Ives was born in 1976, the first of two girls. Her parents, Kathy and Bill, met in their late twenties while hiking up Mount Greylock in northwest Massachusetts. They seemed a natural fit: intellectuals, political progressives, and nature lovers who’d road-tripped around the country independently prior to meeting in Cambridge. Bill did his doctoral work in educational psychology and won a postdoc in the Harvard lab of Howard Gardner, the developmental psychologist renowned for his theory of multiple intelligences. At the time, Gardner was heading up an initiative called Project Zero to investigate how children and adults develop artistic talent.
Bill and Kathy sited their new home 13 miles northwest of Cambridge, adjacent to a nature preserve and a dense hemlock forest, with a skein of trails extending from their backyard to Pine Hill and Walden Pond. Bill built Katie an art studio, and she became a Project Zero study subject. He watched her paint, with his tape recorder and notebook in hand. Weird things began to happen. One day during a drive into Cambridge, the toddler read the words on a billboard they often passed, and Bill nearly lost control of the car. After adults read Katie several dragon fables, taken from various cultures and traditions, the three-year-old turned to her father and said, “In China they honor their dragons. They don’t try to slay them.”
By age seven, Katie was determined to become a writer, but she was also “obsessed with the idea that a meaningful life meant having adventures.” She toughened herself by walking barefoot in snow, crossing icy streams, going into the hemlock forest at night without a flashlight. Before long, Bill, Kathy, and Katie started knocking off New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks together—48 in all. Many of the forays took them above tree line, where, as she writes in her new book, she noticed “a sense of inner stillness and emptiness” in herself, “a glass-like clarity of being, as if the light passed unfiltered into [her]; a presentiment of the vastness glimmering beyond the edge of sight and mind.”
Katie’s sister, Sarah, was born in 1981. After that there were trips out west: summer camp in Colorado and two more to Washington State, where Ives first saw big, snowy peaks. She was especially impressed by Mount Rainier, which Bill climbed with a guided group while the family waited at the lodge below.
At home, books numbered in the thousands, packed into walls of built-in shelves. She read The Lord of the Rings trilogy once a year starting in grade school. She was taking on difficult Russian novelists by 13, and then she got into the Romantics and Victorians. She loves the Brontes, Mary Shelley, and especially George Eliot, whose Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch serve as literary lodestones. She told her mother that she wouldn’t date anyone who disliked Eliot.
When Katie was ten, her parents divorced. She remembers no signs of marital strife; her father simply moved to the Massachusetts coast and climbed mountains with his daughters on weekends. Her mother returned to college for an MBA. Kathy and her girls formed a triumvirate of mutual support, but at school, Katie’s classmates bullied her. She’s never figured out why. It could have been her precocity, her unusual vocabulary, or the hand-me-down clothes she wore. “I was so low in the social hierarchy that even the nerds were too cool for me,” she says. She escaped into books, into the woods. At night, in lucid dreams, she explored the hemlock forest and discovered and habitually climbed an immense, snowy peak.
When the bullying at school became unbearable, Katie made a brazen request: to transfer to the same private all-girls academy her mother had attended, the Winsor School, in Boston. Miraculously, the school’s headmistress found a scholarship, and Ives was liberated from daily hazing. “I mean, you can only take so much,” she says, reflecting on her classmates’ cruelty and acknowledging her good fortune. “Maybe I wouldn’t have survived, made it to adulthood.”
Ives says the bullying gave her something, too. “It pushed me into a world of the imagination, and it pushed me into spending time in nature, because human society was scary,” she says. “I would go out in the woods at night, and I felt safe. I would inhabit my daydream world in school, because it shielded me from everything around me. And all of those things went into making me a writer, editor, and climber, because mountains were a safe place compared to school.”
“I suffered so much as a kid,” Ives says. “I developed this terror of other people’s suffering. I didn’t want anyone to feel the way I felt. If there was anything I could do to make somebody else’s life easier, to make someone feel more at ease, and make someone feel more welcome or accepted, I would do it.” It was through climbing, Ives told me, that she learned to trust people again.
Ives graduated from Winsor in 1994. With a merit scholarship in hand, she was off to Paris to study at the Sorbonne during an academic gap year. There she met artists, jazz musicians, people who enjoyed discussing literature until dawn. “I had this notion that one of my goals was to teach myself to see,” she says.
She found Harvard, in turn, competitive, elitist, and made few friends at first. “I remember being too embarrassed to tell my roommate how lonely I was,” she says. She took to wandering Harvard Square alone on Friday nights. She found refuge in the school’s mountaineering club during her junior year. At 22, she was rock-climbing in New Hampshire at Whitehorse and Rumney, and top-roping ice in the Flume Gorge.
In 1997, she was hired by Let’s Go, the Harvard student-run travel-guide series, to update parts of the guidebook to France. She was in the Auvergne–Rhône-Alpes region one summer when she wandered into Le Puy-en-Velay, one of the traditional northern launching points for the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route. Charmed by “the weight of the past,” she resolved to walk it herself. She returned the following summer with Sarah, and the sisters hiked together from Le Puy to the Spanish border before Sarah returned to the States. Katie continued on past the standard ending point to Cape Finisterre, completing a pilgrimage of over 800 miles. “There’s a feeling of slipping out of time on that walk,” she says. “A sense of solidarity that has something in common with the bond between climbing partners.”
In her award-winning Harvard honors thesis, “Ways of Wandering: Pilgrimage in Modernity,” Ives traced the imprint of theological allegory on modernist narratives. One reviewer, who chided her for introducing more ideas than she could assimilate, congratulated her on connecting pilgrimage and the symbols within landscapes, “turning the journey itself into a schematic and geographical representation of the life of an individual.” Substitute climbing for pilgrimage, and that sounds like an Alpinist narrative.
She entered the Peace Corps in 1999 because she wanted time to think about her life and also make herself useful. She chose Mongolia because she liked the cold. She chopped wood, fetched water, and assembled a library in her small town, and remembers the day a nomad galloped into town to borrow One Hundred Years of Solitude. After entering the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2002, she took up with a group of local climbers. They explored Iowa’s river canyons, ice-climbed up grain silos, and day-tripped to Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake State Park, where Ives took a leader fall, broke her ankle, but continued to climb through the pain. (“I don’t experience pain the way most normal people do,” she told me.) She taught a community-college course in creative writing for a semester before moving to Jackson, to begin her career at Alpinist.