All things being equal, Kitty Calhoun isn’t your likely cutting-edge alpinist. As the unassuming daughter of a prominent South Carolinian lawyer, she did like any blossoming 18-year-old belle and took a month-long Outward Bound course to get a taste of the real outdoors.
And she took to it. Since her inauspicious introduction to Rock Climbing 101, the 5-foot 3-inch Calhoun has gone on to become one of the most preeminent alpinists, male or female, in the last 30 years. She has broken records on several continents, including being the first woman to make an ascent of Dhaulagiri in 1987 (world’s seventh highest peak), and then Makalu (world’s fifth highest peak) three years later. Her laundry list of climbs is long.
She has been a mountain guide for over twenty years, continues to lead women’s climbing workshops, teaches ice and mixed climbing clinics, gives TEDx talks and still finds the time to be a wife and mother. We were lucky to get her on the phone for a quick chat.
SCARPA: When did you start realizing you had a large aptitude for climbing, specifically bigger alpine objectives?
KITTY: I became interested in alpine climbing when I was in college at University of Vermont. A guy asked me to do the Presidential Traverse with him—in winter—in a single push during a full moon. We had an epic adventure and I became intrigued with alpine climbing. I decided that when I finished school the next December, I wanted to drive out West, live out of my Subaru and do winter ascents in the Rockies. I was not attracted so much by the heights of mountains, but by straight lines up steep faces that offer technical climbing challenges. I wanted to climb in different ranges of the world because I figured each range had something to teach me.
You teach a lot of climbing camps designed for women. You’ve also taught climbing to Navy SEALs. Who’s harder to teach?
I was not supposed to tell anyone I was working with the SEALs for years – but now that everyone knows SEAL Team 6 exists, I guess it’s OK to talk. I was surprised at how little ego they displayed and how self-less they were, especially since they are such gifted athletes. They were very professional and fun. However, I would say it is easier to work with the women at the Chicks with Picks clinics; women tend to be not so guarded with the questions they ask.
How did you come to partner with SCARPA, and what products are you currently keen on?
I like being with SCARPA because they not only make good ice climbing boots and alpine climbing boots, but also great ski boots, rock shoes and approach shoes. I still wear a lot of the old styles because they still work really well for me: the Freneys for ice, Charmoz for summer alpine, the Magics for skiing, the Technos and Instincts for rock, the Crux for approaches and the Ion for the gym and everyday. I am looking forward to trying the new Techno X shoes for trad rock and the new Rebel Pro for ice climbing.
You’ve had a long career guiding and climbing internationally for decades. Is there anything specific you experience that keeps your drive alive? Why?
Several things keep my drive alive. One is the desire to continue climbing, learning and improving technically as long as my body holds up. I am very grateful for my health and want to take advantage of it for as long as I can. I am still inspired by the beauty of snow in winter—frozen waterfalls, steep mountains, perfect cracks. And, as long as I feel like I have something to offer, I would like to continue teaching. Guiding internationally was fun, but I’ve been doing a lot of coaching recently and like the analytical aspect. I like mixing it up.
Any upcoming objectives you’re currently studying up on?
I haven’t had any alpine objectives in the past few years because I have a son and I hate to be gone for more than a month. However, he will be graduating soon and that could all change. My recent goals have varied from ice climbing trips in Iceland and Scotland, to aid routes on El Cap, to sport climbing “projects.”
Last question: rock or ice?
How about mixed? I’m not saying it’s my favorite, but I have a long way to go on mixed and learning new things is fun.