The Things We Carry: On Roots and Purpose in Mountaineering
Ten years ago, I discovered Krakauer’s books. I met him once at a showing of Meru. He was stoic and had a thousand-yard stare, unphased by the surrounding commotion. Despite the bleak nature of his writing, I wanted in on mountaineering. The appeal wasn’t the adventure or sense of escapism. Despite the tragedy Krakauer frequently writes about, his characters seem to trust their mind, body, and ability—enough to risk death. They come back after experiencing the darkest parts of their psyche, seemingly desensitized from the trials of life, with a keen understanding of what they are capable of. I thought the mountains could help me achieve that, too.
Like many, I was raised with the specific type of scarcity and assimilation mindset that comes from generations of poverty, immigration, fleeing genocide, and building the American dream from scratch. In my family, therapy was stigmatized, hushed, and unaffordable. I managed depression and anxiety on my own and the methods weren’t always healthy. When I thought mountaineering could be an alternative method of healing, I didn’t realize how expensive or difficult it would be (comparable to therapy, actually).
I had a general interest in climbing for years but didn’t start. There were fewer resources online in 2012, and research didn’t really help. All the forums stressed how critical it was to take courses, hire guides, or find seasoned mentors. The former could cost thousands, and the latter would take time and luck. I couldn’t afford much iteration and wanted a plan, so I reached out to local groups for advice.
“We require at least two successful summits to join. Find a guy to take you out,” said an admin from a Meetup.com group. How could I get those skills safely and meet partners? What were acceptable summits? They never responded. “Anchoring, self-rescue, ascending, rappelling, single and multi-pitch experience required to join,” stated another organization. At the time, I couldn’t find courses near Los Angeles. “Most women can’t handle carrying the weight for mountaineering, so maybe just start with bouldering,” said a local association.
In 2019, I finally started by using a grant to cover the entire $3,000 cost for a course on Rainier. It was with a well-known outdoor educator. There was a three-stage interview process, a physical and climbing resume required. I ended up being the only person of color and woman on a team of eight. I was given the option to back out “if the gender imbalance bothered [me],” and told my application was “only boosted because of previous successes and fitness level.” After meeting the other five men, I learned none had any prior climbing experience or recent athletic history. They paid thousands to experience the mountain as a vacation, had a single interview, and were not required to show proof of ability. Two even opted out of the summit push.
It was jarring to experience the clear bias, gatekeeping, and privilege right off the bat. It still happens occasionally, and tends to feel like an attempt to make sure climbing remains uncomplicated by the nuances that different people bring.
Those initial experiences made me question why I kept looking up to those whose experience would inherently be different from mine. Up until early 2018, I never really saw women, queer folks, or minorities represented until groups like Melanin Basecamp and Climbers of Color emerged. I questioned whether I would be able to find supportive, relatable people to grow skills with. Why would the majority demographic accept a petite, ethnically ambiguous, queer woman as their climbing partner? Would I be perceived as more difficult to socially navigate? Would I need to worry about my physical safety?
Until recently, I didn’t realize that the strengths and qualities I admired in Krakauer’s characters were qualities that me and my family always had. They just looked and manifested differently. Youth always clouds obvious truths, like how it was shortsighted to glamorize the pursuits and perspective that almost always came from white men. Society conditions us to believe that success looks like money, freedom, and grandiose achievements, even when they are kickstarted by an existing foundation of privilege. Yet, it fails to recognize the everyday strengths of those who climb a lifelong mountain of bias, rigged policies, systems, and inequity.
There is a saying in climbing that we carry everything up the wall with us. What we carry impacts the way we navigate and experience these spaces. Those unique perspectives, needs, and approaches deserve to be validated and acknowledged. Including balancing the impact of recreation on native land. Including reconciling a feeling of selfishness for pursuing a dangerous activity, especially when your culture prioritizes family duty. Including managing the fear of being profiled in areas that don’t see much melanin. Including the fear of being objectified, harassed, or seen as incompetent and weak. Including the fear that the existing community won’t accept your presence, and that it will prevent you from advancing.
Continued encounters with cultural and systemic barriers remind me that climbing is a microcosm for broader society. I often wonder whether I can engage with it in a healthy, meaningful way. I was drawn to climbing to learn how to live with myself, but now my drive is rooted in helping break cycles in the communities I’m part of. Many have already worked tirelessly to create pathways for safe spaces, opportunity, and representation. While climbing has been having a diversity renaissance in recent years, the path for mountaineering is just starting to be carved out. I’m still figuring out my role in it all, and what I can offer to push things forward.
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that now is the time to leverage and share our unique strengths and qualities in this space. It’s not about burning the gates down. It’s about making sure bridges are built so gates become ineffective.
Kate is a queer, half Chinese-Cambodian/half-white climber and environmental consultant, living and working on Chumash-Tongva land. Nothing makes her happier than the Sierra Nevada, mac + cheese after a long day outside, 80s post-punk/new wave, and being that nerd at the crag who always comes in clutch with a first aid kit. Reach out to Kate for mentorship through Trail Mixed or connect with her on Instagram @katecora!