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Sports & Fitness

Reaching her peak
Oktober 1999

New York Fashion Stylist Helga Hengge isn’t your classic mountain woman. So when she decided to climb Mount Everest, no one expected her to make the history books.

Finally, after six weeks of waiting, of hiking up and down between 17,000 and 26,000 feet to help our bodies acclimatize to the altitude, the day of our summit bid had arrived. The weather forecasted for May 27th, 1999, was clear skies — a long-anticipated window between storms. Although it was nearly midnight here at Camp 4, 27,200 feet above sea level, the full moon made it look like morning. The orange down cocoons next to me had begun to stir, and I could hear the Sherpas slurping soup in the silence. The top of my sleeping bag was crusted with snow crystals. I took off my oxygen mask and got dressed in bed, careful not to overlook anything: two layers of fleece, down pants, down jacket, summit socks, heat liners in my boots and gloves; sunblock and glasses in one pocket, water bottle with hot tea in another; cough drops, crackers, goggles and tissues in my pack. To stand on top of the world, to look down over its curve with no higher place to go — it was a vision I’d had in dreams for years. I just never expected I’d climb to the top of Everest and get to see it myself.

I’m not exactly your classic mountain woman. I was born in the U.S. to German parents, and although I grew up in Munich, I work in New York City as a fashion stylist for magazines, including this one. The most physical aspect of my job is carrying huge trunks of clothing to and from photo shoots. I like to jog and hike to keep in shape, but I’ve never been particularly adventurous, either. When I read Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller, I thought everyone in the book was nuts. A huge storm had swept the mountain and killed eight people. The survivors lost noses, fingers and toes to frostbite. Not bad, considering the odds: One of every 10 people who summit fails to make it down alive. Why would anyone do something so obviously self-destructive?

In truth, I did have an inkling. When I was a little girl, my grandparents would spend two months a year climbing in the Himalayas — in places such as Butan, Pakistan, Nepal and the tiny kingdom of Mustang, where they were the first Germans to ever set foot. Once a year, they would invite us to watch a slide show of their travels. My grandmother, who had rugged, tanned skin covered with freckles from her weeks spent outdoors, served my mother, my five siblings and me tea. My grandfather worked the projector as we sat on pillows and stared at the wall. There, pagodas glowed golden in the sunset, colorful prayer flags fluttered in the wind and snowcapped mountain peaks towered like waves on a stormy ocean. I was transfixed. One year, however, my grandfather almost died when he tumbled partway down a couloir before his fixed rope could stop him. My mother was so scared by his accident that even when my siblings and I were older and my grandparents had died, she was still reluctant to let us climb anything higher than the mountains surrounding Munich.

And I didn’t — until about four years ago. I had never forgotten the beautiful images of the mountains I saw in my grandparents’ slides. So, in 1996, needing a vacation, I signed up for a trekking trip to Everest Base Camp. The hike was scenic and easy. But as I stood at the foot of the mountain and watched the climbers from other trips preparing to make their ascents, I was gripped with envy. I looked up at the white cloud trailing gracefully from the summit into the sky. I wanted so badly to join them. It was then that I knew that in spite of everything I had read about Everest, I would one day have to try to reach its peak.

I began climbing in earnest. My freelance schedule allowed me the time to train (typically, I run six miles each morning and use the StairMaster wearing a backpack) and to take some big trips. Over Christmas of 1996, I climbed Aconcagua, which at 22,834 feet is the highest peak in South America. I had never even been camping before, but I surprised myself and my trip leader by summiting the mountain with relative ease. Maybe it was my family legacy, but climbing seemed to come naturally to me. In the mornings I’d drag a little, but once I got going I felt as if I had wings on my back and I could literally fly up the mountain. Since then, I’d scaled six 20,000 foot peaks from Peru to Nepal. My only disappointment came late in 1998, when I made it nearly to the top of the Himalayas’ Cho Oyu (at 26,750 feet, the world’s sixth-highest mountain) but was forced to turn around in a snowstorm.

That’s how, five months later, I ended up on Everest. Russell Brice, who runs the expedition outfit Himalayan Experience and whom I met on Cho Oyu, was planning a trip up Everest’s north ridge in May, a steeper and more exposed side of the mountain than the popular south side. I called and begged him to take me along, even though the trip was only six weeks away. After some reluctance he agreed. Fittingly, I spent my inheritance from my grandfather — all $ 35,000 of it — for the chance. The only hitch was I couldn’t tell my mother I was going. Our group included Geoff, a banker from Australia; Kozuka, a Japanese spark-plug designer; Kobayashi, a police chief from Tokio; Ken a doctor from Tasmania, and me, the only woman. I soon gained a reputation as the resident slacker. During our long wait for the weather window, the guys at camp would obsess over every aspect of our route — how we’d negotiate the steep ridge, how much oxygen we would need and what kind of gear they’d brought. The men saw themselves as warriors, waiting to conquer the great mountain. To me, climbing Everest wasn’t a matter of prepping for battle. I considered myself a traveler. Determined to take the trip one day at a time, I was happy to have six weeks to walk over crisp snowdrifts, gaze at Everest’s elusive peak and socialize with fellow climbers, especially the few women from other expeditions. Sometimes my attitude got to Russell. One afternoon, after our first foray to Camp 2 at 24,606 feet, he admonished me to be more serious and focused. “Summit day will be the hardest day of your life,” he said sternly. I smiled at him. “Look Russell — I’m here on vacation,” I said, only half joking. I didn’t doubt the climb would be extremely hard. But unlike those who were sponsored by big corporations or who had been training for this one crack at the summit for years, I felt I had nothing to lose. I honestly hadn’t a clue whether I would make it to the top, but I was determined to enjoy trying to get there.

Now it was midnight, and as we prepared to head to the summit, suddenly the enjoyment was gone. For the first time in my brief climbing career, I thought I might be in over my head. I was tired and dizzy. All I had eaten in the last three days were four or five Ritz crackers — the altitude had made me queasy, and I couldn’t keep anything down. Russell, who had gotten ill, was back at Advanced Base Camp (ABC for short) and was monitoring our every step by radio. There were seven of us at Camp 4: the three climbers and four Sherpas — Loppsang, Karsang, Phurba and Nawang. Russell had paired me up with Loppsang, our head Sherpa, and had instructed us to leave Camp by 12:30 A.M. to be sure we could make the noon turnaround deadline. The majority of the climbers who have died on Everest died on the way down, so it was crucial to stick to our schedule. Our climb would take us from Camp 4 at 27,200 feet, across a steep incline called the Yellow Band, up three vertical rock-and-ice ridges and, finally, across a deep snow triangle to the tiny summit cone at 29,028 feet. As I fumbled with my oxygen mask and crampons, Loppsang stuffed two 15-pound oxygen bottles into my pack and lifted me up. I adjusted my headlamp and began walking slowly, my body stiff from lying in the cramped tent. I stumbled clumsily uphill over patches of snow, my crampons catching on the rock. My 30-pound pack weighed heavily on my shoulders. Breathing hard into my mask, I was unable to gather any strength. I leaned over into the snow, exhausted.

In the previous weeks I had earned the respect of my teammates — some of whom had looked at me (a tall blonde from New York City) a little skeptical at the beginning of the trip — by beating everyone up the mountain. Like that first time on Aconcagua, I’d been accustomed to flying upward on invisible wings, passing my teammates one by one. Where were my wings today? After a few more labored steps, I called for help. “Loppsang, wait. Something’s wrong with my oxygen,” I pleaded. He didn’t hear me. I began to panic, worried that I might have to turn back. Many climbers had died here, three in the previous two weeks alone. Our crew had treid to guide them by radio from ABC when a snowstorm covered the mountain and we lost contact. Was I completely insane to think I was up to this climb? I didn’t have half the experience of some of the others. I called out to Loppsang again and this time he heard me. He took off his gloves and dug into my pack. “Is okay, now,” he said, and told me my oxygen had still been on the lowest (for sleeping) flow rate. I felt a flood of relief. I’d been about to give up. Every step now seemed lighter and the moon danced gloriously on the snow. Ahead, the round circles from the lamps of other climbers bobbed like fireflies over the black-and-white patches of the rocky Yellow Band. Within in minutes we overtook Karla, a climber from the Mexican expedition, and her Sherpa. We continued up the steep rock, holding on to jumars (which fasten to the rope) with one hand and pushing up with the other.

Suddenly, Loppsang stopped and whispered, “Helga not afraid now.” What did he mean? I smiled, motioning with my head that everything was fine. Then I looked down. In the shadow of a big rock, I made out the shape of a body lying on its side, hands tucked under its head, as if it were sleeping. I grabbed Loppsang’s hand, kept my eyes fixed on the body and let myself be pulled along. As I stepped over the dead man’s faded lime-green boots, I lost my nerve and began to cry. The tears were cold on my cheeks — here was this man, wearing the same jacket and pack as I, only he was dead. This was what distinguished Everst from the other mountains I’d climbed. It was terrifying reminder of its power.

At three o’clock we reached the bottom of the First Step, at 27,559 feet. The stars brightened and I felt like an angel tiptoeing on top of the world. A steep wall rose 65 feet above us. I clipped onto the rope and used my ice ax to scale it. Halfway up, I traversed a rocky ledge and tried to srcamble over a big boulder. In thick down clothes and crampons I could barely feel the rock, but I made it. On top, the ridge continued, and as I began to walk I realized I could no longer feel the toes on my left foot. I checked the battery of my boot heater and saw the light had gone out. In these subzero temperatures, serious frostbite could turn your toes black; sometimes they need to be amputated. My mind was foggy from the altitude, but I decided to switch the batteries on my boots. My right foot was toasty and would be fine for a while.

Behind us, the sun had started to come up and the horizon began to separate from the sky. A confetti of green, red, orange and yellow down-suited creatures, about a dozen in all, appeared over the ridge above us. We arrived at our first oxygen-changing point, littered with orange oxygen bottles. Loppsang changed mine and put a fresh one in my pack. Ahead, a line formed on the ridge where the Second Step began, a 90-foot rock wall. Ten Tibetan climbers were struggling up one by one, and we had to wait our turn. A bottleneck. A similar situation had occurred at the Hillary Step on the south side in that 1996 ascent; the disaster that ensued was in part attributed to the delay. Here I was at the top of the world, and I had to wait on line. Loppsang wasn’t worried, though, since we had been moving fast all night. We sat down in the snow and watched the sun rise. We could see the white-and-blue glaciers flowing from other mountains to meet in the wide valley. Cho Oyu, 26,750 feet high, caught the sunlight, which streamed red and orange down its south face. It was incredible to be higher than any other place on earth and to feel the sun touch you first.

Finally, it was our turn. To get over the rock face of the Second Step required climbing an aluminium ladder rigged by a Chinese expedition some 20 years ago. It dangled precariously from the rock and swayed as I stepped on it. My crampons screeched on the metal. Many of the other climbers had fumbled here for a long time, but I had watched Loppsang and did exactly as he had done. At the top, I wedged the front spikes of my crampons into a small rock crevice and pulled myself up onto the snow. After exchanging bottles again, we trudged on. It was nearly 7 A.M. To our right was a scree field falling away into the Great Couloir, near where only three weeks ago climbers had found the fully preserved body of George Mallory, the legendary British climber who had been lost in what may have been the first successful attempt to reach the summit of Everest. It was also the final resting place for another body, clearly in view now, whose red jacket had faded in the sun. He lay on his back, arms flung over his head, like a heroic sculpture. Even in daylight I had to avert my eyes. If I had let thoughts of disaster creep in, I wouldn’t have had the courage to continue.

By now the sun had climbed well into the sky. When we had topped the Third Step, about 750 feet from the top, we started traversing a large triangle of snow. From ABC we had watched other summiteers crossing it like little black ants moving slowly over an ice-cream cone. Most of them had crossed it after 12 P.M. We were a good five hours earlier than that, and I was still full of energy. In many accounts of the final ascent, I’d heard that you have to stop to breathe between each step, but I was able to take five steps before stopping. My wings were buffeting me upward. The final ridge, at 29,028 feet, rippled with three large snow waves. It took half an hour to trudge across a distance that at sea level would have taken just five minutes. Then, suddenly, there was only deep blue sky all around us and no higher place to go but the tiny summit cone. The Tibetans crowded the cone, which was no bigger than 10 square feet, taking pictures for their sponsors. I stepped into the crowd as if I were squeezing into a small kitchen party, threw back my oxygen mask and turned off the regulator. We’d made it!

I beamed at Loppsang and hugged his thick down suit. After weeks of looking up at more snow, rock and ice walls, now the only direction to look was down. It was incredible. Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain, stood below us, its white flanks falling away in fluted ridges. Everywhere around us, snowfields danced in the light. I wanted to lift my arms up into the air and spin around like Maria in The Sound of Music, but I would have fallen off. We radioed Russell and told him we had made it. “How does it feel to stand on top of the world?” he asked. “It’s great! It’s so beautiful!” was all I could think to say. As soon as the rowdy Tibetans left, we had our chance to take pictures. Loppsang unfurled his Nepalese flag, and I snapped photos of him holding it high into the wind. At our feet, the Dalai Lama smiled at us from a golden frame that a Sherpa must have placed there years before. Multicolored prayer flags flapped quietly in the breeze and hundreds of white katas (silk scarves) were tied to an ice ax, honoring the mountain gods. To our right was the south ridge and the famed Hillary Step. I knelt down and tied my kata to the ax and uttered a prayer of thanks to the gods. It was only 8 A.M., but already clouds were hovering over the north side. After 45 minutes on the summit, Loppsang put his mask back on and signaled for me to descend. On the ridge down we ran into Kozuka, the Japanese climber from our group, and Phurba, his Sherpa. Kozuka looked exhausted and was taking long rests, but they were so close. Walking down was easier than I’d expected. I became so overheated I even took my jacket off. Further down I was surprised to find Karla, the Mexican climber, also proceeding slowly. Karla, who had tried to summit from the south side the year before, had a sponsor and seemed very confident at ABC. “Only two more hours,” I told her, trying to be cheerful.

I hoped I hadn’t discouraged her. I honestly can’t say why I felt so energetic throughout what is undoubtedly one of the most difficult climbs there is. It’s not as if I were more fit than the others. But I do know this: The only person I was there to prove something to was myself. If the stakes had been higher, I might not have been able to feel so confident. Nerves have undone more than a few of the best climbers.

Rappelling down the Second Step, swinging high over the world, was actually fun. As we continued down the ridge after the First Step, however, thick clouds streamed up around us. Loppsang radioed to Russell that we were below the First Step, only an hour from Camp 4, which we had left 11 hours earlier. Russell said he wanted us out of the “death zone”, so called for the lack of oxygen above 25,000 feet, and that we should try to make it down the 1,00 feet to Camp 3. Suddenly, walking became torture. The path was sometimes no more than half a foot wide, over brittle rock. I felt so weak — I still hadn’t eaten anything all day — but I walked cautiously, making sure to clip into every rope. Trip over your crampons just once and you can fall thousands of feet into a couloir.

At 11:30 A.M. we reached Camp 4. With my last bit of strength I removed my crampons and stumbled into my tent. I fell immediately into a deep sleep, but soon Loppsang woke me. “We must go down,” he said. “I can’t,” I mumbled. “Come on — we go,” he repeated. I don’t know how I was able to put my crampons back on, but I couldn’t disappoint Loppsang, who had been so helpful. We left camp slowly, following Karsang and Geoff. It was snowing lightly, and every few feet I stumbled and had to sit down. I was thirsty and kept refilling my bottle with snow. Loppsang and Karsang kept waiting for me, but I wanted to take my time. I told them I would be fine by myself and that they should go ahead.

When I reached Camp 3, Loppsang and the others were already far ahead. Unexpectedly, Geoff, who had been going to stay with me at Camp 3 for the night, had also left. Narwang had gone further up to help Phurba and Kozuka down. Were they going to make it back here in time? I didn’t want to spend the night by myself. It was already about 3 P.M. Suddenly I was terrified. I searched the tents for a radio to contact Russell but I couldn’t find one, only sleeping bags and cooking gear. Soon, night would come. My legs were tired and my back was killing me, but I decided I had to go down another 1,300 feet to Camp 2. I put my mask back on and turned the regulator up. Negotiating the rock scree in the swirling clouds and fading light was awful. I hung on to the ropes and slipped many times. Each time I fell tears started running down my face, and then I got up again and took a few more steps. My crampons got stuck in the leg of my down pants and feathers started flying everywhere. I remembered one night when I had been sick and Geoff had handed me a down feather saying, “Feeling a bit down today?” Right now, I was feeling many downs. Nearly three hours later I made it to Camp 2. In one of the tents I found Ian, a South African and his girlfriend. I crawled into the tent on all fours as if I’d just crossed the Sahara and told Ian that if he didn’t give me water I would die. He laughed and handed me a cup. “It’s not cooked yet,” he said. I didn’t care and gulped it down. They had a radio, and I called Russell who had been worried about me. He told me Phurba, Narwang and Kozuka had all reached Camp 4 at 7 P.M. — exhausted after summiting but fine. They were not coming down any further tonight.

At 5 A.M. I heard a voice calling my name. A minute later, Phurba fell into my tent, snow-blind. He had lost his eyes, he said, and was crying. Phurba had dropped his glasses on the Second Step while helping Kozuka down. He then turned back to find Karla, who had returned late from the summit. When he realized that he was snow-blind — a temporary condition caused by the glare of the sun onto the cornea — he started to descend at 10 P.M., stumbling downhill all night. I radioed Russell and tried to sound calm, although I wasn’t. Russell instructed me to cover a pair of glasses with tape so only a pin-size hole of light could get through. I put these on Phurba and packed him into my sleeping bag, trying to comfort him. And I felt so exhausted that I blacked out.

Later that morning, after Loppsang had arrived to give us a hand, we set off for ABC. The sun was so strong I had to wrap my neck scarf over Phurba’s eyes. Loppsang short-roped him from behind to guide him. It took us three hours to get down to Camp 1. The snow was soft and slushy, and descending the 1,000-foot ice fall was treacherous. I stumbled behind Phurba and Loppsang like a complete beginner. I would have tried harder if I had know that Russell was watching us through binoculars, but my body was too tired to care.

Russell and Karsang picked us up an hour above ABC with hot tea. Russell hugged me and told me how proud he was. Lacchu, our head cook, had prepared a huge celebratory dinner of pizza and “summit cake,” chocolate cake made with Everest snow. Some of the other climbers came and we drank wine and celebrated until we were too dizzy to stand. The last 36 hours felt like a dream. We had stood on top of the world. No one had died, no one gotten frostbite, and Phurba’s eyes were already getting better. Everest was glowing gold in the sunset, and by the time I dragged myself back to my tent that night the mountain was like a bright candle, reflecting the light of the moon in the dark sky. It was while gazing at Everest that I realized that Jon Krakauer, in his harrowing account of the 1996 summit attempt, had never adequately described the beauty of the mountain that could so capriciously take life away. And yet climbers have let him have the final word. For six weeks, I had been awash in beauty: the brightness of the stars the night we tiptoed like angels along the ridge; the sun ribboning honey-colored down the mountain’s flanks; being so high that we could see the earth’s graceful curve. To me, these images were the real reasons to do what some might consider insane — to experience unimaginable, celestial beauty. I couldn’t have gotten any closer to heaven. And I knew that from there, my grandmother was watching me, and that she would have agreed.

Helga Hengge, who has dual citizenship, was the first Germen woman to successfully summit Everest and the first American woman to do so from the North Side.

© 2020 Helga Hengge. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.