Nikki Smith

ON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY CLIMB­ING BE­ING TRANS­GEN­DER

Gripped - - CONTENTS - by Bran­don Pul­lan

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

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