Every serious climber reaches a moment--perhaps shivering in a
portaledge 5,000 feet above ground, praying for a bad storm to
pass--when he or she wonders how gnarly is too gnarly. For ice
climber Sue Nott too gnarly is not an option. Even after nearly
dying from a 30-foot fall two years ago, Nott still swings her
ice picks with fervor, taking on one life-threatening venture
after the next. "It's a constant roll of the dice," she says.
"You have to put all the risk behind you, or else you're
constantly thinking about the dangers, and then you're frozen."
This is an article from the Nov. 12, 2001 issue
Publicly, many in the elite circuit of pro Alpinists applaud
Nott's determination to continue climbing. Privately, some say
that the rising star is in over her head and that her skills are
not refined enough to match her drive. Many of Nott's peers arch
their eyebrows when they hear about her plan to summit three of
the most difficult mixed routes in the French and Swiss Alps--the
famed north face of Eiger (13,025 feet), the Walker Spur of
Grandes Jorasses (13,800 feet) and the north face of the
Matterhorn (14,692 feet). It's only a matter of time, people
whisper, before she dies trying. "Her ambition is so intense that
it challenges her experience and judgment," says Jared Ogden, a
member of the North Face climbing team. "She can, at times, be
careless. She is a little naive to the potentials of seriously
Says Charley Mace, who heads the expedition committee chair for
the American Alpine Club, "It's hard to say whether Sue's an
elite climber, but I've never seen anyone who climbs as much or
as hard as she does."
After she started climbing nine years ago, Nott, 32, quickly
joined the ranks of top American ice climbers, mainly because of
her willingness to "plunge right into it and not slow down," says
her older sister Sara Argueso-Nott. "Even before she had good
skiing skills, she would ski fast so she could keep up with the
boys. In her freshman year at Arizona she tried out as a walk-on
for the cross-country team. These were serious runners, but they
tolerated her and she competed [for one season] even though she
had never run competitively in her life."
Ice climbing came naturally to Nott. The youngest of three girls,
she grew up in Vail, where she figure-skated and trained for
triathlons, and she often stared out the windows at her school,
the K-12 Vail Mountain School, watching ice climbers claw their
way up the 180-foot-high frozen waterfall known as the Fang
(W16). Two decades later she almost died climbing there.
When Nott began a solo ascent of the Fang in February 1999, she
had already climbed it dozens of times. After one of her solo
summits a year earlier, other climbers railed against her
careless picking technique, which they believed led to an entire
chunk of the Fang's collapsing the next day. Now Nott was
ascending it again. She was about 30 feet off the ground when she
threw her ax into the ice and the ice cracked, causing her to
fall straight down and land on her back. Seconds later, a block
of ice the size of a refrigerator crashed on her. Remarkably she
had no broken bones, but she suffered internal injuries. She
became septic and developed pancreatitis. Less than two months
later she was climbing again. "I saw that huge block coming down
at me," she says, "but I didn't think I was going to die."
Only 5'2" and 110 pounds, Nott's willingness to suffer is the
subject of many a bizarre tale. While climbing in Zion National
Park in southern Utah, she sat on a cactus spine. Too embarrassed
to ask her climbing partner, Kevin Chase, to remove the
softball-sized needle patch from her butt, she spent the rest of
the week climbing, harness and all. Only after driving 550 miles
back to Vail did she get treatment.
On a trip with Chase to the French Alps, the two were attempting
to summit the Frendo Spur when they got caught in a nasty spring
storm. After spending a night in an open bivouac enduring hail,
thunder and lightning, Chase, exhausted, suggested they call for
a rescue. "Screw that! I'm not calling for rescue," Nott said. At
daybreak they made their descent without the aid of a rescue
Among the three climbing disciplines--rock, Alpine and ice--the
last is the most dangerous. At least 35 climbers have died in the
past four years on pure waterfall routes. Nott, who hopes to open
a few mixed lines on 21,000-foot peaks in the Alaska Range, says
she does not have a death wish. "Failing is a form of
self-growth," Nott says. "It pushes my skills and tests my
limits. I'm not crazy just because I push myself."
Nott's mother, Evi, also an avid ice climber, supports her
daughter's drive and is helping Sue get settled in Chamonix,
France, a village along the western border of the Swiss Alps,
where Sue is climbing for three months. However, even with their
shared obsession, the chasm between the two is considerable. "At
ice festivals and competitions they'll be at the opposite ends of
the crag," Ogden says. "I never see them talking. It's the
The thought of Sue and Evi, 64, teaming together for an
expedition seems so ludicrous to both Sue's dad, Robert, and her
sister Karen that they can only laugh at the prospect. "It would
take a psychiatrist to figure those two out," says Robert, who is
no longer married to Evi. "Susan is so determined and independent
that she shuns her mother's direction in search of her own. They
share an element of competition that is not always friendly.
Let's just say you'll never see them hanging arm in arm skipping
down the lane together."
Mother and daughter are more diplomatic. "She has a different set
of friends she climbs with," Sue says. Says Evi, "We try to
respect each other's focus."
Sue admits that she's giving up a lot--romantic relationships,
kids and holidays--to climb. She travels nine months of the year
"to go wherever the big mountains are in season." The rest of the
time she lives in her dad's basement in Avon, Colo., working as a
fitness trainer, peddling slide shows of her latest trip at local
colleges and sporting-goods stores, and planning her next
expedition. Most of her friends, including climbers, have started
to settle down. "Sometimes I look at my friends and wonder if
I'll do that," she says. "Probably not. I'm happy with my
choices. This is a commitment to something that I can do well
into my 40s, even 50s."
Provided she lasts that long. "If you want to scare the hell out
of yourself, you can go do it," says veteran ice climber Clay
Hall, who climbed with Nott in Patagonia. "No one is going to
stop you. Sue is still in that puppy stage where you go and go.
You keep throwing out the ball, and they'll still go run after it
and catch it. My greatest hope is that she makes it to old
of a refrigerator crashed on her.