Fourteen times Edurne Pasaban
Interview with Edurne Pasaban, the Basque alpinist who has climbed all fourteen 8000m peaks. Interview by Erminio Ferrari and Ellade Ossola.
It's not as if you're better off on the summit of an 8000er than elsewhere. The great Steve House, on the top of Nanga Parbat after an incredible and definitive ascent with his friend Vince Anderson, felt nothing other that the desire, the urgency, to descend, to abandon that mountain and face via which they had climbed. And on 17 May 2010 Edurne Pasaban, on the summit of Shisha Pangma, her fourteenth 8000er, felt something similar: "It's not as if I wasn't happy" she explained to those who expected to see her jump for joy when she failed to exult. At Lugano - where we met her as a guest of the Festival of festivals - she explained further: "It's because when you're on the top you've simply reached one of the many points you need to get to to complete the adventure. If you're after joy, goose bumps, emotions, the desire to cry or laugh, then this comes in to play during those final meters that separate you from the summit. When you see it close up and know that nothing can separate you."
Thinking about it, this could be a sort of life-philosophy. For all of us and for this young woman who, to reach this conclusion, has climbed all the fourteen mountains higher than 8000m, has descended into the suffering of a depression before re-ascending with the conviction of someone who knows herself well-enough to say, to herself and to everyone: yes the 8000ers are a great satisfaction, but life is "otra", it's something else.
But we have to start from there, from those blessed 8000ers which have become the object of desire in a race which in recent years witnessed a restricted group of female mountaineers: NIves Meroi from Italy, Gerlind Kaltenbrunner from Austria, Oh Eun-sun from Korea and Edurne, beautiful and Basque. Please forgive the language, but at times it seems like we're discussing tennis. So much so that when last spring Miss Oh (also dubbed Miss Go due to her use of helicopters to fly from one base camp to the next) announced she had climbed all fourteen 8000ers, the mainstream press began to talk about a Grand Slam and things of that sort.
This record however is in doubt due to her ascent of Kanghenjuga, the third highest mountain in the world which Oh probably did not summit. "The polemics which revolved around Oh Eun-sun's Kangchenjunga ascent didn't leave me serene" stated Pasaban before continuing "Even during my ascent of Annapurna I expressed doubts and my action attracted plenty of criticism. Some believed I was simply envious of my adversary in the "race" for the 8000ers. I obviously couldn't be certain about what I felt, but the words of one of the Sherpa who was with her on Kangchen sufficed. "Edurne", he told me, "we didn't reach the summit, but please don't tell anyone". Perhaps I made a mistake in making this public, but when even the South Korean Mountaineering Association denied Oh's ascent, I felt far more serene." And so the prize was handed over to Edurne Pasaban, baptised on that occasion "Queen of the 8000ers". Even if, you'll certainly understand, being called a queen isn't ideal. So we can now consider this competitive side a case closed.
Yes, because Edurne Pasaban has plenty of other things to talk about. Such as Himalayan mountaineering and the reasons which push her to climb, to the point of being a heretic. Without feeling as if she's superman or wonderwoman. "I've always said, and will continue to repeat, that I'm not a mountaineer in search of new or extreme routes. I climb the 8000m peaks via routes I know I'm capable of climbing, this is a rule I chose to follow ever since my first Himalyan expedition back in 1998. I could say that I'd like to climb K2 via the Magic Line, but I know my limits and I make do with the Abruzzi spur." For the record, this means "making do" with the hardest normal route of any 8000er, the one which has thwarted more mountaineers and cost more lives than any other.
Her mountaineering apprenticeship was highly traditional: first in the Pyrenees, then in the Alps, then the Andes and finally the Himalaya. Her parents, from a mechanical engineering background, believed and hoped that sooner or later she'd move on to other things... But instead "in 2001 I climbed, on my third attempt, Everest. It was my first 8000er and I never imagined that I'd then dedicate my life to climbing them all. Firstly because there are so many of them and secondly because I simply couldn't see myself as a professional mountaineer: there were too many hurdles, above all economical." Her first 8000er, the roof of the world. Climbed using supplementary oxygen. "It was my first time up at that altitude. I didn't know how my body would react to those extreme conditions, it was a choice guided by common sense. Even more so since, along the normal route, you might have to wait for hours for the traffic jam on the Hillary Step, at 8600m. Hours which might even prove fatal. On the mountains that followed I no longer used O2. Except during the descent from Kangchenjunga in 2009 when, at Camp 3, the expedition doctor recommended two hours of supplementary oxygen because otherwise I would have died."
Fo any old Spanish alpinist (or French or Italian) this Himalayan adventure, despite being highly desired and carried out at an excellent level, might have remained nothing more than a holiday, an annual parenthesis in a life of work which has nothing to do with the mountains whatsoever. "In 2003 I climbed Cho Oyu and Lhotse and then during my ascents of the two Gasherbrum I began to work on a program for the Spanish TV program Al filo de le impossibile, but this covered my expedition costs, nothing more. During the rest of the year I worked as an engineer." But when she had collected nine Himalayan giants, she was practically obliged to become a pro if she wanted to attempt to climb them all. This meant climbing with crowded expeditions, implied important logistics with a troupe that followed her. "I changed my way of climbing therefore, it wasn't only about the summit any more, but about filming the ascent and producing images. The workload certainly got bigger, but the collaboration with the TV ensured that I'd be able to terminate my project. And above all I enjoyed doing it."
Despite the fact that the price she paid was high. That there are many things, including her emotional sphere and people left behind, which suffered. In 2004 while descending from K2 Edurne was almost one of the last to descend. Exhausted and with signs of frostbite on her feet, on that border of abandonment which condemns mountaineers to death in a white and cold unconsciousness, Edurne was led, almost dragged to the lower camps by friends and generous climbers who happened to be there. Saved, but with a wall of total darkness in front of her. In a previous interview Edurne stated that she felt closer to death during the the depression that followed that experience than ever before in the mountains. "Look, I was 32, 33 years old asking myself if what I was doing made sense. I saw my friends settling down and making families, leading a regular life, doing what society usually defines "normal"; they had everything I had left behind so as to dedicate myself to the mountains. I risked being crushed by this comparison, and it was only when I managed to recognise and state that it was the mountains themselves who gave a sense to my life that I managed to find the inner strength and combat my depression."
After all we're talking about a woman, a figure which in élite alpinism has troubled for decades to impose itself. The mountaineers'' machoism isn't something to be underestimated "and even today, if I tell someone on the phone that I'm a mountaineer, rest assured that the person on the end of the line imagines a rather masculine woman, with a brusque manner. This is obviously a cultural backlog. But if I can state the woman's distinguishing factor in this environment, it isn't so much what you men call femininity, but the ability to suffer, to adapt our feeling, our resistance to the things that happen around us."
A resource which has often found it hard to overcome prejudices: "When I climbed my last 8000ers, many alpinists were convinced I'd only managed because someone had dragged me all the way up there, and above all because those people in the team were men. This is absolutely false. Quite the opposite: I worked extremely hard, just as much as all the other members in the team. I cooked, melted snow, pitched the tents, beat the trail. I did what all alpinists do, regardless of their sex, but it's amazing that women always need to prove that they can go one step further just to be considered equal."
This conversation revolves around an environment, both natural and human, which is always at the very limit, where the race for the fourteen 8000ers or just one of them generates pressure, moves money, induces people to do things which otherwise they may not. "I know that many find it hard to keep their feet on the ground, they struggle to escape from this pressure. Many alpinists are overburdened by this, and almost forget their own human nature. Two years ago, while climbing up Everest, a young man died without anyone noticing or stopping to help. It seems to me as if something serious has gone wrong and the proliferation of commercial expeditions has contributed to this decay."
And now what will Edurne Pasaban do, once she's digested this game of interviews, conferences, presentations and awards? Where will she find projects and ideas? "It's clear that after a period of being saturated there comes a void, a feeling of being lost. But this is what life is about, above all the alpine one, and it certainly isn't finished with the completion of the fourteen 8000ers. Reinhold Messner has been extremely close to me in this moment and has given me precious advice, not so much concerning new physical objectives, but about my person, my life. I certainly won't aim for things for which I can easily find sponsorship. Now I want to be led by the pleasure of climbing this or that, without having to "invent" something which necessarily keeps me on the wave of notoriety. I want to be faithful to myself and, in doing so, with the rest of the world."
Sixty years ago the Frenchmen Herzog and Lachenal reached the summit of Annapurna, the first 8000m peak to be climbed. Lionel Terray, a member of that victorious expedition, wrote a book based on that experience which became wolrd-famous: Conquerors of the Useless. Is this what mountaineers are? People who risk, or even throw away, life for a value which is less than fleeting? Or people who have understood that it is exactly these "useless" experiences which are the most precious of all? "What drives me to alpinism is so personal that I find it hard to define. Messner, when he completed all fourteen 8000m peaks, told me: "what you've done is completely useless, but you did it for yourself. It's important to feel the value of what you do from deep within". It's true, if I listened to my sister-in-law then I'd be hard pushed to do something more useless. But for me the opposite is true: the path which led me to the summit of the fourteen 8000ers coincides with my entire life. I've dedicated all of myself, I've lost friends, renounced having a family, have put many things to one side. I paid the price and I'm happy."
Interview by Erminio Ferrari and Ellade Ossola