Utah Stories

Kitty Calhoun: Lessons From a Lifetime of Mountain Climbing

Kitty Calhoun has devoted her life to mountain climbing with a philosophy of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”


Kitty Calhoun by Anna Piunova www.scarpa.net

Born and raised far from icy mountain pitches, celebrated climber Kitty Calhoun first roped up at 18 when she participated in a North Carolina Outward Bound course.

Kitty subsequently attended the University of Vermont where she continued to pursue her passion for outdoor sport, and, in 1980, climbed for the first time. Determined, her sights set on full-time climbing, Kitty set out for Colorado after graduation with her life’s necessities packed into her Subaru wagon.

For the next six years, Kitty lived out of her car on $3,000 a year, spending only $14 a week on food. Becoming a guide during this time allowed Kitty to travel and climb mountains in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Nepal, as she continued to sharpen her alpine climbing skills, that combine rock, ice and snow climbing.

In 1987, she became the first North American woman to summit the 26,795-foot Himalayan mountain Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest, and in 1990, led a group up a technical route to the top of the Himalayas’ 27,766-foot mountain, Makalu. In decades of climbing, Kitty has won many awards, including the American Alpine Club’s Underhill Award. Kitty graciously shared some of her experience and life philosophy with Utah Stories.

US: In addition to physical challenges, what aspects of mountaineering are you attracted to?

KC: I am attracted to alpine climbing for several reasons. Not only is it physically challenging, but mentally as well. It is like a chess game. Factors such as route finding, weather, acclimatization to altitude, technical difficulty, objective hazards such as avalanches, as well as health of myself and my partners are always changing and we need to change our strategy accordingly. I value the teamwork involved in sharing decisions under intense conditions. I also enjoy mingling with foreign cultures, and the beauty of places that many people will never see.

US: What has climbing taught you about yourself as an individual?

KC: Climbing has helped me realize the value of a life of minimalism, or voluntary simplicity. I have learned that there is a freedom in understanding what I can do without, and a greater appreciation for what I have.   

US: Have any of your experiences caused you to reconsider your engagement with climbing?

KC: I have reconsidered my engagement in climbing, especially when I had both hips resurfaced. I could have decided to change careers and developed new hobbies because I had already accomplished what many would consider “enough.” But I feel like I have God-given talents, and now is a time to teach and share more than I did in the past.

US: Do you have a favorite climb in Utah?

KC: My favorite climb in Utah would have to be Fine Jade on The Rectory tower in Castle Valley.

US: What advice would you give someone who may be hesitant to take on challenges in which the outcome is uncertain?

KC: Life is full of risk. From the day you are born, you risk dying. If you live life in fear, you are not able to take all that is offered to you. There is a famous proverb, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It is important to get experience so that you can develop good judgement. Then you decide what the consequences of a certain action are and what the chances of it occurring are. I personally do not believe in fate, but rather a plan that is greater than us. 


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