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Don’t Look Back:
One Woman’s Quest for Adventure
By Kerry Brophy
Kearney on her way up Pumori in 1981. In addition to her adventures in Nepal, many of Kearney’s early climbs are documented in the book “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.”
© Kearney Collection

Part 1 | Part 2

Shari Kearney often thinks back to a time when all she did was climb mountains.

Ama Dablam, Everest, Dhaulagiri, Anapurna II, Pumori. These were her mountains, some of the toughest in the world, and for almost a decade they were her obsession, drawing her back again and again. Today the mountains only haunt her imagination.

“That period of my life, the time I spent on those mountains,” says Kearney, “is burned in my brain.”

Kearney, who at 51 has been a NOLS instructor for over 20 years, remembers tying into a rope for the very first time. “That first time I tied into a rope to climb,” she remembers, “I was hooked. It was completely different from how I’d done things before.”

And so began a climbing career that would take her around the world, breaking the ceiling of what women had done up to that point in mountaineering, and getting her onto the pages of the book “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.”

Kearney grew up outside Seattle and learned to backpack when she was a naturalist in Yellowstone National Park during her summer vacations. When she enrolled in a climbing class at Washington State University, where she graduated in 1974, it was only to make her a better backpacker. Nobody could have told her that backpacking was the least of what she’d end up doing.

Her first big climbing expedition was a month-long trip to Alaska’s Mt. Hunter in 1978 with her now ex-husband, Alan Kearney. The pair skied in and bagged a first route on the mountain; it was the first of many routes the duo would tackle together. Alan, remembers Kearney, was tenacious. “We ended up doing mountains all the time,” she says.

  Kearney, shown here at 26,000 feet during an attempt of Everest’s West Ridge, helped mentor many climbers who would go onto successful careers in the mountains, including Annie Whitehouse, who climbed the highest of any North American woman at the time on this summit bid.
© Kearney Collection

In the beginning, it was all about speed and challenge. “I had a period of time where I was pushing the envelope pretty hard and was lucky to come out the other end,” she says, remembering an avalanche on Mt. Hunter that almost ended her climbing career for good. Kearney also recalls when she and Alan climbed the Nose of El Cap, challenging themselves to see if they could “blast on by” the climbers in front of them. It was the late 1970s: They lived out of a van and worked odd jobs between climbing expeditions; “Camp 4” at Yosemite was where everyone hung out; they traveled to Alaska and Peru; Kearney thought about going into medicine but couldn’t stop climbing. She was obsessed.

“When I first started climbing I made the statement to myself that ‘if I die doing this it will have been worth it,’” says Kearney. “Later I said, ‘no, I want to be in this place and will make the decisions to make it safe.’”

Kearney’s climbing career took a dramatic turn in 1980. Up until that year, with a few rare exceptions, she had only climbed with men. It was, she recalls, a time when there “weren’t many women role models,” before Title IX introduced more women to sports. Kearney climbed hard and fast, often outpacing her male climbing partners—so there were no other women in sight. But in 1980 Kearney joined up with an all-women’s expedition to Nepal. Two of the women on that trip, Lucy Smith and Cyndy Simer, were NOLS instructors.

Part 1 | Part 2

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