Alaska climbing group seeks to create more opportunities for women in the mountains

Sophia Walling-Bell, Kit Cunningham, Mary Gianotti, Katie McCaffrey, Auri Clark, Beth Loudon, Ashley Klassen, and Casey Patten stand in front of the plane that dropped them off on the Chisana Glacier. (Photo courtesy Beth Loudon)

In mountaineering, far more men than women make first ascents. But the number of women who notch first ascents is growing. A group of young women in Alaska is contributing to that change.

Last month, an all-female group of mountaineers flew high into the mountains of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. After nine days, they claimed two first ascents of unnamed peaks.

The group wants to grow a community of women in mountaineering.

In mid-April, a plane dropped eight women off on the southeast fork of the Chisana Glacier. That’s way out in eastern Interior Alaska, between McCarthy and Nebesna.

In the mountains, they faced stretches of storms, with strong winds and temperatures dipping below zero at times.

“We discovered that the storm trend was like three days storming and about one day clear skies,” climber Katie McCaffrey said. She’s 24 and grew up in Nome and Fairbanks. McCaffrey said, because of the weather, the team was limited in the number of days they could actually spend climbing.

“We only had about three days on our trip to get out of camp and try to summit things,” McCaffrey said.

Sophia Walling-Bell, Katie McCaffrey, Kit Cunningham and Auri Clark in their tent. (Photo courtesy Beth Loudon)

The team was entirely women, including Mary Gianotti. She’s 27 and originally from Juneau. A few years ago, Gianotti reached out to some of her female mountaineering friends. In 2018, they attempted to ski the Stikine Icefield.

“I just never get the opportunity to just be with women,” Gianotti said. “Usually it’s just you and a sea of dudes. And I just thought it would be really nice to have that experience and see what that was like.”

Gianotti said there are certain things about climbing with other women that she hasn’t experienced with the male-dominated groups she’s gone out with.

“It felt really nice to just have space to be like ‘I am terrified right now, I’m really scared.’ And have people validate those feelings,” Gianotti said. “And I feel like sometimes in other climbing situations I’ve been in I’ve had to hide that, because it would be showing a weakness.”

Several obstacles prevented them from completing the Stikine expedition. But the group solidified. They go by the name Alaska Mountain Women. And this year, they took on the Wrangell Mountains, claiming first ascents on two peaks, both just under 10,000 feet.

Part of the team heads out of camp to make a summit bid. (Photo courtesy Auri Clark)

“We knew for sure they were the first all-female first ascents. But then it was pretty powerful to come to the realization that it was first ascents,” Gianotti said.

Finding out whether a certain peak has already been climbed is not always easy.

The Wrangell-St. Elias park doesn’t keep track of who’s climbing what within the park. The American Alpine Club does have a database of recorded first ascents throughout the country.

Gianotti said the team did a lot of research, looking at trip reports, determining what has been surveyed, and which peaks are named.

Steve Gruhn is somewhat of an Alaska mountaineering historian. He’s currently the editor of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska’s newsletter, Scree. And for more than 20 years, he’s been documenting the earliest recorded ascents of as many peaks in Alaska as he can.

Gruhn keeps his own database, using information from climbing and mountaineering journals, magazines and blogs.

Gruhn said he doesn’t keep track of every single peak in Alaska, so it’s hard for him to say definitively that the group’s ascents were first ascents. But he doesn’t have a record of anyone visiting these summits before.

What Gruhn does know is that, historically, this area has not been well-climbed.

“This is not a popular area. So it’s intriguing that they went in there. They’re probably the third or fourth party I know of that went in there in recorded history. So it’s pretty virgin territory,” Gruhn said.

He said, coincidentally, there were recent reports of climbers summiting peaks in the same area.

The team splits into four-person rope teams to travel on the glacier. (Photo courtesy Mary Gianotti)

Gianotti and McCaffrey want to continue to make the outdoors more accessible for female climbers. McCaffrey said that’s a big part of what these trips are all about.

“This trip, this ongoing team effort, is an effort try to engage more women in the outdoors and share with the community that it’s possible for us to do these trips,” McCaffrey said.

Beyond the physical act of climbing, Gianotti said trips like this one demand kindness, selflessness, a healthy lifestyle and tolerance for some level of suffering.

Gianotti and McCaffrey are just two of eight women on this trip. It also included Auri Clark and Kit Cunningham from Juneau; Beth Loudon from Bellingham, Washington; Ashley Klassen from Telleride, Colorado; Casey Patten from Park City, Utah; and Sophia Walling-Bell from Fairbanks.

Beth Loudon and Sophia Walling-Bell reach one of the summits. (Photo courtesy Mary Gianotti)

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