Personal essay by Lizzy Scully
Heidi Wirtz and I founded Girls Education International in November 2006. For the duration of
our climbing partnership and friendship, we had discussed different ways to give back to the
global community. Traveling climbers of big walls around the world, we also visited numerous
countries together, including India and Pakistan. It became obvious to us on our last expedition
to the Karakoram Range of Pakistan that rather than just focusing on our personal journeys
around the world, it was time for us to do something for others. Thus, we started Girls Ed. This
is the story of how Heidi and I met and the evolution of our friendship, which culminated with
I first heard about Heidi Wirtz in the dingy “Caff” at Yosemite Lodge on a cold, snowy, fall day
in Yosemite National Park in the mid 1990s. She was climbing a route called Lurking Fear on
the 3,000-foot monolith El Capitan, and apparently she and her partner were stuck on a ledge
a few thousand feet off the ground. Rumor had it that her sleeping bag didn’t zip and that they
were probably running out of food and water. “Bad ass chick!” I remember thinking. I hadn’t
climbed El Capitan yet. A few days later, a haggard but smiling, physically fit woman with long,
brown hair walked into the cafeteria and sat down at my table.
“Hi,” she said cheerily to me and introduced herself. Being two of very few women to be rock
climbing it in the Valley that year, we ended up bonding and becoming good friends. When the
weather continued to deteriorate, we decided to travel together, and over the next three
months we went to Joshua Tree National Park, Calif., Indian Creek, Utah, and eventually to
Crested Butte, Colo., where we worked for a few weeks at a catering company.
From the beginning Heidi’s drive and determination to rock climb as hard as possible inspired
me. She woke up every morning at 6a.m., went on a run, did yoga, made tea, and then
awakened me. We’d be climbing by 9a.m., with Heidi leading difficult pitch after difficult pitch.
An avid athlete myself, I happily followed along and became a better climber because of her.
Over the years, we spent countless hours together in the mountains. We did a defining first
multi-pitch route together as a team of women, The Nose on Sundance, Lumpy Ridge, which is
a ridge of granite formations in Estes Park, Colo. We also climbed in the Black Canyon of the
Gunnison, the Diamond of Longs Peak, and pretty much all over the United States. Eventually
we ended up living next door to each other in Gunnison, Colo.
At about that same time, Heidi started talking to me about how she had been thinking about
ways to give back to society through volunteer work and/or activism. While attending
Humboldt State University she had worked with the Rainforest Action Network and protested
logging by blocking lumber trucks, and more recently she had gone to Denver, Colo., on a solo
mission to talk with Boise Cascade’s Board of Directors in an effort to get them to change some
of their logging procedures. I had also been dabbling in activism, and had gotten petitions
signed and written letters in order to keep Chevron from drilling for oil in a wilderness area in
the High Uintahs, Utah. We both realized a desire to make a difference in the world.
Heidi eventually left Gunnison, and picked up various jobs, including working as a professional
actor/climber at Sea World during the winter and guiding for her third summer at Colorado
Mountain School. I moved to Logan, Utah, in order to get a master’s degree in communications
and journalism. I wanted to travel the world and write about my experiences. I ended up
organizing my first expedition to climb Shipton Spire (19,700 feet) in the Karakoram Range of
Pakistan with an American alpinist named Nan Darkis and a Spanish big wall climber named
Cecilia Buil. We climbed to within 200 feet of the summit of the 4,500-foot spire on the Trango
Glacier before turning back because a sudden attack of altitude sickness incapacitated Nan.
While there, I began to learn about the discrepancies in health care, education, and even food
made available to women versus men. Though many people in the region lived in abject
poverty, women had access to far fewer resources than the men. Upon my return to the United
States, I researched the subject and eventually wrote an article for the Mountain Hardwear
Catalog about Baltistani women. You can find a PDF of the article on our blog here.
A few years later Heidi and I reconnected and decided to go on an expedition together to
Canada, where we established the 2,500-foot route, Bad Hair Day, which was the first free
ascent of the South Howser Minaret, Bugaboos National Park, Canada. It was an exciting time
for us. Heidi pursued a professional climbing career and now works for The North Face, Black
Diamond, and La Sportiva. And I launched into my writing/editing career, publishing articles in
dozens of magazines and newspapers. I also became the features editor for the Estes Park
Trail-Gazette, and then the founder/publisher of She Sends magazine, and finally the managing
editor of FindYourSpot.com and a senior contributing editor for Rock & Ice magazine.
At about the same time we traveled to Canada together, we both also became increasingly
involved with various nonprofit organizations. We volunteered at the HERA Foundation’s
Climb4Life events as “pros”, teaching and climbing with beginner climbers and helping to raise
money and awareness for ovarian cancer. And we raised money for the dZi Foundation. I
organized a slide show tour for Heidi, and she traveled around the country raising awareness
and money for dZi. I also set up various fundraisers for and volunteered teaching English as a
second language at the now-defunct Round House Center for Language and Cultural Exchange.
Two years ago we decided to do our third expedition together. We went to Pakistan to climb
some walls off the Biafo Glacier. Unfortunately, I sustained a chest injury after a bad fall on the
glacier and our expedition was cut short. Instead, we visited Khane, a remote village in the
Hushe Valley, in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, and home to our trekking guide, Ghulam
Abbas. There, we were taken in and treated as family by local villagers. After learning of the
deplorable conditions of Khane’s girls’ school, we decided to fulfill our dream to give back by
renovating the school.
We returned to the United States, and Heidi promptly departed for her third year of teaching
Sherpas mountaineering skills with the Khumbu Climbing School, organized by the Alex Lowe
Foundation. I spent a few months contacting numerous nonprofits to find out if we could
partner up to bring better education to the girls of Khane. The dZi Foundation’s Board of
Directors had decided not to work in Pakistan, and the Central Asia Institute had too much
going on to partner up with us. Thus, we decided to found our own nonprofit—Girls Education
Since its inception in November 2006, GEI has been a work in progress and has taken a
tremendous amount of effort to get going. However, we are incredibly lucky to have a very
talented group of volunteers, including our current board members (please see the “About Us”
section for more information). Plus, Heidi and I have boundless energy. GEI now works closely
with local partners to bring education to girls and women in underserved areas.