Ruth Anne Kocour

Ruth Anne Kocour

She took us through disaster to the summit of Alaska's Mount McKinley in her book, Facing the Extreme. Now, in Walking the War Zones of Pakistan: One Woman's Journey into the Shadow of the Taliban, Ruth Anne Kocour takes us to K2 and Pakistan's tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, Kashmir, and China. Kocour's adventures have been featured on CNN's International Hour and the Discovery Channel. Her photos and stories have appeared in People, Harper's Bazaar, Health, Sunset, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Ruth Anne has summited the highest peaks on four continents. She has climbed and trekked throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Her background in art, science, and photography enables Kocour to bring to life battlegrounds of nature and cultures for the reader. She is an artist by avocation and lives in Reno, Nevada.

Walking the War Zones of Pakistan

Trek to K2 and Pakistan's tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, Kashmir, Tajikistan, and China. See topography that has led to isolation–physical and cultural–of tribes blocked for centuries by natural barriers, lack of infrastructure and communication. Ruth Anne Kocour's tale of travel and adversity lends a face to today's news and a glimpse into what we all have in common–our humanity.

Facing the Extreme

One Woman's Story of True Courage and Death-Defying Survival

St. Martin's Press, 1999

The climbers on Alaska's Mt. McKinley called her "the woman." Ruth Anne Kocour, a world-class mountaineer, wasn't bothered. It was part of the challenge she faced as she joined an all-male team to conquer North America's highest peak...the mountain the Indians called Denali, or God.

But nine days into this ascent, a forty-fifth birthday present to herself, the most violent weather on record slammed into the mountain. Ruth Anne and her group would be trapped on an ice shelf at 14,000 feet for the deadliest two weeks in Denali history. Pinned down by blinding snows, unable to help other teams dying around her, and her own feet freezing solid, Ruth Anne tells of a wind chill of minus 150 degrees, deadly hidden crevasses, and being trapped in a place so violent and unforgiving that it threatened to push her over the edge and into a place of no return. And yet, in prose as crystalline as the ice around her, she tells, too, of beauty, courage, and the spirit that drives true mountaineers higher, as she risks all to go for the summit...and perhaps, for a transcendent moment, touch heaven.


Facing the Extreme 

Facing the Extreme deserves a place high on the list of books about mountaineering. -- Minneapolis Star Tribune

Kocour passionately recounts how all ten members of her team survived the storm that took the lives of eleven other climbers. -- Library Journal

Facing the Extreme is not just another heroic climbing tale, rather a metaphor for anyone who has faced 'impossible' odds--and prevailed. -- John Long, noted climber and author of Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs

The Rachel Carson Society
Ruth Anne Kocour is a world-class mountaineer and a charter member of the Rachel Carson Society. As an expression of her deep concern for wild places, she made Sierra Club a beneficiary of her will many years ago.

Don't Sell Your Saddle
Special to the Reno Gazette-Journal
I'd never been on a cattle drive, so when I was invited to move 300 head of cattle from central Nevada to the mountains in May, I needed to outfit myself with the proper attire.

Trekking Pakistan

Why Pakistan? people ask. The question is probably a good one. Traveling in Pakistan is challenging both physically and culturally. It's also relatively hazardous, especially in the context of the United States' recent bombing of Pakistan's neighbor, Afghanistan, of India and Pakistan's recent nuclear tests and their on-going war over the disputed Kashmir region (Editor's note: As this story was going to press on Friday, the U.S. Embassy, the U.N building and a U.S. cultural center in Islamabad, Pakistan, were fired upon with rockets, allegedly by supporters of Osama bin Laden).

Toronto Sun, May 17, 1998
Graphic tribute to a deadly mountain

Following the success of Jon Krakauer's book about his part in the disastrous recent climbing of Mt. Everest, and others in the genre, American Ruth Anne Kocour, with Michael Hodgson, has written a page-turner about her own brush with death mountain-climbing.

Her goal was not Everest, but the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley in Alaska, or as the natives call it, Denali. Denali is just over 20,000 feet, but it is subject to some of the worst weather in the world, and Kocour's expedition in 1992, the only woman among eight amateur climbers and two professionals, was a nightmare.

The worst storm on record slammed into the mountain as they were camped two-thirds of the way up, pinning them on a precarious ice shelf at 14,000 feet for two terrible weeks during which 11 climbers -- American, European and Asian -- died.
Kocour and her companions were assaulted by 110 mph winds, -47F temperatures and -150F wind-chills. Trapped in their fragile tents, they suffered severe frostbite, hallucinations, near-starvation as their food ran out and growing terror that they would suffer the fates of other climbers on the mountain.

Kocour's story of their ordeal examines the reasons why climbers put themselves through these hells, her own motivations (an experienced climber, the trip was her 45th birthday present to herself) and the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of this most gruelling of sports.

A good read and a graphic tribute to a deadly mountain which has claimed 87 lives since the National Park Service began keeping records in 1932. They died after being swept away by avalanches or by tumbling off rocky or icy walls. Some simply disappeared, swallowed by one of the many active glaciers. Thirty-four lie buried on the mountain.

Fox Interview with Ruth Anne Discussing "Walking the Warzones of Pakistan"

Walking the Warzones of Pakistan - One Woman's Journey into the Shadow of the Taliban. Ruth Anne Kocour describes her new book and journey through Pakistan and touches briefly on the land and people she found along the way.

Don't Sell Your Saddle
. . .there are cattle to drive at Mustang Outfitters, about 200 miles east of Reno.

By Ruth Anne Kocour


I’d never been on a cattle drive, so when I was invited to move 300 head of cattle from central Nevada to the mountains in May, I needed to outfit myself with the proper attire.

My trip began with at stop at a Reno Western-wear store. At the shop, a white-haired codger peered through his spectacles.

“How can I help you, ma’am?”

“I’ve been invited to go on a cattle drive,” I said.

The codger burst out laughing. So did another man standing behind a rack of cowboy boots.

“That’s no invitation, missy, that’s a job,” the codger said.

“I need a hat,” I continued.

“Oh, a cowgirl, huh?” he replied, thumbs hooked in his suspenders.

“No, I need it for the sun, and I want it to stay on my head.”

He laughed again.

“Then you need a stampede string.”


If you’re wondering what a stampede string is, as I certainly was, it’s the slider cord attached to the hat that snugs up under the chin. The codger led me to the cheapest hats in the shop, no doubt convinced that my first cattle drive would be my last. He threw one on my head.

“There, how’s that feel?”

He demonstrated how the brim could be shaped for any look. I left the shop armed with my new hat and the assurance that now I was well-equipped to drive cattle, flaps up or flaps down.

Ranch life

Jim and Karen Stahl have a ranch in the Big Smoky Valley, a sparsely-settled expanse of sagebrush in central Nevada that runs 140 miles northeast to southwest. On either side of the valley rise steep mountains riddled with deep canyons and ravines, the Toiyabe range to the west and the Toquima Mountains to the east. Getting to the Big Smoky Valley is a two-pack-of-chewin’-gum drive, 200 miles east of Reno along U.S. 50, America’s Loneliest Highway. That’s where the chewing gum comes in.

Jim, a transplant from the Great Lakes region and retired from Round Mountain Gold Mine, runs Mustang Outfitters, a guiding business. Last fall, I experienced Jim’s luxurious camp of walled, carpeted tents — some with wood-burning stoves — set high in the Arc Dome Wilderness of the Toiyabe range. A few days later, Jim led the way through a snowstorm to the top of Mount Jefferson (11,949 feet) in Nevada to watch the annual mating ritual of desert bighorn sheep. Rams butting their heads sounded like rifle fire even from a distance. Jim is a master guide for pack and hunting trips, photo safaris, mustang viewing and Toiyabe Crest trail rides. He’s also a gourmet campfire cook.

His wife, Karen, still works at Round Mountain Gold Mine, where she drives a 290-ton haul truck.

“Someday the mine will close,” Karen said. “Round Mountain Gold employs nearly 650 people in this valley. Most of us want to stay here on our ranches, so we’re looking to the future. Next year, we plan to open the cattle drive to the public.”

For more than 100 years, Smoky Valley residents, like many rural Nevadans, have endured ups and downs in the mining industry. Increasingly, they have found it difficult to hang on to their way of life.

I’m assigned a horse

“We’ll spend the next three days pushin’ 300 head of cattle up to their summer pasture in the mountains,” said Karen. “Danny (Berg) is the cattle boss, they’re his cows, so he’ll be in charge. Be sure to ask Danny about the one-horned steer that gored him in the leg.”

If that wasn’t enough to worry about, there was the worrisome history of the horse I would ride, the ominously named Showdown.

Once a wild horse, Showdown had been caught in northwestern Nevada, on the Black Rock Desert, near the tiny town of Gerlach. He’d been held at the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Donkey Facility in the Palomino Valley, from which Jim adopts mustangs.

“Horses that have grown up in rocky, mountainous terrain are the most sure-footed and dependable out here,” he said.

Showdown, the first and wildest mustang he ever adopted, was a light sorrel stallion that stood more than 15 hands high, large for a mustang.

“I named him Showdown because I figured that’s what breakin’ him would be.”

When the handler at the Wild Horse Facility haltered Showdown to load him into Jim’s trailer, Jim said, “How’d you do that?”

The handler slipped the halter from Showdown’s head.

“Just like that,” he said, and walked off.

“ ‘Great,’ I thought,” Jim said. “They git ’em into the trailer, then leave you to figure out how to git ’em out.”

Showdown was so wild that Jim’s friends asked if he was taking out life insurance before breaking the mustang. Never having broken a horse, Jim first decided to attend a seminar, “Breaking Wild Mustangs,” at the Wild Horse Facility.

One seminar wasn’t enough. He took another.

Jim described the big day: “I hooked Showdown to a hitchin’ post to throw a saddle on him, and all my friends showed up to watch me get killed.”

“You’ll be riding Showdown during the cattle drive, Ruth Anne,” Karen said. “Showdown has mellowed. He’s now one of our steadiest mounts.”

I’d soon see. I kept it to myself that I hadn’t been on a horse in 15 years.

Moving cattle

The next morning, our group of seven was up before sunrise, loading mustangs into a trailer to haul them to Blue Springs, our starting point. As the sun broke over the Toquima Mountains, we mounted up and rode through fields of wild irises and mustard by morning light, a “purdy spot,” according to cattle boss Berg, who relaxed in his saddle, elbow propped on horn and chin in hand. A playful smile flashed from beneath the shadow of his black hat and beard.

Berg brought a few friends to help. He issued quick directions, and with five cow dogs on his tail, took off to round up the herd. We scattered to search out reluctant cows and calves in the brush.

“Be sure to keep away from bogs and hazards, like downed barbed wire, that could trip up the horses,” Karen warned.

As the only “civilian” along, I’m the test case for opening up next year’s cattle drive to clients. Now that’s what I call pressure.

From the road, this valley floor may look to some like an arid wasteland of stark, relentless sun. Getting out onto it, the place comes to life. Hidden water sources feed carpets of grassland, wildflowers and stands of sage taller than I am on Showdown. Jackrabbits freeze and lizards scatter for cover as bellowing bulls, lowing cows and bleating calves thunder past, trailing long clouds of dust across the landscape. When sage gives way to sun-baked alkali flats, the herd strings out in a line that extends to the horizon. Alkali crust crumbles under Showdown’s even gait. It’s one thing to see central Nevada by car, quite another to experience it on horseback as one might have a century ago.

On the drive are Berg’s friends, Chance Kretschmer and his grandfather, Ray. Chance, a handsome 21-year-old who looks chiseled from solid rock, is the star football running back from the University of Nevada, Reno, who led the nation in rushing in 2001, his freshman year.

With huge thunderheads looming on the horizon, we bed down the herd at a neighbor’s ranch. After 10 hours in the saddle, surprisingly, I’m not sore. Showdown and I are bonding.

At daybreak the next morning, we’re already driving the cattle up the Toquima Mountains, where compression has forced rock into striated layers: auburn, yellow and blood-red. Over time, the Great Basin has seen periods of enormous pressure caused by shifting continental plates. Looking back at the valley from our mountainside perspective, the few ranches appear as mere outposts lost in vastness.

As we move the herd along, Karen occasionally spots a calf that is too tired to make it. She drops a well-placed rope loop over the animal and gently tugs it back to the truck that follows. Even with this system of looking out for the young and the weak, not all the calves are up to the trip; two die that day.

“If they can’t survive the drive, they won’t survive the summer on open range,” Berg said. “It’s sad, but true.”

That night, another calf is born.

Early the next morning, we’re up and pushing the herd across the pass into Monitor Valley. Jim rode Convict, a mustang he adopted from the BLM wild horse holding facility in Susanville, Calif. Karen’s trying to break in a colt that’s acting spooky. By now, Showdown and I are one. For another day, we chase calves, cows and bulls up and down embankments, across side hills of loose gravel and through dry creek beds that come to life only on wet years. We search out strays from under sage and along hidden streams in side canyons lined with aspen, juniper and pinion pine. From the pass, the view of snow-covered Mount Jefferson reminds me of the Tetons in Wyoming, without the crowds.

By mid-afternoon, we reach the herd’s summer grazing pasture, an alpine meadow fed by springs and mountain snow pack. Sitting tight on our mounts, we hold the herd in place until calves and mothers find each other, including our 12-hour-old, born on the drive. I’ll be back with Showdown next year to check on that calf. In the meantime, my stampede string holds my hat securely to the wall.


Copyright © 2002 The Reno Gazette-Journal