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Alumni Outdoor Pioneers

Lucy Smith
Former NOLS Instructor Lucy Smith boldly climbed where few other women dared in the 1980s.
Lucy Smith

When Lucy Smith decided she wanted to climb in Nepal, she noticed something significant about the books she poured over on Himalaya mountain-eering. There were no women in any of the pages.

It was 1980, and Smith finally found hope: an all-women’s climbing team had just completed the first such attempt on Nepal’s daunting Annapurna, a chisel of ice that reaches over 26,545 feet. The young climber, who at the time was teaching full-time for NOLS, heard of the expedition at a slide show in Jackson Hole. A group of women climbers were showing slides of their recent trip to Nepal.

“I was in awe of these women,” says Smith. “I was hanging on their every word.”

The last slide was taken high on Annapurna with the clouds parting to reveal a distant peak in the photo. “They said it was almost like you could walk across the clouds,” remembers Smith. “And the next thing they said was that they were going to lead another expedition there.”

At the time, Smith was climbing regularly with fellow NOLS Instructor Cyndy Simer. With dogged determination, Smith convinced Simer to go along. “We were willing to work, so they took us,” Smith says. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had muscle.”

The climb turned out to be epic. High on the mountain, a 30-foot slab of snow swept Smith and four other team members down the glacier in their tent. They came to a teetering stop on a cravasse snow ledge. Lynn Griffith, who had been in the tent when the slide began, was never seen again.

Smith’s climb had been a disaster, but it kicked off an obsession with big-mountain expeditioning that she couldn’t shake loose. “We left the mountain sad, and a bit banged up, and I thought, ‘I never have to do this again,’” Smith recalls. “But by the time we got further down the mountain, I thought, ‘well, maybe I will come back again…’”

The Nepal experience had also introduced Smith to her future climbing partner—NOLS Instructor Shari Kearney, who at the time had been featured several times in the book 50 Greatest Climbs in North America. The friendship would spark nearly a decade of climbing pursuits: In 1980 they tackled Dhaulagiri; they climbed the South Ridge of Ama Dablam in 1982; and in 1989 the team summited Pumori. In 1983 the team attempted the West Ridge of Everest.

“We’d come off one climb and get the next thing lined up,” says Smith. “It was sort of like ‘what next?’”

Kearney and Smith were among a small group of women climbing regularly in Nepal’s high peaks. “We were it in terms of women,” Smith recalls. She’d gone from wondering where the women were in Himalayan mountaineering books, to becoming one of them.

During those years, the women were sharing Nepal’s high peaks and base camps with a who’s-who of male climbers: among them Reinhold Messner, Maurice Herzog, Sir Edmund Hillary, Mike Gill and Tenzing Norgay.

Smith’s climbing career would wind down in the late 1980s, but not before she climbed Kenya’s Kilimanjaro, summitted Denali three times, and worked with geologists in Antarctica. And her NOLS career would span just over two decades.

Today, Smith lives in Lander, Wyoming where she has a cattle ranch and works as a nurse. When she looks back at her years climbing, there are more to her memories that just the summits. “For me,” says Smith, “climbing was just a good excuse to see the world.”

- Kerry Brophy

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