Sue Nott was probably like most of us when we discover a new sport. When she started climbing, she dove in headfirst and headstrong. Of course, Nott had a natural talent that most of us don’t. She was a 5’2″ juggernaut of determination, tenacity, and innate skill.
Nott was born in 1969 and began climbing 20 years later. Growing up in Vail, Colorado, her life was always active and outdoors-oriented, but it wasn’t until she began exploring the vertical realm that she found her true calling.
Climbing and mountaineering as sport are peculiar in that we see athletes coming up through the ranks in a much more visible way than other sports. When any bump on a topo map can be your theater, the options for playing the starring role are million-fold. Audacity can get you noticed, even before you necessarily have the wisdom of experience.
As is typical among most developing athletes, ambition sometimes overshadows judgment, and Nott wasn’t immune. But in her case, her early career played out quite publicly. She went big and highly technical early, and her approach was not universally applauded. Her learning curve was on display for review by the entire mountaineering community, and she earned a reputation of being a bit reckless.
For perspective around the brightness of Nott’s rise and celebrity, even Sports Illustrated – bastion of huge money, big-TV league sports – covered her in November 2001. The article was half word-play and half condemnation. Titled “Ice in Her Veins,” the subtitle drove the point home: “Absolute fearlessness has pushed ice climber Sue Nott into the sport’s elite, but some peers think she climbs with a dangerous lack of caution.” The article cast doubt on her skills in a national forum. It zeroed in on her ambition and tenacity over her talent, even quoting several professional climbers who doubted Nott’s judgment and chances of survival. Perhaps the author was pushed to find the most dramatic angle, because let’s face it, ice climbers don’t frequently grace the pages of Sports Illustrated. Regardless of intent, the result was a piece that reinforced the perception of Nott as more of a daredevil than a focused mountaineer.
Nott zeroed in on technical climbing early on, especially around Colorado and the Canadian Rockies. She climbed Glass Onion, in Southwest Alaska, along withÂ classic routes like The Replicant, Mount Rundle, Alberta, and Acid Howl in British Columbia. She set up a home base in Chamonix, France, from where she climbed many of legendary alpine routes. In 2003, she became the first woman to make a winter ascent of the North Face of the Eiger.
Over the course of about a five-year period, she climbed major routes in the Himalaya, South America, Europe, and North America. Highlights were Taulliraju in Peru (19,127 feet/5,830 meters); four attempts at Fitz Roy in Patagonia (11,171 feet/3,405 meters); the west ridge of Shivling in India’s Garhwal Himalaya (21,466 feet/6,543 meters); the north buttress of Mount Kalanka in Garhwal Himalaya (22,739 feet/6,931 meters), and Mount Denali via Cassin Ridge (20,310 feet/6,190 meters).
With the virtue of hindsight, it seems unfair to pick on Nott for the big splash she made early in her career. Whereas most athletes have years of anonymity to refine their skills, Nott hit the big time just as her goals were becoming more audacious. Some of the responsibility of her early criticism rests on her decisions – driven by her legendary ambition. But ambition without the toughness and work to achieve it doesn’t move you forward. And Nott continued to move forward. The determination to achieve alpine goals was the same determination she used to develop her skills. Eventually, the public perception of her flipped and she began to earn widespread accolades.
As she aged, respect for her within the climbing community deepened. Her ambition and drive remained in force, and the reckless perception was lessened. Her skills were more polished and her decision-making more balanced. She developed maturity as a mountaineer, which is measured by much more than pure tenacity.
In 2006, Nott and her climbing partner Karen MacNeill, with whom she’d been climbing since the late 1990s, set out to climb Mount Foraker (17,402 feet/5,303 meters), just southwest of Denali and the second highest peak in the Central Alaskan Range (another name for Mount Foraker is Sultana). Their plan was to climb the Infinite Spur route, a notoriously challenging ascent. If successful, Nott and MacNeill would be the first women to summit Foraker.
Infinite Spur isn’t just notoriously difficult; it’s downright gnarly. It’s a 9,000-foot arete in the midst of a chaotic face and surrounded by hanging glaciers. If you run into problems, the safest bet is usually to keep climbing up and seek out an easier way down the mountain. In other words, you don’t have a lot of options.
Nott and MacNeill allowed for about two weeks for the round trip from base camp. They set out on May 14, 2006. When they didn’t return by their anticipated 12-day window, the National Park Service (NPS) activated a search and rescue team on June 1. The NPS may have held off a few more days under normal circumstances, but Foraker and Denali had experienced a massive wind event on May 21. Gusts up to 100 mph and sustained winds of 50-70 mph were recorded. Foraker was too dangerous to climb at that point, so all search and rescue efforts were made from the air.
The search lasted for 10 days before the NPS called it off. They spotted tracks at a lower elevation, as well as around 16,600 feet – the top of Infinite Spur. They recovered Nott’s backpack around 11,500 feet. The official report pieced together their best assessment of what happened forensically.
The backpack that was found with a two-way radio, sleeping bag, and additional clothes inside, appears to have been blown or knocked away, as opposed to being separated from Nott in a fall or avalanche. The report suggests that the women did not fall. It is believed that Nott and MacNeill successfully climbed the arete of Infinite Spur, then built a snow cave for shelter to wait out the wind. That theory accounts for why the pack was found lower on the mountain and why tracks were seen at 16,600 feet, but no other evidence of the climbers was spotted throughout any of the rescue or recovery missions. The bodies of Sue Nott and and Karen MacNeill were never found.
Photos of Mt Foraker by Ippei Yuge.