Hiking Brand Merrell Chronicles the Triumphs of Transgender Mountain Climber
Erin Parisi's pride keeps climbing.
Her goal is to become the first transgender person to scale the Seven Summits—the highest mountain peaks on each continent. All told, only about 400 souls have ever accomplished this feat. Parisi has three climbs left to go: Everest, Denali and Vinson Massif.
Hiking brand Merrell chronicles her quest in TranSending, a nine-minute documentary created with production house Stept and director Marin Hart.
"The first time I was there, presenting as a guy … I went up, I feel like, for maybe all the wrong reasons," putting on a four-mile-high display of cisgendered masculinity, Parisi says in the film of conquering Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro:
"When I went there as a female, I wanted to climb out of the shadows," Parisi says, "to a place where I could be the highest I could go, and tell the world who I am … I wanted to own my story."
Here, she does just that, with an unassuming, down-to-earth demeanor that belies her lofty accomplishments. It's a low-key, intimate portrait that lets Parisi's grit and determination rise to the top. She's transcendent indeed, as a climber and a human being. This journey of self-discovery—mapped in arid, icy climes and the deeper reaches of her psyche—captivates and inspires.
Parisi began climbing after a move to Colorado in 2002 "as a way to engage the outdoors and find a place where the world made sense to me," she tells Muse. Such endeavors morphed into a higher calling and form of spiritual rebirth once she began manifesting as female five years ago.
"I had planned to finish the seven summits in 2021—but, Covid," she says. "Now the goal is to finish in 2022. Next stop: Everest [the highest point on Earth, more than 29,000 feet above seas level]," she says.
Muse chatted with Parisi, Hart and Merrell marketing and PR head Lauren Shield King about the project, released last week to coincide with LBGTQ+ Pride Month:
It all began at a film festival.
"We first learned about Erin when we saw her speak on a panel at Mountainfilm in May 2019," Shield King says. "Lindsey Hagen, executive producer at Stept, who we knew, introduced us to Erin over happy hour. At that moment, we were all in our element—in the outdoors and cheering the many great films we saw that day—and it allowed us to get to know each other on that personal, friend level. That built trust. We saw Erin again a month or so later at Outdoor Retailer [the gear expo] and continued the conversations. Soon after, we were finalizing plans on bringing her story to life."
Chronicling her own journey.
"We were so fortunate that Erin documented her summits," says Hart. "She filmed her climb of Mt. Elbrus in June 2018 on her phone. Utilizing this footage helped tie all the loose ends together for the documentary."
Going on location.
For the Stept crew, "most of our filming took place in Denver," Hart says. "Some highlight locations were Twin Sisters Peak Trail as well as Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre. All filming was pre-Covid. We filmed only a few days with Erin and had the edit finished within a month's time."
"We had a really small crew for this project, and I loved that," he recalls. "Having a small footprint for really personal stories like this makes it much easier for our subject and all parties on camera. We had lunches together, we rode to locations together, we had a wrap dinner together, and everyone got to know each other and felt comfortable. After a level of trust was built up between our crew and Erin and her family, we were truly just capturing the everyday life of our subject. We have people of all walks of life and all ages on camera and they spoke honestly and openly."
A film for everyone.
"No matter who you are, where you came from, who you love or how you move, we should all be able to safely enjoy the power of being outside, or wherever life takes us," Shield King says. "Our hope with this project is that we would inspire all those who have ever felt that, for whatever reason, the outdoors was not a space for them. We also know our target consumer is looking for brands that align with their own values. We feel sharing Erin's story through her own lens via our platform authentically relays that we believe the outdoors is for everyone."
Beyond the brand message.
"Trans people can live their lives to the fullest as long as they have the support of their friends, family and community," Parisi says of TranSending's deeper themes.
There's danger at ground level, too.
Parisi: "I returned from Australia, my first of the Seven Summits. It was my first time traveling with my new passport and I felt like I was 'blending in' better, and therefore felt safer. I went through everything: security at the airport, bathrooms, renting a car with my new driver's license. I was only back for 10 days to prepare for my climb of Kilimanjaro. For dinner one night, I went to a local Mexican restaurant and was assaulted by three or four people who called me out as trans, tried to steal my dog and verbally and physically attacked me."
"Three days later, I was headed to Tanzania to begin my climb, where being LGBTQ+ can land you in prison—or worse," she says. "I feared for the consequences of being called out in that environment like I had just been called out in my neighborhood. But I went on to climb Africa's highest mountain, for the second time, and this time as my authentic self. I even had the same guide, but fortunately he didn't recognize me!"
Any plans for a sequel?
"I would love to follow up when Erin scales the final peak," Hart says. "Her story is incredible, and even if I'm not given the opportunity to document it, I would love to just talk to Erin about the rest of her journey."
Production Company: Stept Studios
Executive Producer: Lindsey Hagen
Director: Marin Hart
Director of Photography/Editor: Chris Naum