Alpinist whose diminutive size and 'feminine' approach belied immense determination
Friday 16 June 2006
Susan Nott, mountaineer: born Vail, Colorado 12 June 1969; died Mount Foraker, Alaska c20 May 2006.
On 11 June, search and rescue teams scouring the upper slopes of the formidable 5,300m Alaskan peak of Mount Foraker reluctantly concluded that the leading American alpinist Sue Nott, and her equally talented New Zealand climbing partner Karen McNeill, had perished in their attempt to climb the mountain's extremely difficult Infinite Spur route.
Nott was rapidly emerging as one of the best female alpinists of all time and a major force in women's mountaineering. She began climbing in 1989 and displayed an immediate talent for scaling steep frozen terrain using crampons and ice-axes. The environs of her home town of Vail, Colorado, have long been at the heart of American ice climbing: here are to be found some of the finest technical winter climbs in the United States. Within a year of taking up the sport, Nott had led one of the extreme test-piece routes of the area, an enormous free-hanging icicle known as the Fang. This set the pattern for the rest of her climbing career; her very bold approach enabled her to excel on serious climbs that had hitherto largely remained a male preserve.
By the early 1990s, Nott had led some of the most sought-after ice climbs in North America. Routes such as Acid Howl on the giant, eerily frozen cliffs of Mount Stanley in British Columbia and the Replicant - a forbidding shield of thin, vertical ice hanging from the intimidating north wall of Mount Rundle in Alberta - then held a reputation as deadly serious climbs reserved only for the best. The ice-fall country of the Canadian Rockies almost became a second home for the American during the 1990s as she continued her quest to climb ever harder routes.
Having attracted a small amount of sponsorship from equipment manufacturers, Nott began competing in the ice-climbing competitions then being pioneered in America and at one event she met Karen McNeill, a New Zealander based in the Albertan town of Canmore. Both women recognised a shared ambition to transfer their climbing skills on to alpine terrain and an enduring partnership was formed. The first test of their mettle came in 1998 in Peru, where they immediately attempted one of the more technically demanding Andean mountains, the 5,830m Taulliraju.
Their fiery alpine baptism might have put most people off such experiences for life. Having battled for three days up steep, unconsolidated snow, rotten ice-flutings and insecure mixed rock and ice pitches, they were forced to bivouac standing upright in the middle of the crux pitch with no shelter. Following an excruciatingly uncomfortable night with no rest, the duo fought up exhaustingly deep snow to within 90 metres of the top of the route before retreating. The climb was a clear demonstration that all-female teams had the toughness, skill and determination to take on the extreme alpine climbs - and match the men axe-blow for axe-blow.
But, before the duo's partnership could really blossom, it was almost cut prematurely short. In 1999 Nott suffered a bizarre and appalling accident while climbing in Vail. During her ascent of a free-standing icicle called the Seventh Tentacle, the ice structure suddenly fractured and collapsed, taking Nott with it. An ice stalactite skewered her through the stomach, crushing her abdomen and severing an intestine as she crashed to earth. Paramedics desperately tried to stem a massive loss of blood and resuscitate her during the emergency helicopter rescue that ensued. "I flatlined twice, but they brought me back," Nott would remember ruefully.
Despite the obvious psychological trauma of such an event (and also physical effects - she carried impressive scars from surgery) she declared she didn't "want to use my accident as a crutch". Proving to be as good as her word, within five months Nott was in Patagonia, trying a new route up the skyscraper-like granite spire of Fitzroy, and coming very close to success in spite of some of the staples holding together her stomach wounds threatening to pop open.
In 2001 Nott and McNeill were reunited in the Himalayas, where they climbed the West Ridge of Shivling (6,543 m) in five days, followed by an epic descent in freezing conditions. During the same period, Nott began making extended winter visits to the European Alps to pick off some of the most serious routes in the most demanding conditions - many of which had received few repeats, let alone female ones. The accomplished British alpinist Ian Parnell teamed up with Nott on several climbs, most notably on the extremely difficult Colton-MacIntyre Route on the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses. Stymied 450m up the route by an unclimbable snow mushroom on the crux pitch, Parnell balked at the sight of the alternative: an overhanging ice gully on an adjacent unrepeated route. "I looked across at the pint-sized blonde next to me," he said:
At 5ft 3in she didn't fit the clichéd image of Alpine rufty-tufty but, behind the cute grin, Nott car-
ried a reputation as one of the most determined mountaineers around. "Yeah, sure I'll lead it," she drawled in her distinctive high-pitched mid-Western accent. "Looks kinda fun." The icy monstrosity above was an inch thick in places and barely a body-width wide. Occasionally it overhung. I'd never contemplated a fiercer alpine lead and yet Sue thought it "kinda fun". With a partner like this, life was looking up again.
Many others thought so too. Nott became a popular visitor among the élite French climbers of the Chamonix Valley, such as Isabelle Santoire, who teamed up with Nott on several climbs. "She has an amazing sense of humour - even when it's dark and we're both tired she comes up with a joke, she's a very funny person," said Santoire. Parnell was also amused to note that, on expeditions,
Nott's base-camp tent was like a fine ladies' walk-in wardrobe. Stacks of French Vogue magazines (research, she said, for her job as life coach), climbing clothing that she had designed to look at least a little glamorous, and then of course her sunglasses collection, up to 12 pairs. This light and feminine approach to the macho world of alpinism I always found really refreshing but it also hid an immense determination.
With her fellow American John Varco (who became her boyfriend), Nott made an incident-packed five-day winter ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 2003, becoming the first American woman to complete the legendary climb. The pair endured a furious storm and at one point, despite the onset of frostbite in her fingers, Nott waved away a rescue helicopter. "When it gets grim, there are always a thousand reasons to go down and it's hard to find just one to go up," remarked Varco. "Sue always finds that one."
Later that summer, Nott and Varco engaged in an epic 19-day tussle with the unclimbed North Spur of Kalanka (6,931m) in the Garhwal Himalayas of India. Running out of food, beset by storm, they toughed it out sheltered by just a "portaledge" (a covered nylon hammock tied to the rock), the last four days without any food at all, before admitting defeat and retreating just 300 metres shy of the summit. But Nott saw only positive consequences, valuing the experience for allowing her to test her absolute limits.
Fortified with such self-belief, she again teamed up with Karen McNeill in 2004 to make what they called the first "man-less" ascent of Denali's fearsome Cassin Ridge. In a season of terrible weather, the pair triumphed when most other climbers in Alaska struggled to emerge from their base camps. After battling for three days up North America's highest peak, they were forced to spend 20 hours holed up in their tent by storm on the summit. When a weather window appeared and national park rangers sent up a helicopter, they were greeted by the sight of the two cheerful women on the roof of America giving the thumbs-up.
Buoyed by this success, the pair again travelled to Alaska this spring, intent on making the first all-female ascent of the Infinite Spur of Mount Foraker's South Face, a soaring 2,860m arête which is one of the most difficult climbs in Alaska; it has seen only around 20 ascents since it was first climbed in 1977. Setting off on 14 May, Nott and McNeill expected to take around 10 days, but have not been seen since.
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