbing is Katie Kemble. Kemble, 30, is a climbing instructor for Leavenworth Alpine Guides, which she co-owns. She tells of a day in 1978 when she lived in Portland. A greenhorn woman climber, who was an ardent feminist, invited Kemble on a rock climb, in the hope of cadging a lesson or two. Kemble said she already was booked for the weekend – with a man, thank you. The greenhorn came undone. “She said I was insulting all women. Here she never had led anything in her life and she was expecting me to teach her how to climb, all because I’m supposed to support womankind.”
Kemble casts an equally dim eye on male climbers who foster a fossilized notion of “the fairer sex.” Back in 1979, when she was teaching rock climbing in Oregon, Kemble gathered about 18 students at Horse Thief Butte on the Columbia River. The class consisted of varsity jocks, including a dozen football players from Portland State University. On the first day, Kemble arrived in a “little blue dress with a sash” and began taking attendance. “The guys just figured I was the secretary or something,” she remembers. So when she launched into the precourse instructions, grumbling arose from the gridiron contingent – remarks about “getting our money’s worth.” She ignored them, but the next day several jocks skipped class and those who remained persisted in their cynical asides. Finally, a steaming Kemble charged up a hard rock route on their practice boulder, without the benefit of belay, and hit the top in a flash. The young men stood there gaping. “They were very cordial for the rest of the day,” she says.
WHILE SEXUAL POLITICS SULLY THE sport for some enthusiasts, women who love climbing say they face a far stiffer challenge. It’s a psychological tug-of-war, a search for inner balance to complement the balance of hands and feet on steep terrain. Many women climbers confide that before and during a tough ascent they sift through troubling questions.
“Did you ever see the movie, Flight of the Eagle, about the Swedish balloon expedition to the North Pole in 1885” asks Catherine Freer. It was an all-men’s adventure and some of those who signed up did so impulsively, with no experience to match the forthcoming dangers. Mothers, wives and lovers confronted their men and asked why they felt driven to make that balloon trek. Some said, “For Sweden.” Others said, “For adventure.” A few answered, “I don’t know – it’s the pull of the unknown.”
“So one woman said to her boyfriend, If I asked you not to go, would you not go?”’ Freer recounts. “He said, ‘You wouldn’t ask me.’ Within 24 hours the balloon was down. They all died. You see, they didn’t value the questions their women put to them. They just floated off. What moved me so much is that I feel really compelled to go off climbing, but that conflict is in me, too – the woman asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The woman seeing the value in nurturing, loving, continuity of relationships, continuity of life with friends, gardens and children that you can’t have when you’re a perpetual gypsy.”
Women who climb cannot avoid questions like that. They must reconcile conflicting emotions when their sport flies in the face of social convention – as when they trash their hands climbing rock, something commonly deemed unfeminine. They must resolve the conflicts between the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood and the more self-centered pursuit of climbing, with all the dangers it entails.
The things avid women climbers say about their private searches for balance speak volumes about what impels them to climb, and reveal the healthful attitudes they are injecting into a once all-male citadel of sport.
“We’re still babes in the woods, and we still have a lot of growing up to do,” concedes Gwen Hall-Hargis. “But women have done a lot of grand things. We see climbing as more of a joy and less of a conquest. Instead of, ‘Hey, I’m gonna break on through,’ we know how to use the path of least resistance.”
In a high-stress art like climbing, some of the star climbers are prone to take themselves a bit too seriously. But the expanding women’s climbing population is tempering that with new passion and compassion. Women are teaching men that much of the fun in climbing is allowing one’s feelings full rein, provided they don’t discourage one’s partners with selfish pessimism.
Members of Women Climbers Northwest sometimes descend on a climbing meet in boffo hats or stage satirical tea parties to keep the event from wallowing in pretentiousness. Kathy Phibbs has taken this one step beyond camp – she’s introducing guerrilla theatre to Washington rockers.
“I crave a mentor, especially a female one,” do Phibbs explains. “Well, I’ve craved a mentor for so long that ultimately I created one for myself: Miss Dish.” The last time Dish was seen, May 1984 at Peshastin Pinnacles, she was scaling a sandstone tower in an elegant low-cut black evening dress adorned with rhinestone brooches. Dish wore rock shoes, too. Phibbs’ persona was lampooning the quintessential Madison Avenue female who has come a long way, baby – without ever arriving.
Phibbs toys with the concept of women climbers as the new Vulgarians of the Northwest, trashing middle-class conventions as surely as they do the skin of their hands. But she also envisions a serious side to her political theatre. One idea she’s conjured up is to gather a squad of skilled women rock climbers all attired like “proper ladies in gowns, in with makeup and the works,” then perform a synchronized ascent of a nice granite face, maybe hanging beautiful fabrics from rock horns as they rise to a musical score.
SEATTLE MEDICAL STUDENT MIMI Stone sees rock climbing another way. She stresses that without a physically artistic touch on steep rock, women can’t hope to excel. “If you can’t dance on the rock, you fall.” Stone, 26, loves the sport for many reasons, but one is nearly clinical: she enjoys thrusting herself into precarious situations, then studying her feelings as she responds. “Climbers just wanna be on the edge,” she notes. “But it’s no death wish. It’s so much more of a life wish, to be right in the middle of life. I feel disoriented and un-centered when I’m away from that edge too long.”
Stone is like many women climbers, hooked on the art-sport because it focuses her thoughts and sweeps aside the risible worries that urban life deposits on one’s mind each day. And like many hard-core mountain women, Stone appreciates how climbing has helped her strike a subtle balance between humility and confidence.
But her long stays in high places are beginning to alert Stone to one immutable law: a woman’s ever-ticking biological clock. She knows she can’t preserve her youth until med school’s finished, so she wants to enjoy as many fine climbs as possible before she’s 30. But Stone says she also wants to have children before it’s too late; and that means creating a troublesome triad of roles: climber, mom and doctor. “Right now my priorities are in that order. I don’t postpone what I want to do until later. I do it now.”
There is a potential trap in the triad, she knows: trying to be superwoman in all three roles and getting so mired in other people’s expectations that she would lose touch with her own dreams. So compromises must be crafted along the way. If she had children she’d probably shelve her gung-ho climbing schedule until they were old enough to take on short trips. “And I wouldn’t be a workaholic doc who plugs away 85 hours a week. I do think it’s possible to have children and still be myself.”
One woman who’ll testify to that is Kate Reiss, 38, a mother of two and private legal investigator. She calls climbing her “obsession” but is working hard to balance that with family responsibilities. Her family gives her two weekends a month to play on the crags. She gives them two weekends of hearthside T.L.C. plus a lot in between.
Reiss, who lifts weights and performs regular aerobic training, is, like most other female climbers, in great physical shape. She easily could pass for a woman a decade younger. She has climbed both rock and ice in the North Cascades, the Tetons and in Wales. “My greatest accomplishment to date,” she says, “was that I didn’t cry when I went up Outer Space” – 8oo feet of 5.8 rock in Leavenworth’s Icicle Canyon. In 1984 she climbed with three men on Mount McKinley in Alaska, reaching 17,000 feet on that 2o,32o-foot behemoth. Reiss cooled her 17K in style: she carried a “mini ghetto blaster” and some popcorn and on frigid nights when it would have been easy to sulk at altitude, she bopped to ZZ Top and AC-DC. Reiss says two things she most enjoys about climbing are partners who are fun, funny and unflappable, and men who don’t condescend to women if they haul less expedition weight.
But Reiss admits she isn’t all heavy-metal jollies at altitude. She constantly wrestles with her conscience when she leaves her family for long. “I am before all things a wife and mother,” she affirms. “There are times climbing when I look and say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got a family waiting for me when I get back.’ I think it’s stupid to push it when you’re so remote and so far from help. I start to tell myself, ‘This is the most selfish, irresponsible thing you could be doing, so get home right now and bake them apple pie and listen to their homework problems!’ When that happens, I can almost feel the willpower draining from me. Then I come through it and I say, ‘I’m here and I’m climbing and I’m not gonna quit.’”
Reiss’s inner argument highlights a critical question that women climbers say is limiting achievements of many new enthusiasts – risk. In a widely discussed article published last summer by Mountain magazine, a highly regarded English climbing journal, New York state rock climber Rosie Andrews observed: “Women as a rule struggle far more to mask the breaking through to that state where the inner voice rings with confidence. So while some women are setting a very high standard for their contemporaries, most are hindered from achieving their physical best by an inability to break through the fear barrier.”
Cy Phillips echoes those sentiments: “Climbing is validating the male side of me. It brings you into your body. It’s taking responsibility for your own life: ‘I’ll be damned if I’m gonna fall here.’ I like the control; I have to take myself beyond all fears.”
Then there’s the occasional woman climber who seems incapable of fear in high places. Consider newcomer Missy Kostka, 23, of j Snohomish. A driver of trucks and tractors, Kostka started serious rock climbing only two years ago and already is following heady 5.10 and 5.11 wall climbs, according to Jim Nelson of Seattle, one of the region’s best known alpine rock specialists. Kostka now is leading 5.9 routes, but Nelson says she’s nearly too fearless for her own good.
“Climbing is just such a high,” Kostka says, “you want to go back. You can’t get that feeling down here.”
“When I saw her, right away I knew she had more potential than anybody I’d seen in ages,” says Dick Schneider, past chairman of the Everett Mountaineers Climbing Committee. “She’s a real pounder. She told me she didn’t wanna be the best woman climber; she wanted to be the best climber – period.”
PART OF CLIMBING WELL IS QUASHING fear, finding an equilibrium between boldness and discretion. It’s not uncommon for superior climbers to admit, “Hey, a little fear is OK.” But they’ll also say they keep that fear well tucked away, like a sidelines advisor who helps them stay alert.
Consider Seattle rock stars Carla Firey and Mimi Stone. On a recent climb of the classic Crack of Doom route at Castle Rock near Leavenworth, the two demonstrated how character and comic relief are excellent solvents for the negative side of fear.
Firey, 32, came dressed like a Mardi Gras reveler, fully expecting to have a gas. She tied back her copper-red hair with a blue-flowered bandanna and wore tight white hose with flaming yellow socks pulled to mid-calf. She topped it off with homemade royal-blue Lycra knickers decorated with prints of crayon boxes.
Firey psyched herself for the first lead with a flurry of ministrations: tying and retying her rock shoes, hiking her socks more snugly, adjusting the spaces between carabiners on her shoulder sling. While she waited, Stone set a bombproof belay anchor at a small tree near the route’s base. She tied in, then pulled a pharmacology text from her rucksack and started cramming for an upcoming medical school final. While Firey fussed with her adjustments, Stone looked up and announced, “If it makes you feel any better, Carla, I won’t be reading while I’m belaying you.”
Firey flashed a smile. Before her lead up the Old Gray Mare, a challenging 65-foot rock face that hits a nice ledge below the Crack of Doom, Stone closed the book and set a solid belay. She watched intently as Firey, after a flow of controlled moves and protection placements, found herself at the first crux move, 25 feet off the ground.
Like a Bolshoi ballerina, Firey pointed her toes, arched her right leg to nearly hip height, secured her handholds and swung onto the overhang in a single fluid move that caused the belayer to sit up. “Good move,” Stone said. “Now at least you won’t go screaming off.” Her tone of voice was warm, fully matter-of-fact as if to say, “You are much safer now and I’m glad for both of us.” Firey nodded over her shoulder.
About 35 feet up, Firey reached a series of tough moves that gave her pause. She pulled a wire stopper from her rack, placed it betwee her teeth while shifting her footholds slightly, then grabbed the piece and wedged it into a crevice overhead. She climbed a few feet down to a wider foothold that allowed some rest while studying the new crux. Then she started to shake each hand vigorously, one by one, while gripping the face with the other, trying to loosen the muscles now tight with fatigue.
“I must be hanging on too hard,” Firey said softly to herself. “But then again, maybe this climb is steep and scary.” She broke into a sidelong smile.
The moment before she moved onto the crux a patina of sweat broke out beneath her eyes and over the bridge of her nose as her face went taut with concentration. Her lips pressed into a flat line with a micro-flicker of enjoyment at one corner. It is a look you can often see just before a climber makes a raw committed move.
All these things occurred in the time it takes to draw a breath. Then Carla Firey was in control; she finished the pitch quickly, her body defining space on the rock with athletic purity.
Climbing hard is compelling because it offers instant gratification, Catherine Freer observes. But one has to stay alert to danger when the adrenaline addiction steepens, she believes. “You can’t afford to think you’re gonna fall because the energy it takes to think that is gonna pull you off.”
Freer tells of a day in Yosemite when she was leading a hellish corner crack called “Anticipation,” rated 5.11. She was climbing at the absolute limit of her ability, pumping energy so fully that she felt nauseous. She came so close to falling once and the danger level was so palpable, that when she finally topped out she actually had a memory of taking a sickening leader fall. That was an hallucination.
“Dying, to me, is pretty scary still,” Freer admits. “I especially don’t wanna do it when I’m young. I think about it all the time.”
Mimi Stone experienced an epic to match in 1984. She was leading a friend, a man, up Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier. They had reached a steep ice slope above Thumb Rock when an orange-sized rock fell from nowhere and bashed her right in the face, caving in a couple teeth and cutting her badly. She immediately became concerned -for her friend, who was completely dependent upon her for a safe descent. There was no way they could stay on that ice slope, the objective hazards were too dire. On a 300-foot rope, she guided the downclimb to the 12,000-foot level where they made a safe bivouac for the night.
Stone recounts: “I was scared and crying and spitting blood and my teeth were rattling around. My face was puffed and bruised and the pain was throbbing. I felt like I wanted to pass out but I couldn’t. I would have fallen 600 feet and died and that just wasn’t part of the plan.”
So was there a lesson learned on Liberty Ridge?
“Yeah,” she says. “I learned how not to go into shock if I have to.”
The rock-hard women of the Pacific Northwest shared a sudden learning curve in February 1984 when their friend Eve Dearborn, 35, plummeted to her death while trying a rugged new ice route up a West Face couloir on Mount Index. She and her partner, Phil White, probably slipped on ice or were knocked off their stances by rockfall friends assume. Their battered bodies were found still roped together at the base of the peak.
A tall woman with a love for dancing, Dearborn had been climbing only three years and already was tackling demanding alpine routes in winter. A co-founder of Women Climbers Northwest, Dearborn had a reputation for pushing her limits to the extreme. A good many women climbers say her death gave them new awareness of their mortality, something climbers like to forget at times.
Perhaps the most widely reported woman’s climbing death was the tragedy of Washington mountaineer Marty Hoey, hero to many Pacific Northwest climbers. The only woman among a score of men on a 1982 expedition up Mount Everest’s North Ridge, she plummeted down a 5000-foot slope one afternoon when the belt of her seat harness, fastened improperly, came untied.
But there’s another female alpine symbol in the region today to mitigate the Hoey tragedy. Her name is Sarah Doherty. She’s a 25 year old occupational therapist who quit her job to train for a Mount McKinley climb this spring. The Seattle woman has only one leg; her right leg was amputated after a car-bicycle crash 12 years ago. Using customized ice-axe crutches and battling winds that gusted to 100 mph. Doherty fulfilled a long- held dream and reached the summit on May 19. Her friend and mountain mentor, Bill Sumner of Index, a veteran expedition mountaineer, accompanied Doherty to “Denali’s” rooftop. He said on the descent they were battered by the foulest mountain weather he’s faced in 20 years of climbing. The cold was fierce, the spindrift like icy sandblasting, but Doherty made it in good form – the first amputee ever to stand atop the highest peak in North America.
ALTHOUGH THERE ARE OTHER WOMEN of Doherty’s grit, Bill Sumner observes, “There’s a whole mix of reasons why there aren’t many Jim Doninis and John Roskelleys among women climbers. It’s a combination of historical accident and social convention. But women are not limited by being women.”
A renowned high-altitude rock specialist, Seattle resident Donini feels that climbing lends itself well to women’s finesse and control. But, he adds, there exist limits on how well they can do in expedition mountaineering. Good women climbers are expressing themselves more ably in rock than in mountaineering, Donini observes, because “they don’t have as much brute strength for carrying those frigging loads. Stoves, sleeping bags and tents always weigh the same regardless of how big you are. Women are not always going to be able to carry their fair share of [expedition] gear.”
Alan Kearney, 34, of Bellingham, agrees with Donini that women barely have touched the alpine realm today. “Men’s bodies are stronger,” Kearney says. “But the minute you say something like that, every woman gets pissed off. When women are wearing a pack they seem to drop a notch – but then, there’s Catherine Freer. Generalizations are dangerous; the minute you make one, somebody breaks the mold.”
THERE ARE BETWEEN 200 AND 500 ROCK climbers in the United States who consistently lead at 5.11 or tougher, according to premier rock climber Alison Olsius of New Hampshire. Only about a dozen of them are women. Olsius is one of a vocal minority of women climbers who argue that it’s time for them to be rated on exactly the same scales as men in all facets of climbing. These women see crediting a woman for “first female ascent” of a mountain to be the absurd equivalent of awarding a plaque for first ascent by a blonde lefthander. Women must judge their abilities by their peers of both genders, Osius and her ilk contend.
Rosie Andrews writes that while most women naturally have only two-thirds the absolute body strength of men, with training they can achieve stunning strength-to-weight ratios that close the gap. U.S. climber Lynn Hill, who has done staggering 5.13 climbs, has proved it: she’s 5-foot-1 and weighs barely 105 pounds, but can bench press 150.
“Men are probably climbing better but women are pushing, pushing, pushing,” says Mimi Stone. “Ratings are only useful so you don’t get in so far over your head that you can’t get out safely. Rating numbers aren’t as important as putting your soul on the line.”
And there have been women adventurers doing just that for more than 50 years in the Pacific Northwest. Consider pioneering women climbers Ruth Dyar Mendenhall, 72, and Phyllis Munday, 91.
“I never believed in climbing to improve character and all that stuff,” Mendenhall says from her home in Seattle’s North End. “I enjoyed the physical activity, the companionship, the peace and quiet of the outdoors.” Mendenhall grew up in Spokane and started climbing in 1938. She enjoyed 35 mountaineering seasons, climbing in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Her first ascents include the Southwest Ridge and the Southeast Face of Aiguille Peak, and Mount Palmer’s East Ridge in the Canadian Rockies, plus new routes in the Tetons and the Sierras. Mendenhall has climbed all of the 14,000-foot peaks on the West Coast.
On mountain trips in her day, men sometimes assumed she was there just to be cook. “That was perfectly natural,” she remembers. “But all I had to do was say, ‘No I’m climbing.’ I didn’t have to get huffy about-it.” After all, observes the venerable mountaineer, “Climbing is something of itself, regardless of men or women.”
Munday lives in Nanaimo. Canadian-born of British parents, she and her late husband Don Munday were both avid mountaineers when they married in 1920. Together they earned the first ascent of Mount Waddington’s Northwest Summit (13,260 feet) and a dozen others of peaks in that area. One mountain is named after them.
Munday is still intensely proud of the day in 1924 when she reached the summit of Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies. She was the first woman ever to stand on the 12,972-foot apex of that beloved national monument, a dangerous climb by any route. Her career spanned 50 years, during which she logged an incredible 33 summits in the Rockies, as well as 28 first-ascents in British Columbia’s Coastal Range.
It is that triumphant day on Robson that brings the memories back:
“The main thing was getting there, getting to the top,” says Munday. “I was thrilled. The whole world was lying there before you. We never worried about first or last ascents and such. The main thing was the joy of climbing rather than bashing up a peak, putting your name on it and bashing down again.”