What was driving you?
Once I had climbed enough, I began to see the world through the eyes of a climber. I wound up going to Mozambique because someone showed me a picture of this mountain face and I remember thinking, That’s cool–but what’s on the other side of that picture? There is a peace for me when I am climbing. When you are climbing you are not thinking about anything else. You aren’t thinking about what you need to do with your house or your family or your dog or to make the world a better place. Combining that [feeling] with some of the projects I do to make a difference was something that I couldn’t pass up.
How did you figure that out—that these activist efforts of yours could mesh with climbing?
Before I went to Ethiopia with an all-female team of climbers in 2007 to work on my first book, I was approached by a Ethiopian publisher that wanted to put it out. They said, “You could help save Ethiopia by writing this book.” And I thought, But I am just going to write about climbing, I don’t know how that’ll save anything. Climbers don’t actually spend a lot of money—certainly not enough to change one of the 10 poorest countries in the world! Before that I done a lot of climbing where you’re facing the rock face, and your back is to everything else. You’re not around a other people. Well, in Ethiopia, you are entrenched in culture in every phase of it–there are people around you, and if you look over your shoulder you see a town that was founded during the famine in the ’80s. I realized that putting these things together was going to be a much more interesting conversation than just talking about “the rock.” I realized I could tell a story about what adventure and climbing can do in for a country that has primarily been known for drought, famine, and poverty. I saw that I could take the things I cared most about and mesh them together.
Does every climbing trip need to be like that for you now? Do you always have this sense of mission?
That revelation pushed me hard, but it was in a way that I wanted to be pushed. I grew up with that [sense of mission]. I think about this all the time—I still have that piece of paper where we wrote slogans for pro-choice T-shirts: “Use a Condom, Stupid” and “My Body, My Choice.” [Laughs]
You mean our little junior high fundraiser where we sold tie-dyed pro-choice shirts for $2 apiece? Dude, we raised like $60 for NARAL! [Laughs] Shirts with extra detailing were more.
I remember there was an order form, and people had to circle the shirt they wanted. We made them in your attic, right?
Meticulously hand-crafted them with PUFFY PAINT.
[Laughs] Exactly! The thing for me was that activism has always just been part of my personality, so when I had that realization in Ethiopia, it felt like coming home. I decided my life goal was to do big projects that have a big impact–and have the time and space to do them. It’s not every climb—I was just climbing in Norway for my honeymoon—but I like having an activist project every two or three years.
I would imagine that mountaineering and climbing are jobs with an equal playing field, gender-wise, because it’s like, either you can climb the mountain or you can’t. Is that true?
I wish it were! There are still many more men climbing than women. I have seen that change a lot in the 15 years I have been climbing, but there’s this stereotype that if you see a woman climbing, you look around for her boyfriend. I have spent my life climbing with women, so I try to make fun of that stereotype and call people and myself out on those biases. Because sometimes I catch myself doing that, too—I’ll see a woman and a guy climbing together and I’ll automatically assume he’s the one who got her into climbing. When I saw that [bias] even in myself, I realized how entrenched it was. But it’s that classic situation, where right when you reach the age when you have the skills to really crank on the really gnarly, really high peaks and really scary consequences–you’re in your early 30s and you have to think, OK, am I going to have kids? If you are, you wonder, How does it work when I am on a two-month expedition to Pakistan? It’s the same thing we run into in any career. Right about the time you really get going you are confronted with the motherhood question.
What’s the most intense experience you have had climbing?
I was in Armenia this past October, just for a casual climbing trip, to put up new routes in Armenia. We got there and found that the rock quality was not awesome. I was getting over an injury and I climbed up on a viper in the rock.
Did you say “a viper”?
Yes, a viper, as in a deadly poisonous Armenian snake. Here I am on what is supposed to be this nice little trip, and I put my hand into a crack that this viper happens to live in. It made me think, Maybe this trip is supposed to be about something else for me right now. Three days later I got hit by rock fall that almost broke my arm and created a bunch of bone and nerve damage on my arm–it was one of those trips where there were a few moments that made it very, very real.
Looking at pictures of some of your climbs, it seems that you’d have to be fearless–is that the case?
Fear is something real and every-day for me. I don’t think you need to be fearless, but you do need to understand that fear is not finite, it’s a moving emotion. You have to assess it [relative to] your ability, the degree of risk, and your drive, and see where you get to in that moment, on that climb, for that day.
What resources are available for young women who’d like to pursue a career like yours?
I sometimes wish I could be a young woman learning to climb today. There are great climbing gyms in most major cities and many minor cities that offer classes and clinics. I’d start with a local gym, and ask them if they have a way to get outside. Then, if you can, go take a course with a guide certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. Getting the right instruction early with the best teachers will help you make your best choices. Also, if possible, take an Outward Bound or NOLS course. If you are going to college, you could be in great luck, as outdoor programs are becoming standard at universities everywhere. You can also go to a climbing festival—there are tons of rock and ice climbing festivals around the world that are a great and economic way to get a taste of climbing and use the gear, meet the pros, see if you like it, or, if you’re already climbing, to take it to the next level. ♦