Libby Sauter doesn't like leaving a challenge unconquered. The 30-year-old nurse splits her time between saving children's lives with international NGO Novick Cardiac Alliance in some of the world's most dangerous places and climbing hard on some of the world's most challenging rock faces. In her downtime she enjoys playing on a "highline" - a thin piece of rope strung high above the valley floor.
In 2014 she set the female speed record on The Nose, El Capitan with Mayan Smith-Gobat. She's even completed two routes of El Capitan in a day - most spend up to a few nights on the face making the challenging ascent.
After months trying to get the intrepid Libby to sit still long enough to write, we finally got to hear her tale.
How did you get into climbing, and how did you end up in Yosemite?
The story is a bit convoluted. I first tried it at a nature camp when I was 12 years old and instantly felt at home on the cliffs. I had just decided to quit playing baseball and I think my mother was looking for another after school activity so for my birthday, I got a membership to the youth team at our local gym. High school got in the way and for several years I didn’t climb at all. In college though, I managed to convince a girlfriend to go with me and have been focused on it ever since!
As for how I got to Yosemite, I was first shown the glaring white granite of Yosemite Valley when a climber friend from Vegas was living there and convinced me to come out for a short visit. When I got offered a job in San Francisco (just 3 hours away from Yosemite) after University a year or so later, I was really excited about the proximity and made sure to take advantage of it.
Tell us about Yosemite. How long were you living there and what was an "average" week for you there?
I lived in Yosemite for six months a year for three years in a row (and I still spend several months there each year, but not in any official capacity!)
The life of a climber on the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team is beyond ideal to the dedicated climber. You have to spend half your time ‘on call’ to respond to emergencies, which means you climb close to the ground on those days – or you hang out by the river or in the meadow underneath El Capitan. If the pager goes off for an emergency, you hop on your bike and pedal to the SAR Cache, gear up and respond to whatever the situation may be – injured hiker, stranded climbers, lost back packers etc. On days that you are off call, you can “go big” climbing on the major formation in the park – or hang out in the meadow. Dinners are often communal, and there’s a large fire pit to gather around.
How does one go about setting a speed record? And what was the experience like?
The first time I broke the Nose speed Record was with my friend and fellow YOSAR member Chantel Astorga. It was my 6th time up the mountain, but our first attempt at this route together. I’ve since lowered the time twice more with Mayan Smith Gobat.
The experience was different each time because I was coming from such a different place. When Chantel and I tagged the pine tree at the top of the route that is official STOP to the timer, it was so exciting. We were just a couple of regular climbers who had taken on, what to us was a monumental task up one of the worlds most well known climbs. But when I partnered with Mayan, there was less unknown, less uncertainty but equal joy at achieving a newer, faster time.
Do you ever get scared, and if you do, how do you deal with it?
A friend once told me in the beginning of my time coming to Yosemite that, “the feeling isn’t fear. It’s just telling you to go!” I believed that for a long time. But after enough time in the climbing community, enough friends lost to climbing accidents, I have had to cope with a late onset fear that I’ve struggled to deal with, that I am still learning to manage.
What’s Libby’s ‘why?’. Why do you put yourself in these often scary and challenging situations? Or do you simply not see it like that?
I put myself in situations that I will find rewarding. Sometimes a part of that is overcoming a challenge or facing a fear. But I prefer to focus on the end result, the satisfaction of a goal or the joy of a day well spent.
Tell us more about your work with the Novick Cardiac Alliance. What do you do for them and what do you enjoy about your work?
I work as a PICU nurse educator for an organization that travels the globe helping low/middle income countries establish or advance their existing pediatric heart surgery programs. What that means is that I work in an ICU that serves children in developing countries after they have heart surgery. Once you get past diarrheal/nutrition and vaccine related illness, cardiac disease is the number one killer of children - a fact I found really surprising when I first started learning about children's health. We at the Alliance believe that all children deserve a chance at a healthy life regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, political ideation, genetic factors or economic means.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest? That’s hard to select but one of my favorite realizations in the last few years has been the power of determination. It’s not so much that I believe in myself but that I don’t let an unknown stop me from trying with an open mind. Success only comes to those that try.
Over the next 10 years, what is your big climbing goal?
I was sitting at the base of El Capitan today talking about just this question. In climbing, I prefer to guard my lofty goals close to my heart because it makes me feel vulnerable to expose my dreams to others. I often struggle with managing my perception of other people’s expectations of me and the things I do. Keeping things close helps minimise that anxiety. Simply, I hope to be healthy and climbing routes that make me happy that day – however easy or hard.
What piece of advice would you give to our young SisuGirls who want to pursue a life as an outdoor athlete?
If you want to play in the outdoors, get out and go! Don’t hold yourself back or make decisions based on fear of the unknown. Again, success only comes to those that try.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
That one is easy! Unsure of what to major in when starting university, my mother suggested her profession, nursing! It has allowed me to travel the world with what I believe to be the most interesting job ever (helping to bring pediatric cardiac care to low income countries) but also provided ample time and funds to pursue a life outside of nursing – like climbing, and slacklining and skydiving!
What is something that you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started rock climbing?
Climbing is all about personal experience and everyone who climbs encounters a different set of stories. It sounds a bit funny but I wouldn’t want to take away from someone else’s discovery by imposing my personal ‘wisdom’ on them. Get out and enjoy your own path, wherever it takes you.
What makes you wake up each morning?
I wish I were one of those people who leapt out of bed each morning ready to greet the world, but I’m just not! I love sleeping and dozing, so I need some good, fun plans (or work) to drag me from the sheets!
Who inspires you?
I get inspired most by the women close to me, those for whom I can relate too on some level - Nurses who are pushing themselves in really challenging environments, climbers who try to have fun on big, dreamy objectives…any of my friends who live life with excitement but yet are focused on long term goals.
Finally, who do you think has serious sisu?
Anyone who is trying hard and having fun!