The first openly transgender woman to attempt the Seven Summits talks to EO about climbing physical and metaphorical mountains and a new nonprofit that will help people like her.
Erin Parisi began life pronounced male, but she came out, letting the world know she was female. She then decided to change her body. She lost her wife and some friends. An operation to change her voice left her temporarily unable to speak—but in that silence, she realized her calling. After a lifetime of bouncing between failed cures for gender dysphoria, she understood that nothing was wrong with her. No longer consumed with hiding from and fearing herself, she found an expanded community and professional support. She was ready to travel the world, reigniting her passion for outdoor sports. She applied for a new passport under her changed name, and in 2018 began a bid for the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent. In February 2019, she climbed Argentina’s Aconcagua. Now she just has Denali, Antarctica’s Vinson Massif and Everest to go.
You’re aiming to become the first openly transgender woman to climb the Seven Summits. Why did you choose this objective?
Outdoor adventures and traveling have always provided me fulfillment. Before I transitioned, my greatest fear holding me back was that I’d have to sacrifice my passions to live an authentic life. I weighed the risks and couldn’t imagine another day living my old life, and committed to my survival and transition. Once I began transitioning, I found that I might have been wrong, and slowly my confidence grew and I knew it was possible. I never want another trans person to face isolation for fear they will need to sacrifice in order to come out. Everyone should be free to be themselves without fear. I hope to prove that’s possible. I want to prove that you can stand proudly on the highest point anywhere and let the world know who you are. No one should have to live in the shadows, and these peaks represent the one place where no shadows remain.
What has been the hardest part of this record-setting attempt?
The hardest part was coming out. Now that I live knowing I’ve pursued the truth of my heart and soul, with support of my family and friends, my life has been much easier. Life is bigger than consuming yourself by running and hiding—but having the confidence to move forward is no small endeavor.
The world has a lot of judgments about transgender people, and transgender athletes specifically. What do you wish the world knew about trans women athletes?
The world of athletics has come a long way in the last 10 years: After extensive study most sports governance committees have determined that through common-sense regulation we can ensure equitable inclusion of trans athletes in their proper gender fields, while equally protecting the rights of other participants. Trans athletes who excel on the field of play do so while adhering to rigorous guidelines and only after hard work like any other athlete. I hope the world realizes that sports are a much-needed avenue of growth for the trans community. Through trans inclusion in sport we will reduce suicide, violence, substance abuse and poverty in an historically marginalized population.
Favorite summit so far?
I love my home Rocky Mountains. My favorite summits are right here in Colorado—though it’s hard to name a single mountain, and they are all so different depending on how and when you climb them.
Hardest summit so far?
The hardest summit as far as the Seven Summits are concerned has been Mt Elbrus. The summit day is long, and the peak is downright cold. But it was the social conditions I faced while in Russia that made it uniquely difficult for me. Chechnya and the Caucasus Region in Russia are not tolerant cultures for the LGBTQ+ community. Much of the violence is thought to be government sanctioned. I can prepare technically for a mountain, and physically for the demands of a climb, but there is little I can do to prevent the threat of violence against me that the entire LGBTQ+ community faces in that part of the world.
You went from being a recreational climber to becoming a professional mountaineer who is pushing the envelope for diversity. What has the training process for that looked like, both mentally and physically?
I train six days a week. For a long-term goal like the Seven Summits, patience, pacing and an understanding of your body are all are important parts of getting through long workouts. I use high-intensity intervals for indoor workouts, and some days I’m in the gym for several hours, completing these organized workouts. It’s the outdoor workouts that I really look forward to. I love mountain biking, skiing and hiking with my dogs. Mentally, the best prep has been the support of family and friends. Knowing I’m not alone is the best therapy.
You have completed four of the seven summits so far, with Denali planned for the 50th anniversary of Pride in June. What is the significance of the Denali ascent?
Fifty years ago, the LGBTQ+ community lived secretly and in fear. The Stonewall riots of 1969 were in direct retaliation to the enforcement of laws that were designed to suppress the LGBTQ+ community and force us into lives of stigma and marginalization. Stonewall started a unified movement that earned several basic human rights and dignities that were long denied to the community. Now 50 years later, many people might take the victories of the past for granted. I want an opportunity to stand high above North America on the 50th anniversary of Pride to celebrate the strides our society has made, and bring awareness to the fights we have ahead.
You also climb for Transending. What work does this nonprofit do?
TranSending.org is the non-profit initiative I climb for, and our Seven Summits journey is the inaugural mission for the organization. The organization strives to improve inclusion of transgender athletes in all fields of competition, but we focus on outdoor sports. Currently, we are recruiting trans athletes for visibility projects that highlight our potential as athletes. We also commit to educational and speaking engagements that can help all stakeholders in athletics understand the benefits of diverse fields of play.
Any goals set for after you finish the seven summits?
My goal is to live a wholesome and satisfying life that is free of looking back with regret or wondering “what-if?” That’s a goal I started before I began the Seven Summits, and one I hope to continue now that I’ve allowed myself the freedom to do so. There’s a lifetime of adventure ahead!