What's a Nice Southern Girl Doing in a Place Like This?

Outside magazine, June 1993


What's a Nice Southern Girl Doing in a Place Like This?

Kitty Calhoun Grissom, one of the world's finest alpinists, would like to live a normal life. But first she has to solve one Last Great Problem.
By Jon Krakauer


It's lunch hour in the field house at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the gym echoes with the din of clanking Nautilus machines and bouncing StairMasters. I'm here to drop in on my friend Kitty Calhoun Grissom, who's in a back corner of the cavernous room, grimacing beneath a pair of dumbbells, her threadbare T-shirt drenched with sweat.

Though I'm standing directly in her line of sight, Kitty is concentrating so intently on the rise and fall of the stubby iron bars that she fails to notice my presence for a good five minutes. When I finally bark out a sarcastic greeting, she responds with a distracted "Hey!" and then immediately complains in a swampy Carolina twang, "Man, I don't seem to be progressing very fast. You think maybe I'm going about this all wrong or something?"

Kitty, who is 32 and a second-year M.B.A. student at the university, spends two hours a day in this fetid room, four or five days a week, redlining muscle fiber to the point of surrender. On days she doesn't visit the gym, she usually makes up for it by going rock climbing. It's a punishing routine, and she's been a slave to it for six months now. When I suggest that she might actually progress faster if she scheduled rest days between training sessions to allow her body to recover, she scowls and says, "I don't think it'd be a good idea to slack off right now."

She's pushing herself to prepare for an assault this summer on the North Ridge of Latok I in Pakistan, an unclimbed route currently regarded as the Last Great Problem in Himalayan mountaineering. Fabled among climbers for its menacing allure, Latok I, not far from K2 in the Karakoram Range, rises to an altitude of 23,440 feet. Its northern aspect is dominated by a colossal fin of ice-smeared granite. Improbably slender, arching one-and-a-half vertical miles from glacier to summit, the North Ridge brings to mind a gargantuan flying buttress of a cathedral designed by Gaudí on a bad acid trip.

Five-foot-three, with a voice like Tammy Faye Bakker's and the cheerful face of a homecoming queen, Kitty hardly strikes you as one of the best female alpinists in the world. She comes across as girlish, self-effacing, vulnerable. "I don't know what it is about Kitty," muses one of her female friends. "She seems so open, so innocent, that I guess she just brings out the latent parent in me."

But this complex, occasionally exasperating woman is in fact most in her element when poised above a horrific drop, balanced on some frozen outcrop, gulping air barely substantial enough to sustain human life. Before turning 30, she had already stood atop two of the six highest mountains on the planet. Like most of the great practitioners of her frequently deadly sport, Kitty Calhoun Grissom views high-altitude climbing as a calling. And to meet its barbarous demands she's had to teach herself to be hard as stone.

As Kitty goes through her paces in the gym, it's impossible not to notice a shiny pink crescent of scar tissue spanning the crease of her left elbow, glistening beneath a sheen of sweat. Six years old, the wound is a souvenir from her first visit to an 8,000-meter peak.

In 1987 Kitty Calhoun set out to convince three male climbing buddies-- Colin Grissom, a second-year medical student at Yale, and two itinerant mountain guides, brothers John and Matt Culberson--that under her leadership they could climb 26,810-foot Dhaulagiri, the earth's sixth-highest mountain. None of the men had any Himalayan experience or any money to speak of, but Kitty argued that experience was less important than desire and that if they cut costs radically, a major expedition to Nepal needn't be much more expensive than a trip to some relatively humdrum mountain in Alaska or South America. They stuck to a budget of $3,500 per person, which meant a diet of yak cheese and lentils, no bottled oxygen, and no Sherpas to help carry the loads beyond base camp. When the four arrived in Kathmandu and gawked at the platoons of world-renowned climbers preparing for lavishly mounted expeditions, Colin Grissom remembers wondering, "What the hell are we doing here?"

The 1987 Himalayan climbing season was marked by brutal weather and tragic defeats. Between May and December, 11 climbers would lose their lives on the high peaks. But the headlines that year were focused on two competing teams that had come with loudly announced intentions of putting the first American woman atop Mount Everest, a PR gambit that netted each expedition a budget of around $250,000.

While these extravagantly equipped groups--both of which would ultimately fail--were swaggering toward the world's most famous mountain with media reps and armies of Sherpas in tow, Kitty and her crew trekked anonymously toward a mountain that few Americans had ever heard of. A month into the expedition, midway up Dhaulagiri's northeast ridge, Colin was in front of Kitty and John on a fixed rope when he arrived at a slight concavity in the frozen terrain. Immediately above, the route ascended a pocket of wind-packed snow the size of a golf green. Colin, struggling for breath in the thin air, remembers thinking that they should perhaps go a different way, but a strand of rope stretching across the snow slab tantalized the tired climber. The line had been anchored to the slope with a series of stout aluminum pickets just the previous day by a team of Japanese climbers. An improvident thought bubbled dully to the surface of his oxygen-starved brain: "The Japanese went this way. It must be OK."

He stepped gingerly onto the slab, but before he could complete a second step, the snow gave way. "I felt this BOOM!" he says, "like dynamite exploding, then everything started to move." As the avalanche swept the three climbers down Dhaulagiri's immense north face, the pickets securing their rope at 70-foot intervals were plucked from the mountainside one by one. "I was tumbling really fast," says Kitty. "Falling blocks of ice were hitting my head, bouncing hard. And then, all of a sudden, I jerked to a stop." Seven of the eight pickets anchoring the fixed line had failed, but the last one somehow held, arresting the three climbers after a 500-foot tumble and cutting short what would have been a gruesome ride to the valley bottom, nearly a vertical mile below.

Although they were all injured to varying degrees, the climbers managed to disentangle themselves from the rope and limp down to their camp at 19,300 feet, where Matt Culberson was waiting, having witnessed the entire episode. The following morning they took stock of their wounds: Colin had stretched the medial-collateral ligament in his right knee; John had a black eye and a sprained ankle; and the rope had gouged a three-inch groove into the crook of Kitty's left elbow, exposing tendon and bone.

It appeared that the 1987 American Dhaulagiri Expedition was over. No one would have criticized the climbers had they quit on the spot. But Kitty wasn't about to give up, and the will of Kitty Calhoun Grissom is a force of nature in its own right. Six days later, on October 6, the team cleared out of its Dhaulagiri base camp and headed for the summit. The weather remained uncooperative, the avalanche conditions severe. Even though the Japanese expedition they'd been following had given up, the Americans pressed onward. On October 15 they established a camp within striking distance of the top. Exhausted from the effort, they intended, says Kitty, "to take a rest day there at 25,000 feet to acclimatize. But when we woke up the next morning there was a huge wall of storm clouds blowing in from the south. Waiting a day was out of the question." Late that afternoon Kitty, John, and Colin hauled their spent bodies to the crest of the summit.

It was a remarkable accomplishment, especially in a year that until 1991 ranked as the worst in recent Himalayan climbing history. Upon returning to the United States the climbers were surprised to find reporters waiting to meet their plane at the Seattle airport. As it happened, a woman from one of the unsuccessful Everest expeditions had been on the flight. While she fielded questions from the news media just beyond the customs gate, Kitty slipped past the bottleneck without drawing a second glance and hurried off to find some mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.

In the months following the climb, news of Kitty Calhoun's brash Himalayan coup rippled through the ingrown, male-dominated climbing establishment. Magazines started calling for interviews. Invitations arrived from well-funded expeditions more eager than ever to put an American woman on the summit of Everest.

Kitty politely declined all the Everest invitations, explaining that she preferred to lead her own trips and to climb with close friends rather than hastily assembled groups of strangers. "Besides," she points out, "Everest has gotten kind of crowded, and I don't think it's a real pretty mountain." This, like all the pronouncements that pass Kitty's lips, is rendered in a thick southern drawl--"Ah don't thank it's a real purty mountain"--that conforms to nobody's idea of what a brilliant alpinist is supposed to sound like.

While Dhaulagiri strengthened Kitty's resolve to climb on her own terms, it also fundamentally changed her approach to the big peaks. Acting on the recondite logic that avalanches, one of the greatest dangers in Himalayan climbing, tend to occur on gentler slopes, Kitty decided that henceforth she would simply steer clear of easy terrain. It was thus that she set her sights on one of the steepest, most technical routes in the high Himalayas: the West Pillar of Makalu.

In the spring of 1990, Kitty led a collection of friends to the prow of shattered brown granite that soars two vertical miles to the 27,825-foot summit of the world's fifth-highest mountain. She was joined once again by Colin Grissom, whom she had married in 1988, and John Culberson, as well as Kathy Cosley, Mark Houston, and John Schutt, all veteran mountain guides with whom she worked in Washington's North Cascades. "You have to give Kitty credit for having the courage to suggest the climb," says Colin. "When she first proposed such a hard route, I was dubious. But Kitty kept saying, 'We can do it,' and the rest of us started believing her."

For 50 days they labored together on the West Pillar. The wind and the thin, cold air were debilitating, the climbing extreme and unrelenting. Muscles withered; persistent coughing fits tore at the climbers' lungs. By the time the highest camp had been established, at 25,500 feet, only Kitty and John Schutt had enough strength left to try for the summit. "I don't know what it is about Kitty," says Colin. "Early on any given climb, if you tried to guess who would be on the summit team, you wouldn't necessarily pick her. But when you get to high camp, somehow she always seems to be there, still feeling OK, still climbing hard, long after others have run out of gas."

On lowland crags Kitty can lead routes at the 5.11 grade, which is a respectable but unexceptional standard for the 1990s. Hundreds of women now climb at that level or beyond. She doesn't really begin to shine until the altimeter registers 16,000 feet. As the elevation edges toward the so-called death zone and climbers begin to falter, succumbing to headaches, nausea, and severe shortness of breath--all common symptoms of acute mountain sickness--and sometimes even to life-threatening bouts of pulmonary or cerebral edema, Kitty remains relatively unaffected. It's a rare genetic gift, one shared by Reinhold Messner, Tomo Cesen, and a handful of other exceptional Himalayan climbers.

And so, on May 18, at 1 A.M., Kitty and John Schutt crawled out of their tent and started up Makalu's bladelike western ridge. Below them swirled a sea of clouds that obscured every hint of the world except the crowning pyramids of Everest and Lhotse, 12 miles to the west. Shortly before noon they surmounted an undulation in the ridge, and there was nowhere higher to climb. Kitty had become the first woman to climb any of the Himalayan behemoths by a true technical route, what the French call une itinéraire extrême. And she had done it at the fresh young age of 29. Great Himalayan climbers typically don't hit their stride until their late thirties or forties and fail at least as often as they succeed. Kitty, not yet 30, had climbed her second 8,000-meter peak in as many attempts.

In recognition of her Makalu ascent, the American Alpine Club bestowed on Kitty its most coveted honor, the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award, given annually to a climber who demonstrates the highest levels of "skill, courage, and perseverance in the mountaineering arts." She had been elevated to the distinguished company of such other Underhill recipients as Yvon Chouinard, John Bachar, Lynn Hill, and John Roskelley. In order to accept the award, Kitty had to sneak into the club's annual banquet; she couldn't come up with the cash to buy a ticket.

Great mountaineers usually grow up in the mountains. Kitty, raised in the steamy Dixie hinterlands, never even laid eyes on a real mountain until she was a teenager. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1960, she was the first child of a staunchly conservative lawyer and a descendant of John C. Calhoun, the distinguished senator, two-time vice-president, and steadfast defender of the right to own slaves in the years prior to the Civil War. In a famous daguerreotype, taken by Mathew Brady in 1850, the celebrated statesman bears an uncanny resemblance to his great-great-great-great-grandniece.

In keeping with her sterling pedigree, Kitty was raised to be the perfect southern belle. She was instructed, she recalls, "always to say 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, ma'am,' when addressing grown-ups. And we weren't allowed to leave the dinner table without first reciting, 'Thanks, I enjoyed it very much. May I please be excused?'" Her mother was vigilant in seeing that she attended church every Sunday and didn't wear her skirts too short.

When the local schools were desegregated in the late 1960s, Kitty's nervous father responded by enrolling her in a private institution that fostered its share of outmoded southern customs, including a network of fraternities and sororities to which its students were subjected as soon as they reached the sixth grade. There were 30 girls in Kitty's class, and all but Kitty and two or three others were invited to join the exclusive organizations. "Social life at school revolved totally around the sororities," Kitty laments. "You were the worst kind of geek if you weren't invited to join one."

She dealt with the insult by immersing herself in sports, discovering that the more narrowly she focused her energies on field hockey or weekend skiing across the border in North Carolina, the less she noticed the sting of rejection. By ninth grade she was voted captain of the field hockey team and as a consequence was finally invited to join a sorority. "It turned out to be completely boring," Kitty declares scornfully. "I quit after a week."

When Kitty's longtime boyfriend abruptly dumped her for another girl shortly thereafter, it reaffirmed her belief in the value of self-reliance. "I decided to make skiing more important than any boy," she explains. "If I looked to myself instead of somebody else, I wouldn't get hurt."

When the time came to choose a college, her guiding criterion wasn't academic excellence or campus social life, but skiing. "I knew schools out West had the best snow," she says, "but I ended up going to the University of Vermont, because I'd heard the skiing there was really steep and icy, and I thought that would be best for my technique." Already Kitty was demonstrating a strong disinclination to follow the easy path.

In the summer between high school and college, she took a month-long course at the North Carolina Outward Bound School, where she was first introduced to climbing. The sport recast the dimensions of her world. In 1982, as soon as she had graduated from college, Kitty loaded up her Subaru station wagon and headed for Colorado, determined to be a full-time climber. "I budgeted $3,000 per year for expenses," she says, "which allowed $2 a day for food. I never went to restaurants or movies or bought new clothes. It didn't seem like a hardship to do without that stuff. It was actually sort of fun cutting all the unnecessary junk out of my life." She remained on the road for the next six years.

Her first taste of high-altitude mountaineering came in 1984, when she traveled to Peru to climb in the Cordillera Blanca. In Lima, on the second day of the trip, thieves stole a duffel containing her mountaineering boots and other crucial gear. Then her ropemate and boyfriend of the moment announced that he no longer enjoyed climbing and wanted to go home. Further enhancing her welcome to the Andes, Kitty was hit with an intestinal ailment that made it impossible for her to hold down solid food, a condition that persisted for most of the next six weeks.

Kitty went into the mountains anyway. Although it took a nonstop campaign of pleading and cajoling, she convinced her boyfriend to stay and climb with her. At one point they crossed paths with Australian alpinist Greg Child, who recalls that "Kitty looked emaciated, almost like a concentration-camp victim." But she was determined to climb. She attempted a relatively easy peak called Pirámide, became snowblind, and spent her 24th birthday huddled in a tent, writhing in pain. Still, she refused to go home. And ultimately her mulish tenacity was rewarded. Her vision returned, there was a momentary lull in the insurrection in her gut, and she climbed both Alpamayo (19,510 feet) and Quitaraju (19,850 feet). Only then did she fly back to the States.

Although Kitty excels at almost anything she tries, nothing, ironically, seems to come naturally to her; all that she has achieved has been gained only after many, many hours of prodigious effort. And because Kitty develops skills in such a conscious, labor-intensive fashion, her knowledge of some of life's most rudimentary matters is riddled with gaps.

"Kitty is what you might call overly literal," her sister Lucy explains with an affectionate laugh. "She was always good at memorizing texts and cramming for exams--she was a straight-A student--but she had a hard time applying what she learned in books to the real world. If some recipe calls for a dash of salt, she'll have to call Mama up long distance to ask her what exactly a 'dash' is. And she has absolutely no sense of direction: Once in Greenville she got us hopelessly lost driving to school on a route she'd driven a thousand times before. Oh, yeah--Kitty's a piece of work, all right."

The scent of juniper and sagebrush fills the desert morning as we park the truck and descend into the narrow canyon of the Crooked River. The temperature is below freezing here at Oregon's Smith Rock State Park, and several inches of snow blanket the ground, but a pale, south-facing cliff known as the Dihedrals blocks the February wind and acts as a natural solar oven, magnifying the sun's faint rays until the yellowish rock feels almost hot. Many of the 40-odd climbers dangling from the walls have stripped down to shorts and tank tops.

Kitty, however, doesn't feel like joining them. "I've climbed everything at the Dihedrals I can climb," she carps. "Let's hike over to the Mesa Verde Wall. There's supposed to be this real good route up there, and I'd like to try leading it."

Mesa Verde is more than a mile away, deep in winter shadow, on the frigid northwest side of the escarpment. When I point out that it's bound to be miserable there right now, Kitty is unmoved. "We'll have the whole place to ourselves," she insists happily. "It'll be fun." I've climbed with Kitty on dozens of occasions over the years, and long ago came to recognize the distinctive way she picks at her fingernails when a particular route is locked in her cross-hairs. Instead of wasting time trying to dissuade her from this bad idea, I bite my tongue, shoulder my pack, and start trudging over Asterisk Pass.

After a long hike, we arrive below the route Kitty has in mind: a line of minuscule nubbins leading up a clean, bulging face. The initial moves are covered by a scab of ice. A bitter wind buffets the exposed wall. Kitty pulls her worn-out rock shoes on over bare feet, improvises a detour around the ice patch, and spends the next hour inching from hold to tiny hold, slowly unlocking the vertical puzzle, losing herself in the ecstasy of ascent.

The rock is so cold that it's painful to touch. Every few minutes Kitty balances calmly on crystals the size of shirt buttons and tucks first one hand and then the other against her neck until the numbness subsides. Eventually she reaches the ledge that marks the top of the climb, anchors the rope to a pair of bolts, and belays me. By the time I arrive at the ledge my hands and feet are clumps of frozen meat. Kitty is shivering uncontrollably, but she is beaming. "I thought that was a pretty nice climb," she says. "How 'bout you?"

Sometimes it makes you stop and think," Kitty muses during the long drive home from Smith Rock. "A human life seems like a lot to pay just to climb a mountain." The life that's on her mind is that of Polish mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz, who disappeared last summer trying to reach the 28,208-foot summit of Kanchenjunga in Nepal. Rutkiewicz, the most accomplished female alpinist of all time, had climbed eight 8,000-meter peaks, a record matched by only 13 men.

"I've thought a lot about Wanda's death," Kitty admits. "I really admired her. You start wondering if climbing is worth it. I've had close calls. I've been so scared at times I've been sick to my stomach. When I was younger, nothing seemed as important as climbing, and it was easier to take risks. Now I'm starting to appreciate things outside climbing more. I think it'd be fun to grow old."

Rutkiewicz's death wasn't the first to intrude on Kitty's happiness. There was a close friend who died on Colorado's Chair Peak, another who died on Alaska's Mount Foraker. And there was the shocking loss of Mugs Stump, who fell into a crevasse in May of last year while guiding clients on a relatively easy route on Denali. "When I heard Mugs was dead it freaked me out," Kitty says. "He was a hero to so many people; he was larger than life. Mugs was the last person in the world you'd expect to die on a Denali trade route."

Kitty falls silent for several minutes, staring out into the night as the truck speeds across the Oregon desert. "I spent a lot of energy trying to figure out exactly how Mugs screwed up," she says. "By eventually convincing myself that he made an avoidable mistake, I was able to keep believing that if you're careful you can have control over whether you live or die, that climbing doesn't have to be like Russian roulette. If I stopped believing that, I don't know if I could keep climbing."

Given the fatality rates for high-altitude mountaineering, an advanced aptitude for denial is a fundamental requisite for anybody who climbs repeatedly in the Himalayas. Some tragedies, however, resist even the most skillful efforts to rationalize them away. Some losses simply refuse to be denied.

Later, in the middle of the night, Kitty brings up a calamity that has hovered in her thoughts for the past eight years. "He had dark hair, and these blue, blue eyes," she says. "When I was with him we'd have a lot of fun." She's talking about Gib, the brother seven years her junior who died in 1984.

Kitty's parents had separated six years earlier. She was spending Christmas with Gib and their youngest sister, Helen, at their mother's house in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. On New Year's Eve, says Kitty, Gib didn't show up for dinner, "so Mama got worried and called the police. A little later the sheriff came to the door and took Mama into the back room. He told her they'd found Gib out in the woods behind the house. He'd shot himself. There was no note or anything; nobody had any idea why he did it."

Kitty handled the tragedy the same way she handles all adversity, by willing it into submission. But this time the fabled Calhoun determination let her down. Almost immediately after the funeral she drove back to Colorado, where she'd been living out of her car, and resumed her nomadic routine. "It was hard to put everything out of my mind and just climb," she says. "I got worn down physically. Months later I realized I was really upset. I tried to work it out in my head, tried to figure out what I could learn from Gib's death. I sort of figured out a few things, but I was never really able to make peace with what happened.

"Gib had a lot going for him," Kitty adds, then she grows quiet. Outside the truck, the profile of Mount Hood juts above hundred-foot firs, a dark smear against the cold glow of the stars. "Sometimes," she confesses, breaking the silence, "I like to pretend that he isn't really dead, that he's on a long trip and is going to come back someday."

The street is in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, lined with tidy homes and well-tended beds of azaleas. The neighbors are thus somewhat taken aback when Kitty Grissom, whom they know simply as a pretty graduate student, bursts out the door of her rented bungalow and flings a plate of hot lasagna onto the front walk, shattering the calm of the Seattle evening. "If that's the way you feel about it," she hollers at the top of her lungs, "then you can cook your own damn dinner from now on!"

After several minutes her husband Colin walks sheepishly outside and cleans up the mess. By and by, an understanding is reached, and before long a chastened Colin, who, under the strain of his residency at a nearby hospital, had the temerity to tell his wife he didn't like the way she was ironing his shirts, is laughing again. "Do you have any idea what it's like," he asks me a few days later, "to live with somebody who always, always gets her way?"

Kitty met Colin in the winter of 1985, shortly after Gib's death, when they were both working for the Colorado Outward Bound School. A 190-pound, Skoal-dipping, Yale-educated former All American wrestler from Denver, Colin was trying to decide whether to go to medical school or settle into the dirt for good and become a career climbing bum. That spring Kitty was looking for a partner to attempt Denali's difficult Cassin Ridge, and Colin volunteered.

A violent storm hit the mountain when they were camped at 17,500 feet, trapping them near the top of the exposed ridge for five days with no food and only enough stove fuel to melt two cups of water per day. "It was a very bad situation," Colin remembers, "but Kitty stayed remarkably calm. I drew strength from her example." By the time the weather finally subsided they were experiencing dizzy spells from hunger and dehydration. They nevertheless managed to stagger over the summit and descend the West Buttress to safety.

After Denali, Colin opted to forgo full-time climbing and take the medical-school route instead. Kitty went her own way, spending most of the next two years guiding back-to-back climbs in Bolivia, Peru, Alaska, Argentina, and Nepal. But Colin had left an impression on her. "At first," she says, "I figured that because he'd gone to Yale he'd think he was better than everybody else. But he didn't. Colin took me seriously; he was the first guy I'd gotten involved with who ever had."

Kitty and Colin were reunited on Dhaulagiri in 1987. They got married the following winter and moved to Seattle in 1990. Kitty, who was growing weary of the rootless guiding life, decided to pursue her M.B.A. at the University of Washington.

This month she will graduate; by the fall she hopes to land a management position somewhere in the climbing industry--though few of her friends can imagine Kitty behind a desk. Also come fall, she says, "I want to get a dog and start having kids and find a little house near the mountains. I guess I'm getting kind of normal and boring in my old age."

Kitty's sense of what constitutes a normal life is less than orthodox, however. She views normality simply as one more useful skill to learn, like Spanish, say, or calculus--something that, with sufficient elbow grease and resolve, can be grafted onto her current lifestyle with a minimum of fuss. She sees no problem, for instance, in reconciling her plans for domestic bliss with flying off to Pakistan to take a shot at the most notorious unclimbed line in mountaineering.

When Kitty departs on June 18 for the Karakoram to attempt the North Ridge of Latok I, it will be in the same spartan, low-budget style as all her previous expeditions. There will be just four climbers: Kitty, Colin, and another married couple, their friends Julie Brugger and Andy DeKlerk. It will be far and away the most serious climb any of them has undertaken.

Latok's North Ridge was first attempted in 1978 by Americans Michael Kennedy, Jeff Lowe, George Lowe, and Jim Donini. In an epic push that lasted 26 days, they were turned back less than a thousand feet short of the top by foul weather and a mysterious illness that nearly killed Jeff Lowe. Even though they failed, the four climbers--among the best in the world at the time--called it perhaps the finest thing they'd ever done. Jeff Lowe was so impressed by the route that a few years later, when he launched a company that sold state-of-the-art climbing gear, he named it Latok.

The climb has been tried four times since by very strong teams, none of which got higher than halfway up. The most recent attempt was last summer, when Jeff Lowe returned to the route with the talented French alpinist Catherine Destivelle; they gave up after climbing less than a quarter of the ridge.

And now Kitty has her laserlike energies directed at this Last Great Problem. "It's going to be a long climb," she says. "By the time we reach the upper part of the ridge, we're going to be way extended. We'll be cold and wet and tired. We'll be feeling the altitude. We probably won't have eaten or slept much for several days. It would be easy, in a situation like that, to cut corners on safety, because you're just too wasted to care. We're going to have to make extra sure we take the time to do things right."

She pauses for several beats, staring at her hands, her mouth pursed in contemplation. When she speaks again, her eyes are gleaming. "I know Latok's going to be really, really hard," she declares, smiling broadly now. "Which means I'll probably learn a lot from it. And that's really the whole point of doing this stuff, don't you think?"

Contributing editor Jon Krakauer's story on the death of Christopher McCandless appeared in the January issue.

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