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Her Not So Serene Highness
Laura Hilgers
May 30, 1994
The indefatigable Kitty Calhoun Grissom relishes formidable, icy climbs
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May 30, 1994

Her Not So Serene Highness

The indefatigable Kitty Calhoun Grissom relishes formidable, icy climbs

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As Kitty waxes on like a latter-day Thoreau about her itinerant existence, her husband feels compelled to interject facts. "Yeah," he points out to a visitor, "but Kitty had mice living in her car."

"Occasionally, Colin," Kitty replies.

The lean years, mice and all, have influenced the way Grissom plans her ascents. In an age when glitzy Everest expeditions run up bills of a quarter of a million dollars, Grissom's small teams usually spend $4,500-$5,000 per person. She cuts costs by bringing only the bare minimum in equipment. "On those dangerous mountains," says Chouinard, "the less time you spend up there, the safer you are. It's actually much safer not to take extra things—and to move quickly—than to take everything just in case."

On occasion, however, Grissom has erred on the side of austerity. During the Dhaulagiri expedition she forbade her team to carry chairs for base camp, and she brought only two 300-foot ropes for the attack on the peak. "People laugh at us now," says Culberson, "because everyone knows you need at least 1,000 feet of rope for a Himalayan expedition." Grissom says, however, that it was unexpected difficulties that led them to cooperate with a Japanese team and a Spanish team.

Still, even that cooperation couldn't stop Kitty, Colin and John Culberson (Matt's brother) from nearly perishing in an avalanche as Matt watched from below. Midway up Dhaulagiri's northeast ridge, Colin was leading the team along a wind slab (a dense layer of snow resting on a less tightly packed layer), following a fixed rope that a Japanese team had used the day before. "I remember thinking that this wasn't a good place to cross," says Colin, a former All-America wrestler at Yale and now a specialist in pulmonary medicine, "but you think, The Japanese went across, it must be O.K. And that was the wrong thing to think." When Colin took his second step on the gentle slope, the ground beneath him collapsed, triggering an avalanche. As the three climbers tumbled 500 feet through ice and snow, the anchors holding the rope snapped one by one. Only the eighth—and last—anchor held. Colin suffered a stretched ligament in his right knee; John had a sprained ankle; and Kitty had a gash in the crook of her left elbow from rope burn. "The rope tore through three layers of polypropylene and one of Gore-Tex," she says. Despite their injuries, the three reached the summit 16 days later.

Climbers call these sorts of crises epics, something to brag about after they have safely reached base camp. Kitty has had a number of them. In 1985 she and Colin were attempting to cross Mount McKinley's difficult Cassin Ridge when they were trapped for five days by a snowstorm, with no food and with enough fuel to melt only a pint of water each day. When the snow finally stopped and the two of them eventually reached a medical camp, says Kitty, "Colin ate continuously for 16 hours."

While the epics—and the deaths of half a dozen experienced Alpinists in recent years—have given Kitty pause, she insists she isn't ready to put up her crampons. But there are signs that Kitty is settling down. She and Colin, who were married in 1988, recently bought a three-bedroom house in Salt Lake City. And, after receiving an M.B.A. from the University of Washington last year, Kitty has thrown her considerable energy into Exum Mountain Adventures, her guiding company in Salt Lake City, leading people on local rock-and ice-climbing trips and backcountry skiing tours.

At the moment Kitty doesn't have her sights on any heart-stopping ascent, but it is difficult to imagine her staying near sea level for long. "I like mountains that are real pointed and symmetrical and routes that are real straight up, that just stand out and are technically challenging," she says. "Just putting one foot in front of the other isn't for me."

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