Spokane resident Kay Leclaire is the oldest woman in the world to climb the Seven Summits—the highest peaks of the seven continents. “I guess I got the honor by default,” LeClaire jokes. In Spring of 2009, a woman named Nancy Norris was competing for the title but got sick at base camp. “I was on my way to the summit of Mount Everest when a woman poked her head out and said congratulations,” LeClaire says. “I said, for what? Evidently she knew of me.”
LeClaire says everybody knows about Mount Everest (of which she is not the oldest female climber) but rarely do the Seven Summits get recognition. LeClaire started climbing in 2000 when her husband bought her a book called, The Challenge of Rainier.
“When you travel to Seattle you just see that big mountain looming in the background,” LeClaire says. Soon after completing the book she climbed the summit with her 15-year-old son. “I just couldn’t believe it, I was just so excited,” she says. “From there climbing became an itch I had to scratch.”
Initiated by her lack of skills and fear of falling, LeClaire says she convinced her husband and son in 2001 to join the Spokane Mountaineers Mountain School. Upon completing the course, the family overcame their first summit, Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. With one summit down, a friend from the Spokane Mountaineers asked if LeClaire had ever heard of the Seven Summits. The rest you can say is history.
LeClaire says she was always physically active as a runner, hiker and ballroom dancer. But it wasn’t until age 51, a turning point in her life, when she began climbing. “I took so long to do all of this because I had a son to raise and when I was younger I was working,” she says.
Climbing started out as a way to occupy her time and turned into her lifelong passion. “I like the hard work of climbing but what makes it even more interesting is traveling and learning about other cultures,” she says. Climbing trips across the globe have sent her away from home up to nine weeks at a time. Since completing the Seven Summits her climbing resume has expanded to more than 30 significant peaks.
These days, LeClaire is staying a little closer to home but keeping just as busy and active. She’s completed several marathons, has recently started doing triathlons and is training for her first Ironman in Coeur d’Alene. LeClaire says when she first began her climbing expeditions, shopping for gear was very trial and error.
“Believe me,” she says. “I’ve tried and tested a lot of gear by now and if I can help anyone with their gear that’s great. It’s so frustrating to go out and buy something to only find out it doesn’t work. Gear isn’t cheap. Let’s face it.” In LeClaire’s sport, making sure you have the right gear can mean a matter of life or death; and over the years she has worn through, and thrown out more than her average share of equipment. Here are a few of her favorite climbing pieces.
HATS: LeClaire says she likes fleece lined hats with tassels that are made in Nepal and a simple billed cap with a detachable neck cover.
HELMET: Petzl helmet and headlamps.
UNDERWEAR: REI mid-weight top and bottoms and Arc’teryx bottoms with a zipper in the crotch. The Arc’teryx underwear are a woman climbers dream, she says.
SOCKS: Bridgedale and SmarWool socks.
SHOES: REI monarch II trekking boots and LA Sportiva Trango boots.
SHIRT: Anything that’s light weight, she says.
JACKETS: Each climb (and continent) is unique and LeClaire says she goes through an assortment of jackets. She likes North Face and Patagonia fleece jackets, North Face down jackets, Mountain Hardwear shell jackets and the Patagonia Puffball jacket. “I really like the Patagonia Puffball jackets because they are lightweight, very compressible and very warm,” LeClaire says.
PANTS: LeClaire says she prefers Patagonia puffball pants for climbing and Arc’teryx shell pants for ice climbing.
GLOVES: “My favorite all time mittens are from Swany,” she says. “Most mittens are too big and you can’t do anything in them but Swany’s are super movable. I’ve been meaning to write my thanks to the company.”
SLEEPING BAG: REI-20 Kilo Expedition and Marmot-40
POLES: REI summit trekking poles and Black Diamond adjustable trekking poles.
AXE AND CRAMPONS: Black Diamond
SUMMIT PACK: REI, Dana Designs Astralplane