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June 1, 2020

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Meet ‘woman in the red dress’ who started Mount St. Helens climbing tradition

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SEATTLE — It began with a striking image on the front page of The Seattle Times on Friday, June 5, 1987.

In the photo taken by staff photographer Benjamin Benschneider, climber Kathy Phibbs stands poised on her skis on Mount St. Helens, wearing a pillbox hat and a red chiffon dress.

The photo captured the imagination of a producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, and the result was the Mother’s Day debut of a new short documentary about Phibbs that powerfully tells the story of a Seattle woman who changed the face of Washington’s outdoor recreation community in her short life.

The photo of Phibbs was taken when she climbed Mount St. Helens the first day it was opened after a years-long closure following the volcano’s 1980 eruption. It was one of many climbs Phibbs took. She spent her short life combining humor with excellent climbing skills, using both to encourage other women to get outside. As an out lesbian, Phibbs also made space in the outdoors for LBGTQ folks, and showed that women and LGBTQ people could be themselves and take up pursuits like climbing at a time when it was a male-dominated sport. As her friends colorfully recall in the documentary, Phibbs’ sense of humor playfully subverted the macho posturing of male climbers, and showed that climbing — and the outdoors — belonged to everyone.

She was the driving force behind an inclusive annual trek up Mount St. Helens that, due to a schedule originally dictated by climbing permits, ended up taking place on Mother’s Day. Now, that climb has become a Mother’s Day tradition, with hundreds of climbers flocking to Mount St. Helens in festive dresses, with goofy accessories including but not limited to tutus, unicorn leggings and (in one case) a stuffed wombat.

MEET KATHY PHIBBS

Kathy Phibbs was a trailblazer for Pacific Northwest outdoors women

• 1975: Climbs Mount Saint Helens for first time at age 17. She sneaks out of the house to do it.

• 1983: Instrumental in creating Women Climbers Northwest, which enabled women to learn to climb in companionship with other women.

• 1987: Led five women to summit of Mount Saint Helens after it reopened to climbers, wearing a red dress and pillbox hat. Appears on front page of Seattle Times.

• 1990: Led 33 women to summit of Mount Rainier to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first women’s ascent made by Fay Fuller, a Tacoma schoolteacher. Wears a long dress in homage.

• 1991: Dies tragically in climbing accident, age 33.

The coronavirus outbreak has thrown a wrench into most traditional Mother’s Day plans, and there was no parade of climbers at Mount St. Helens this year because it is still closed to visitors. But OPB’s documentary about Phibbs and the Mother’s Day climb is a worthy virtual alternative. The 15-minute documentary offers a touching tribute to a Northwest character who paved the way for a more inclusive outdoors community — and pink flamingos on mountain summits.

The annual event’s longevity is a tribute to Phibbs’ influence on the Northwest outdoors community. She died in 1991 during a climb in the Cascades. She was 33.

Ross Macfarlane met Phibbs long before, when they were students at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Both were from the Northwest. Macfarlane recalled Phibbs “stomping around” recruiting him to go climbing with her in the Sierras. Macfarlane taught Phibbs to climb, and soon she was teaching others. She wanted to encourage other women to take up climbing, too.

“Back in those days … it was relatively uncommon … to see groups of women doing significant climbs or adventures on their own with women leading,” Macfarlane said. “And there was a lot of sexism in the climbing community, a lot of assumptions.”

Macfarlane recalled a time when he was belaying Phibbs as she climbed, and a fellow climber mistook her for a man. Phibbs shouted something down, said Macfarlane, and the stranger said, “‘Holy s—! That’s a chick.’ ”

That kind of attitude was fairly typical in the male-dominated outdoors scene, and it was one Phibbs subverted throughout her life with her insistence on making space for women within outdoor recreation.

“From early on I knew and respected that her real passion was around getting other women out and having them adventure together,” Macfarlane said.

She had some creative ways of doing this, Macfarlane recalled.

On one trip, he said, “We were leading a group up to another local crag down in California,” but had missed the approach to the route they’d planned to take, and were going up small trails with little success.

“People were saying, ‘Maybe we should stop and go back,’ ” said Macfarlane, but “Kathy was up ahead shouting ‘Look, I found a cairn!’ And a little later, ‘I found another cairn!’ ”

The cairns, it turned out, were not actually discoveries at all. “She’d just been going ahead and building cairns,” he said. But they buoyed the group along.

Phibbs was aware of the tropes her community-building subverted. Macfarlane said the two of them both read mountain literature about “the huge men being men in these brutal environments and Kathy both loved and loved to hate that kind of literature.”

Long after her death, the community she fostered is still here.

Macfarlane said that a small Zoom party was planned among Phibbs’ friends to celebrate the video’s debut.

The documentary is available on OPB’s website and YouTube channel.

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