The Search for Eldorado: An Adaptive Climber Finds Her Summit

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we meet Kimber Cross - an adaptive climber whose adventures span the breadth of what the Northwest mountains have to offer.
Lance Garland Lance Garland
Mountaineers climber
February 23, 2019
The Search for Eldorado: An Adaptive Climber Finds Her Summit

Kimberly “Kimber” Cross has that windblown sense of adventure you’d find in old western movies: a protagonist with an indelible charm, big smile, hard-working grit that’s worn like loose chaps, and a can-do attitude as easy as the winds she roams with.

She also has another feature that’s not so easily noticed. She only has one hand. Her right hand is missing all five digits, leaving her with a partial palm at the end of her wrist. That’s the way she was born.

Kimber and I took Basic Climbing together with the Tacoma Mountaineers. I had worked closely and even camped with her on Mount Rainier for our course training — yet I never noticed her single-handedness. She moves through life with confidence and ease, so when by chance of light and position I noticed her lack of a right hand on the rock wall one night in class, I did a double take. How could I have not noticed something so obvious?

Because it wasn’t so obvious. She carries her uniqueness not as a disability, but as a parameter; a guideline to follow, to move through and beyond. Kimber is not a victim of being one-handed any more than I am of being left-handed. We learned how to live in a world dominated by those who were different from us by thoroughly understanding the skills from as many angles as possible. She was determined to learn those skills in climbing, and being single-handed, she would also have to make up some skills of her own.

“What I have learned is that the phrase, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ is incredibly true,” says Kimber. “Inclusivity and resiliency are growing themes in communities around the world, especially the climbing community. Finding a community of supportive climbers that will aid in the training and adaptation of techniques or tools is really helpful.”

Scott Shissel was a US Army Ranger before coming to The Mountaineers. He’s also a North Cascades Ranger and passionate outdoorsman. He was one of the lead instructors for our class and, right from the start, he made it clear that mountaineering is a dangerous sport and that he wouldn’t give anyone a free pass. Lives are on the line. He would not endanger anyone because of incomplete training. Kimber would have to convince him and all the other instructors that she was as capable to climb as all everyone else.

Kimber was not deterred. “My hand isn’t a hindrance,” she explains. “I just do things a little different. That same view comes with me into the mountaineering world. I don’t just want to be known as a good disabled climber. I want to be known as a good climber. I am grateful for my mentors, leaders, and fellow basic alpine climbing course graduates who never once viewed my hand as a hindrance. I had the support I need to become a skilled, safe, and strong climber. That makes such a difference for an adaptive climber like myself.”

The Tacoma instructors did not have experience with a one-handed climber, so Scott told Kimber she’d have her own metaphorical mountain to climb before she could set foot on any actual peak. He told her about his fellow soldiers who had been injured in battle, how he encouraged them to continue on with their lives and pursuits, and how he refused to treat them differently. He would be hard on her, hold her to a high standard, and not cut her slack for her differences.

She set to work with her mentor, Steve Knowles, a seasoned, lifetime climber of hundreds of Cascade peaks. Together, they practiced the knots, the belay systems, the pulley systems, and they even had to create a special fitting glove for self-arresting. Using military grade two-inch nylon and industrial zip ties, this glove would tighten around her wrist so that it couldn’t come loose or dislodge under the pressure of self-arresting. It took many versions of this glove to come to an acceptable finish, but they created it, and on our finals week on Mount Rainier, Kimber passed the skills section of the course without a hitch.

We’d concluded the skills portion of the basic climbing course, and now had three summits to climb before we became authentic Mountaineers. Kimber and I signed up to climb Eldorado with her mentor, Steve. We were all steeped in the anticipation of our first climb. Eldorado — that mythic city of gold, that place of prosperity. We wanted to find it.

The night before our attempt for Eldorado, Kimber sent us a theme song from the 1966 film El Dorado. “My daddy once told me what a man ought to be, there’s much more to life than the things we can see, and the Godliest mortal you ever will know, is the one with a dream of El Dorado.” In a moment of goosebumps and excitement, we’d found our theme song for the trip.

On the steep climb up, we sang the only lyrics we could remember, “Elllll Doooorrrraaadddooooooo.” I made a game out of singing it every time someone said, “water”. The sky was blue and the ascent steep. Eldorado glacier greeted us with another steep slog, but when we crossed over to Inspiration Glacier, the grade evened out and we had grand views of Eldorado Peak. Passions stirred as we saw climbers smaller than ants in the distance slowly making their way upward. At high camp, our crew was exhausted. There were moments where we weren’t sure the whole crew would make it up. We set up camp with a view of Forbidden Peak, and our gang of climbers tried to take a short siesta in the blinding heat of the afternoon.

Around 4pm, Steve rallied the crew. He’d climbed this peak six times and was of the mind that we would summit in one day. Other members of the group weren’t so confident. It was a challenge of endurance and perseverance. We were drenched in sweat, sunburned, wind-chapped, and trying to find the passion we had felt stirrings of the day before.

Upward we climbed, and soon Kimber took the lead. To me, she looked like some sort of superhero, but as mortal and relatable as they come. I’m thankful we are climbing our first peak as Basic climbing students together. Our crew began to feel the energy of this lofty place. The adrenaline raised as we walked by our first crevasse. Steve took the lead as we got closer to the knife’s edge. He placed protection and we slowly ascend a shocking pinnacle. Gravity didn’t feel the same. It was almost as if a gust of wind could have blown us off the face of the mountain. We climbed higher still. The air was thin. Sound moved slower up there. We were on the knife’s edge of Eldorado!

One by one we drew closer to each other, and took a seat on the summit. Wide open, blue, and white. The views were otherworldly, a gift from a sacred space. Mountains from every angle, and here we sat, precariously suspended with them, people as peaks for a brief moment in time.

“Standing on the summit of Eldorado Peak, taking in the 360 degree view of the incredible North Cascades, brought a rush of joy,” said Kimber. “This was my first time on a glacier rope team using my ice axe with its adaptive elements, ascending the knife edge while clipping into a fixed line that my team was setting for added protection. Finally being atop beautiful Eldorado meant, for me, I was successfully becoming a mountaineer. The training, the hard work, and the modifications I would need along the way were all worth it so I could continue to obtain these views and create lifelong friendships with fellow Mountaineers. My smile couldn’t have been any bigger on that summit.”

Kimber documented the moment in pictures. Her face was radiant and full of knowing. On Eldorado’s knife’s edge, she became something more. On the summit of her first alpine climb, Kimber single-handedly accomplished a feat of no other Mountaineer, and with one hand pointed to her next peak, she leads the way for future adaptive Mountaineers to follow.

IMG_6326 copy.jpgKimberly Cross and Scott Shissel on Mount Rainier. Photo by Lance Garland.

When Kimber isn’t teaching her Kindergarten class in the Franklin Pierce School District, she roams the mountains of the PNW. Since summiting Eldorado, she’s climbed Mount Olympus, The Tooth, Mount Rainier, and Glacier Peak. She’s a graduate of Tacoma’s Basic Climbing Course and a Mountaineer since 2016. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @kimberbelle. When Lance isn’t firefighting in Seattle, climbing the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, or sailing the Salish Sea, he is writing. He’s an Amazon top-10 bestselling author whose next novel, The Path to Patagonia, will be out by year’s end. You can follow him on Instagram @lancelotsadventures or online at

This article originally appeared in our Winter 2018 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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Margaux Gottlieb
Margaux Gottlieb says:
Feb 25, 2019 12:50 PM

Stories like this are better than coffee. Gives me that warm, buzzing feeling that possibility is all around and I can't wait to start a new adventure. Keep'em coming!!