Bonita Norris decided that she wanted to climb Mount Everest when she was 16. At the time she had only ever climbed a tree and was in the secret grip of an eating disorder. Yet six years later she became the youngest British woman to scale the world’s highest peak.
“Climbing a mountain is emotional, wonderful, terrifying and painful,” says Norris, now 29, from Wokingham in Berkshire. “You feel all of that in the same second. I wanted to give up constantly, and I constantly wanted to keep going. I’d see the challenge ahead, feel very small and tell myself I wasn’t capable. Then I’d tell myself, ‘I know you’re scared. Do it anyway.’ For instance, when I was crossing a ladder on Everest over a drop of 30-60m. Sometimes you can’t see the bottom.”
This feat is described in detail in her memoir The Girl Who Climbed Everest. At 5,300-6,000m, Norris and her five team-mates cross crevasses by walking across a metal ladder fixed with ropes and metal stakes driven into the ice.
During her first crossing she shook with fear. “The ladder would screech and squeal as people walked across it,” she says. “We anchored ropes into the ice at the edge of the crevasse. You pick up the rope, pull it tight and lean forward as far as you can to hold the tension. The second you lean back the rope slackens, so you have to keep leaning forward over the crevasse to keep safe. But your instincts tell you to lean back. You have to quell every screaming thought.”
It seems such a leap from the girl she was, but even when struggling with bulimia as a teenager she was physically resilient. The eating disorder, which took hold when she was 15, began as a measure to control weight, which had first started to become an issue for her around puberty. She had loved running, but quit athletics at 13 because of anxiety around competing. She then developed an unhealthy relationship with food. “I wouldn’t eat breakfast, I’d have an apple or orange at school then rush home and have a huge bowl of sugary cereal, which in my mind was diet food,” she says. Without sport, she lost a sense of self.
Her anorexic tendencies spiralled into bulimia during sixth form. “I had tunnel vision,” she says. “I created this all-or-nothing relationship with food. You want to be slim. You think it will make you a better, more successful, happy person.”
She had a rule about making herself sick: “Once was OK, twice was a bad day, three times never happened, but if it did I’d hit rock bottom.” One such day “I felt I was down a dark hole and everyone else was living above me. I didn’t know how to climb out. I felt I’d let the eating disorder get so far that I’d always have it. With any mental illness the voice in your head says, ‘You can’t fight this.’
Reaching her lowest point provided clarity. “I realised I had to help myself. I thought, ‘If I can do one tiny thing.’ I managed a 45-second run on the family treadmill. Straight after I went into the garden and noticed what a beautiful day it was. The mental effect was profound. I got back into running.”
Norris believes that the possibility of climbing Everest began there. Attending a lecture by the mountaineer Kenton Cool at university reignited the dream. She says: “He described how when he reached the top of Everest he looked down and saw the curvature of the Earth. I thought, ‘If I could do anything with my life, I want to see that.’ ”
Norris, who lives in north London with her fiancé Adrian Baxter (who has competed with the Great Britain climbing team), still scales mountains — last year K2 — but spends much of her time giving motivational talks at schools. “The real buzz is when teenage girls come up, saying they have problems with anxiety, self-doubt and confidence,” she says. “At a crucial time in their lives I can tell them, ‘You don’t have to be extraordinary. I’m ordinary. You are more capable than you think. Your silly big dreams are possible.’ ”
Norris started climbing aged 20 at an indoor wall. “The mountaineering world was an enigma, but very quickly I met people. I started to go on little climbing trips, from sea cliffs that were 12m high to climbing mountains in Scotland. We’d go to north Wales and dash up Snowdon. From there I went to the Alps. I took a cheap flight to Geneva, tried to climb Mont Blanc. I loved it.”
Norris had contacted Cool for advice. Impressed by her progress he invited her on an expedition to Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest mountain, in the Himalayas. “In my first year of climbing I was off to the Himalayas. It all happened very fast,” she says. “And I felt I’d made a huge mistake.”
She climbed most of Manaslu in a state of terror. There were avalanches, and a lack of food, sleep and oxygen. She battled self-doubt, as well as the pain of physical exertion. At one point she nearly slipped into a crevasse. She pushed on, though, and after one particularly tough day realised that she was high above the clouds. “It was a beautiful day and there was a fairy dust of ice crystals flying around on the mountain. I realised, as long as I kept taking risks, I’d get farther than I thought possible.”
Norris insists that “a lot of Everest is mind over matter”, although listening to her describe ascending a sheer rock face in minus 40C, finding the right grip so you’re not spat off the mountain, and the lack of oxygen as you reach high altitudes, it’s clear that physical grit is also required. There’s also the “death zone [over 8,000m] — where there’s no plant or insect life and every minute you’re exposed to freezing temperatures, breathing bottled oxygen, you’re taking huge risks. It’s a place where you will eventually die if you stay too long.”
And yet hers wasn’t a smooth, stratospheric rise. “After achieving that dream it turned into a nightmare on the descent,” she says. “I slipped. A momentary lapse in concentration and I fell, bashed into a wall of rock. After half an hour I was getting shooting pains down my back, in my neck and head.”
Still in the death zone she was in acute danger. “Two team-mates stayed with me, got me down to summit camp. I was fine to walk the following day, and we walked back to base camp over the next two days. But one of them got frostbite, which mortified me.” She felt guilty. “I felt everything I’d taught myself about being a good climber had been taken away. I felt I’d let down other people, and myself, and I needed to put it right.”
Norris spent that summer climbing on the south coast of England. “I was climbing 50ft cliffs, back where I started. It felt terrifying. It took a year and a half before I was mentally ready to go on another big expedition.” She climbed Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain. “I decided that the descent, my weakness, would now become my strength. I’d be the best person on the mountain.” And she was. “It was my turning point.”
Reaching Lhotse’s summit felt like the bigger achievement. “It looks over Everest,” she says. “You can see the people on the summit of Everest. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’ve come so far.’ ” And as she tells her teenage audiences: “I realised your biggest failure can inspire your greatest achievement.”
The Girl Who Climbed Everest by Bonita Norris is available from Amazon
Source: The Times