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Picture this: a young girl, wide-eyed, views the final route. It’s the X Game in 1996, the pinnacle competition in the burgeoning climbing world. The other competitors—Slovenians, Frenchwomen, other foriegn nationals all ranked the best in the world—mime the route. They study it intently and discuss it in small groups. The girl, just 15, stands off to the side with pursed lips and a squint in her eyes. She huddles tighter in her sweater and barely glances at the route, more interested in the ground, in getting this whole thing over with. She wants to tell the looming cameras, the spectors, the whole world that she couldn’t care less.
Observation period ends. The climbers climb. The young girl? She goes last. Her expression never changes when she ties in. Not when she pulls on or climbs, painstakingly slow. Not when she pulls the lip of the wall and onto the final headwall. Nope, not even when she clips the chains does she crack a smile. Did she just win the whole damn thing? You betcha. But she is an anvil: strong and unmoving.
Katie Brown was remarkable—even Lynn Hill said so, once calling her “the best female sport climber in the history of the sport.” She began climbing at age 12. Suddenly, two years later, she won the Junior World Championships. Then she won every US National Championship competition she entered. She won multiple World Cup titles. She won the Arco Rock Masters. She onsighted Omaha Beach (5.13d) at the Red River Gorge.
Then she left.
And the world was left wondering, what the hell happened? She was as mysterious as she was good.
Brown began climbing when her family moved to Lexington, Kentucky, from Denver, Colorado. She started going to the Red River Gorge with her brother, and then, once the passion took hold, her mom became her sole partner and chaperone. She was raised Baptist—the kind that’s much more conservative than what initially comes to mind, and it deeply influenced her relationship with climbing and the climbing community.
“I talked about it in my book,” she told me over a video chat. “I had never been to a movie theater without my mom, never been to a school dance, never been riding in a car with my friends when I was a teenager….” Those were off the table. Not allowed. Young Katie was isolated from a world that so desperately wanted to know more about her. And was it because of that isolation that she developed an eating disorder? The better question is why no one did anything about it. Why no one thought to ask it. Why was it that she was dying before their eyes, and instead of saying, Are you OK? Do you want to talk about it? What have you eaten lately? they said, Tell us your thoughts about the competition. When she left the sport, they asked:
What happened to Katie Brown?
“We have the hands that we’re dealt in life, and sometimes life happens,” said Brown, when I couldn’t help but pose the same question last week during an interview to discuss her new book Unraveled: A Climber’s Journey Through Darkness and Back. Published today, October 11, the 250ish-page memoir details Brown’s climbing career, everything that happened—to her and because of her decisions. At times gut wrenching, it’s an honest, revelatory look at one athlete’s mind in a world that failed her.
“Well, I mean, quite frankly, if I was able to go back in time, and know what I know now, I would have filed for emancipation, gotten away from my family. But that’s… that’s not the answer to your question,” she continued. “Just mental health, you know? I don’t know. I don’t really know what happened. Life happened. Lots of things didn’t happen. It was the 90s… Yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t really have a good answer for that.”
It’s complicated, right? When there’s multiple breaking points. Things become inextricably linked.
Brown decided to write Unraveled after hearing an interview on NPR with Dr. Gaudiani, or Dr. G, a Board-Certified internal medicine physician who specializes in the complications associated with eating disorders. Dr. G is internationally recognized in her field, and she had just come out with her own book, Sick Enough: A Guide to the Medical Complications of Eating Disorders, in which she writes:
Denial of disease severity is one of the hallmarks of these mental illnesses. Patients may think their bloodwork isn’t “that bad,” or their weight isn’t “that low,” or they may point to the fact that they are still high achievers in school or at work. In writing this book, I hope to establish that anyone with an eating disorder is sick enough to seek help.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I never knew,’” Brown said of listening to the interview. Brown was learning about herself, her eating disorder and the associated symptoms, for the first time. She wanted to learn more, to understand what caused what. Brown interviewed Dr. G, and then she kept digging. Her old journals were pivotal to the process.
If you’ve had an eating disorder, you know what I’m about to say. Your brain stops functioning normally. Things become… blurry. Distant. The thoughts. Just. Won’t. Come. Your body is starving and all precious energy is directed elsewhere. Am I remembering that right? Did that really happen? You can’t be sure. Add in some lies. Add in the isolation. Nothing makes sense anymore.
Woven into the timeline of Brown’s book are her journal entries. She wrote maniacally, almost every day, from age 15 to 20. “I don’t think I would have been able to write the book without my journals, because I wouldn’t have enough memory, or the memory would be so foggy that I would doubt its veracity,” says Brown. “Journaling was almost like a coping mechanism. Like, I’m gonna write down everything that happened each day to prove to myself that it was real, because I was told a lot of lies. And I was so isolated that you start to kind of disappear.”
The entries are plain yet vivid, offering a direct window into Katie’s world. The only things she hadn’t detailed, says Brown, are the fights she had with her mom. “I would pass over that,” she says. “I would just write like, ‘It hurt so much, I don’t want to write about it.’ ”
Brown’s book leaves nothing to the imagination. It covers everything from her competition career, her interactions with family, her struggles into adulthood, and her departure from the climbing world. You ride the waves with her, you see where things went wrong.
I hate it when people are angry at me because I want to be liked and accepted. The reason I hate climbing is because I feel like people only like me because of my climbing.
I just want to eat but when I do I can’t stop, and that’s gluttonous, which is also a sin. I’m afraid god will punish me. Does he do that? Where’s god? Have I let satan in, like mom says?
Mom keeps talking about all these people who are out to get us.
I feel like my brain isn’t working. The tendons in my arms hurt when I grab holds, not like anything I’ve ever experienced.
I’ll leave it there. Read the book. I wanted to know more about Brown’s life now, what she’s been up to.
It’s 2022. Katie Brown is a mom. She and her husband are building a house in Colorado. They have a young daughter. Brown works full-time as a makeup artist, mostly for brides, and at a dermatology clinic during the week. “People are like… ‘what?’” says Brown, laughing. She admits it may seem like a random profession, but she loves it, “like playing with art,” she says.
She goes to therapy. She did an Ayahuasca trip, where she internalized the need to honor her feelings: “My whole life has been me telling myself, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself. So many people have it so much worse, you’re lucky, blah, blah, blah. You shouldn’t be angry at your parents or whatever. They did the best job they could.’ So I had this whole thought pattern around it. But all that does is create so much resistance to recognizing and owning what you have been through.”
Brown still loves climbing. She wishes she could get out more. During the pandemic, she went to Joshua Tree, Hueco Tanks and Red Rock. But lately, work and homebuilding have been taking up her time. “Climbing still feels like the most natural thing for me, as a human. I feel way more at home while climbing than doing any other activity.”
Brown hopes people will relate to her book. I certainly did. “I just want to let people know that they’re not alone…” she said. “We need to take a harder look at the mental health of young female athletes.”
Later in our interview, I couldn’t help myself, so I asked again: What happened to Katie Brown? But this time, I answered in my head: She stood up for herself. She took control over her life. She left climbing because she didn’t understand who she was, and she was willing to do anything to figure it out.
Katie Brown tore herself to pieces. And then rebuilt herself from the ground up.