Kitty Calhoun: a cut above
As I grasp her leathery hand, visions of the weathered rocks
and smooth blue ice it had seen jump quickly into my mind. The chalky
holds, the smooth motion of an axe landing in an ice wall, the cold. Delicate,
with a dash of the strength beneath, our handshake ends, and we begin.
"Patagonia-ed" from head to toe, Kitty Calhoun
throws a wide grin at you and laughs the laugh of a boxer, heavy and solid.
She speaks of her exploits on the great mountains of the world with a
nonchalant, calm nature that lets you know:
"When I was in Vermont, this guy wanted to do the Presidential
Traverse at night, in one push, in winter. I said 'Okay.'" Most college
girls are wary of bad dates, perhaps occasionally taking the leap on a
blind date. Without hesitation, Calhoun said 'Yes' to a moonlit trek on
a winter-pounded mountain. From her earliest memories of climbing to her
most recent adventures around the globe, she speaks of her climbing life
with the giddiness of a child, reciting her mischief to a circle of chums.
Her passion is nearly a tangible thing. Calhoun emits it
with every word and expression. It's inspiring. One wants to go climbing
buildings, mountains, and waterfalls after talking to her. I sure did.
Asking her how she thought a novice climber should get started,
I received the following: "Just go climbing. And have fun. And then,
you'll want to keep on climbing. And then, you'll get better over time."
Much of Calhoun's philosophy is simple. Hard work and experience can get
you far. Just look at her.
Calhoun was influenced by a climber named Laudine, a man
she noted "nobody's heard of." Learning about alpine climbing
from him, she was greatly affected by his attitude. "If he gets scared,
he just puts it in gear, then he has more confidence to keep on going.
He doesn't give up easily," she said.
Such determination has become the trademark of Kitty Calhoun.
Her grit is known the world over.
Her future is wide open. She notes happily that many climbers
have been known to climb hard as they get old and older. Knowing the necessities
of success in the future-hard training and a little injury-free luck,
Calhoun hopes to climb for many more years and gain the experience to
make her a better alpinist every day.
When she is not on the mountain, Calhoun is training, working,
or spending time with her child. Highly committed to her six-year-old
boy, she smiles as soon as he is brought up. "He just got a snowboard,"
she said, "so I'm trying to learn how to snowboard." It clear
that the determination and passion that Calhoun devotes to her climbing
falls over all aspects of her life, especially her little boy.
As for what draws her to climbing, it is simple: "I
like being outside. And ice, it's really pretty." Such a lucid vision
of what she loves to do. In addition, the challenge of the sport, both
mental, physical, and emotional, excites her. The last aspect of climbing
that she comments on is the teamwork. I like sharing the experience with
a partner or partners.
From Greenville, South Carolina, Calhoun was educated at
the University of Vermont. Later on, she attended the University of Washington,
where she received her M.B.A.. Now, when she's not bouncing around the
world, she calls the small town of Castle Valley, Utah, outside of Moab,
Her first experience in climbing was when she was 18 years
old at an Outward Bound School in North Carolina, which she attended after
her mom wouldn't let her go backpacking with a friend. There she conquered
her fear of heights, though afterwards, she noted that, while climbing,
she just never looked down.
While in school in Vermont, she continued to climb, but
broadened her skills into the area of ice climbing. Shortly thereafter,
she started alpine climbing in the wintertime in the Rockies. Eventually,
by the time she finished her time in Washington at school, she had decided
that she "wanted to climb different places all over the world."
Getting a job as a guide, she started to live the climbing life-guiding
when she had to and climbing when she could.
As time passed, Calhoun was one of the most prominent female
climbers in the world. In 1987 she led a party up the Northeast Ridge
of Nepal's Dhaulagiri (26,800 feet). Three years later, in 1990, she made
an ascent of the West Pillar of Makalu (27,800 feet, also in Nepal). Then,
in 1993-the same year she received her M.B.A. from the University of Washington-she
attempted the North Ridge of Pakistan's Latok (23,000 feet). Guiding all
over the world, she has established herself as one of the top climbers
Regarding the role of gender in climbing, Calhoun feels
that a climber is a climber. She does mention that she'd like to climb
with women more frequently as she goes forward, as they are more supportive
than male climbers. Though as noted in her speech, at least a couple of
men were willing to give up their manhood to scale a mountain with her.
When asked of her favorite places, she just laughs. "I
have a lot
, I was going to name everywhere I've climbed." She
says that she likes most places that she's been. Calhoun is full of a
curiosity for the world and a wonder for nature that leads to her enjoyment
of every situation. Fabulous or terrible, it matters not.
As she speaks of her life, a dichotomy arises before me.
So tough and rugged, yet happy as a schoolgirl. There something more to
this climber, and to many climbers in the world. Something warmer lies
within them. Beneath the shell, hardened by time and the elements, there
is a glow that only one whole has lived and breathed nature can have.
They have an understanding of the world that cannot be acquired from books.
Living with and among the mountains of the world is an experience of life
that is completely unique. Immediately, I'm filled with envy.
The interview is over, and I give her my thanks. And we
shake hands. Again, I cannot help to think of the wonderous places those
hands have been. From the Himalayan peaks Dhualagiri and the Makalu to
the icy slopes of Vermont, that hand alone had experienced a lifetime
of remarkable stories. But, perhaps, for Kitty Calhoun the most incredible
are yet to come.