Erin Parisi has been climbing mountains for about 25 years, but, she said, she wasn’t a “seven summits kind of climber” — someone who wanted to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents — until after she came out as a transgender woman in 2016.
Parisi, who lives in Denver and manages a real estate network, said that after she transitioned, she felt she needed a physical outlet that allowed her to meditate and make sense of the world.
“I felt so strong after coming out,” she said. “I lived in fear, basically my whole life, of being seen, and when I came out, I found something that was completely different.”
She said she set out to climb the seven highest summits after she felt stronger during her transition.
“It just made a lot of sense,” she said. “Going to the highest point on any land and being able to say who you are and tell the world that you’re proud of who you are, where you can’t be accused of hiding or you can’t be shoved into the shadows, spoke to my soul.”
Just before the new year, after her 45th birthday, Parisi ascended Vinson Massif, the highest point in Antarctica, at 16,067 feet above sea level, and she waved a trans Pride flag. She has now completed five of the seven highest summits: Since February 2018, Parisi has climbed Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and Vinson Massif.
She plans to attempt Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America, this summer, and then Mount Everest in South Asia, the highest peak in the world, next year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. During her Everest ascent, Parisi said, she wants to celebrate the life of Jan Morris, a trans author and historian who chronicled Hillary and Tenzing’s journey.
Throughout her efforts to complete the seven summits, Parisi has undergone intensive physical training five to six days a week. She has also worked with a mental coach who taught her to “tune out the noise and the negativity that was directed at the trans population” last year, such as anti-transgender violence that led to the deadliest year on record for trans people and the nearly 200 anti-trans bills that were introduced in state legislatures.
“Rather than hearing good things about who you are, you kind of hear all of these, for lack of a better word, negative, terrible things that are going on with your population,” she said. “It’s just extraordinarily depressing.”
Just last year, nine states banned trans students from competing on school sports teams that align with their gender identities — efforts that Parisi said she takes personally as an athlete.
“I really do take it personally when trans kids are targeted, because really what we’re trying to enforce is a lifetime of physical activity and health for everyone through those sports and kind of developing good habits and leadership through sports opportunities, and that’s just being denied to trans kids,” she said. “And later in life that leads to a problem with access to everything from the benefits of outdoor recreation to the benefits of public lands.”
Anti-trans rhetoric and advocacy worldwide have affected her ability to climb as an out transgender woman. She didn’t come out to her climbing teams when she was in Tanzania, where gay sex is punishable by prison time, or in Russia, where same-sex marriage isn’t recognized. LGBTQ people have historically faced violence in both countries, and Parisi said that knowing she is legally barred from a space made her feel as though she didn’t belong.
“I’m carrying so much pride, but I can’t share that pride because of the possibility of violence against me,” she said. A photo of her at the summit of Mount Elbrus in Russia shows her making a “T” with her hands as a subtle representation of who she is.
She had climbed Kilimanjaro in 2011, before she transitioned, and she climbed it for a second time on March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day.
Usually, she carries a transgender Pride flag to the top, as a symbol of taking trans representation “above the shadows” to the highest point on land.
“I haven’t seen a lot of trans stories or trans representation shared in the world at all, let alone in positive ways throughout the media, and I spent a lifetime looking for those examples, only to come up short-handed until recently,” she said. “So carrying that flag is my way of saying, ‘I’m here, and I’m proud of who I am.’ And I’m going to stand on the highest point in the world, or wherever I am, and say that.”