“I hope this does not mean that I am getting soft.”

Every once in awhile, you are granted a gift of presence. By this I mean, you encounter a presence that is so strong that it leaves an impression on you that lasts a lifetime. Those women who have met today’s guest blogger Kitty Calhoun in her capacity as an instructor for the Chicks With Picks and Chicks Rock! programs leave with more than an impression, though. Instead, they carry with them forever a piece of Kitty’s stark confidence, her poise, and her deepest gift which is her intense interest in bettering them not just as climbers, but as women and as people. You get a small sense of what that is, here. Enjoy.


“The times, they are a changin’” – Bob Dylan

Yes sir-ee Bob!  I came to Ouray earlier than normal this winter to help my friend Dawn Glanc train for the Ouray Ice Comp (oh yeah, they call it a fest but there are judges.)  So here I am dry-tooling (my tools only touched ice once in four pitches) with this GIRL who is using mono-points and funny-shaped tools with no leashes and not a screw on her.  Not only that, she is wearing some sort of synthetic pants and football gloves.

We are only doing one-pitch routes that don’t involve an approach at all – unless you consider walking up a plowed road for fifteen minutes an approach.  No need for an alpine start – she picked me up at 10 a.m. and we are done by 4 p.m.  Everyone around – and there there ARE others enjoying the same convenience – are very encouraging.  The suffering, the stress from earlier years is gone – but so is some of the magic.

My first year of ice climbing, I was attending the University of Vermont and a guy at the outing club took me to climb Huntington’s Ravine on Mt Washington.  I borrowed my mom’s hiking boots, some strap-on crampons, a wooden axe, and a wall hammer.  I was decked out in green wool trousers, a plaid wool shirt, and Dachstein mittens.  It was a long post-hole to the base of the route and I did not want to hold this guy up, so I built up quite a sweat.  When we stopped, all the sweat froze and snow clung to the rime ice.  My hair, which hung out of my cap with a pom-pom (otherwise, I was dressed like a man) was a frozen, white giant tangle.

On the route, I belayed for hours as my friend cinched his umbilical cord tight to one tool while he hammered in a wart-hog with the other.  Once it was my turn to climb, I did pull-up after pull-up.  I did not trust my feet because they did not work.  No one told me there was a right and a left crampon and they kept coming off – in the middle of WI 3-4.  At the top, I smiled and said, “That was fun!”  I was not willing to share my real feelings, which were “God help us.”

We were not finished until we were off the route.  Many times, the descent involved several rappels with no fixed anchors.  In this case, it involved finding markers on tress in the midst of a blizzard.  There were no tracks, no one else around, and cell phones did not exist.  It was a different world.

Despite the pain, I enjoyed ice climbing – usually after I was back in the truck with the heater on.  Visually, the many shades of blue ice and the many formations – chandeliers, mushrooms, and pillars – were alluring.  Even more enticing was the intense experience shared with another person that is unique.  I can still have those experiences on certain climbs.  But admittedly, I am enjoying the modern, casual way of climbing – the camaraderie with other women, stylish clothes, and functional gear.

I hope this does not mean that I am getting soft.


Kitty Calhoun grew up in S.C. and began rock climbing in 1978. A year later, she took up ice climbing, while attending the University of Vermont. She became a rock instructor for Outward Bound in 1981 and a guide for the American Alpine Institute from 1985 1990. She guided in Peru, Bolivia, Alaska, Argentina, and Nepal. Among her personal ascents include the Cassin on Denali, the second ascent of the Bouchard route on Chacraraju, the first American female ascent of Dhaulagiri, the first female ascent of Makalu, two new Grade VI wall routes in Kyrkygzstan, a new Grade VI wall route on Middle Triple Peak in Alaska, four routes on El Cap (all with women), and most recently, an ascent of the rarely-formed Diamond Couloir on Mt.Kenya. Kitty earned an MBA from the University of Washington in 1993 and became a mom in 1995. She is an ambassador with Patagonia and lives in Castle Valley, UT. Her interests, besides climbing, include storytelling, coaching, and learning about nutrition and training.

4 responses to ““I hope this does not mean that I am getting soft.”

  1. Kitty is one of my most inspiring role models! I hear her coaching in my head as I climb on rock, mixed and ice. She challenges me beyond what I think I’m ready for. She holds me to a high standard. She is intense, honest, accomplished, driven, fully present with her students and demanding as an instructor, funny, wise and totally unique. Can you tell I like her?

    Lucky me for having multiple opportunities to be guided by Kitty Calhoun through the past decade!

  2. avatar cheryl wallace

    Lovely thoughts from my mentor and good friend. Kitty taught me how to climb and my life was changed forever. The thought of Kitty “getting soft” made me smile. She is always in training to suffer! I appreciate her intensity, commitment to high standards and willingness to share her experiences with others…especially women. She has inspired me to live my life…on and off the rock/ice…the same way.

  3. avatar Janice Ellefson

    Great post, Kitty! You are NOT getting soft. Anne speaks the truth about you, above. You are in inspirational instructor and person in general. While I could only spend a few days with you I will never forget them and hope there are more in the future! Thanks again.

  4. Kitty, you are truly an exemplary climber, leader and
    teacher. And you are about as soft as hot-forged steel. Just
    because every outing is not an epic suffer-fest doesn’t make you
    less of a hardwoman. We WANT you to enjoy those comforts and
    conveniences occasionally–how else would we know you’re human like
    the rest of us? Keep on keepin’ on, Chick.