I climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, in January of 1996. I was one of 200 women who had applied for one open place on the 1st South African Everest Expedition and Kili was the selection mountain where one woman would be chosen from a short-list of six.
The following is from the first chapter of my book, Just for the love of it, which tells the story of my first three expeditions to Everest.
On our summit day for Kilimanjaro we left camp at about 1 a.m. The climb started out as unpleasant and got steadily worse. The long, dark hours of early morning are the worst of the day. I felt stiff and uncoordinated, stumbling on the loose scree slopes. It soon became a relentlessly steep slog. I was sliding with each step on the broken rock. I avoided looking at my watch, not wanting to know how slowly time was passing. It was getting steadily colder and I was falling back in the queue. I plodded on, exhausted, icy cold, demoralised. Jackie and Nandi were up in front and seemed to be moving so effortlessly.
I was desperate to stop for a rest and huddled down behind a rock to seek protection from the wind. I rapidly realised that the only way to keep warm was to keep moving. It was a devil’s bargain, with rest and warmth incompatible. Somewhere in those long hours, when it seemed as if the sun would never rise again, I decided to withdraw from selection for the Everest team. If Kilimanjaro could be this unpleasant, Everest had to be worse. Without enjoyment, I couldn’t see the point of it all.
Then the first glimmer of dawn appeared, a slim line of red on the horizon. I immediately felt better and stronger. All thoughts of giving up dissipated with the darkness. As others moved ever more slowly I began to pass them, working my way towards the front. I found Jackie huddled down, looking awful. She was nauseous with altitude.
‘Bitch,’ she whispered, as I passed her.
Nandi and I reached the crater edge together. I hugged our guide, Joachim, and then turned left. We worked our way around the crater rim, towards the highest point. On our left were great slabs of glacier, lying on the rock like massive chunks of wedding cake. I pulled my down jacket around me, but the wind howled on. There was no escape from the cold.
We reached the top of the dome at 5.17 a.m. As I was taking pictures of the summit, Ian arrived, grabbed me and stared deep into my eyes. He asked if I was okay. I was a bit taken aback but then realised he was checking for signs of acute mountain sickness, brought on by the lack of oxygen at over 5 800 metres. He shook my hand and moved off.
As soon as the summit footage was shot, we started back down. Both Jackie and Deshun were feeling sick. I walked down on my own, enjoying setting my own pace, not being part of the crocodile for a while. The summit had been something of an anticlimax. However, it often is on mountains. For climbing mountains to make any sense at all, it has to be about appreciating the journey, rather than investing all your hopes in the summit.
Back in the hotel, we all met in the garden to find out what would happen next. Up until this point I had felt fairly calm about the selection. I had felt I would be happy for whoever was chosen. I thought I was the best choice and that I had a good chance. However, I didn’t want to be too confident for fear of being wrong. Now the tension started to mount. I realised that I desperately wanted to be selected.
By and large the six of us got on well. There was a kind of tense camaraderie among us as we waited. Jackie joked that if I was chosen, she would kill me. If anyone else was chosen, we would kill her together. The whole proceeding was drawn out to provide drama for the television cameras. Ian called us together. We stood in a semi-circle. Jackie was standing on my right, her breathing ragged and shallow. Ian announced he would be inviting two women to come to Nepal on the three week trek to base camp. Only at base camp would one of the two be selected to go onto the permit. Jackie and I immediately stared at each other. I was horrified. I could imagine nothing worse than our rivalry continuing for another month through Nepal.
Ian went off to ponder life. We speculated about this new turn of events. We were standing near a slide. A small blonde girl of about three was perched on top of it, with her nanny behind her. Jackie turned on her.
‘Don’t ever try to do anything with your life,’ Jackie said to the little girl. ‘Don’t ever try to climb mountains. Just grow up nice and pretty and pleasing to men.’
The little girl stared at her with huge, round eyes. She slowly climbed back down the slide’s stairs and into her nanny’s arms, where she burst into tears.
Ian finally informed us one by one of his choice. All the while we were being filmed. By now I felt like a piece of putty that had been stretched out way too thin. He rambled on about how difficult the selection had been, and how sorry he was he could not take everyone. My heart sank. Then he invited me to join the team to Nepal.
The other woman invited was Deshun Deysel.