The most published climbing photographer you’ve never heard of
by Ashley Lodato
The first time she tied into a rope and started up a rock face, says Nikki Smith, “I knew it was what I wanted to do. Nothing else existed when I was there—just the rock, holds, and [the people] with me.”
On rock and ice, Nikki is grace and power, strength and strategy. Her expression is relaxed, even carefree, working her way up rock faces and frozen waterfalls that at best look daunting to the average climber—and downright death-defying to those of us whose best days on the sharp end are behind us.
But Nikki is not the average climber. She’s a woman who has leveraged her appetite for the climbing life into a career that promotes and celebrates the sport that brings her so much joy. Few of us find a passion at 16 that we manage to turn into both a profession and a lifestyle, but Nikki has done just that, through creative expression, athleticism, innovation, diligence, and determination.
As the owner of Pull Photography, Pull Designs, and Pull Publishing, Nikki integrates her enthusiasm for climbing, her visual aesthetic, her instinctive entrepreneurialism, and her empathetic gaze into the human condition. She works with her hands, her eyes, and her intuition. To some degree, Nikki’s approach to her business ventures seems to mirror her approach to climbing. “Like books and art,” she says, “[climbing] requires a focus that quiets everything else. I…solve a new problem with every climb. Some I can unlock easily in a single try, some take years to unlock the intricacies.”
Nikki was introduced to photography as a child, when her amateur photographer father gave her a camera. A few of her photos won blue ribbons at the Utah State Fair—“pretty cool for a 5-year-old,” she says. But it wasn’t until Nikki learned to use a darkroom in high school that she really started to love the art form. “Being involved in the entire process brought more creativity and freedom,” she says.
In college, Nikki pulled tendons in 2 fingers on a boulder problem and couldn’t climb for a while. Photographing her friends climbing enabled her to remain an active part of the climbing scene while she was injured. Eventually, Nikki worked with a few established photographers in the Salt Lake City area and “begged them to critique [her] work.” As she started to improve, she slowly began to get photographs published. Now, her work is seen in outdoor publications all over the world, as well as in commercial applications. Her breathtaking photos of the people, places, and wildlife across the globe capture the grandeur of this amazing planet and, she says, encourage people to “dream big.”
Her name, however, is not exactly a household one; Nikki semi-jokingly refers to herself as “the most published climbing photographer nobody has ever heard of.” Still, although it’s Nikki’s climbing and landscape photographs that tend to show up in magazines and ad campaigns, it’s her portraits that bring her the most satisfaction. Trying to summarize a person in one photo, says Nikki, or showing who they are to others, “is my most important work.” She continues, “I didn’t fully realize how important this can be until I lost friends in the mountains and my portraits and action shots were used by friends and family to memorialize them.”
Nikki’s background as a climber allowed her to segue naturally into guiding, which she did while in college, with Utah Mountain Adventures. She also instructed and was in charge of route-setting at Rockreation, a Salt Lake City climbing gym. It was when she began working for climbing and outdoor gear distributor Liberty Mountain, however, that Nikki was able to use her full range of artistic talents—skills she cultivated as a youngster. “In my early years I used to draw and paint a lot,” she says. “I sewed, quilted, and knitted with my mom.” Nikki’s father was into “mountain manning,” she says, so the family spent many weekends attending mountain man rendezvous events all over the west, dressed in period costumes and selling homemade crafts. “We kids made beeswax candles, games, and jewelry,” she says of her early forays into creating products for retail sales.
At Liberty Mountain, Nikki was initially in charge of the climbing program, and then ran both the sponsorship program and the marketing department, creating illustrations, layout, and designs for catalogs and advertisements. During her time at Liberty Mountain, Nikki also started the Cypher brand and designed climbing shoes. All that sewing with mom came in handy.
Nikki Smith is a climber, photographer, designer, and author. Who has the energy for anything more? Apparently, Nikki Smith. She’s a sponsored athlete, representing big-name companies like Beal Ropes, Grivel, and Cypher, among others. She’s an author, having written feature articles in climbing magazines and five guidebooks to climbing in Utah, with more on the way. She’s a prodigy of first ascents, with more than 200 roped first ascents in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Mongolia and another 200 bouldering first ascents. She’s a climbing access advocate and was a part of the group that founded the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance. She’s an Army veteran, decorated with various medals in the mid-1990s.
Nikki is also an Eagle Scout.
Wait, what—an Eagle Scout? Isn’t that just for boys?
Right. At least, that’s the way it’s been for the past century (in 2019 girls will be eligible to earn Eagle Scout distinction for the first time in Scouting history). But back in the day when Nikki earned her Eagle Scout badge, she was living with the public identity associated with the gender she was assigned in the womb.
Born genetically male and raised with the societal expectations that accompany that identity, Nikki says she always felt she was playing the character of a male in order to survive. “My mind and heart is and was always female,” she says, but “society didn’t see me or allow me to be viewed that way. I’ve always been [female], but for most of my life, I wasn’t able to express that. I wasn’t able to show it outwardly.”
Climbing and being outside provided a bit of a sanctuary for Nikki, who struggled to reconcile her public identity and her authentic self. “The outdoors and climbing were some of the few places I’ve ever felt I belonged,” she says.
Recently, Nikki has mustered up some of the grit and determination that have taken her so far professionally and channeled them into personal fulfillment. She changed her name and gender marker, underwent surgeries, bought some new clothes, and is finally living in public as her true self—the woman she has always been in mind, heart, and soul. “I’m dropping everything I used to pretend to be a man,” she says. “Transitioning,” she says, is not (as many of us assume) transitioning from being a man to being a woman or vice versa. It’s transitioning out of pretending to be one way and instead embracing being true to oneself, one’s nature. Nikki didn’t transition into being a woman—she transitioned into living outwardly as the woman she always has been.
The processing of coming out has been freeing, but is not without its challenges. “While most of my life and how people treat me is great,” Nikki says, “I am stared at, laughed at, pointed at, and whispered about daily. It can take a toll.”
But far more painful was the toll of living as someone she was not. As Nikki grew older, the issues she internalized about her gender identity led her to depression and, eventually, suicidal thoughts, even plans. In an extraordinarily serendipitous internet browsing session, however, author Brené Brown’s quoted encouragement to “show up and be seen” inspired Nikki to go out in public as her true self, so she went to a Las Vegas dance club and enjoyed 4 hours of “indescribable…freedom and joy. I was able to exist as the real me.” She knew then that she had to “get over my fear of what people would think of me. I just had to let go and begin the hard work. So I did.”
“Time is growing short,” Brown’s quotation notes, “There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.” Brown’s words spoke to Nikki “in a way nothing else ever had. I decided then and there to put off my [suicide] plans and try something different. Deep inside I had always known what was wrong but was too afraid to face it.”
Shortly after, Nikki began therapy. Since then, she says, “I’ve let go of so much hurt, self-hatred, and negativity. The last six months have been some of the happiest of my life. I can finally look in the mirror and not hate the reflection I see staring back.”
When Nikki looks in the mirror now, she sees the woman she has always been inside: stylish clothing, tasteful makeup, killer jewelry. Oh yes, jewelry. Because as a global ambassador for Bronwen Jewelry, Nikki wears some of her favorite pieces both on and off the rock, like her Beaded Fisherman’s Necklace and her Glasswrap Bracelet.
Nikki and Bronwen met at the Outdoor Retailer trade show, when a mutual friend brought Nikki to the Bronwen booth for some accessorizing. When Nikki requested special sizing on a few pieces, Bronwen’s team was delighted to oblige, building a custom assortment for Nikki. “We make jewelry because it brings joy to women,” founder Bronwen Lodato says, “and if we can be a part of helping a woman feel powerfully feminine, beautiful, sexy, and truly happy in her own skin, then we’ve succeeded in our mission.”
Nikki’s other go-to Bronwen pieces are her Amazon Woman Earrings (“pretty fitting for an Amazon like me,” she laughs) and her Open Gold Circle Beaded Fishermans Necklace. Like the rest of Bronwen Jewelry’s active line necklaces and bracelets, all of Nikki’s favorite Bronwen pieces integrate seamlessly not only with her aesthetic style, but with her lifestyle. “Even when working out I can still connect with the glamorous side of myself,” Nikki says. “It’s beautiful [and] I can wear it climbing, trail running, biking, and camping.”
Nikki’s history with jewelry is a bit complicated. Growing up, she loved making jewelry. “I could never wear it, though,” she says. “It was always for sale or gifts and only for my sisters and mom to wear. Jewelry was not allowed in my young life, and that carried on long afterward. I didn’t wear rings, watches, necklaces until I fully embraced who I am.”
Now, Nikki says, jewelry “is just a part of me. It allows me to express myself beyond clothing.” It’s more than just an expression of style, however; jewelry is part of Nikki’s growing confidence in her identity. “While it might not always be,” she says, “right now jewelry, makeup, clothing, and my sense of style are tied together and act as a type of armor. I feel strong and can face the world and those who don’t believe I should be a part of it when I am styled the way I want. I’m not doing it for others—it’s to help me feel beautiful and strong. When I feel that way, anything is possible.”
This sense of possibility, of confidence, is a welcome feeling for someone who has always felt that she “saw the world a little differently than others” and that she was always playing a character that others expected to see. Nikki’s early years were characterized by a juxtaposition of uncertainty and sheer normalcy. Her father’s work as a cartographer for the US Forest Service led the family from Moab, Utah, to the Wasatch Front, where Nikki was raised. Family activities were wholesome outdoor adventures— fossil and mineral collecting, led by her father, whose background was in geology and archeology.
Nikki’s family was Mormon, and the church provided many necessities before her father died of leukemia when Nikki was 14, after many years of illness. “The church and the congregation provided Christmases,” she says. “And food and clothing when I was younger.”
As a child, Nikki loved art and drew all the time. Although she didn’t pursue writing at the same time she dove into visual arts like drawing and painting, in recent years, it has become an important component of Nikki’s self-expression. Books written by others, however, were prominent features in Nikki’s young life. “Books and the library were a refuge from the confusion of my life. They were a window into other worlds.”
When Nikki thinks back on herself as a child, she wishes she could tell that younger self “I’m sorry I doubted you for so long. I hid and hated you. I thought I was protecting you, but I was wrong. Never again. It will all turn out ok. Your friends will embrace you. You will be loved not only by your wife, family, and friends but in time, by yourself. Someday you will look in the mirror and love who you see. You are strong and smart and beautiful. You will travel the world and make a living off your art. Don’t listen to those who tell you that you can’t accomplish what you want, that you can’t be yourself. Don’t listen to those who mock you and hurt you. They are in pain themselves.”
Although Nikki hasn’t shed the sting of struggling with her identity as a child, she is directing the memory of that confusion into helping others in similar situations by speaking up, by showing up and being seen. “I’m not ashamed that I am transgender and will do what I can to speak out on issues that affect the trans and queer community,” she says.
Nikki is unapologetically transgender, but refuses to let that single label define her; it’s just one aspect of who she is, the way it is with any other trans- or cisgender person. When she’s not climbing rock or ice, Nikki stays in shape by running 50-mile ultramarathons and competing in 200+-mile road bike events. Plus, she gardens, cooks, bakes, and creates cocktails, apparently in her “spare” time. (Sorry, folks, she’s already married.)
And whether it’s on the rock face, behind the camera lens, at the publishing desk, in the design studio, or on the dance floor at the nightclub, Nikki Smith is all in, showing up and being seen.
Nikki also provides some links to those seeking to learn more about transgender people.
- Transgender frequently asked questions
- Transgender allies
- National Geographic article on transgender people
- Chris Mosier: first transgender person on Team USA
- Chris Mosier: breaking barriers
- Transgender athletes
- Growing Up Transgender and Mormon | Short Film Showcase
Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story
Lady Valor: The full documentary
- Transgender, at War and in Love