Posted on: March 1, 2007
Tanja Grmovsek on the first all-female ascent of Cerro Torre in January 2005. Grmovsek and her partner, Monika Kambic, managed the route on their second try; Kambic broke three ribs on the ascent, but the pair persevered nonetheless. [Photo] Monika Kambic
How did growing up in a family of alpinists influence you? I grew up listening to stories about the mountains. At first my mother thought that because I was so tiny I'd be more suited for ballet. But with my brother and sister skiing all the time, I didn't want to be stuck in a dance studio. When I saw a sign in our town for alpine-climbing classes, I knew that was it. Almost seventeen, I was already too old to train to be a professional ski racer like my sister, but my age didn't matter for climbing.
My first climb was a classic route in the Slovenian Alps: Igliceva (5.6). The quiet and the heights made me feel as though my ordinary existence had been shut off. The higher we went, the more I smiled. I'd started a new life.
My family has always understood my compulsion; my father used to get restless just anticipating the noise of packing carabiners.
Who were your role models as a young climber? Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle, of course, were the role models for all of us girls. When I was seventeen, I saw Lynn's IMAX movie, and I wanted to move with the same softness and grace, with all that air under my feet. Lynn's petite size made me realize that my height didn't have to be a limitation.
At the same time, I was also reading a lot of climbing history books, and my other heroes were the old guys like Reinhold Messner, Paul Preuss, Walter Bonatti and Nejc Zaplotnik.
You and your husband have gone on a number of expeditions together. What's it like being married to a climbing partner? Whenever we want to climb, Andrej and I can be packed and ready to go in half an hour. I like climbing with him because that way I can share all my experiences—the views, the sunsets. It would be much harder to have to come home and try to explain how beautiful it all was to someone who didn't understand. When I succeed on a difficult climb, he's always so happy for me—and that makes the ascent even more meaningful. I don't think I could be married to a man who wasn't a climber.
Why have you sometimes chosen to climb on all-women expeditions? I wasn't setting out to do the first all-female ascent of Cerro Torre. Andrej already had a climbing partner, so I couldn't climb with him, and I didn't feel comfortable spending days on a wall with a strange man. I had to find a female partner.
Climbing with women forces me to give 100% all the time. If I climb with men, I always think in the back of my mind that if something goes wrong, they'll rescue me. With women, I know that my success depends only on my self. Also, it's too embarrassing to tell another woman that you can't do something.
I'm not a feminist. I just like that extra incentive to push myself.
Why do you think there are fewer women in alpine climbing than in sport climbing and bouldering? Do you think this disparity will change in the future? Alpinism started out as a mostly male pursuit, and mountaineering equipment used to be really heavy. Today's single-push, alpine-style approach—with lighter gear and without the laborious, expedition-style techniques such as hauling and fixing ropes—is more suited for women's bodies.
Since women often have to try harder in the alpine-climbing world, the ones who succeed do so because they truly love the sport and are prepared to put in a lot of work. I think that powerful motivation will enable them to expand the boundaries even farther.