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Don’t Look Back:
One Woman’s Quest for Adventure
By Kerry Brophy

Part 1 | Part 2

Kearney found her Shangri-La in Nepal, and here she also found her climbing team. She would return to Nepal four more times, three of those times with the same all-women expedition team. In 1980 they tackled Dhaulagiri; they climbed the South Ridge of Ama Dablam in 1982; and in 1989 the team summited Pumori. In 1983 they attempted the West Ridge of Everest, along with some men, reaching within 1,000 feet of the summit before the weather deteriorated. On this expedition, Annie Whitehouse got the highest of any North American woman at the time. “Every time we reached a high camp, we set a record,” says Kearney.

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

No one knew it at the time, but those early expeditions were training grounds for some of the world’s leading women climbers. Kearney, who was one of the more seasoned female climbers in the mountains at the time, helped coach along Beth Wald, who would go on to become a famous adventure photographer, and Stacy Allison, who would later become the first American woman to summit Everest.

In Nepal, Kearney discovered that “being on top is secondary to having gotten there.” There were more technical routes elsewhere in the world, she says, but she just loved being in Nepal.

“It was that whole expedition endeavor, going to a place and spending time in the place, not just on a mountain but with the culture,” Kearney says. “Nepal allows you to broaden your view of things and enrich your spiritual connection in a way that is harder to do in North America.” Some of this spirituality came with confronting the ultimate risk of doing very technical routes in the mountains. On her first trip to Nepal, Kearney’s group was caught in an avalanche. “There was this tension,” she remembers, “and then we heard a shot, like a rifle, of the slab cracking.” When the slab went, Kearney and her group of four tent mates were sent careening into a crevasse. Lynn Griffith, who was in the tent when the slide started, was never seen again. Griffith had said before the accident that she wanted to be in Nepal forever. “We believed that her spirit was alive,” says Kearney. “That challenged very strongly the Western beliefs we had.”

After her last expedition to Nepal in 1989, things were beginning to change in that part of the world, not only in the mountains but also in the sport of mountaineering. On Kearney’s first expedition, she wore leather double boots and telegrams were the height of communication. When she attempted Everest, there were only five groups allowed on the mountain. But in the late ’80s, Nepal was beginning to get crowded. Kearney was no longer alone on many of her favorite routes, and commercial climbing was starting to make its way into a once isolated country.

  These days, most of Kearney’s adventures in the mountains happen on the back of a horse as she works NOLS Wilderness Horsepacking courses and runs re-rations. When the mountains are filled with snow, Kearney works as a NOLS admission officer in Lander, Wyo.
© Kearney Collection

When Kearney stopped climbing mountains, it was not a conscious decision. “I was talking about doing Everest again, but things were changing on the mountain,” she remembers. “So I was able to move on and do some different things.” Kearney began riding horses again, and worked as a wilderness ranger, where she had a view of Wyoming’s Tetons but didn’t feel the urgent need to climb them. She also began to work NOLS horsepacking and sailing courses, bringing some of her mountaineering expertise into other domains.

“Shari’s field experience is clearly evident in every NOLS course type she works,” says Steve Goryl, a long-time NOLS instructor. “I have always been impressed with her calm, cool demeanor. In the field with NOLS, I have seen her react with precision to high wind and waves as the skipper of a Drascombe longboat. She can read the nuances of the sea, with the same precision as any meteorologist. Shari is the consummate outdoor educator.”

Kearney’s ability to move so gracefully from an intense mountaineering career into other endeavors has impressed her fellow NOLS instructors over the years. Liz Tuohy, a NOLS instructor since 1994, says that her reputation as a legend in the sport of climbing looms large at the school, but many people are just as impressed with her everyday pursuits. “The cool thing for me was watching this person who had an amazing climbing career move on to do other things,” says Tuohy. “She’s been one of my role models in climbing because, for her, climbing’s not about ego but about what it contributes to your life.”

Tuohy also believes Kearney has been a great role model for women at the school, both students and other instructors. Tuohy remembers being a student on a climbing course with Kearney. “It was part of the reason why I stayed here,” she says. “She’s had a huge impact on me, for sure.”

These days, Kearney’s often seen heading out into the wilds on the back of her horse Buddy, a small caravan of animals trailing behind. She never looks back.

“I’m not ready to say I’m done traveling,” she says. “I have full confidence that as long as I keep doing things that make me feel alive, I’m following the right path.”

Part 1 | Part 2

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