Climbing North America’s highest peak has long been considered a man’s game. This Telluride-based climber plans on changing that perception by leading a team of four women to the coveted summit.
This June, Kim Havell, Karen Kingsley, Sonja Nelson and Kim Grant, four Telluride, Colorado-based women will attempt to join ranks of the few all-women teams to have reached Denali’s 20,320-foot summit (the first successful all-women expedition was in 1970, and just a handful of all-female teams have followed). The women Havell will be leading hail from around the globe and have climbed some of the world’s highest peaks in the Himalaya, Andes and Alps. Havell, 34, was born in Iran, and raised in Hong Kong before moving to New York City at age 11. After college, she moved to Telluride, where she has lived ever since. Her resume is impressive. She’s made numerous first female descents in Southwest Colorado and cut lines on peaks in France, Italy, Canada, Switzerland, Russia and Japan. Her big mountain experience in the Himalaya includes summiting Lobuche (21,500 ft.) and Ama Dablam (22,600 ft.), and an expedition to Gasherbrum II (26,351 ft.). As if that’s not enough to make her turn heads, she’s also a ski model and guide for the Telluride Ski Resort. No stranger to setting and meeting big challenges, Havell talked to Elevation Outdoors about how mountaineering has shaped her outlook and life.
What is your definition of success?
Giving it your best, and only an individual can know for sure if they’ve done their best. My Pakistan trip was a tremendous success for me. The culture, environment, element, climbing and the teamwork all went really well. We tried as hard as we possibly could and our team was ready, but we didn’t summit.
You’ve climbed big mountains all over the world. How do you expect Denali to be different?
This is a fairly new group of people for me to be climbing with. It is going to be about seeing how we gel as a team and what we can accomplish. The basic accomplishment would be to climb and ski the peak, but there’s so much more we can do. We may summit multiple times. We may ski other peaks in the area. It just depends.
How selective were you in choosing your expedition mates, and why did you choose the women you’ve ended up with?
Karen Kingsley was my partner on climbing and skiing Wyoming’s Grand Teton and Mount Moran last year, and she’s incredibly strong, with a great mountain head. We bit off a big chunk with the Grand, and it went well. Sonja Nelson, a lovely woman who’s easy to get along with, was the next person to be added. We were going to keep it to a smaller team when Kim Grant’s name came up. She has years of patrol experience, so she was the final woman to be added. All of us have emergency medical skills. I’ve learned that is something I want with every partner when I am taking on a more serious endeavor. You need the training. You need to cut your teeth on smaller mountains. That training is so much more than the application of the skills.
How did you get your mountaineering start, having grown up in Asia and NYC?
My family was never beach vacation sort of folks. When I moved back to NYC I went on a ski trip and I left thinking I wanted to be a really good skier. I joined the race team in high school. I always was a competitor. I swam, did martial arts, horseback riding. I’ve always been interested in seeing how far you can push it. I like the focus and the pressure.
Does that competitive spirit manifest itself in your mountaineering?
No. I don’t want to be competitive. I don’t like to be with competitive people in the mountains. It’s very unsafe. If you are with anyone else it has to always be a team effort.
How did you develop your foundation of mountaineering skills?
Right from the beginning I started climbing a lot of peaks. When I moved to Telluride I set out to climb every peak we could in the area. You learn so much about weather and route-finding, evaluation. You work your way up. There is so much you can learn within the San Juans.
Describe a significant learning experience in your mountaineering career.
I can’t think of one isolated experience. I think I’ve learned the most by being tough on myself. There’s not a lot of margin for error in this stuff. If something goes wrong you’re in trouble. There have been times where I wasn’t doing it well enough, so I made myself get better.
What skills are required to lead an all-women expedition up Denali?
You have to be able to carry a heavy pack. Need to carry your own weight and be comfortable working on snow and cramponing. You need rope and rescue skills. If someone falls into a crevasse or hurts themselves, you have to be able to get them out and get them to safety.
What route will you follow?
There are two or three different routes up Denali, and it will depend on the conditions or what we want to ski first. It will also depend on how we want to acclimatize. We’re at a tremendous advantage. We live at almost 9,000 feet, and it will be pretty straightforward for us to go up to Base Camp. From there it’s a question of what looks good. We may try to do summit pushes from the 14,000-foot camp.
How do you know when to push through challenging or scary situations and when to back off?
It’s all a calculated risk. You have to be very honest with yourself. I know what I am—for the most part—capable of doing. If something is not right I won’t do it. I have a strong will to live. In Pakistan last summer we had to abort our summit push. It was too bad, but we were in the middle of a storm.
What advice would you give nonclimbers who want to get into ski mountaineering?
Yesterday I took a woman out to ski the North Y Couloir near Telluride. She’d never skied a couloir. She’s a phenomenal skier, but she had never done something like this before. So we broke it up into pieces, and it was one step at a time. You don’t think about the end result. You think about it in 20-foot increments. I always think about escape routes. You have to pace yourself one step at a time and constantly evaluate each step of your route.
Is it different to be a woman in this sport?
There are more women within my peer group, but most of the ski mountaineering pioneers are men. For example, I have done first female ascents on runs that were first skied by men in the 1980s. Sometimes it takes 30 years after a man skis something for a woman to ski it.
What have been your biggest challenges?
I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching lately and if there’s a message I want to send, it’s that you are capable of doing any of the things you want to do—as long as you build the foundation for it. Anyone can do this. You don’t have to have grown up in British Columbia or Aspen. We are our own worst enemies. We really limit ourselves. The truth is, no matter how long it takes, I can make something happen. It doesn’t always happen on the time frame you want it to, but if you’re persistent, and you really want it, you can make it happen.
Look for updates about the expedition this summer on Havell’s web site: www.havelltravels.com.