When Libby Sauter leans over a small child in an operating room, his chest cut open to reveal his tiny heart for surgery—the most vulnerable, unstable patient in the entire hospital—the room is tense. “You have to try and be super, super organized to keep everything together because there’s so much going on,” Sauter says.
As a pediatric cardiac nurse, she’s learned to contain her emotions, moving fluidly within the chaos of an operating room, where things don’t always go as planned, staying calm and collected as the pressure weighs down. It’s a familiar feeling—one she’s also experienced while hanging thousands of feet above the valley floor of Yosemite.
The job requirements for big-wall speed climbing and pediatric cardiac nursing overlap more than one might think. And Libby Sauter’s resume checks all the boxes—she’s most famous for breaking the women’s speed record for climbing the Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitan. She was also the first woman to walk the Lost Arrow highline.
But she doesn’t consider climbing a career. And she’s not content to simply split time between rock walls and operating rooms in California, either. Instead, she estimates that 85 percent of her world travel—and she’s almost always traveling—is for her nursing career. And most of that travel is to developing countries and conflict zones, where she helps perform heart surgeries on babies, working with the international NGO Novick Cardiac Alliance.
“The inherent bents of my personality that draw me to the type of climbing I do are also the parts that help me do the type of nursing that I do,” Sauter says. “ … [Y]ou have to have an acceptance of the chaos and know that things aren’t always going to be able to be in the perfect spot.
“And big-wall speed climbing is very similar, in that I’m able to move quickly because I’m organized and I have systems, but when the rope gets tangled and it’s a giant mess dangling below me, I’m able to look up and see that there are no flakes coming or anything, so it’s fine, and just let it be a mess for a little bit, climb the pitches, and then sort it out when it’s convenient. It’s this mix of organized chaos.”
We chatted with Sauter to find the real story behind her double life of chaos and organization. Here are six things you didn’t know.
Sauter’s mom and grandma were nurses—but, growing up, she never thought she wanted to be one too.
As a motivated, high-achieving high school student, Sauter never considered nursing as a career. She’d thought about teaching or medicine but only clicked “nursing” as a placeholder college major on an online application form. It wasn’t until she realized how well it fit with her growing love for climbing that she really embraced it. “It really was the schedule and promise of decent pay—three days a week is full time and there are good jobs all over the country,” she says. But by the time she was finishing school, she was getting psyched about cardiac nursing.
She’s worked within earshot of gunfire.
Sauter had always had been interested in international service work and pictured herself in the Peace Corps. Within her first year of nursing, she googled “volunteer” and “cardiac nursing,” and found the organization she works for now. She started working in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Ukraine before it became a conflict zone. Eventually she started working in less stable locations, like Iraq and Libya. “We used to go to Benghazi but no longer do,” she says. “There’d be bombs that would rock the hospital building; we’d see plumes of smoke or hear AK fire going back and forth. Or watch tracer fire shoot across the sky. You felt a bit out of control, because you didn’t feel like your safety was really in your hands.”
She was a first responder in the wake of Nepal’s 2015 earthquake—by accident.
Sauter happened to be on a flight back to Nepal from Iraq to work for the Himalayan Cataract Project when the first quake hit—and she was in the airport when the first of the aftershocks sent waves through the ground. “Initially I just walked up to a hospital and said, ‘I’m a baby nurse, do you guys need help?’” she says. She provided pediatric help in a remote field hospital until she could be of no more use, then left. The entire time she was receiving messages from people back home, asking how they could help. She urged people to donate to organizations that have the skilled staff to help, instead of showing up without any relevant skills or supplies. “Sometimes the best thing to do is admit that you are in the way and leave,” she says. “And it’s hard to admit you’re in the way, when you actually are.”
She can’t hold back the tears if she sees a parent cry in the operating room.
“The hardest thing is that we get so many of these children we aren’t able to save or that we have to say no to because we don’t have the resources to do the surgery or the child is now too sick,” she says. “Watching all these children die, who, if they’d been born someone else—in Europe or America—would have had their surgeries as a baby and would have had a completely normal life. But now they die before the age of one. It’s really unfair.
“I’m pretty good at being guarded. In order to not burn out, and in order to continue to work while someone is dying, I’ve become quite good at shutting that out. Until I see a parent crying, and then it’s reflexive. I cannot not also cry with them, while continuing to work … No matter what country we’ve been in, you see that every mom loves her child the same.”
She feels guilty if her life’s focus shifts too much to climbing.
To Sauter, climbers truly are “conquistadors of the useless.” Of course, climbing can make people happy, which can make them better global citizens, she explains, and for some people, that’s what they absolutely need. But for her, “Climbing is an aside—it’s something I love and that helps me be happy. But I’m not happy climbing 100 percent of the time. If my balance has shifted too much toward climbing, I sort of get unmotivated and a bit bored and feel a bit guilty.”
Her takeaway: Ordinary life is relative.
“Life in Benghazi, Nepal, Ukraine … There are people who are just like us, just trying to make the best of their lives. Raising children, making a good dinner. Especially in today’s global climate, there’s such an us-versus-them mentality. By distancing ourselves from the humanity of others, it’s easy to turn away. But if we remember that every mother loves her child the same, that will change.”