A Race Up the World’s Tallest Mountains, and for Gender Equality

For 10 days in October, Kristin Harila loitered at the blisteringly cold base camp of Cho Oyu in the Himalayas.

She was chasing Nirmal Purja.

In 2019, Purja attempted to ascend all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter mountains in a single season. It initially seemed laughable, even to the most aggressive climbers. But he proved that it was possible, setting a mind-bending record of six months and six days. Now, Harila wanted to prove that women could reach the same heights as men in extreme mountaineering.

Harila, a 37-year-old Norwegian and a novice explorer, was confident that she could handle the climb. She and her team, Pasdawa Sherpa and Dawa Ongchu, had spent the previous five months scaling 12 of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks at an unprecedented pace.

But she wasn’t confident that this attempt would be worth the risk.

Each day, sherpas at Cho Oyu would climb as high as they could, hoping to fix ropes along a new route to the summit. But each night, they returned with alarming reports: Tents set up near the first camp were washed away in an avalanche; ropes fixed between the first and third camp had been buried in snow; and winds at the summit were ripping at 60 miles per hour.

Even if the equipment could withstand the weather, the sherpas weren’t sure the climbers could.

When approached from the Tibet side, Cho Oyu is the safest of the 14 peaks. But Harila and her team had been forced to attempt it from the Nepal side because their visas and permits to enter Tibet had never been approved by the Chinese government. And even if they did accomplish this groundbreaking ascension of Cho Oyu, they would have no way to access the mission’s final peak as the Shishapangma mountain is entirely within Tibet.

“It was impossible for me to climb it alone,” Harila said on a video call in November. “Otherwise, I would have tried. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone losing a finger or a toe — or their life.”

Eventually, Harila’s team convinced her to call off the expedition.

“My plan now is to do a Cho Oyu winter expedition,” she said, her focus unwavering. “It’s possible to do the whole mission again in five months if I start in winter. Then it won’t be just 14 peaks — it’ll be 14 plus one or two that I’ll end up climbing twice.”

In some ways, Harila is an unlikely successor to — or surpasser of — Purja. A former professional skier, women’s prison guard and furniture company executive, Harila summited her first 8,000-meter peak only in 2021. But on that first attempt, she realized that she could be an elite climber: She recorded an unplanned record, becoming the fastest woman ever to summit Mount Everest and Lhotse, reaching both peaks in less than 12 hours. (She broke that record again on her 14 peaks attempt last year.)

Returning home to Norway during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, she was forced to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days. “I was stuck in this room, and I couldn’t stop thinking about these 8,000-meter peaks,” Harila said. “I was thinking: I’m 35, and I really want to climb them all. If I want to do it, I need to do it fast. That was part of it. And the other part of it was: If I’m going to change this sport, the best way I can do it is by showing that women are just as capable as men on these high mountains.”

The modern history of mountaineering has been overwhelmingly male, especially in the sky-scratching Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, which are home to the 14 peaks. The question of who has truly summited all 14 peaks is a fierce debate in the mountaineering community, but there’s no question that most of the attempts have been made by men. Of the 53 climbers who claim to have summited them all, only four are women. All four climbers officially recognized by 8000ers.com, a well-respected but unofficial record keeper of these expeditions, are men. (Purja is among them, but the website lists his official time as 2 years, 5 months and 15 days because he stopped at a false summit of Manaslu on his original expedition.)

“The mountains are a great equalizer,” said Melissa Arnot Reid, who has been an Everest guide since 2008 and was the first American woman to summit the world’s highest peak without supplemental oxygen. “They don’t care what your gender is. They don’t care what your bank account balance is or what degree you have or what color your skin is — but the reality is way more nuanced than that. To get to the mountains, you have to get to the base. And that’s expensive. This is a colonial activity. It’s really white, and it’s really wealthy, and it’s really male.”

In 1994, when Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, an Austrian mountaineer, started her mission to summit all 14 peaks without bottled oxygen, she had no choice but to wear the smallest size men’s gear, she told The New York Times in an email. Twenty-five years later, when the American Caroline Gleich was getting her gear together for her “Climb for Equality” on Everest, she faced the same issue: She couldn’t find a technical snowsuit in her size. Gleich reached out to Reid, who stuffed her own suit in a priority mail box and shipped it to Gleich.

“When you can’t even find equipment that fits you,” Gleich said, “it sends a powerful message about where the world says you belong.”

To fund her expedition, which she said cost about $500,000, Harila spent months searching for sponsors. She hadn’t secured any by the time she was scheduled to leave Norway to start her expedition last spring. Undaunted, she sold her apartment and put all the proceeds toward the project. It wasn’t until she arrived in Nepal and was preparing to summit the Annapurna mountain that she secured her main sponsor, the watch company Bremont. (The company also sponsored Purja, and a spokesman said both climbers received the same support.)

Sponsorships, and permits, will be a key to her ability to embark on another record-breaking attempt, beginning this winter.

But Harila is unflappable. In the past year, she’s lost more than 20 pounds from a punishing combination of physical exhaustion and regular battles with food poisoning, she’s been blasted in the leg by a tumbling boulder, she’s fallen off the back of a truck, and she’s survived ice storms, freezing summit pushes and near misses with avalanches.

She’s also summited 12 of the world’s 14 highest peaks, and she hopes that paperwork won’t be what keeps her from reaching her ultimate height once again.

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