Remembering Anna Smith

Published in Terra Incognita, July 2017.

Words and photos by Derek Cheng

There was the time when her offer to break trail through deep powder snow was dismissed, because she was “only a woman”. Or when she wasn’t offered a burn on a 5.10 sport climb because her male friend had tried it, and flailed, and the others had assumed that she, too, would flail. Or when she would bristle uncomfortably whenever anyone would refer to their new alpine route on Snowpatch, in the Bugaboos, as “Johnny’s route”, blithely disregarding her efforts altogether.

Or when she was told to wear more clothes, to lose the tattoo, or to adjust her makeup.

Anna Clare Smith had countless amazing qualities that have been warmly remembered since her untimely and tragic passing in the Indian Himalaya last September, at age 31. She had a radiant energy that exploded from her lungs in raucous laughter, echoing around the hallowed granite of Yosemite, the petrified ice lines of the Canadian Bow Valley, or the towering spires of Baffin Island. She inspired many with her willingness to jump on extraordinary lines that intimidated others into a fearful malaise; she didn’t care about sending, but chased the experience, the high and the wild, the remote and the majestic. 

But her values, rooted in strong feminism, are perhaps not as widely known as her laughter or climbing exploits. Her petite frame and wispy blonde hair belied a fierce, articulate spirit that harbored a heavy loathing for the latent sexism that pervaded the climbing world. Anna would tell it as she saw it, without sugar-coating. 

“Our bodies get critiqued like objects,” she wrote on her blog last year. “We have to present the right image in addition to being the right age. Too much makeup is a bad thing, but not enough clothes and a tattoo makes you a tramp. And we may even get judged for a silly thing we say on top of a mountain above 10,000ft.” 

Smith quoted a friend to illustrate the double-standard of how different genders are judged by what they wear: “While women may get comments like, ‘she only does that for attention,’ it’s a different story for men. ‘I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about male runners who run half-naked. Have you ever heard someone say that [ultra-runner] Tony Krupicka does it for the ladies? Really, it’s no one’s damn business how much or how little clothes anyone wears, or why they do, or don’t dress in the way they do.’”

She related the story of Pam Smith, who, after winning the Western States 100 (a 100-mile ultra marathon), approached a company about possible sponsorship. “After getting no response from the team manager, she asked a friend at the company if he knew anything. The response: ‘You didn’t fit the image they were looking for.’ Pam said she isn’t sure what that means – ‘young, fast, hot?.’ But she wasn’t it.”

Anna Smith didn’t particularly fit into a role that was expected of her. She got on the most blockbuster lines, from Moonlight Buttress to All Along the Watchtower, regardless of whether they were too hard for her to free climb. She grabbed leads that her male partners frequently presumed she wouldn’t want, or couldn’t do. She wore what she wanted – push-up bras, vibrant dresses for “rest day, dress day,” tutus for desert towers, baggy thrift-store jumpers for frosty mornings or chilly evenings. She loved wine from a bag, and smoked cigarettes as if they were candy. She loved loud hip-hop at all hours of the day, and could host a group discourse on classical music, or discuss the artistic merits of the Whole Foods Parking Lot song, relative to the romantic ballads of Tom Waits. 

She was generous to a fault, often offering a place to sleep for roaming dirtbags without even asking her tenants first, and at least once offering climbing gear (which wasn’t actually hers to offer) to complete strangers upon hearing that they didn’t have enough wide cams. The second time our paths crossed, after initially meeting in New Zealand, she insisted I come by her place in Golden, BC, on my way to the Bugaboos. When I arrived, she offered me any climbing gear in her possession, all the dehydrated meals from the freezer, and forced a blueberry waffle mix on me before driving to her work at Parks Canada, leaving me, practically a stranger, alone in her house. Such innate trust and openness is rare. She did practically the same thing in 2015 when, after learning of a family emergency, she rushed back to Canada and left me alone with her truck, along with all the important contents of her life.   

Anna dirtbagged with the best of us, donning ripped jeans and torn wind-shells for several consecutive days, forgoing cleanliness, and sleeping for weeks at a time in the back of her Toyota Tacoma. She would discard meals and discover them, weeks later, in moldy receptacles and feral cups that had sat, forgotten, under the car seat. But she also loved dressing up, blow-drying her hair, and taking her mother to the theater, or talking her way out of a pickle with her best, posh British accent.

She never stifled her joy because she thought it might come across as inappropriate. She was always on the cusp of obliterating any serenity in the area with her rambunctious laughter. One evening in Red Rocks, a group of climbers kept having their peaceful evening interrupted by Anna’s booming laugh, floating in from the other side of the campsite. “There she goes again,” one of the climbers in the group said. “Who is that girl? What could possibly be that funny?” A few days later, we befriended a member of this group, who told us this story, adding: “And now I can tell them that I met that girl … and that it really is that funny.”

Anna had a unique candor to her stories, punctuated with articulate phrases and dramatic pauses. One of her favorites was how she once channeled her frustration and anger into fuel for sending. She was on an alpine rock climb with a male partner who had always presumed that he would lead the hard stuff. He was surprised when, on this climb, Anna immediately started racking up at the base of the first 5.11 pitch. She climbed higher and, whenever fear or doubt gripped her, stymied by a hard move or a nervous runout, she spat out a quiet ‘fuck you’ to the sexism of her belayer, and climbed on. 

“There’s at least one person out there thinking, ‘these women just need thicker skin,’” Anna continued in her blog. “While I truly admire people who are unscathed by harsh comments, I’ve witnessed first-hand that being sensitive can be a strength … For instance, because the women mentioned in this article know how horrible it feels to be hurt by people’s comments, they actively seek to make other people feel good, while building a stronger sense of support and community for women … The realization that kindness and empathy can stem from that sensitivity can actually be a huge asset to the world.

“Asking for a climbing community where all women feel safe, supported, and encouraged is a tall order … Call me a dreamer, but there is one thing I’m sure of: there’s nothing more powerful than a group of women, along with supportive men, that come together for a common cause.”

In 2013, Anna broke her pelvis in a 45ft-fall on Paddle Flake, in the Bugaboos, and took several months to recover. During the ordeal, she discovered a fierce survival instinct: “There was no flexibility in my mind, simply an unflinching drive to do everything in my power to survive. There’s nothing I wouldn’t have done, or have had someone else do, in order to achieve that,” she told me last year.

She took 2015 off to climb. With the help of the Jen Higgins Fund and the MEC Expedition Fund, she and Michelle Kadatz traveled to Baffin Island, where they successfully topped out the Scott Route (5.11) on Mt Asgard, and the South Buttress (5.10) on Mt Loki – believed to be the first all-female ascents of both routes. When she returned, she used the remaining months of good weather to work on two new multi-pitch routes, one in the Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park, and one on the east face of Snowpatch.

Anna returned to work at Parks Canada at the beginning of 2016, but by spring she had quit and returned to dirtbag life, spending weeks in Indian Creek and Yosemite, and the Wind River Range in Wyoming. 

At the end of September, Anna and Alison Criscitiello traveled to the Indian Himalaya with the help of two grants – the Mugs Stump Award and the John Lauchlan Memorial Award. They had wanted to climb Brahmasar II, but changed their plans due to flooding, and instead hiked into the Miyar Valley. On the night of September 30, at advanced base camp, Anna had a heart attack in her sleep and never woke up.

A memorial was held in Canmore, Canada, a few weeks later, celebrating her radiant energy, lust for adventure, and unique laughter. That laughter will continue to reverberate in the memories and minds of many who loved her. The world will never again be as bright.  

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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