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Chicks Climbing Brave Danger In Iceland

Kitty Calhoun Kitty Calhoun
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This guest article comes to us via our partnership with Chicks Climbing and Skiing. We’re proud to support a positive program to support women who search for a path in the mountains.

Chicks Climbing, now nearly 20 years old, was established to empower more women to experience the thrill of climbing with women, for women.  This vision lead to the  creation of Chicks with Picks, which offered the first ever women’s ice climbing clinic in Ouray, Colorado.

Chicks Climbing & Skiing is owned by five mountain lovers and experienced guides: Kitty Calhoun, Dawn Glanc, Angela Hawse, Elaina Arenz, and Karen Bockel.   The vision is to empower women through mountain sports and continue the tradition of giving back to the community.  They acquired Chicks Climbing in 2015 and immediately got to work by adding new event locations to the already popular Chicks  line-up, as well as ski mountaineering and alpine climbing.

Photos by Jay Smith, Kitty Calhoun and the Chicks Climbing and Skiing Archive

Iceland is a magical land, shaped by fire and ice, with 80% of it considered “wild”, most of the interior is uninhabitable, and 2/3 of the population lives in or around the capital, Reykjavik.  The island is a highly active volcanic hotspot along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian plates meet.  Earthquakes, lava flows, and volcanic eruptions are common.  This geographically young landscape is carved by glaciers, which make up 11% of the interior of Iceland.  The glacial run-off flows into powerful rivers, which pour over coastal cliffs as raging waterfalls.  Additionally, Iceland is known for its relentless wind, which often brings clouds or fog with it.  The only redeeming trait of the long dark winter nights is the occasional glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, most commonly seen within 25 degrees of the poles.

With it’s raw climate and terrain, it is no wonder that Iceland is one of the least densely populated countries in the world and 92% of that population are ethnic Icelanders.  Historically, they lived off of fishing, sheep, wool, and dairy.  Surrounded by hardship and a surreal landscape, Icelanders made sense of their surroundings by developing folklore that included hidden people, elves, and trolls.

It was this mystery that lured seven Chicks Climbing and Skiing participants and five guides to seek frozen waterfalls to climb regardless of the discomforts to which we would be subjected.   Indeed, we were informed that Iceland had not seen such amounts of snow since 1999 and the cornices overhanging the climbs were monstrous.  This meant that we were threatened by avalanches as well and were in for post-holing for two hours before we even reached the climbs.  The changing weather meant constantly changing ice conditions – from slushy, snow cone affairs to unprotected Swiss cheese type ice to glassy, featureless horror shows.  There was little information on these climbs – if they had been done at all.  Not many Icelanders choose to spend their free time on such endeavors.

Dawn Glanc Chicks Climbing

Ice climbing in Iceland is what ice climbing used to be like in the US thirty five years ago when I started.  There were no guide books to Smugglers Notch, VT, we would rarely see another party climbing, and we had to break trail into the climbs.  We had to get an alpine start just to climb a two or three pitch route, we were never certain we would make the top of a climb, and usually we did not return until dark – with heavy packs laden with wet, frozen gear.

Ice climbing probably would not be so popular now if things hadn’t changed.  Now, you can look up climbs on the internet, hike up a well-broken trail, hook your way up a well-traveled ice route, and be done by noon….or you could take the second shift and start at noon.

So why did seven seemingly “normal” professional business woman-types choose to forgo the conveniences of “modern” ice climbing and go to Iceland?

Erica Nelson,  firefighter from Oregon

to experience the land with my body – not just travel on a bus and take photos.  I feel like you take a piece of the land with you…it becomes cellular

Heather Campbell, Verizon manager from Oregon

I have never been so present on a trip.  It is so physical – hiking and climbing in such a vast environment.  It is hard to comprehend

Karen Kelley, Doctor from Utah

How much longer I can do this, I don’t know.  This was a healing process – dealing with the death of my dad.  I love alpine conditions, exploring, no beta, no expectations

Amy Juries, writer from California

Wild ice was a big draw, no beta, no people.  If the ice appears close, it is really far away; if it appears far away, you are hosed.  Nothing is as it seems (I like that)

Candi Cook, physicist from Oregon

Pushing it in an alpine environment with women and staying safe (appeals to me).  We are in the middle of nowhere, there is no red tape, no people.  There is freedom.  You grow more and realize where  your limits are

Angela Allen, Ecologist from Alaska

I love not knowing what you will see next – the problem solving and working together as a team in remote places.  Chicks is my link to other women who push their limits.  I asked myself each day, what are you going to learn today?

Kris Machnick, a 77 year old retired financial professional from Silicon Valley California

Climbing is a process and it can bring about the best and worst in a person.  Climbing in Iceland was hard and it got me in touch with the struggles and celebrations manifested in the ongoing process of composing my life

Indeed, climbing in it’s raw, extreme form, does draw out the soul of a person. I think that is why we are drawn to such experiences; because we want to find out what we are made of.  Each of these women was willing to be vulnerable, to expose who they truly are. I, too, was pushed in this environment. But I found camaraderie in a group of like-minded women – who all seemed to appreciate the value of struggle in a stark, pristine land. Perhaps the Icelanders recognize this too, and that is why they are reported to be one of the happiest nations on Earth.

Kitty Calhoun
Kitty Calhoun
Since 2000, Kitty has been guiding exclusively for Chick with Picks and Chicks Rock events. Her personal climbing achievements have centered around more technical rock and ice climbing – with other women. These ascents include five routes on El Cap in Yosemite and ice climbing expeditions to Norway, Scotland, and Iceland.
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