Ask Kitty Calhoun Grissom why she does what she does, and you get the sort of answer you might expect from a bicycle messenger. "I'd get bored," she says in her Southern drawl, "if I did a regular job."
She would indeed. Grissom, 33, is one of the world's most-accomplished Alpine climbers, having led expeditions up two of the highest peaks on earth. In 1987 she became the first American woman ever to reach the top of Dhaulagiri, a 26,795-foot Himalayan mountain whose summit is the seventh highest in the world. Three years later she became the first woman and—with her climbing partner—one of only six people to stand atop another lofty Himalayan mountain, 27,766-foot Makalu, the fifth-highest peak on earth, after reaching it via the West Pillar.
Last summer Grissom attempted to climb the North Ridge of Latok I, a mountain in the Karkarom range of Pakistan. This route is so technically challenging—although, at 23,440 feet, the summit is not exceptionally high—that it had never been climbed completely in live previous attempts. Grissom's expedition made the total six. For 17 days her four-person team was stopped by unrelenting bad weather, and then they were forced to descend. Further, team member Colin Grissom, Kitty's husband, needed to return to the U.S. to take his medical boards. "It's hard if you don't make a route," says Kitty, whose laid-back demeanor begins to fade as the air grows thinner. "But it would be harder if you'd never made one."
For Grissom to be derailed in a quest, it usually takes an act of God. "What sets her apart," says Matt Culberson, a Salt Lake City climber and a member of the Dhaulagiri expedition, "is her incredible drive." Not that it's always good, he adds. "Sometimes, in Kitty, I think it's tunnel vision. But I also think that's what you need to make it up the mountain."
Grissom, 5'3" and 118 pounds, spent her early 20's learning to climb in ice and snow, and she has been attempting some of the world's most technically challenging ascents ever since. "There are just a handful of women around the world who are on the cutting edge of the most difficult climbs—Kitty, [American rock climber] Lynn Hill and [French Alpine climber] Catherine Destivelle," says Yvon Chouinard, a veteran climber and the CEO of Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing manufacturer. And among male climbers, says Alison Osius, a senior editor at Climbing magazine, "Kitty's considered a peer."
Alpine climbing is a combination of rock, ice and snow climbing. The mountain faces favored by Alpine climbers are steep and dangerous, and sometimes the climbers require extra oxygen. Grissom's team members climb with crampons on their feet, ice axes in their hands and, usually, tents, sleeping bags, food and fuel on their backs. Their safety net is a rope anchored intermittently to rock or ice. Their camps—on the final ascent, at least—are often ledges no wider than a compact car.
Grissom was born in Greenville, S.C. Her father is a corporate lawyer and a descendant of John C. Calhoun, a U.S. vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Grissom's parents, who are now divorced, taught her and her three siblings to be unfailingly polite and sent them to private schools. The Calhouns also encouraged their children to excel in sports. "Still, there's no explaining her attraction to extremes," says O.G. (Tuck) Calhoun of his eldest daughter. "The only thing I can think of is that a first cousin on her mother's side was a tightrope walker with the Wallendas."
A skier since the age of four, Kitty took up climbing at 18 after participating in a monthlong Outward Bound course in North Carolina. At the University of Vermont she traded her ski boots for climbing shoes and became, as she says, "a climbin' bum" with a passion for the sport's most difficult surface: ice. "It's real pretty out there in the winter, and there are not as many people around," she says, explaining the lure of ice. "Besides, it seemed adventurous."
After graduating from Vermont in 1982, she packed her station wagon and headed for Colorado. She was determined to spend only $3,000 a year (including $14 a week for food) while she honed her climbing skills.
For the next six years she traveled around the West, working part time as a guide and instructor for Outward Bound and a mountain guide for the American Alpine Institute and living out of her car. When she wasn't working, she teamed up with anyone who was interested in challenging climbs—mostly men—and pushed herself to keep up with them. "You didn't see many women ice climbing," says Andy Selters, an outdoors photographer and writer who first climbed with Kitty in Montana in 1984. "And it was obvious she was a bold climber." Too bold, in some people's minds, it turns out. "We were all surprised that she wasn't killed," says Culberson.