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In the Footsteps of Fanny: Women in the Karakoram

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K2 from the south. Courtesy of

The high altitude sun was blazing when I first saw the 14,000-foot basecamp my partners and I would inhabit for the next five weeks. Three- to four-thousand-foot spires – Uli Biaho, Hainabrakk, the Cat’s Ears, and Shipton Spire – pierced the sky. These granite towers channeled the Trango Glacier downvalley and into the raging gray waters of the Braldu River.

I trudged over talus toward camp, arriving at a scene that was likely no different from one Karakoram explorers saw 100 years ago, when pioneering female mountaineer Fanny Bullock Workman first visited. Porters, who had hiked for days on barren, rocky glaciers, celebrated their arrival at the vegetated oasis of our basecamp. They sat in circles on the grass making chapattis, laughing as they tucked magenta wildflowers behind their ears.

What was different from a century ago, however, was that the porters carried loads for an all-female expedition consisting of Nan Darkis and myself from Colorado, and Cecilia Buil of Spain. Since the first one in the mid-1970s, only a few all-female expeditions have climbed in the Karakoram, Pakistan’s most mountainous region, at the western reach of the Himalaya. Though there are over 100 years of history of women climbing in the region, little has been written about their endeavors to date.

In the beginning


During the mid-19th century, British explorers and surveyors including T.G. Montgomerie, Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen, and Sir Francis Younghusband explored sections of the Karakoram’s valleys, glaciers, and angular, icy peaks. However, at the turn of the century one of the best-known explorers was a woman –Fanny Bullock Workman, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, though a resident of Europe at the time. She and her husband, William Hunter Workman, independently wealthy and curious about the world, organized seven exploratory expeditions to the region between 1899 and 1912.

Bullock Workman’s serious features and stout build reflected her focussed and independent personality; she successfully climbed a number of high peaks in Pakistan in the early years of the 20th century, including both 21,000-foot Chogo Peak and 22,568-foot Lungma Peak on the Chogo-Lungma glacier in Baltistan. J.P. Farrar, onetime president of the Alpine Club of Great Britain, in writing Bullock Workman’s obituary for the 1925 Alpine Journal, noted that she “was no ‘quitter,’ and her enthusiastic nature induced her to sustain her opinions by vigorous arguments based on facts which it was difficult to controvert.” Not only did she participate in seven expeditions, she was the primary motivator behind the 1912 expedition to the Siachen Glacier (now a battle zone in the ongoing Pakistan-India conflict). In the forward to her 1917 book Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of the East Karakoram, which chronicled the Siachen expedition, Bullock Workman explained that she placed her “full name in connection with the expedition on the map not because I wish in any way to thrust myself forward, but solely that in the accomplishments of women, now and in the future, it should be known to them and stated in print that a woman was the initiator and special leader of this expedition.”

It wasn’t until 1934 that another strong woman challenged the Karakoram. Hettie Dhyrenfurth of Switzerland, and her husband, Günter, led an expedition, complete with cinematographers, to the Baltoro Glacier, where six of the world’s 14 8000-meter peaks are arranged within a 15-mile radius. The Dhyrenfurths, along with Albert Hocht, Hans Ertl, and their porter, Rodji, made the first ascent of the west peak of “Queen Mary” (24,370 feet), now known as the western summit of Sia Kangri, near the Siachen Glacier. Though the heavily glaciated peak was not particularly technical, it was a challenge nonetheless due to its high altitude and remote, unexplored locale.

Resistance and Breakthrough

Another 40 years passed before female mountaineers returned to the Karakoram, and then only in small numbers. This absence was due in part to the world-wide disruption caused by World War II and to the closure of the Baltoro region to all international climbers between 1961 and 1974, but also because of resistance from a male-dominated mountaineering community.

While not a Karakoram climb, the 1978 women’s Annapurna expedition experienced a dramatic example of such chauvinism. When the women applied to the American Alpine Club (AAC) for approval to seek a climbing permit for Nepal (a necessary step at the time), the AAC board reluctantly gave it to them. In her book Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, Arlene Blum, one of the expedition’s organizers, recalls the board saying, “We’ve got to be more careful approving a women’s expedition. There would be a lot of bad publicity if things didn’t go well.”

Despite such bureaucratic hurdles, the 1970s heralded the first wave of Karakoram expeditions to be led and organized by women, with significant numbers of female team members. After being summarily rejected by male organizers of Lhotse expedition, Wanda Rutkiewicz of Poland, undoubtedly the best high-altitude female mountaineer of all time (by dint of having summitted eight 8000-meter peaks), led an international group of 10 women and seven men on an expedition to Gasherbrum II and III in 1975.

On that groundbreaking trip, Rutkiewicz, Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz of Great Britain (who, along with American Vera Watson, died on Annapurna in 1978) and her Polish husband Janusz Onyszkiewicz, and Krystof Zdzitowiecki summitted Gasherbrum III (26,090 feet), at the time the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Two other members of the team, Anna Okopinka and Halina Kruger-Syrokomska, climbed the Austrian route on Gasherbrum II (26,360 feet), making the first all-female ascent of an 8000-meter peak. “Wanda was a huge influence to me,” says American Christine Boskoff, owner of the Seattle-based Mountain Madness guide service and the only currently living woman to have climbed six 8000-meter peaks. “She played a huge part in establishing a place for women in the high-altitude mountaineering world. Unfortunately there really hasn’t been anyone after her.”

Despite the successes of Rutkiewicz’s expedition, naysayers continued to downplay women’s accomplishments, questioning whether the expedition could have managed without assistance from the team’s male members, who fixed ropes for both of the women’s summit teams. This attitude changed radically in the 1980s, when women broke further ground.

Opportunities and Tragedies

From 1900 to 1985, fewer than 100 women participated in any capacity on Karakoram expeditions, but between 1985 and 1990 over 100 women climbed in the region, with approximately half of those summitting their objectives.

Most significant during this five-year period was the fact that all-female expeditions proved women were capable of climbing big peaks with little or no male support. In 1983 Polish climbers Krystyna Palmowska and Anna Czerwinska, recipients of the Vera Watson/Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz grant from the AAC, attempted 26,400-foot Broad Peak. Palmowska and Czerwinska did not use guides or porters. The duo made two storm-thwarted attempts on the mountain and had their two highest camps destroyed by wind, requiring re-establishment before they could continue. On the day before their third summit attempt, the two women zipped from Basecamp to Camp III, a gain of 7000 vertical feet at extreme altitude, establishing a track through deep snow that was subsequently used by Swiss and British male-only expeditions. On summit day, Czerwinska was forced to turn back, but Palmowska summitted, completing the first all-female unsupported ascent of an 8000-meter peak.

Rutkiewicz also began to make further inroads into Karakoram mountaineering in the 1980s, leading an unsuccessful all-women’s expedition to 28,253-foot K2 in 1982 and attempting Broad Peak with two other women in 1985. The following year, she joined the small French team of Michael Parmentier, and Maurice and Liliane Barrard in an attempt on K2’s Abruzzi Ridge. All four members – none of whom used supplementary oxygen – reached the summit on June 23, with Rutkiewicz arriving ahead of the others to become the first woman to climb K2. After a short time on the summit, the team descended to their bivouac tent at 27,230 feet and spent the night there, rather than returning to Camp III at 25,900 feet. The following morning Parmentier started the descent to Camp III, with Rutkiewicz following shortly thereafter, and the Barrards the last to leave camp. As Rutkiewicz descended, she looked back to see the Barrards disappear into the swirling snow, never to be seen alive again. Liliane was found dead on July 19 at the base of the mountain, the victim of a several-thousand-foot fall; her husband’s body was never recovered.

On August 4, a month and a half after Rutkiewicz and Barrard summitted, Julie Tullis of Great Britain became the third woman to summit K2, sans oxygen. She died three days later of exhaustion and exposure, trapped at 25,900 feet during a multi-day storm. In a well-documented season of success and setback on K2, the loss of two of climbing’s top female high-altitude mountaineers was particularly acute.

Also on K2 that year was Catherine Freer – America’s best female alpinist at the time – as part of an elite team of North American climbers that included Alex Lowe, George Lowe, Dave Cheesemond, and Steve Swenson. The group tackled the seldom-climbed North Ridge, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Freer pulled equal weight and reached the team’s high point of 26,400 feet. In a blow to the U.S. climbing world, Freer died the following year with Cheesemond in a cornice collapse on the Hummingbird Ridge of Mount Logan.

It wasn’t until 1992 that another woman climbed K2: Chantal Mauduit of France. After the Swiss team that she had joined abandoned their attempt, Mauduit hooked up with an international expedition that included Scott Fischer, Ed Viesturs, and Dan Mazur. On her summit day, she reached the top at 5 p.m. However, the following day she became snowblind and had to be escorted down the mountain. Despite the epic descent, Mauduit had started her high- altitude career with a flourish and went on to climb five more 8000-meter peaks without oxygen, including solos of Lhotse and Manaslu.

Loss and Questioning

The remaining three women to have summitted K2 died in the 1990s: In 1992 Rutkiewicz disappeared on Kangchenjunga; Alison Hargreaves of Great Britain died while descending from the summit of K2 in 1995; and Mauduit perished in an avalanche on Dhaulagiri in 1998.

When Rutkiewicz died, few people commented on anything other than the saddening loss of one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers, male or female. However, when Mauduit died, many in the climbing community questioned her presence in the high mountains. In part this was due to early partners reporting on her past inexperience, but also due to reports of her death, such as the 1998 news item from Outside which stated that Mauduit and her partner, Ang Tsering Sherpa, “either failed to dig their tent out from under a cover of fresh snow or neglected to turn off their camp stove.”

The mainstream media took this report at face value and exploited it, saying that Mauduit was perhaps not skilled enough to climb at altitude. However, many mountaineers quickly came to her defense. In a letter to the editor of the French magazine Montagne, climber Frederique Delrieu wrote, “Chantal lost her life by following her passion for the high altitude. She did not make a mistake.” Delrieu added that jealousy over her accomplishments might have fueled the controversy.

Even more controversial was Hargreaves’ death (along with six others), in a tragic storm on K2 in 1995. The popular media targeted her for being a professional climber and a mother. Dozens of articles lambasted her for leaving her two children at home in order to pursue a professional high-altitude climbing career, highlighting the double standard that still exists in the mountaineering community: Mothers who pursue big climbs are assumed to be more selfish than fathers who do the same.

British climber/authors Ed Douglas and David Rose, in their biography of Hargreaves Regions of the Heart, wrote that mountaineers, regardless of gender, have “agreed that to succeed at high-altitude mountaineering, you had to take risks. They had all done so and survived; to criticize Alison for doing the same would have been hypocrisy … ” And while the media backlash against Hargreaves didn’t diminish the number of women who climb, neither did it have a long-term effect on the latent sexism in the general mountaineering community. Says cutting-edge alpinist Kitty Calhoun, a mother who has attempted the Karakoram’s Latok I and III, “I think a double standard still exists. It still seems more acceptable for a dad to be a climber.”

New Directions

The death of Hargreaves also came at the time of a significant shift in focus for female alpinists visting the Karakoram. Successful expeditions to the region no longer focussed on large, siege-style ascents. Instead, small groups with five or fewer members climbed quickly and with less equipment. Boskoff, who summitted Broad Peak in 1995 and Gasherbrum II in 1999, chooses this style of climbing.

“I prefer to acclimatize on another mountain and then climb an 8000er in one push,” Boskoff explains. “It’s simple, safer, and I enjoy it. I’m not climbing the same route again and again to acclimatize.” In the summer of 2002 she attempted an alpine-style ascent of K2 with Charlie Fowler, but failed due to high winds and uncertain weather.

Calhoun prefers to climb in a party of just two, but sometimes goes with two parties of two. With this minimalist approach, she has attempted the North Ridge of 23,400-foot Latok I in 1993 and the West Face of 22,800-foot Latok III in 1998. Along with Julie Brugger, Andy DeKlerk, and Colin Grissom, she made it approximately one-third of the way up Latok I before the weather turned sour. On Latok III Calhoun, her now- husband Jay Smith, Steve Quinlan, and Ken Sauls attempted a highly technical new big-wall route. They were forced to abandon their attempt at over 19,000 feet after running out of food.

Abby Watkins, another top female ice, rock, and big-wall climber, and an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides certified guide, says she hasn’t experienced much sexism within the climbing community, nor does she see much difference between the abilities of women and men. Like many Gen-X women, Watkins, an Australian expatriate living in Canada, says her parents “never really put gender limits on me. They encouraged me at whatever I was good at or what I desired to do.” She also says that she has organized trips with women “not because they were women, but because they were my climbing partners.”

In 1998, Watkins, along with New Zealander Nicola Woolford and Australian Vera Wong, established Excess Baggage (VI 5.10 A2+) on 19,000-foot Changi Tower in the Nangma Valley of the Karakoram’s Hushe region. The route took seven days and ran the gamut from mixed to free to big-wall aid.

Accomplished British rock climber Kath Pyke agrees with Watkins, and said she has gone on expeditions with women simply because she has many women partners. “I just know these people on a different level because I’ve spent more time with them,” says Pyke, who along with fellow Brits Glenda Huxter and Louise Thomas climbed 19,000-foot Beatrice Tower, on the north side of the Charakusa Valley (also in the Hushe region) in 1997. The threesome spent nine days linking cracks and corners with difficult traverses and blank faces. The route, a solidly graded 5.11 A3+, is one of only a few big walls in the Karakoram to be completed by an entirely female team, along with Excess Baggage.

For Spanish aid climber Silvia Vidal, who has made two big-wall ascents in the Karakoram, “there are just climbers; friends for going together climbing, no matter if they are male or female. And because there are more men who climb big walls, then I always go with men.”

In 1998 Vidal teamed up with Pep Masip, also of Spain, to climb the Southeast Pillar of Brakk Zang, via their new route Ganyips (VI 5.11 A3). Brakk Zang was climbed that same year by two British women, Libby Peters and Louise Thomas, who did a 19-pitch new route up the central pillar of the South Face via Ramchikor (VI 5.11 A2). Then in 1999, Vidal and Masip teamed up with fellow Spaniard Miguel Puigdomenech to climb the 5400-foot face of 18,000-foot Amin Brakk via the new route Sol Solet (VII 5.11 A5). They spent 32 days climbing 22 70-meter pitches, with Vidal leading the route’s two A5 cruxes. The trio was subsequently nominated for the prestigious French climbing award – the Piolet D’or – for their ascent.

“In aid climbing on big walls things are different because there is not a question about strength,” says Vidal. “It’s something about endurance, the capacity to suffer, imagination, experience … And all this can be the same for men and women.”

The 1990s also marked an increase in the willingness of women to write about their accomplishments and seek greater sponsorship. Rutkiewicz began this trend in the 1970s, documenting her expeditions in print and film, but it’s only been in the past 15 years that women have made a broader impact in the media.

According to Geraldine Westrupp, a veteran Himalayan mountaineer from the United Kingdom who did her Master’s thesis on the psychology of women climbers, one of the greatest risks to female mountaineering is the fact that, in the past, women haven’t written much about their adventures. “Historically, in all walks of life, women have not written as much about their experiences as men. So their achievements have gone unrecorded, and they quite literally don’t exist anymore.”

“I tried for years to put more stuff about women in [the magazine],” says Gill Kent, former editor of British magazine On the Edge. “It’s the men who are more committed to pushing themselves forward.” However, over the past decade, several women including Calhoun, Hargreaves, Mauduit, Watkins, and American Steph Davis have been able to build careers as a result of their climbing achievements, finding sponsorship from major outdoor companies. Davis began her Karakoram career in 1998 when she climbed Inshallah (VI 5.12 A1) on the southeast face of Shipton Spire with Kennan Harvey and the late Seth Shaw. The ascent is one of the few big-wall expeditions to have pushed the limits of free climbing in a hostile, high- altitude environment like the Karakoram. Davis’ second expedition to the Karakoram was in 2000, when she gained access to the previously closed military zone of the Kondus Valley, which borders the Siachen Glacier. While there she made the first ascent of 3500-foot tall Tahir Tower, a previously unknown Nameless-Tower-sized spire, via the route All Quiet on the Eastern Front (VI 5.11 A3) with Jimmy Chin, Brady Robinson, and Dave Anderson.

Even though the achievements of Davis and Bullock Workman lie a century apart, and despite the differences in the climbs they’ve pursued, their impetus for exploration is much the same. “Ever since I saw photos of the Trango Towers, I dreamed of going to the Karakoram,” says Davis. “When I saw photos of Shipton Spire, I knew I had to go. My desire to go to the Karakoram also comes from enjoying the hurdles of the travel and exposure to foreign cultures as much as from the climbing.”

I was inspired to organize my own trip to Shipton Spire after reading about Davis and watching her slideshows. Darkis, Buil, and I spent six days on the spire, coming within 200 feet of the summit. After the climb I traveled around the United States doing slideshows. At every event women would approach me to ask why I had organized an all-woman expedition.

“What could be better than going on an adventure to climb splitter cracks on big granite walls with my good girlfriends?” I always responded, seeking to inspire other women to succeed on expeditions with or without male support.

“I think that over the years, women have finally recognized that rock and ice climbing do not require brute strength,” says Calhoun. “It is only a matter of time before more women realize that they have what it takes to be alpine climbers, too.”


Contributing editor Lizzy Scully lives in the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range and made the first free ascent of South Howser Minaret in the Bugaboos last September. This is her first feature for Climbing.