As a teenager in the 1990s, Katie Brown was not your average superstar. Five feet tall and with a featherweight build, she was quiet and painfully shy.
Yet she was one of climbing’s first “comp kids” — a young natural who, along with her peers, Chris Sharma, Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell, redefined the image of a strong and successful climber. Her fierce determination, during competitions and out on the rock, defied her passive affect.
In 1994, after less than two years of climbing, Brown won her first junior national title. The following year, at 14, she became the Junior World Champion in Laval, France. In 1996 she won both the Rock Master, a prestigious international contest in Arco, Italy, and the esteemed X-Games. In the latter, former world champion Lynn Hill said on national television, “Katie Brown is the best female climber in the history of the sport.”
Yet even as she reigned the podium, Brown felt her life begin to unravel. She was a silent child obscured by the smiling facade of her manipulative mother and absentee father. The “rules” of her household, governed by a twisted version of fundamentalist Christianity, were strict, ever-changing and irrational. Like Big Brother’s subjects in Orwell’s 1984, she was taught, over and over, that her own memory could not be trusted.
Lonely, isolated, and feeling hopeless, food became the only thing she felt she could control.
Shortly after winning the 1996 X-Games, Brown wrote in her journal, “Life, and my mother, both teach me on a daily basis that no matter what I do it will never actually be good enough, so I must keep striving and pushing.”
And for a while, that’s exactly what she did.
In 1997 she once again won both Rock Master and the X-Games, and in 1999 she clinched a World Cup victory in Besançon, France.
Brown appeared on TV, in Rolling Stone magazine and in the New York Times. Everyone seemed to recognize the petite superhero, with her signature brown ponytail.
One spring day in 1999 — her third day climbing in a row — Brown showed up at her then-local crag, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. “I remember all these sort of macho, hyper-masculine guys got really quiet and kind of backed away,” said Bill Ramsey, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame back then. “It was very clear who the dominant athlete was.”
Two weeks earlier, Ramsey had made the first ascent of a wildly steep sport route he called Omaha Beach. He had graded it 5.13d, but thought it might be even harder. Ramsey encouraged Brown to try it despite her fatigue from the previous two days of hard climbing. He didn’t tell her it was one of the hardest routes at “The Red.”
Ramsey saw her practically float up the overhanging sandstone, passing hard sections without hesitation. Others noticed as well. “Everybody stopped what they were doing and started watching her,” he said. “It was awesome.”
Methodically, she worked out the crux, then cruised to the top.
“Oh my god Katie, I don’t think any woman has ever onsighted 5.13d!” said Ramsey, after she had lowered. “You just made history!”
And then, just like that, she disappeared from the limelight.
“I felt like I was nothing without climbing,” Brown told me. It had become her identity and she hated it. In one sense climbing had saved her life. The strength she needed forced her to deal with the eating disorder that threatened to destroy her. But in order to face the overwhelming sadness, confusion and heartache that had become intertwined with climbing, she left the sport behind.
Since then, Brown has lived and worked in Boulder and the Front Range for many years. In fact, she pioneered this newspaper column before I took over in 2007.
Now, she’s finally ready to share her story. She’s working on a memoir, which will chronicle her life before, during and after climbing.
In the introduction she writes, “I hope that through my story others might be able to draw strength and confidence, and to avoid some of the pain I’ve experienced in my journey to heal.”
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.