A Baptism and Women Mountaineers

The other night I got an email from, Erika Chisarik, a climber and a regular reader of this blog. It was good to chat with her; I genuinely enjoy talking climbing with readers anytime. It’s especially enjoyable when they have a question that gets me thinking or a story to tell. This reader had both.

Erika has climbed a couple of trekking peaks in Nepal, including Imje Tse (a.k.a. Island Peak) ( ft./6,189 m.) and Gokyo Ri (17,575 ft./5,357 m.) It was all her husband’s idea, this climbing thing. After watching a few YouTube videos, the feeling was more along the lines of terror rather than excitement. But that’s the way of the uninitiated in some ways; always seeing the risks and dangers and unable to see the opportunities and rewards. The wall blocking the view of the positive outlook was knocked down somewhere around Island Peak base camp. There, the notions of possibilities and the idea of accomplishment had set in. Mountain madness was taking hold.

Unfortunately, her husband couldn’t get to the top. This whole trek was his idea, but altitude sickness respects no one. They descended to base camp and he recovered, but he would not try again on this trip. After some prolonged, intense discussion, they decided Erika should seize the moment and go climb to the top. Somewhere along the ascent, or perhaps during her half hour alone, with only her Sherpa companion, at the top of Imje Tse, she knew she hadn’t satisfied this new desire, but rather an ember was stoked. I think Erika had as close to a religious experience as you can have in making the spiritual conversion to being a mountaineer. Here is a short video of her climb:

Since returning, she has taken to admire Ed Viesturs and one of my favorite books, Viesturs’ autobiography No Shortcuts to the Top (which he wrote with David Roberts). He is an, “inspiration,” to use Felicity’s word, and I couldn’t agree more. He’s climbed all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks without the help of supplement oxygen, climbs with the care of a guide, husband and father. His mantra of ‘making it to the top is optional, making it back down is mandatory’ speaks volumes about his approach.

However, as a woman, Erika wondered whether there were any women mountaineers that deserve admiration like Viesturs.

As a new father of a very young lady, this question dealt with an important topic for me too. While I promised Wunderkind’s mother that I won’t push climbing on her, I think that there are several, strong, independent women mountaineers that deserve admiration and respect and that could serve as positive role models. Here are three that leap immediately to my mind:

Arlene Blum — Blum is an American scientist that faced a great deal of discrimination because of her gender in the 1970s, especially when she wanted to participate on the leading Himalayan expeditions — made up of exclusively men with rare exceptions. She responded in dramatic fashion by leading the first all-women team, and the first American ascent of Annapurna in 1978. Her book, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, has been a key book in the history of woman mountaineers within the English language. She later became a women-expedition specialists and lead a group to Everest.

Wanda Rutkiewicz — Rutkiewicz was a Polish mountaineer and is best known becoming the first woman to climb K2, though the rest of here climbing career is interesting too. She’s been featured in Jennifer Jordan’s book Savage Summit and Bernadette McDonald’s book Freedom Climbers. Her Himalayan summit list (not to mention the Alps and Pamirs) is as impressive as the struggles she and all Polish climbers faced in being Poles and climbers during Soviet occupation.

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner — This woman stands out possibly the most in terms of persistence, strength, and accomplishment. Kaltenbrunner, an Austrian alpinist, became the first woman to follow Reinhold Messner’s path of climbing the world’s 14 highest peaks without relying on supplemental oxygen. She finished “closing the loop” on all 14 in August 2011. She began her quest in 1998 when she topped out on Cho Oyo. As a side note, had Oh Eun-Sun, a South Korean climber, hadn’t had disputed record for one of her 14 peaks, Kaltenbrunner wouldn’t have been celebrated the same way and we might not have cared as much. But she is a strong, independent, unpretentious, gentle woman, from all reports. What better character for a hero.

Chisarik with Makalu from Imja Tse (2011)

Several other women climbers deserve special attention, in my book. There are only seven — at my last count — American women to have earned the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association certification. It is the highest standard for being a mountain guide. Not all of them are still climbing. In fact some have dedicated them to a life with family. One has started a family and has recently returned to climbing and her daughter is the ultimate, “Crag Baby,” I’ve heard. I won’t say who’s baby… In any case, these are some of the other stars that deserve mention on this short list of great women mountaineers:

  1. Kathy Cosley
  2. Heidi Kloos
  3. Olivia Cussen
  4. Zoe Hart
  5. Julia Niles
  6. Angela Hause
  7. Caroline George

I’m also certain that I have omitted some other notable women climbers. I can also say I enjoy following guide Melissa Arnot, who is currently attempting Everest. She has some good videos through Rainier Mountaineering Inc’s website.

Thanks for dropping by once again, and thanks to Erika for the email! If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter, if you haven’t already. Happy reading and carpe climb ‘em!

3 thoughts on “A Baptism and Women Mountaineers

  1. Dear Andrew,

    Thank you so much for such an elaborate post on the subject. I read it with great fascination. It is more than an answer to my question – the list and references to women mountaineers are a real eye-opener to me! Gelinde Kaltenbrunner, and all the other outstanding female climbers, serve as role models, and make mountaineering even more inspiring.

    Climbing is a wonderful activity, and I never imagined becoming so fond of it virtually in an instant. Since my descent from Imja Tse, the mountains are always on my mind, and until I return to Nepal for a summit attempt of another peak or two, I hope to learn more about how to do it best as a woman. Thank you again for pointing out to me the resources.

    I trust that many other unsuspecting or aspiring lady climbers will find your post helpful as well. Climbing is not terrifying at all with an experienced and qualified mountain guide, who can make stepping over the threshold of “fear” seem like a piece of cake. What is beyond that step is extraordinary in every sense, and in many ways, inexplicable. One has to experience it for oneself in order to truly understand.

    I wish everyone many happy and safe climbing adventures.

    Erika Chisarik

  2. If Gokyo Ri counts as a “mountain”, then I am indeed a mountaineer myself, for I “summited” Gokyo Ri as well as Kala Pattar, which, in addition to Mount Lassen in California, are mere walk-ups. Perhaps my current membership with the American Alpine Club (required to attend February’s AAC dinner) is not so ridiculous after all. ;-)

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