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The Climbing Life: She Climbed Alone

This story first appeared in Alpinist 54–Summer 2016.

[Illustration] Leighan Falley

As a young climber in the 1990s, I developed a strange habit. Each year I found myself obsessively searching the American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering for entries about women. Why was I ogling these accidents?

Over time, I came to realize my impulse was about something more than mere voyeurism. I craved stories about women who played the lead role. In magazines, films and anecdotes, women who climbed in the mountains were often still portrayed as bit players, out of their depth, as powerless victims, or else as rare and uniquely talented exceptions (in the 1990s, Catherine Destivelle and Lynn Hill were sometimes spoken of in this latter way).

As the entries in Accidents try to take an objective voice, they are generally more straightforward in telling of women who made decisions that are ambitious, brave, strong, unlucky, and sometimes unwise–just as all people’s choices can be. The accounts show women in a full range of human ability and experience.

Through the years, I’ve continued to read Accidents this way. I wanted to express what I felt while reading, so I compiled this piece only using quotes from Accidents, published every year since 1948. I found the phrases in the online edition using the search term “she climbed alone.” I changed the women’s first and last names to “she.”

She planned to solo climb the Venusian Blind Arete route.

She felt this was her last chance to climb.

The weather was mild and warm with sun on the rock. She had a very high tolerance for pain.

The summit was the goal she focused upon, not a safe return.

She may have felt pressured to make haste.

She climbed through the most difficult section.

She rested on the summit and descended as clouds began to move in.

She thought it was safe to lower and stepped back to weight the rope. She thought that if she fell here she would die.

Her old down suit was not warm enough.

She started the descent but night fell. She bivouacked,

which had been her custom on previous climbs.

Working her way across a cliff face on tiny handholds and footholds, she was just one meter from the safety of a large ledge when her pack threw her off balance. She lost control and broke her leg when she slid into the rocks.

Would she roll off whatever ledge had stopped her fall?

She started screaming high-pitched, animal-like yelps.

Alone and growing cold, she realized that the helicopter wasn’t going to come. Conscious but disoriented, she began to crawl away, fearing more debris.

She continued along the towers until dark, spending a third

night on the mountain, now without food.

She made the critical error of failing to traverse far enough to the west.

She was not going to be able to continue.

A rock flake she was standing on broke loose.

She tumbled into space.

Her body was recovered Monday.

Search and Rescue found tracks leading into a large avalanche debris pile. Her jacket was located directly beneath the prominent gendarme.

She was found without her glasses or contacts on.

She was lying on her left side in a semi-fetal position.

Any pressure she may have put on herself contributed to this tragic outcome. She will go down in history as one of the greats of mountaineering.

Her parents requested that her body be left on the mountain.

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