WHEN KATE RUTHERFORD AT AGE 4 returned books to the Fairbanks public library, she asked where the big doors for the airplane were.
Until she was 5, when her family moved into town so she could go to school, Kate lived with her homesteader parents in a cabin near Tok, Alaska, 200 miles southeast of Fairbanks in the middle of nowhere.
“A plane would come and bring a package of books with big streamers on it and drop them down for us to run and find. They’d buzz the house a few times first so we would know they were doing it. Sometimes,” she says, laughing, “they didn’t do that good a job and we had a hard time finding them.”
The family had 40 huskies for hauling, and in winter Kate’s mother cracked ice off a spring with an axe for water. To reach the house, Rutherford recalls, “You had 10 miles of road” off the highway, “and then you walked a couple of miles and then crossed the river, where we always kept a couple of canoes stashed, and then walked a couple more miles.”
At age 12 Kate moved with her parents to Vashon Island, Puget Sound, Washington. She later graduated from Colorado College in 2003 with a degree in biology.
Today living the full climbing life, Rutherford, with Madaleine Sorkin, has pulled the first all-women’s free ascent of the Moonlight Buttress (5.12d), Zion, which she refers to as “the most amazing thing I have ever done in my whole entire life,” and, in May in Yosemite, the apparent first all-women’s free ascent (team free) of Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face (5.12). She has climbed El Cap four times, once while checking out the Freerider (5.12c). Last winter she and her partner, Mike Schaefer, spent 10 weeks in Patagonia, and tried Fitz Roy via the North (aka Casarotto) Pillar as part of a small film crew led by Dave Rosenstein to record a climb by Jim Donini.
Rutherford appeared in the 2005 DVD No Permanent Address, climbing the 11-pitch Beggars Buttress (5.11c) on Lower Cathedral, Yosemite. Her struggles in an offwidth, she claims, are “the comic relief of the whole movie.”
At 27, Rutherford is a climber, biologist, fly-fishing guide, climbing guide, and jewelry maker. She creates necklaces out of, appropriately enough, rock—the smooth river stones from Washington. (See suspendedstonedesign.com
Other climbs include Astroman (IV 5.11), Washington Column; the West Face (V 5.11), the Triple Direct (VI 5.10 A2) and Eagles Way (VI A3+) on El Cap; the Rostrum (IV 5.11c); and the North Ridge of Half Dome (V 5.10+ R) in the Valley. She has done crack climbs up to 5.12- in Red Rocks and Indian Creek.
We caught up with Rutherford in the Gorge at Smith Rock, Oregon, where, smooth and solid, she was teaching a crack-climbing clinic. She and Shaefer were living in his van; she’d left her own truck parked in her parents’ driveway (and while at Smith received a phone call from her mother asking that she move her gear back into it).
WHERE DO YOU LIVE, NOWHERE?
Let’s say everywhere. ... I can live anywhere. In a van, on a boat, on a ledge. It helps in climbing.
DO YOU HAVE MANY ALPINE ASPIRATIONS?
I think so. It’s a lot of physical labor, especially carrying a pack, for a small person.
YOU PLAN TO RETURN TO PATAGONIA. WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS?
I would like to attempt Fitz Roy again—it is such a beautiful mountain—next year from the east side. We approached from the west ... that is where Donini’s route was. From the east side, we could do the same route [North Pillar], and we would also have access to lots of other peaks like Mermoz and Poincenot. ... I would like to spend a lot of time in Patagonia.
WHAT MADE THE MOONLIGHT BUTTRESS AN AMAZING EXPERIENCE?
Moonlight was a dream of mine for three years, ever since I got to TR it when Mikey freed it. It was way out of my league then. And to do it with another woman, Madaleine, was really, really fun and empowering. Plus it is the most amazing splitter I have ever seen.
WHAT ARE YOUR MAJOR ASPIRATIONS THIS SEASON? IS ONE FREERIDER?
I am helping my father with a fly-fishing/first-descent documentary in Western Alaska. [Also] Freerider. Yikes, that might take me more than a year. I am sure going to try.
I went up on Freerider because Mikey wanted to free it. I fell off the really hard pitches. It would be really cool if Madaleine and I could do that together, too.
WHAT WORK HAVE YOU DONE AS A BIOLOGIST?
Biology is still one of my passions, and I think I will continue to do that work seasonally, if it easily supports climbing. I worked as a biologist last in the Grand Canyon on a Big Horn Sheep survey in 2005. I think once I get sick of climbing, I will go back to school for biology.
WHAT BIZARRE HOBBIES OR INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?
Artichokes are my favorite food.
WHAT ARE YOU READING?
Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
HAVE YOU EVER MADE IT THROUGH AN AWFUL EPIC ... AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN?
Keep walking, don’t whine and, in a pinch, duct tape works as well as Steri-strips.
ANYTHING ABOUT YOU THAT WOULD SURPRISE SOMEONE?
I drink tea, not coffee, and would rather have salt than chocolate. ... Oh, I speak Mongolian.
WELL, THAT BEGS A QUESTION, DOESN’T IT?
I studied abroad in Mongolia, did a research paper on hunters in the mountains of the Northwest. Both eagle and other hunters, and their experience with changing government regulations and anti-poaching efforts. Lots of horse riding and mutton eating. It was rad!