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What Ever Happened to Katie Brown?

World champion climber Lynn Hill once called Katie Brown “the best female sport climber in the history of the sport”—but the meteoric rise of Brown’s climbing career was equally matched by her abrupt departure from the sport.

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Katie Brown was largely recognized as one of the world’s greatest female rock climbers. In 1996 she won the Arco Rock Master and the X-Games. From 1996 on, Brown won every US Adult National that she entered, as well as a World Cup Title in France in 1999.

Yet even as she reigned on the podium, Brown felt her life begin to unravel. A quiet child, she struggled with a home life that was very different behind closed doors than it seemed on television. A fundamentalist version of Christianity was at the center of the household, and Brown fought to live according to rules that were strict, ever-changing, and irrational. Isolated and feeling hopeless, Brown latched onto food as something she could control. She quit competitive climbing and bounced in and out of the industry, eventually disappearing in her late twenties.

Now, more than two decades later, Brown is ready to share her story. Unraveled answers the question thousands of fans worldwide have wondered: “What ever happened to Katie Brown?”

The following is an excerpt from Unraveled: A Climber’s Journey through Darkness and Back by Katie Brown (October 2022) with permission from the publisher Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. 

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Because of the success that a handful of teens—such as Chris Sharma, Beth Rodden, Tommy Caldwell, David Hume, and I—were having in adult competitions, ESPN invited a few of us to participate in the 1996 X Games, held in Providence, Rhode Island. At the time, the X Games, a televised, international event, was as close to the Olympics as you could get in climbing. We were considered wild-card attendees because we didn’t have established rankings within the American Sport Climbing Federation (ASCF), the governing body for climbing competitions at the time.

The Rhode Island air felt humid, but with a cool saltiness rather than the sticky humidity I was accustomed to in Kentucky. The competition wall was huge and grey, but it was also squatter than I had anticipated, with a long, horizontal roof in the middle. Since my strength as a climber came from my endurance, I worried that the steep, short wall would require big, powerful moves that would be hard for me.

It was my first competition held outdoors, so I figured it would be hot on the wall. Without anyone to guide or coach me, I’d made up my own training regimen, which included climbing in the sun at the Red—to get used to the heat—bouldering the next day at the gym, and then taking one day off before starting the split again. At the Red, I’d try to do as many routes as possible, finishing the day by climbing laps on my favorite warm-up route until I was so tired that my hands opened up on even the biggest holds. I took three rest days (a random guess) before the biggest comp of my life so far, with no idea as to whether it would help prepare me.

As I entered the isolation area behind the competition wall, I heard people speaking a number of different languages and saw well-known climbers from all over the world. Feeling incredibly intimidated, I found a corner where I could put my things, pulled out my bible and journal, and curled up in my huge, red fleece sweatshirt. I lay on my side, using my backpack for a pillow. As usual, I hadn’t slept at all the night prior, and as my nerves bubbled up, I clenched my jaw to push them down and away, taking my mind somewhere else entirely. 

Like many competitors, I had developed some superstitions. I always wore the same jewelry—a set of silver Kokopellis on my ears, because I played the flute, and two necklaces, one with pewter letters spelling CLIMB and another with a cross between two feathers. I always ate rice and black beans for dinner the night before a competition. I had heard somewhere that it was a complete protein— whatever that meant. I also wore my watch when I climbed. Commentators often mentioned this oddity, saying that perhaps I wore it because I climbed so slowly that I needed to keep track of my time. That wasn’t true. I only allowed myself to eat at certain times of the day, and my watch let me know when it was time to eat. Still, I enjoyed the mystery of it. Something about being a bit of an enigma appealed to me.

My performance in the preliminaries qualified me for the semifinals, and by the end of that round I was in first place—my painfully slow style contrasting starkly with the quicker movements of the other competitors. I would climb last in the finals on the following day.

As we left the competition area after semifinals, several reporters wanted to interview me, but with my head pounding and my jaw aching from clenching, I couldn’t get a word to come out. Watching the videos decades later, I see that I am wide-eyed and frantic when a reporter asks me a question. I glance at my mom, then at the sky, then at the floor. My teeth gnaw on my lip as I look around, for nearly a minute, as though I haven’t heard the reporter at all. Finally I mumble so quietly that I can’t even hear what I said. In a way, I feel that the person I’m watching in that video is someone I’ve never met.

How I responded to interviews and reporters is one of my bigger regrets about my past, and one that I understand the least. It was more than shyness; sometimes, it felt as though my mouth was literally latched closed. It’s impossible to explain, but I was terrified I would somehow say the wrong thing.

At one point, after a phone interview I did from home during which I mumbled and barely said anything to the person on the other end, my mom slammed down the phone.

“You are not allowed to answer the phone anymore if that’s how you’re going to respond!” she shrieked. “No one will EVER like you if you don’t learn how to speak.”

To this day, I feel a sense of dread when the phone rings, and more often than not I let it go to voicemail.

As a teenager, I found myself hoping that someone, maybe one of the reporters, would magically know what was in my heart and vocalize it for me. That they would ask the questions that I needed to answer. How are you? Are you ok? Do you need help?

But instead, the reporters always asked the same infuriating questions. They asked for my thoughts on competing, how I felt about my competitors, if I thought I would succeed, and whether I thought I was the best. Part of me wanted to laugh at them. Of course I didn’t think I was the best. That was ridiculous. Did I look like this was working for me? I was the most flawed human imaginable, just ask god. Or my mom.

Couldn’t they see that I had no idea what I was doing? That I didn’t really care about the other competitors, or even winning? That I wasn’t even sure why I was doing this? That I just wanted someone to see me? Consequently, whenever I did speak, my answers came out snappy and irritable. If someone asked me about my goals, I would say, “I don’t know. I’m a teenager. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring!” Or, if I was asked about my competitors, “I’m just climbing against the wall, not other competitors.” Or when they asked what drew me to competitive climbing. “It just happened.” Once someone from a French magazine asked, “What is your dream in climbing?” My answer was full of vitriol. “My dreams are mine alone and will remain dreams for me alone.”

In those days, I liked being the invisible underdog, the one no one expected to do well. I had a hidden rage, buried deep inside, and it came rushing out in those early competitions. I would show them, I thought. 

But I also never expected to have a perfect track record. I never expected much of anything. Life was less painful that way. At that X Games in Rhode Island I was an undiscovered teenager, and I could let my obstinate, prove-you-wrong nature out on the wall. But by the end of 1996, the weight of knowing that everyone expected me to win threatened to drown me. By that point, the only thing that made sense were the routes—and even then only once I started climbing. I had no answers to satisfy reporters. I didn’t have a competitor’s mindset. To me, everything that was happening seemed like one giant accident.

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