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Meet the adventurer: trans climber Erin Parisi on overcoming fear and discrimination by ascending the Seven Summits

The American mountaineer is set to become the first trans woman to summit the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 17 Jun 2022, 06:04 BST
Erin Parisi, the American mountaineer set to become the first trans woman to summit the highest ...

Erin Parisi, the American mountaineer set to become the first trans woman to summit the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

Photograph by Pattie Gonia

Since 2018, you’ve climbed five of the peaks that make up the Seven Summits challenge, with just Everest and Denali still to go. What inspired you?
Climbing the Seven Summits involves getting back out into the world. I’d always been a traveller, but when I transitioned, I gave up a lot of the freedom and safety that I had had previously [when living as a man]. I had a lot of allies and I knew the safe places I could go in my everyday life but, for a bunch of years, I lost my motivation to explore the world. So ,when I looked at the goal of completing the Seven Summits, it just scratched every itch. I needed a way to connect my mind to a sense of pride in my body. I wanted to feel strong, be myself and engage my love of travel. It also gave me an opportunity to show other trans people that we’re out here, we’re doing incredible things and we shouldn’t have to be afraid of our daily existence. What we should be more afraid of is climbing huge mountains!

Why did your feelings towards travel change after you transitioned?
My yearning for adventure became a lot more complicated. I experienced violence and ridicule in my own city – in my office, while out socialising with friends and sometimes randomly by strangers. Some people have been terrible, to the point where I became scared to explore circles beyond my own.

When you travel, you make a security calculation – we decide where we feel safe and comfortable. I am very aware that around a dozen countries in the world have laws that allow them to kill people who are LGBTQ+. Around 70 have other laws where discrimination is in some way codified through jail time or other criminal charges. Travelling the world as a trans person, or as someone who’s gay, or in any way LGBTQ+, is daunting.

How important is representation?
It’s huge. In a lot of different countries, laws are being passed that say you can’t even talk about being trans. You can’t talk about being gay. I went to Russia to climb its highest summit, Mount Elbrus, and there was a law that said I couldn’t raise the rainbow flag at the highest point. Here in the US, we have restrictive laws in a lot of schools, so many kids are growing up with a sense that they don’t belong, that nobody has their back, and basically that they’re not important enough to be talked about.

I grew up before any wider social awareness of the LGBTQ+ sphere, so it just went without saying: don’t talk about who you are. Don’t be trans. Don’t be gay. So, to stand on mountains, bust out a trans flag and say, “I’m not going to sit in the shadows anymore. I’m going to hoist this thing high and proud” is helping to bring that representation to people that need it — to those who feel alone. Because I really needed it. I just needed to see one positive role model. One narrative that didn’t end in death or discrimination.

How are you training for Everest?
I live in Colorado, where I do a lot of high-altitude alpinism and mountaineering year-round. It really has been a tough progression towards the bigger mountains. You can’t prepare for 29,000 feet anywhere.

I partake in mental coaching, too, which has taught me just as much as my physical training and is now my biggest focus. I was getting really down about current affairs; it seems every day a state passes a new law that’s anti-trans. If you let injustice get into your brain, it weighs a lot. You can’t carry that up a mountain. I needed to turn that off and focus on the hills in front of me.

How can the travel industry help to facilitate trans travellers?
When I started the Seven Summits journey in 2018, I faced a lot of discrimination. I remember flying through the airport in North Carolina where I was banned from the bathroom – and that was before I even left the US. Now there’s a lot more happening to help trans and non-binary travellers, and we ourselves have more access to information. I see so many trans and non-binary people climbing, thru-hiking [hiking with camping equipment] and doing amazing things – what the whole adventure travel industry can do is share those narratives, so it’s a little less unexpected when we turn up! And so, we’re inspiring the next generation to engage with the world, to even become future conservationists.

What’s been your biggest challenge to date?
Despite everything I’ve done, coming out has still been my biggest challenge. I came out less than 10 years ago. Just those first words were the hardest thing.  I found support in that situation and it was awesome.

You’ve inspired so many people, but who inspires you?
I read Megan Rapinoe’s book, One Life, while I was in Antarctica. Hearing her talk about what it’s like to be a big soccer player while suppressing the celebration of her love for her partner really stuck with me. She inspires me with her love and acceptance, and how she embraces getting outside, moving her body and partaking in sports.

There’s a Canadian mountain biker, Michelle Dumaresq, who inspired me back in 2003, too. I followed her story closely from the closet. She won a Canadian downhill mountain biking national as a trans person 20 years ago. At the time, I was a big mountain biker, and I was wondering, how is this going to play out for me? Back then, people were having the same discussion they’re having now, with regards to trans women in sports, and how they’re going to ‘take over’. Well, Michelle did this 20 years ago and her attempt hasn’t been repeated since.

I love reading about the life of writer Jan Morris, who climbed Everest with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. I’d love to see that story told more widely. It’s a huge trans narrative that’s been suppressed. Very few trans outside of the UK people know about Jan.

How do you celebrate the end of a climb?
I come home to see my family. We never plan an extravagant dinner or anything – I have a 10-year-old and that’s not what impresses her. I’m usually weary, sunburned, windburned and maybe even have frostbite, so when I get into my house, I drop my expedition bag and lay down — I just want to watch a movie with my kid and partner.

You’ve ticked off five of the Seven Summits. Which has been your favourite?
How could it not be Vinson? I never thought I would travel to Antarctica. At one point I was afraid to even go to my own grocery store. To go from fearing bigotry in public to becoming the first trans person to climb the highest point in Antarctica was huge for me. I’ve taken that trans flag to a place where I could have never seen it raised.

What’s next?
A lot of people who complete the Seven Summits go on to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, which includes reaching the North and South Pole, but I never had that traditional path in mind. But I do want to see another trans person join that club. I’m going to continue working with TranSending, a nonprofit that’s supported me, to try and encourage trans athletes and get them outdoors. We’ve got to get a trans person to the North and South Poles. We’ve got to raise that flag there.

Follow Erin’s journey by visiting the TranSending website, which helps to facilitate outdoor adventures and training for transgender athletes. Erin aims to complete the Seven Summits challenge in 2023. Follow Erin on Instagram at @erinsends7.

Published in the July/August 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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