Dreamers & Doers

Dezember 2018

Charity Book Project to Benefit School Children in Tanzania.

A book by women who have climbed Kilimanjaro and the Seven Summits sharing their stories about dreams and hopes, personal and from the heart.

Story by Helga Hengge



It is the simplicity of mountaineering that I love, the straightforwardness of walking, of taking one step at a time, the purity of it. The thin air has the curious effect of slowing down the body and the mind, and the simple task of walking suddenly requires an effort of immense concentration. The mountains exude an overwhelming sense of peace, of belonging. Here the clutter of daily life flows away easily, there is nothing complicated about walking over a snowfield in the moonlight. Thoughts come and go until the mind is empty and a wondrous feeling of being one with oneself settles in. It is in those moments that I feel who I really am and sense the strength and power inside me.

This was not the case at the beginning of my mountaineering career. On my first expedition to the Himalayas I was the only woman in a team of fourteen mountaineers. They called me Barbie Girl and maybe I did look somewhat like her, even more so next to the men in my team who turned more rugged and unkempt as the days went by. The great advantage was that I never had to carry a heavy backpack. When I climbed my first 8000-meter peak I caught the name Himalayan Princess because I had difficulties adjusting to the altitude. Attached came the disadvantage that someone would always walk dutifully by my side to make sure that I did not get lost. A year later we climbed through the glacier at night in Pakistan. I had to take the front of the rope and lead the team through a labyrinth of icefall towers and crevasses. Henry, our expedition leader, had said, “The princess leads the way, she doesn’t weigh much. If one of the snow bridges breaks, it will be easy to pull her back out.” That was an advantage for my team.

I am not a solo climber. I love high altitude mountaineering because the people who are setting on an adventure change during the course of it, directly in front of my eyes. The first impression never stands; I still err so often. And the others do as well because it is important to know early on who in the team will be able to carry the heaviest backpack and who will potentially stir up trouble and danger. That is the reason why everyone assigns the others on the team to their respective boxes. Are they at eye-level with me? Does everyone have the right to be on this team? But the strengths and weaknesses of an individual are not visible at first sight; they are hidden too deeply. Quite a few people do not even know their own. The altitude, though, calls them forth. With every step into thinner air, a piece of the protective brick wall around us crumbles. Gust after gust, the wind carries away the layers that shroud our most inner self. The cold intrudes and we shiver in rejection, fluffing up our feathered dress to hide beneath it. But then the day arrives when all efforts are naught, the day when we suddenly stand naked like King Lear out on the heath in a raging storm. And suddenly we are not man, nor woman, not blond, nor grey, but human. It is never important that everyone on the team carry the biggest backpack. Differences are important, different strengths, experiences and talents that make up the power of a team. The weak ones are important because they force breaks which benefit all the others, the apprehensive ones slow down the daring ones, and the creative ones lend wings in time of need. To find one’s place on a team is perhaps the most important challenge in life.

On Mount Everest I acquired the name Helicopter. I had trained three years to fulfill the biggest dream of my life, to be on a team to climb the highest mountain on Earth. Russell, the expedition leader, had even said, that he felt quite confident that I could reach the summit, but I had a very hard time at the start, my body refusing to adjust to high altitude. On our first ascent to advanced base camp we started out early in the morning. The men were racing ahead with strong strides and after only one hour I was already painfully dragging behind. My backpack was hanging like a sack of potatoes from my shoulders and I was fighting with every step trying to keep up with the others. On a day where it was so important to assert your place in the team, to prove to one another that each one of us had the right to be on this team, that even I was strong enough and had enough experience to climb Mount Everest, on just that day I was falling behind and the stronger men in my team disappeared in the distance. The only one who stayed with me was Kassang, the local Yak-pa on our team. Whenever I sat down to rest, he would always sit down not far from me and pretend that he had to fix something on his shoe or repack something in his backpack. He did not speak any English and I did not speak a word of Tibetan. But whenever I looked at him, he would always smile at me. Then he would lift his hand in an upwards swaying movement and say: „Helicopter – Chomolungma,“ pointing to the summit. He called me Helicopter because he understood my name as Hellikar, and helicopter was the only word he knew that seemed to match the sound. Why he knew the word helicopter in English was beyond me because there were no helicopters on the North side of Everest. But when he said „Helicopter – Chomolungma,” there was so much confidence in his words that I would get up again and climb a little higher towards the Mother Goddess of the Earth, Chomolungma, as the Tibetans call Mount Everest. I do not know if Kassang knew how much he meant to me that day, for being there, for calling me Helicopter as if I had wings on my back that would carry me upwards. He saw a strength in me that I had not discovered yet, on a day when I had almost given up on the idea that I would ever be able to keep up with the rugged mountaineers in my team.

Ever since I summited Mount Everest no one volunteers to carry my backpack anymore, and if I venture out to climb to the next camp by myself no one is afraid that I will get lost. I still do not look like your typical heroic mountaineer but that doesn’t impress anyone anymore.

Respect does not come to you for free, it is something you must earn.

Helga Hengge

Source: Charity Book Project Dreamers & Doers

© 2020 Helga Hengge. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.