Katie Sarah Interview taken in 2010
Katie Sarah comes from Adelaide in Australia and is a mother of three boys. She was the deputy team leader for the Chessell Adventures Mount Everest expedition in 2010.
Katie, in 2007 you attempted Everest via the famous North East Ridge, but reached no higher than a point a little below the ridge crest proper, can you describe your climb then and some of the difficulties that prevented you from going higher?
I had broken my ankle a few months earlier and it was not healed properly. This caused me some discomfort in the earlier stages of the climb, and was the primary reason for having to turn back when I did.
Also I was not as experienced as I could or should have been to attempt a summit bid. Which was why I did not go along with the stated intention of summiting, but rather to attempt to get to 7500m or so. I knew I was not ready for a summit, but as it turned out was able to keep going a lot higher than I expected.
Can you describe for the readers, the effort involved in approaching Everest via the North side, for example the distances are quite pronounced from base camp and up the East Rongbuk glacier?
22kms up the glacier over moraine and taking, if you are being sensible and taking it slowly to acclimatize, a few days the first time, and two days for subsequent trips. To be honest although extremely stunning in the ice formations, it becomes extremely tedious as it is a journey you do a number of times during the expedition, and always feeling reasonably average as you are traveling from 5200m to 6400m. Certainly not in a state to fully appreciate the beauty!
Sadly the number of women attempting Everest is far fewer than men. Are there any added difficulties for female climbers on Everest compared to blokes?
I do not believe so – you are limited by your own mind in many instances and that can happen if you are male or female. But maybe I have simply been lucky to climb with absolutely brilliant team mates – yes nearly always men – who have shown me nothing but friendship and support, as they do to all of the members of the team. Having said that there is certainly no place for ‘precious princesses’ on the mountain, you just need to be an independent and strong member of the team. That holds whoever you are! On each expedition I have never played on my difference in gender, and as a natural part of my personality make sure I pull my weight. Not to ‘prove anything’ but to be a useful team player.
In expeditions of yesteryear, life at times could be quite ‘squalid’. Could you illuminate for the readers, what life in camp is like on a typical day, such as on the East Rongbuk for example?
I would not describe my experience as squalid, in fact far from so. But that is due to picking your guide and operator well. Chessell Adventures run a top expedition, providing food and high quality facilities. A typical 24 hours on the trek up the glacier would involve waking at sunrise, often around 5.30/6am. Once the sun hits the tents, the staff would bring a welcome morning tea to the tents. This was the signal that it was time to get moving and move to the dining tent for breakfast. After breakfast, normally by around 9am it would be time to start trekking. At a reasonable pace you would expect to be walking for around 5-6 hours over the day. Keeping in mind that this trek is increasing your altitude by around 400-600m, depending on what day it was, the going is slow and careful. A packed lunch would have been prepared by the kitchen staff, so a rest to consume that in the middle of the day. Arrival at the next camp would generally be by mid afternoon.
Much training is needed to prepare for Everest, coming from Australia and for those of us living in more temperate climates, can you describe just how debilitating the cold is on Everest, such as comparing the lower camps with conditions on the upper mountain?
You do not necessarily train for the cold. You dress for it. You do not ‘save money’ by purchasing cheap gear. You buy what is good quality and tried and tested for the conditions. If you do not protect yourself, it is not just debilitating, it is a death warrant. So you protect your hands, you layer up properly and look out for each other for unknown/undetected exposed skin to prevent frostbite or frostnip (no mirrors up there to check!).
On your expedition this year you climbed via the famous ‘Mallory and Irvine’ route, up the North East Ridge, can you give the readers an idea how difficult the effort is, such as comparing it to a marathon for example?
I have done a couple of marathons. The physical effort for a marathon is relatively short term and intense, but still has an element of being in the right headspace to manage yourself. It is also about the right pace at the right time, the right nutrition and hydration. So, in some ways similar, but the ‘event’ or the ‘race’ takes weeks not just a few hours. ‘Hitting the wall’ takes a different form, not so much a physical thing as a mental block.
Can you describe your climb up the 1st step and how long it took to climb from base?
Not really, to be honest. It is much easier and shorter than the 2nd step, but no idea of time.
Related to that, how long did it take you to climb from the 1st step to the base of the 2nd step along the ridge?
Again, could not say in hours or minutes.
One of your expedition members was openly looking for the remains of lost Englishman Andrew Irvine. Although thwarted by unexpected snowfall, can you describe where on the mountain, this search area was located and will your colleagues return there next time?
Around the area of the Exit Cracks, but not my place to be more specific.
The 2nd step is notorious and many find it intimidating, could you describe your impressions of the route and how you fared?
On the day, my ascent and subsequent descent (even more important!) of the 2nd step proved to be worlds apart from the high level of difficulty I feared. Unfortunately some dreadfully slow climbers halted us for an hour at the bottom of the step. This gave me a lot of time to contemplate the route. Although not easy I found my state of fitness and strength made it very achievable. My rock climbing background assisted some of the scrambling. And finally my fear that I would simply not be able to reach over the top of the final ladder to keep moving up proved unfounded.
Once above the 2nd step, how long did it take you to reach the 3rd step and from there onto the summit proper?
Again, no idea. I can say we reached the top of the exit cracks not long before dawn, I think. And summitted at around 10am.
Once on the summit, can you describe your thoughts, more so after your past efforts were thwarted previously?
It is pretty basic at this point in your life. Relief. Not only that I had made it, but that I also still felt strong and did not doubt that I had more than enough left in me to get down safely to at least the North Col if not lower. A little disappointed that I was not on the summit with my colleague and climbing partner Duncan. He had encouraged and supported me on my journey o the summit, and a summit photo with him would have been great. But I did have two other team members with me, and I was able to see Duncan and the rest of the team on the way down only a couple of hundred meters from the summit.
Many past expeditions, were punctuated by boredom and activity, can you recall and humorous incidents on the expedition and how important high spirits keep the team going?
I do not recall being bored at all. There was always something to do. There were a number of funny or silly incidents, but to be honest they would not be the slightest bit amusing to anyone who was not there! In fact I am sure some of them would be highly offensive to a number of people. But I do believe that climbing humor in such conditions is very removed from real life, and in some ways can be a defense against the conditions and circumstances of the existence. But team morale is certainly important, and probably being more quietly positive rather than high-spirited is the aim. Which our team managed well as there was a strong level of support and camaraderie.
Which all you’ve described, and travelling along such a famous route shrouded in mystery (from 1924), could you impart and impressions on the prospects from Mallory and Irvine on said route?
Not really, I humbly accept that my experience was almost nothing like what the early explorers would have experienced. I cannot compare the expedition that I undertook, with the level of (comparative) comfort, support, and even just knowledge of what to expect, this so little resembles what Mallory and Irvine attempted I would not presume to be able to make any comment or comparison.
Having the support of your family and friends back in Australia, must have been a boost for you, did this make you extra careful on such a hostile mountain?
Extra careful – I do not think so. It certainly gave me a peace of mind and ability to focus on the job at hand rather than constantly having to worry about home. I believe the strength for something like this comes from within, and relying on external factors is not wise. So having that support meant more that there was no negative impact on my state of mind. The positive force had to be self-motivated!
Just how dark does it get at night on Everest, at high camp or ascending in the wee hours on the summit bid, especially when moonlight is limited?
Difficult to say, dark is dark! By this stage you have spent several weeks away from western city life and so have become accustomed to a nightlife that is lit by head torches in your tent. Lower down of course you have a brighter light in the dinning tent at ABC or BC. But you do not exit your tent at night too far for fear of slipping and falling, and you do not spend time at night outside admiring the view because it is too cold. On the ascent, your world is the rope illuminated by the circle of light from your head torch, and you are concentrating on breathing, moving along the rope as quickly and smoothly as possible, and keeping bits of your body covered and warm. So with a good head torch you are not considering the level of darkness, just focusing on what you can see (rather than what you can’t).