ON PHOTOGRAPHY CLIMBING BEING TRANSGENDER
NIKKI SMITH is a celebrated photographer and author, whose images have appeared in a number of Gripped magazine issues. Smith is the owner of Pull Photography, Pull Designs and Pull Publishing, and she combines her passion for climbing with her natural skill as an artist. Smith began taking photos at a young age thanks to a gift of a camera from her father. She went on to win a number of ribbons at a state fair at five years old.
In college, Smith guided with Utah Mountain Adventures and was a routesetter at Rockreation in Salt Lake City. She eventually began working for Liberty Mountain, a gear distributor where she ran the climbing and sponsorship programs, as well as the marketing department and layouts for catalogues and advertisements. Smith then started Cypher, a brand that makes high-end climbing shoes. Smith is the author of five guidebooks in Utah. She’s made 200 first ascents of route in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Mongolia, and over 200 first ascents of boulder problems. She helped found Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, is a decorated army veteran, and over the past few years, has made a number of big changes in her personal life. We touched base with Smith shortly before Christmas.
TALK A BIT ABOUT HOW YOU FOUND CLIMBING AND YOUR FIRST FEW CLIMBS AND EPICS.
I started climbing at 16. I’d always been afraid of heights and hated rappelling, but the first time I tied into a rope and climbed, I knew it was what I wanted to do. Like books and art, it required a focus that quieted everything else. Nothing else existed when I was there, just the rock, holds and those with me. I had to solve a new problem with every climb. Some I could unlock easily in a single try, some took years to unlock the intricacies, to adapt my body and movements to match. The outdoors and climbing were one of the few places I’ve ever felt I belonged.
WHEN DID YOU JOIN THE ARMY AND HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE?
I joined the Army in January of 1995. I served on active duty until August 1997, when I left active duty on a Green To Gold Scholarship. I was a cadet for another two years while in college and was on track to go back into the army as an officer in an infantry unit until I decided that I wanted to focus on climbing and the outdoors.
DO YOU CLIMB WITH MANY ARMY VETERANS?
I do climb with other veterans. Climbing and the outdoors is a great transition for military folks. The physical fitness, teamwork and camaraderie in the outdoors can be very similar. In the past few years, I’ve helped volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program but pulled away a bit more recently while I try to figure out the reaction people might have to me now.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST DECIDE TO START PHOTOGRAPHING CLIMBERS?
I liked drawing and painting more than photography until I was able to use a darkroom in high school. Being involved in the entire process brought more creativity and freedom. I began shooting climbing starting in high school, but I didn’t get serious about it until college. I pulled tendons in two fingers on a boulder problem and couldn’t climb, but still wanted to go out with my friends. I started going out with my friends and focused on photography. I sought out a few established photographers in Salt Lake and begged them to critique my work. I pushed myself to keep learning and improving. I slowly started to get work published and put everything I made
back into my camera equipment. Photography offers windows into other worlds, other lives.
Photographers are offered glimpses into worlds that even the family members of our subjects do not often get to see. As much as I like to take people to new places, show them new experiences and our amazing world, my most important work is my portraits. Trying to summarize a person in one photo. Showing who they are to others. I didn’t fully realize how important this can be until I lost friends in the mountains and my portraits and action photos were used by friends and family to memorialize them.
HOW MANY GUIDEBOOKS HAVE YOU AUTHORED AND WHAT WERE SOME CHALLENGES WITH THEM?
I’ve authored five guidebooks about climbing in Utah, with more on the way. Creating and publishing books combines many of the things I love. I’ve always loved books and history. My love of climbing and the outdoors, merge with my writing, photography, graphic design and illustration, and the results are climbing guidebooks that convey my talents and love. Time was a huge challenge. I worked on all my books while holding down a full-time job, marriage, trying to climb and shoot. I pushed myself, always keeping busy so I didn’t have to face who I really was. If I stayed busy, I could avoid dealing with being transgender.
YOU’VE HAD SOME MAJOR LIFE CHANGES OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS. WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS THAT LED TO THE MOST RECENT?
Over time, I found myself getting more and more depressed. I was unhappy, even though I had achieved so much in life. I had a great life. An amazing wife and friends. A great job, people liked and respected me but I wasn’t happy. In the fall of 2016, a few close friends died in the mountains and things got really dark after that. I became suicidal. I left my full time job as a marketing director at a climbing company and tried to make a go at freelance work fulltime. I was always alone and had to start to face who I really was. I had done everything I could to deny and hide who I was. I pretended and lied to myself that I could be happy playing a character.
I was struggling with many internalized issues and was tired of it all. By this point, June 2017, I had planned out my death. It was going to happen on June 15th. In my deeply depressed state, I was not able to think clearly. At the time, my suicide seemed like the best option for everyone. There would be no suicide note, no warning to anyone. I’d have an “accident” while climbing alone. Nobody else ever had to know about my issues. Looking back now it was some of the dumbest decision-making and rationale I’d ever thought of, but when you are at a low like that, you are not capable of thinking clearly about yourself. While I was contemplating everything, I was scrolling through social media when I came upon a post with a quote from Brene Brown that stopped me in my tracks:
”I read this over and over that day. Everything in this spoke to me in a way nothing else ever had. I decided then and there to put off my plans and try something different. Deep inside, I had always known what was wrong but was too afraid to face it. I marginalized
“I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear: I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armour is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armour could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching, and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
its importance and told myself that I was just broken, and even if I tried to fix things, it would never really solve my depression. Fortunately, I decided not to listen.
After I found the quote that helped change my mind about suicide, I went to Las Vegas the next day, with the intent of “showing up and being seen.” For one night, I was able to go out and publicly be myself. I spent four hours dancing. Most people ignored me, and I was just able to exist as the real me. The sense of freedom and joy I felt that night is almost indescribable. I knew then that I had to find a way to overcome my internalized issues with who I was. I had to get over my fear of what people would think of me. I just had to let go and begin the hard work. So I did.
I have some issues with the “transition” narrative. Transition implies a change from one state to another. To most, they interpret this as my changing from male to female, but I’ve always been a woman. I just wasn’t able to show it outwardly. Over the last year as, I’ve gone through the journey to show my true self, I’ve realized all the coping mechanisms and acts I’ve had to use to hide who I really was.
I’m not transitioning and learning how to be a woman, I’m dropping everything I used to pretend to be a man. I played the part of a man, but I never was one. My body was/ is still genetically male, but my mind and heart are and were always female. I’ve always seen the world a little differently than others. Although I’ve always been a woman, society didn’t see me or allow me to be viewed that way. That doesn’t change my reality or the millions of other transgender peoples’ realities. I’ve always been a woman, but most of my life, I wasn’t able to show or express that. I see some things differently now, only because I’m finally shedding the character of the man I had to play to survive.
I’ve had to learn to be afraid. I’ve always understood the concepts and issues affecting other women, but until I experienced them first hand, I could not fully understand.
WHAT ARE SOME BIG DIFFERENCES IN YOUR CLIMBING LIFE BEFORE AND AFTER?
There are definitely physical differences now. My centre of gravity is different. Overhangs and roofs are slightly different as my chest forces me to keep my body further from the wall. Hormonal changes have resulted in major muscle loss and a redistribution of fat. I’m losing and gaining weight
“After I found the quote that helped change my mind about suicide, I went to Las Vegas the next day, with the intent of ‘showing up and being seen.’”
at the same time. My skin is thinner, resulting in more bruising and I have to tape the backs of my hands more in cracks (my skin scratches and abrades much more easily now). I get cold easily now, not good for an ice climber. Over time, my hormone levels will stabilize and things will calm down, but there are major fluctuations. Increasing my estrogen, I get morning sickness. My ability to go “all out” in a workout fluctuates inconsistently. Overall, I’m happy with the changes and excited to experience life in a way that matches who I really am. I’ll adapt just as every other woman has. The great thing about climbing is it’s one of the few sports/activities where women are on the exact same level of performance as men. Your size, strength and gender are equalized by the different features of rock and ice routes.
Psychologically, I’m not totally sure yet. I’m more confident and comfortable seeing the real me. In the past, I was always uncomfortable when people congratulated me or tried to compliment me on my climbing achievements. They were giving credit for what I did to a character I had to play. I also constantly questioned myself in these encounters, wondering if they would feel the same about me if they knew the real me? Now, they do and they either accept me or they don’t, but they see me, the me I have always been. I feel like climbing is more positive than it has been for me. I realized that I had started to use climbing and other projects to keep me distracted from addressing my issues. I’d get pretty upset and angry if I couldn’t climb. I’ve since realized that I wasn’t enjoying climbing as much during that time of my life. It was just a distraction. Now I feel like I have that balance again. The love of climbing just to climb. To be out in the mountains or desert with friends, enjoying life.
HOW HAS THE CLIMBING COMMUNITY REACTED?
The climbing community in general has been amazing – so supportive and embracing. When I came out publicly on Facebook and Instagram, the response and support were overwhelming. I did not expect that kind of reaction. I’m being asked to attend a lot of climbing fests to teach and speak. Many of the companies I work with or for have really embraced and supported me.
It’s still not always great, though. I’m pointed at and laughed or whispered about at the gym or crags. It can take a toll over time. People were making fun of me at the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show last summer. There is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding about trans people out there. There is still not enough representation of the diverse climbing community in the media.
HOW HAVE FRIENDS AND FAMILY REACTED?
Friends and family have been amazing. I did not have one negative experience while I was coming out to those I am closest to. It was always nerve-wracking, but everyone has been amazing, even people I wasn’t sure would be very accepting.
YOUR STRENGTH AND HONESTY HAVE BECOME GUIDING LIGHTS FOR MANY IN THE COMMUNITY. HOW HAS THE CULTURE EMBRACED YOU OVER THE PAST YEAR AND WHAT ARE SOME PROJECTS YOU’RE WORKING ON?
I’m asked to speak a lot now and I’m doing everything I can to be very visible. I’m trying to advocate as much as possible and try to dispel some of the myths and stigma that surround transgender people. It’s been amazing. I’m getting contacted by so many people who are struggling with their place in life or the outdoors and it’s been an honor to try to offer support.
IF YOU COULD GO BACK 10 YEARS AND HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH YOURSELF, WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU’D SAY?
I don’t know if going back 10 years would be enough to heal the wounds. If I could go back, I’d go to when I was a child. I’d tell her I am sorry I doubted her for so long. That I hid and hated her. I thought I was protecting her but I was wrong. Never again. I’d tell her that it will all turn out OK. That her friends will embrace her. That she will be loved not only by her wife, family and friends, but in time, by herself. That someday she will be able to look in a mirror and love who she sees. That she is strong and smart and beautiful. That she will travel the world making a living off her art. I’d tell her not to listen to those that tell her she can’t accomplish what she wants, that she can’t be herself. Not to listen to those who mock or hurt her. They are in
“Climbing is now as diverse as the rest of society. People of all body types, genders, sexuality, races, religions, etc. are participating and it’s time we embrace everyone.”
pain themselves. That it’s not only OK to dance but that when she finally does it will be amazing. That the only thoughts and actions she can control are her own. That the only hateful words and thoughts that can hurt her are the ones she tells herself. I’d tell her to get ready to show up and be seen.
WHO HAS BEEN YOUR FAVOURITE CLIMBER TO PHOTOGRAPH?
I’ve worked with so many amazing people. It would be hard to pick just one. In general, I’d say my close friends. We’ve been through a lot together, and they have helped me not only as a photographer, but as a person. They have helped make all of this worth it.
IF YOU COULD PHOTOGRAPH ANYONE, WHO WOULD IT BE?
I am trying to put more focus on photographing underrepresented groups. People of colour, trans and queer climbers, anyone who hasn’t been able to see themselves in the climbing and outdoor world.
WHAT’S YOUR NEXT YEAR LOOK LIKE?
Lots of travel. I’m involved with some big projects wrapping up next year that hopefully will help to open up a broader discussion about trans people in the outdoors. I’m hoping to get back to a decent (for me) climbing level and just enjoy life as myself.
WHAT’S YOUR MESSAGE FOR THE CLIMBING COMMUNITY, FROM THE CLIMBERS TO THE CORPORATIONS THAT ARE DEEPLY CONNECTED TO THE CULTURE?
This is a sport for everyone. From its beginnings, climbing has attracted people who didn’t quite fit in elsewhere. It allows for a great sense of creative and personal freedom and rewards those who are willing to push themselves and to look at things differently. But now it seems to be a bit stuck in a specific narrative of who climbers are. Climbing is now as diverse as the rest of society. People of all body types, genders, sexuality, races, religions, etc. are participating and it’s time we embrace everyone.—Brandon Pullan
Nikki Smith on Under Wraps WI4 in Maple Canyon, Utah
Smith at Maple Canyon, Utah
Right: Smith on her route Yah-Keerah 5.7 on the Chief Wall at Ruth Lake, Uintas, Utah
Smith on Fools Cold WI3+ at Buckhorn Wash, San Rafael Swell, Utah