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Queer Mountaineers reach great heights

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Photo by Sarina Pizzala
Photo by Sarina Pizzala

What do you get when you mix mountaineering with the Queer experience? The answer is a beautiful connection that in most other such scenarios would not be there.

This was very much the case for the 10 members of Queer Mountaineers and their two guides who summited Kulshan (commonly known as Mount Baker) at the end of July.

"A lot of us [were] strangers and then became a team on the mountain," said Queer Mountaineering co-founder Sarina Pizzala when asked about the Kulshan climb. "I think having that affinity space helps build a lot of trust from the beginning and make people more comfortable and more vulnerable and [creates] a better space for learning and [being willing] to do something hard to get there."

Photos by Sarina Pizzala  

The planning process for the climb lasted around nine months. In that time, Pizzala and Jude Glenn, the other co-founder, created a scholarship program for those who would not usually be able to afford to climb a mountain. According to Pizzala, these courses typically run $2,000-4,000 per person, plus a couple thousand dollars for gear.

While the experience was marketed for beginners, this did not mean that anyone who hikes would feel comfortable participating. The Queer Mountaineers website recommends doing a hike a week on which you work up to carrying a 20-30-lb. bag for one to two months before the Kulshan climb.

During the preparation time, Pizzala and Glenn also completed the process of finding a guide who also finds Queer affinity groups important.

"[Our main guide Jack] reached out to 600 guys to try and find another guide for this course and got one response," Glenn said. "Outdoor leadership is very much in need of representation and... through having courses like this, we can provide the training and accessibility... people need to [get] these skills to help teach other's leadership. Hopefully, everyone who went on this course is inspired to pass along those skills or do more climbs."

Photo by Sarina Pizzala  

A tough but warm experience
"[The day] we started climbing to the summit...every second, [there were] just happy tears ...because for me, it's just an emotional experience," said William, one of the scholarship recipients. "I come from a small town in Texas, and just having a desire to climb mountains for years and finally seeing that come to fruition... was amazing. Definitely to Jude and Sarina, I owe so much thanks for the experience."

William, like Pizzala and Glenn, felt that the outdoor affinity group was important because unfortunately, a lot of areas with outdoor opportunities also have people with anti-Queer mindsets. And climbing a mountain isn't something you can do with people you don't feel safe around.

Photo by Sarina Pizzala  

The entire experience lasted four days. Two were dedicated to waking up at 2 a.m. to climb up 10,718 feet almost entirely uphill while tied up to other teammates and passing deadly crevasses in the fields of glaciers. The other two days were spent learning how to use ice axes and bonding with team members.

Photos by Sarina Pizzala  

"Some of [the crevasses are] big enough to eat up a house," Pizzala said. "We have to trust that the people we're with have our best interest in mind, and our life is literally in their hands... Truly trusting your teammates in this scenario is really important. We've been very careful to cultivate within our community the teamwork aspect of everyone lifting everyone up and making sure that everyone [getting] safely off that mountain is the true objective, whether or not you make it to the summit. And so, I think that's also what makes it such a [warm] experience for everyone."

"I felt like we just developed like a nice little community out there on the mountains and [we] enjoyed that experience," William added.

Photo by Sarina Pizzala  

Joining the Queer Mountaineers
Besides summiting volcanoes, the Queer Mountaineers also put on a variety of other events, including climbing nights; running, hiking, and ski events; social meetups; mountaineering workshops; and fundraisers.

The group has chapters in Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland with plans to also create one in Bellingham.

Those interested in joining the Queer Mountaineers should go to https://www.queermountaineers.com or check out its Instagram account @Queer.Mountaineers.