Katie on the summit of the Grand Teton, after a winter climb of the Owen-Spalding with Dylan Taylor
Photo: Dylan Taylor
Katie on the summit of the Grand Teton, after a winter climb of the Owen-Spalding with Dylan Taylor
Ives on the summit of the Grand Teton, after a winter climb of the Owen-Spalding route (Photo: Photo: Dylan Taylor)

“I Write for Katie”: How Katie Ives Climbs Mountains at ‘Alpinist’

A revered figure in modern climbing literature, Katie Ives is known for her intense work ethic and for encouraging writers who weren’t always invited to the club. In her first book, she explores how the physical and fantastical aspects of big peaks have, for centuries, inspired human dreams.

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Katie Ives still laughs about the bungled adjective that saved her life.

She was high in the Tetons more than a decade ago, at the crux of an ice-plastered climb. Night was falling. Her hands were wooden from the cold, and a fall spelled death. In that dire moment, Ives did not pray for safe deliverance. She did not consider the grief of family and friends when they heard the news. She did not mourn the loss of a dream career.

“What went through my head were the proofs sitting on my desk at home,” says the editor in chief of Alpinist magazine. “And the fact that one of my writers wrote something she hadn’t meant to write. And if I die, people are going to think my writer doesn’t know the difference between nauseous and nauseated.”

Limbs invigorated by this peril, Ives made the move, rushed to Alpinist’s office in Jackson, Wyoming, corrected the error, and saved the writer—her writer—from unthinkable embarrassment.

“It’s a funny story,” Ives says. “But it says more about who I was then rather than who I am now.” She objects when I point out that the mistake was extraordinarily forgettable and the correction overly perfectionistic.

“I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that I’m a perfectionist,” she tells me. “Say that I care about craft.”

Ives’s care for craft runs deep. As Tami Knight, her friend and a frequent Alpinist contributor, puts it: “Katie has been Katie since Katie started being Katie.”

Ives in 2014, inside the Alpinist offices in Jeffersonville, Vermont
Ives in 2014, inside the Alpinist offices in Jeffersonville, Vermont (Photo: Brad Rassler)

The mystery of Katherine Reed Ives begins a few decades before 2004, the year she signed on to serve a dual role as an intern and a copy editor at Alpinist, a publication that celebrates climbing in its purest forms, and which Reinhold Messner once called the best of its kind. After her ascent to its top job in 2012, Ives accelerated a process that two talented male predecessors had begun: upending mountaineering’s hoary literary tradition. She cut a lot of the solipsistic, hypermasculine, imperialist bass notes from climbing narratives and pushed beyond stereotypes about the mindset of people who scale extreme lines on all kinds of rock. She cultivated new climbing writers, along with seasoned pros from other genres who might never have thought to write for Alpinist. Over time she established a multiethnic, multi-heritage, and gender-diverse talent pool. Since 2018, half of her bylined contributors have been women or nonbinary people, and in the latest issue, Alpinist 75, in which contributors consider the future of alpinism on a turbulent planet, half the writers are BIPOC.

In 2012, Ives commissioned an essay from James Edward Mills, a Black climber, guide, and writer, in which he explored the absence of people in the mountains who look like him. Within a year of publication, he was approached by Mountaineers Books to expand the piece into a book. The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors has become a landmark in the movement to increase diversity in the world outside, and Mills, a recent recipient of a National Geographic Explorer grant, credits Ives with a good deal of his success. “I owe her more than I probably even realize, in terms of her contributions to the writing of that book,” he told me.

It should be said that the 45-year-old Ives is a white woman whose forebears arrived in North America in 1635, and that she’s a product of the Winsor School, the Sorbonne, Harvard, the Peace Corps, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s aware of her privilege and blanches at the notion that she deserves much credit for decolonizing outdoor journalism. When you tell her that she has cultivated an international literary citizenship de la corde, she’ll tell you about five specific ways she fell short in the most recent issue and how much work remains to redress the diversity balance. It’s tough to be a standard-bearer, and she doesn’t like to disappoint. You get the feeling that it’s not always easy being Katie Ives.

Before Ives, Alpinist was already prized by climbing cognoscenti, academics, and armchair fans. It was admired and even envied by the editors of competing publications for its high production values, 15,000-word features, and the lack of advertorials or how-tos or top-ten lists or gear reviews. It was a magazine for purists. From the get-go, it took readers seriously, and its creators launched the first full issue by invoking William Morris, the 19th-century British poet, novelist, and social activist: “We wanted nothing in the magazine that we did not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Alpinist has always been a handsome publication, a big, shiny collectible printed on expensive paper stock, something meant to be shelved with spines on display, and never, ever used as a coaster. (Today back issues of Alpinist are sold on eBay, often in excess of the original newsstand price.) Four times a year, subscribers crack open a new 50,000-word magazine and find original artwork, voyeuristic full-bleed photographs with deep captions, profiles, poetry, essays, footnoted explainers, memoirs, short fiction, and oral histories—all of it painstakingly edited, and obsessively fact-checked, and frequently translated from a language other than English. Sometimes sprawling histories of entire mountain ranges or lone peaks consume a third of the pages: Mount Everest, Nanda Devi, the Eiger, the Dru. No gym climbing, thank you. No sport climbing. No bouldering. No guided walk-ups. At present there are 75 issues, numbered 0 to 75 on the bindings and cover. (Although there was no Alpinist 13.) Filed upright, they occupy roughly two linear feet of shelf space. Think The Paris Review, swathed in Gore-Tex.

Articles written for Ives are often short-listed at the annual book and film festival held at the Valhalla of mountain culture, Alberta’s Banff Centre, where the magazine has been a 12-time finalist in the mountaineering article competition, winning four. Ives has received several literary awards herself, including one from the American Alpine Club, but in the eyes of her contributors and colleagues, she’s worthy of many more. Alpinist’s founding editor, Christian Beckwith, says that Ives is “the best editor climbing has ever known.” She’s edited the lions of mountaineering and winners of the Piolet D’or, but more important, she’s provided a platform for new voices.

“And then she mentors them,’’ says Stephen Slemon, a scholar of postcolonial literature at the University of Alberta. “She listens with attention, and with respect, when those new voices speak, for they say things otherwise, and in cadences that mountaineering literature has not traditionally sounded.”

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Of course, something always has to give. Ives’s career has come at no small cost to her personal life. For the better part of two decades, she’s worked the hours of a Goldman Sachs junior banker for much, much less money. On birthdays and holidays, she can often be found working at home, alone. She has seldom traveled for pleasure in the past seven years. Friends and colleagues have looked with wonder at Facebook humblebrags about putting in 90-hour weeks, reading 900-page books in French and Latin to inform a 2,000-word essay, and pulling successive all-nighters to perfect an already immaculate magazine prior to closing. She feels the sting of being a thought leader in a predominantly male space, and has dealt with online harassment, trolling, stalking, and unalloyed sexism. “Old guy climbers love to shit on young women and mansplain,” says her friend Knight.

Ives has visited few of the mountain ranges the magazine covers, and her résumé on rock and ice pales next to editors of other climbing publications. Not because of a lack of athleticism, though: she’s simply chosen to suffer more over words than climbs. She often worries about not getting things precisely right, either politically or factually, and sometimes to a degree that seems obsessive. “The standards that Alpinist maintains are absolutely wonderful,” says award-winning writer Bernadette McDonald, a founder of literary and film programs at the Banff Centre, a frequent Alpinist contributor, and a friend of Ives. “But I don’t think we demand them. I think it’s someone else who demands them. I think her name is Katie.”

Ives’s pursuit of excellence can chafe. Several years ago, there were times when readers noticed that parts of some Alpinist stories scanned a lot like her writing, which is distinctive for its atmospheric openings and the immoderate use of words like glimmer and lambent and gloaming. That doesn’t happen much anymore—former editor in chief Michael Kennedy told me that he and Adam “Howie” Howard, CEO of Alpinist’s parent company, intervened, especially after someone with the handle nopantsben made this precise observation on the Supertopo climbers’ forum in August 2014.

I’ve written several stories for Ives. I can tell you that her sensitivity to the written word—every nuance, every hidden meaning—is sui generis. In 2018, after putting the final touches on a 13,000-word feature, I was awakened at 1:30 A.M. Pacific time. It was Ives calling from Alpinist’s current hometown, Jeffersonville, Vermont, to discuss a single paragraph—a conversation that lasted for hours. She knew what she wanted, and she wore me down. When the piece came out, I noticed for the first time that she had appended a sentence to decry the confiscation of Indigenous lands. When I asked why, she said that it was important for people to be aware of that historical dynamic. I was surprised at the liberties she’d taken with my words, but ultimately I agreed with her.

“Let’s just say that I had hair before hiring Katie, and now I’m bald,” says Howard. “Have you ever had an argument with her? Debated her? Well, you don’t win.” In the next breath, he lauds Ives for pushing readers and staff and him to reconsider their assumptions. “I’ve had to reflect really hard on how I interface with the world now that I actually know that I’ve been part of the power structure,” he says.

Beckwith and others believe that Alpinist reflects Ives’s artistic, scholarly, and political sensibilities, which translates into an institutional voice of high seriousness. The literature of social change is rarely humorous, but Emily Dickinson may have been onto something when she advised people to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In other words, maybe the magazine could use a jolt of irreverence now and then.

“If you’re really going to celebrate climbing, you’ve got to get inside the fact that it’s patently absurd,” Beckwith says. “And that’s where the real color happens. Because if it’s just poetry, you’re missing the fact that life is not always poetic, that sometimes it’s soiled and sometimes it’s a drunken mess. And sometimes, you know, it’s a fucking one-night stand on a belay ledge.”

Which raises a question. How do you shape a new literary aesthetic of inclusiveness while honoring the roots of the genre: the renegade, often irreverent, politically incorrect, fierce individualism that has distinguished climbing as unusually tribal and feral? Howard mentions a white male who canceled his subscription because he was tired of feeling bad every time he opened the magazine. “I’ve had people I respect who call me out and say, ‘You know, don’t you think Katie’s gone a little too far?’” Howard concedes that the disgruntled are usually white guys. He says he’s lost readers to Ives’s dominion, but he’s gained them, too. “Katie’s been a pathfinder for Alpinist, and also for us here,” he says, noting that “much of the pathfinding she did, and continues to do, we haven’t been ready for.” Arguably, no one was ready for Ives’s thought leadership. The main thing is that she began to morph Alpinist—a niche publication chronicling a niche sport—into a literary vehicle that showcased fresh voices in ways that editors of competing outlets found impossible to ignore.

At the dawning of Alpinist 76, new opportunities are in the works for Ives. After years of nearly single-handing the magazine, she has a capable team to share the load: a deputy editor with a doctorate in English literature and an online editor with serious journalism and climbing credentials. (Mike Lorenz, the longtime art director, is as punctilious as Ives and responsible for the magazine’s aesthetic, which readers value as much as the words.) When Howard bought the bankrupt business in 2008 and hired Ives, he told her she would need to relocate to Vermont from Alpinist’s former home in Jackson, but he’s recently informed her that she’s free to live wherever she pleases. Mostly, Ives claims she wants to bust loose from the confines of a desk. She recently took her first climbing holiday in years, and is ready for more. “I need a big quest of my own before I get much older,” she told me.

In the summer of 2014, Mountaineers commissioned Ives to write her first book. Given her devotion to the magazine, she struggled to find time to research and write it, but she completed the final edits this summer. Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams, a bricolage of cultural and physical history, biography, geography, and memoir, was published on October 1, and the blurbs herald something that sounds, well, unusual.

“A cat-footed exploration of the vaporous fantasies, deceptions, and obsessions of the climbing world,” writes Robert Moor, author of On Trails: An Exploration, “this book is a noble successor to Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, but also, in a way, to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It is, in every sense of the word, dreamy.”

From left: Katie as a child in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1978; Katie in her grandparents’ house in Sudbury, Massachusetts
From left: Ives in 1978, playing in Belmont, Massachusetts; with her mother, Kathy, at her grandparents’ home in Sudbury, Massachusetts (Right photo: Bill Ives)

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.

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I first met Ives on a June morning seven years ago, when I showed up for an Alpinist internship in Jeffersonville.

“I didn’t expect you until tomorrow,” she said, emerging from a dark and dusty book-strewn office.

Ives was tall and lean, with long auburn hair and pale skin. She wore a black T-shirt, jeans, and black Uggs. We shook hands. She suppressed an embarrassed smile and shifted her gaze, as if she were unaccustomed to handshakes. She introduced me to Alpinist’s associate editor before disappearing. She’d be shipping the magazine in two weeks. There were still articles to edit.

I was in grad school at the time and had sought out Alpinist because Ives had already earned a reputation as a polymath who was transforming middlebrow climbing narratives into works of art.

Before traveling east from Nevada, I’d read Ives’s essays. We traded emails. I learned that her favorite novel is Proust’s opus, In Search of Lost Time, but untranslated. “You need the music of the original French to get a real sense of what Proust was trying to do,” Ives told me. If, after you’d dispatched Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu en français, and she learned you liked to hike up trails at night as she did, she had the perfect bit of reading esoterica to recommend: the “Nature Speaks” chapter of George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. To broaden my worldview regarding writing for publication—in a book foreword she’d denounced “the creeping traces of banality and conformity in outdoor journalism”—I found in my inbox Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

I already knew Alpinist’s backstory: it was a boutique quarterly funded by a dot-com gazillionaire whose renegade cofounder, Beckwith—the recently fired editor of the American Alpine Journal—was intent on revealing the unvarnished soul of alpinism. That was in 2002. Within two years, the company was hemorrhaging so much money that the editorial team arrived each morning not knowing if they’d have a job come nightfall. Ives, just out of a two-year stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, signed on during that time and immediately made an impression. No one was smarter. And no one logged more hours.

“She could really get inside the story, she could find the soul, and then she could find the poetry,” Beckwith told me. At the same time, he worried about her. “I mean, she’s the only person I’ve ever met who could actually work herself to death. She would not sleep, not leave, just work and work and work and work. It was not healthy. But there was a genius to it, too. And you know, she couldn’t help herself. She didn’t have the capacity to do less.”

Beckwith would order her out of the office, but then he’d pile on more work. Exhausted from 100-hour weeks, she pushed herself into the mountains to climb on weekends; she occasionally ran out of light and spent an unplanned night shivering on a bivy ledge. She would stumble into work post-epic, and another cycle would begin.

Alpinist’s original backer—Marc Ewing, founder of Red Hat software—jettisoned the magazine in 2008 after the recession ravaged his net worth. Ives was bereft, reduced to sleepless nights. But Howard and his team, the publishers of Backcountry, figured they could make it work by running lean and mean. They bought Alpinist’s assets and moved the operation from Wyoming to Vermont. Howard hired Ives after she told him: “I don’t care if I have to live in a basement in New Jersey eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I just want to work for Alpinist.” He rehired the former website editor and recruited Michael Kennedy—one of the finest alpinists and editors of his generation—to run the magazine. The reorganized team put out its first issue in 2009.

Readers liked it, and soon the magazine was operating in the black, arguably for the first time. These days, about 65 percent of Alpinist’s 5,500 paid subscribers renew annually. There is now an Alpinist Korea. An Alpinist podcast. New writers want in; veteran writers keep showing up—despite the multiple drafts Ives often demands of everybody—motivated not by the modest per-word rate but by the opportunity to work with her. “The long and short of it,” James Edward Mills told me, “is that I don’t write for the money, and I don’t even write for Alpinist. I write for Katie.”

During my internship, I worked 12 hours a day, five days a week, while Ives worked 15 hours every day. As heat and humidity warped the office floorboards, she consumed quarts of strong coffee, the occasional bite of dark chocolate, and ate her meals, mostly salads, in her office, from which she seldom emerged. She was soft-spoken, mild-mannered, guileless and kind; there was no posturing, no pretension, nothing suggesting a revolutionary or diva. But her editorial hegemony was plain, her imprint evident on every word in the magazine, from the cover copy to the captions. Deadlines were extended to appease Ives’s devotion to craft and her concern for her writers. The air smelled of sweat. Deadlines were extended again.

Over the past seven years, while writing for Ives, we became friends. Recently, I reviewed early drafts of my Alpinist pieces and related correspondence. In her editor’s comments, Ives had requested more atmospheric exposition, sure, but understood precisely what I’d wanted to say. “Somewhere in this section,” she wrote during one edit, “we need to add back some reference to the idea of why this mattered to you and to your sense of identity, in a way that links back to why the truth mattered.” The emails were full of Ives’s favorite semaphore: =) Depending on context, it can mean: Thanks!, I’m stoked, You’re wrong, You should have known better, or I’ve got other pieces to work on and I’ve got to go. She likes to combine it with phrases like “hehe” and “nice!” and “yikes!” and “Hope you’re well.”

Whether I agreed with the suggestions or not—I did, mostly—what really impressed me was Ives’s willingness to work as hard as I did, not just during the editing process but in the human-growth department. Ives’s unconditional positive regard for a writer’s abilities, supplemented by a raft of smiley emoticons and approbatory exclamation marks, seemed consistent with something she said to me last April: “Everyone contains unknown realms of possibility and beauty within their minds. I believe strongly, to the point of it being a matter of principle, that all human beings are worthy of attention and love.”

From left: Katie reading in the apple tree, Lincoln, Massachusetts,1985; right, Katie after climbing the Northeast Ridge of Pinnacle Buttress, Huntington Ravine, Mount Washington (Agiocochook) in New Hampshire with a Vermont climbing partner, Richard Hill
From left: Ives in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1985; Ives on Mount Washington (Right photo: Richard Hill)

Last spring I arranged a series of Zoom interviews with Ives. During one session, she appeared on my computer screen with a softball-size blob of matted fur and black button eyes and two-foot tail.

“This is Rat,” she said.

As a kid, Ives adored stuffed animals, secondhand ones that no one else wanted. “She’d just bring them home and love them,” her mother told me.

Ives lives alone in rural Vermont, occupying an in-law unit bounded by a cornfield on one side and a bend of the Lamoille River on the other. She’d just come in from a two-hour run and told me that she felt better than she had in years. She looked thinner than I remembered, and was still clad in a black top and jeans, and wearing dark lipstick. Her long hair was tucked behind her ears. An uneven summit of 20 or so Alpinists were stacked on her bedside table. Behind the table hung a small print of a snow-streaked mountain, purchased by her mother to add color to the room.

Out of view was the dwelling’s other celebrated tenant, also a gift from her mother: a gangling nine-foot-tall bird-of-paradise named Plant, which Ives mentions occasionally on Facebook. Plant serves as Ives’s foil, proof that she nurtures something other than text. Her humor, which she exudes with a kind of earnestness that plays as deadpan, can be deadly: she’s made me laugh out loud during text exchanges. Ives isn’t the type for belly laughs, but she can and often does laugh at herself, sometimes hinting at a streak of masochism, like when she laughs about stories that involve physical pain. For example, there was the time she took a leader fall that shattered some teeth. A different fall broke an ankle. Once, she overhauled a 30,000-word story through nearly a week of sleepless nights.

She never mentions a significant other. Ask, like I did—actually, don’t ask like I did—and she might tell you that the topic is intrusive and off-limits, saying later that her life is full enough without a companion.

In addition to editing Alpinist’s feature pieces, Ives writes four essays a year for a section called Sharp End, which she uses as a place to pose big questions and explore complicated ideas, ranging from the allure of imaginary mountains to whether Petrarch’s 14th-century hike up Mount Ventoux, France, was really the first known recreational climb in history. Ives suggests that a female pilgrim named Egeria, who in the fourth century climbed a steep line on Egypt’s Jebel Musa—the putative Mount Sinai—was the first real alpinist.

Her writing is rich in Gothic detail: long shadows on icy cliffs, the charcoal hues of dusk, the shimmer of golden light on dusty fields. I’d known Ives for six years before she casually mentioned that she’d been a serious art student. As a teen, she studied with a well-respected classical realist in Boston, and later at a Paris atelier during her year at the Sorbonne. Sometime after college she realized she’d never excel at both writing and art. She chose writing and editing, but the canvas is never far away when she works.

“It’s like writing, it’s like climbing,” Ives says of those days. “It’s learning to get into that flow state, learning to see the relationships between line and shadow, learning to see the correspondences between one curve and another curve.”

“And you kind of get to this point,” she says, “where you start to feel the harmony that exists within everything that you’re studying, that you kind of start to see.”

Ives’s ability to conjure what she sees is perhaps the single most distinguishing feature of her work, her editing, and her life. She has a gift for perceiving the potential in a manuscript that its author missed. In her own writing, and in that of others’, she coaxes out the gray space between figure and ground, shadow and light, valley and summit, vision and action, lucid dreams and blunt corporeality, the quotidian and the sublime. She’s been enmeshing the yin-yangs, the dialectic of the imaginary and the real, since she was very young.

Imaginary Peaks initially struck me as a 300-page Sharp End column: an ambitious, scholarly, and wide-ranging essay that involves a little-known event and time-obscured protagonists, informed by a stunning number of source texts. In this case, the subject at hand is the so-called Riesenstein Hoax and an outdoor activist, climber, guidebook author, and malcontent by the name of Harvey Manning, who is perhaps best known as the founding editor of the classic how-to book for climbers, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

As Ives tells it, in 1962, three men—Manning, a renowned avalanche researcher named Ed LaChapelle, and aerial photographer Austin Post—pseudonymously submitted Post’s photo of Alaska’s Kichatna Spires to the founding editors of a Southern California–based outdoor magazine called Summit. The three falsely place the granite massif, which they renamed the Riesenstein, in British Columbia. With lavish fictional details, they described their unsuccessful attempt to reach the top. Summit’s editors bought it all, running the photo with the caption, “Who will be the first to climb it?”

In 1962, few climbers had ever seen the Kichatnas, so it was easy for Manning, LaChapelle, and Post to pull a stunt that would have every expeditionary alpinist on the continent perusing topographic maps in vain. Within a few years, the hoax was found out—initially, its perpetrators were not—and by 1965, the first of the Kichatnas was climbed. Ives uses the hoax as a jumping-off point into explorations of the lore behind other such fantasy ranges, digging deeply into their effects on culture, consciousness, and imagination.

She estimates that she amassed 1,000 sources, which inform her examinations of everything from Tolkien’s Misty Mountains to the Mountains of the Moon to Mount Meru and the mountains of North America. Along the way, she discusses some of history’s more intriguing cartographies and how they operate on the collective consciousness, our notions of self, geography, and desire. In fact, Imaginary Peaks is about just that—human desire—and its pure brute strength to mediate fantasy, adventure, a certain kind of sanity… and sometimes insanity.

Ives was always going to have a lot to say about imagination and dreams, with her own imaginary world being so rich. Much of the first third of the book is given over to the phenomenology of mountainscapes. Mountains animated by imagination, Ives suggests, are every bit as real as those made of rock and ice. Sometimes they’re one and the same. She describes adventures on the dream mountain that towered over the hemlock beyond her childhood backyard. Ives, who once told me she can read a 300-page book in three hours, seems to want to prove that she read many thousands of pages for these opening chapters, and the first third of Imaginary Peaks could be tough sledding for casual readers in search of a conventional mountaineering yarn.

Eventually, Ives shifts to the three people who conceived the hoax, with profiles of each of the early climbers who dreamed of climbing the Riesenstein. The main cast of characters includes Manning, LaChapelle, and Post, members of the Vulgarians (climbing’s version of the Merry Pranksters), and the recently deceased climber and author David Roberts. In cameo roles are the pioneering alpinist Fred Beckey, the founding editors of Summit, Jean Crenshaw and Helen Kilness, and Roberts’s late climbing partner Don Jensen. There are more.

If Imaginary Peaks is a book of ideas, no one embodied them as well as Manning, who died in 2006 at 81. Ives understands him to such an extent that she channels his thoughts and dreams—she spent countless hours reading his private journals—but she stops short of a fully realized depiction of the riveting and contradictory figure that he was. (This was a man whose daughter told the Seattle Times that her father “was loud and obnoxious; you either loved him or you couldn’t stand him.”) Ives resists, for example, delving into the psychopathology of the hoax, which was as much about Manning’s sadness over and anger at the drumbeat of modernity as it was about the absurdity of peak bagging.

“I have my Harvey Manning side,” Ives texted me one day, when I made these observations to her. “I’m definitely a curmudgeon, just more diplomatic, because as a woman, I often feel I have to be.” I found myself wishing that Ives had used a simpler structure, one that had her trekking into the Kichatnas/Riesenstein in search of imaginary summits, Manning, and herself.

And yet, Ives does succeed in contextualizing the cultural shift she has furthered in Alpinist, which boils down to this: we all need to see ourselves as belonging to a place—mapping ourselves into it—in order to see ourselves fully inhabiting it. In this sense, Imaginary Peaks is a triumph of mind over matter, a call for a counter-mapping revolution to reframe cartographies, texts, and worldviews.

“The adventure community benefits from having the likes of Katie to keep the written word on track,” Conrad Anker wrote me in an email several months ago, and that seems about right. Words and their impact are everything to Ives. If Imaginary Peaks suffers at times from too much muchness and too little story arc, it is a book every thoughtful adventurer and seeker of dreams should read.

One day I asked Ives if she realized that she, too, had been lured into Manning’s trap. After all, she’d spent seven years obsessed with the Riesenstein affair. That makes Imaginary Peaks, I told her, the product of a hoax.

Her reply: “It is!”

Katie hiking out, after climbing the South Ridge of Ingalls Peak in the Cascades, 2021 with friends Sarah Hudson and Kat Cormier-Jones
Ives during a 2021 climbing trip to the Cascades (Photo: Sarah Hudson)
Ives on Mount Washington in 2011
Ives climbing ice in 2011 (Photo: Alan Cattabriga)

Once during my internship, Ives took me climbing on the low-angle stairsteps of Mount Washington’s Henderson Ridge. It’s barely a technical climb, and Ives frequently solos it. On that midsummer day, she climbed the first pitch quietly, placing the occasional cam, as calm and thoughtful on rock as if she were composing an essay. After she brought me up, she handed me the small rack, and it went that way for a few pitches. Eventually, we dropped the rope and smeared up lichen-splashed granite and waded through krummholz to gain the crest, the road, and then the top. We walked down the Lion Head Trail to Ives’s car, talking about writing, writers, and story arcs. While I’d appreciated the day trip as an excuse to get out of the office, the climb had sparked a literary neuroreceptor in Ives. Years later, in a short poem, she compared Henderson Ridge to the shape of a quarter moon. “Climbing a familiar route,” she wrote, “is like reciting a memorized poem.”

Ives often captures these flashes of beauty in poetry and prose to forestall their death. “If I see a beautiful sunset,” she told me during one of our Zoom chats, her voice rising, as though after three hours of talking we’d finally gotten to the crux of it, “the only way I can preserve even an afterglow of it is to try to put it into words. To try to save something from the passage of time. To try to save something from the void of forgetfulness.”

If memories perish, so do alpinists. More than a few of Ives’s contributors have died in the mountains, or because of them. “It’s horrifying, whenever it happens,” she said. Among the colleagues she’s lost are the climbers Jean-Christophe Lafaille, Dean Potter, Kyle Dempster, Ueli Steck, and Hayden Kennedy. “People you work with become a part of your life, and I don’t think you ever stop grieving.”

In one email, I asked Ives what she wished to see for her art, for Alpinist, for the earth.

“There are many ways I’d want to see a different world,” she wrote, “but I guess I’m more pragmatic in terms of what I can actually accomplish.”

Come spring, Alpinist will turn 20. Will she stick around to edit Alpinist 100 in six or so years? Will she work 90 hours a week for the rest of her career?

It would depend, she said, on whether she had fresh ideas and inspiration. “So, you know, I don’t have any plans set in stone,” she said, alluding to the uncertainties everyone is facing at present, have always faced: the omnipresent uncertainty of living and dying. “Nobody knows what the future will be.”

Loath to reflect on what is to come, she seems more comfortable capturing the pasts of others. But on some level, you’ve got to believe that Ives knows she’s in the business of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, of recasting who lives, who dies, and who tells their stories.

She once wrote an essay about climbing at night without a rope. “My only defense,” she said, “lies in the absurdity of beauty, a force that seems, at times, as unpredictable and overwhelming as grace.”

Corrections: (10/13/2021) This story misquoted what Katie Ives, as a child, said about the treatment of dragons in Chinese fables. The original quote—“The Chinese treat their dragons better. They don’t make them into slaves.”—has been replaced. The piece also said that Adam “Howie” Howard was the publisher of Backcountry magazine in 2008. The publisher’s name was Jon Howard. Lead Photo: Photo: Dylan Taylor