Rebecca Stephens Interview taken in 2007
On the 17th May 1993 Rebecca Stephens became the first British woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. She did so via the South Col – South East Ridge on a 40th Mount Everest Anniversary Expedition. Since then Rebecca has gone on to be the first British woman to climb the Seven Summits.
In 1989 you went to Mount Everest as a journalist with the Anglo-American North East Ridge Expedition. Did you ever expect to go above Base Camp?
Not really, but then I hadn’t a clue about the lay out of the land. On the north side of Everest, the base camp is some 13 miles from the foot of the mountain, where the climbing starts properly.
The reason for this is simple: it makes no sense to have a base camp above 17,000ft or so – above this the human body fails to acclimatize completely and deteriorates a little every day. At the base of the mountain proper – a day’s hike, or even two day’s hike from Base Camp – the climbers pitched an Advanced Base Camp, or ABC, at some 21,000ft. Nobody was surprised that I walked to ABC – a string of yaks did so, so clearly it wasn’t tricky terrain. But there was some reticence when I discussed the idea of climbing up to Camp 1 on the North East Ridge, at 23,500ft. I certainly had no plans to do this before accompanying the expedition to Everest, but was fascinated by what drove climbers to climb, and thought that to experience climbing myself – even to the first camp – might reveal a little of what was obviously a passion for everyone I encountered on the mountain.
I have read that the Khumbu Icefall is both frightening yet beautiful. What did you make of it?
Frightening but beautiful about sums it up. I was so terrified at the thought of climbing through it for the first time that I thought I might fail to muster the courage and have to about turn before even stepping foot on the mountain. That’s where the team enters the picture – couldn’t have done it without my friends – and then of course it was dark the first time we set foot in it and I couldn’t see what I was doing! As dawn broke, when we were perhaps half way through the icefall, any fear was swept away by the shear magnificence of our surroundings: ice blocks and pinnacles and cliffs, gleaming gold in the morning light. Fear returned, though, and increased on the second and third journeys through the icefall as I witnessed serac falls and shifting ice and grew increasingly aware of our vulnerability.
What was your initial thought on seeing the Hillary Step for the first time?
I’ll broaden this question, if you don’t mind, to what I thought when first setting sight on the Summit Ridge, of which the Hillary Step is a part. It was quite a shock, yet shouldn’t have been: I’d seen plenty of pictures of it in books. However, somehow I wasn’t prepared for the narrowness of the rocky ridge and steepness of its precipitous slopes, compared with the relatively broad, snow-covered South East Ridge which precedes it. The Hillary Step itself was relatively straight forward. There was a bunch of old tat that I trusted my life to which helped with a pull-up to a half way ledge, and then a long ice-axe reach saw me clamber inelegantly to the snowy top. From there it’s easy: the ridge broader once more, and snow-covered.
Once on the summit you took your oxygen mask off, did this have any effect on you?
I took my oxygen mask off and certainly I didn’t collapse in a heap. When you really notice a lack of oxygen is when you’re working, lifting your body weight against the force of gravity. I suspect that on the summit I got very cold quicker than I might have done with oxygen, though. The cold kicked us into action again, and we started our descent.
Were you happy to put your life in the hands of your three Sherpas, Tcheri Zhambu, Ang Passang and Kami Tchering on your summit day?
Perfectly happy. When we decided, at Camp 2, to give it another go and retrace our steps back up to the South Col, and hopefully higher, there was a little readjustment in my mind to be made. I had always assumed that I would be climbing with members of the team from home, and now that wasn’t to be the case. Still, I had grown to know, respect, trust, even love the Sherpas in the seven weeks we had spent together, and realized that I could not be in better company to climb this mountain. They knew it better than any of us. They were brilliant at altitude – and importantly they were cautious.
The descent is usually where accidents happen. Did you have any scary moments on your decent?
We had one moment that I might have expected to be scared on the descent, but in fact wasn’t at all. I am not immune to fear – far from it, I was frightened on the mountain a number of times – but on the descent, at about 27,500ft, I thought our luck might finally have run out when cloud came down, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces and we daren’t move for fear of a fall. To be stuck at that altitude for the night could have been disastrous. And yet I felt utterly calm. My reasoning is that there was nowhere to fly, nothing to fight; adrenalin served no purpose at all. Instead, my state of mind was one of complete acceptance. In the event, the cloud cleared after 20 minutes or so, and we were able to continue our descent; but this short episode has given me enormous faith that we as humans are equipped with a mechanism to face death, as and when our turn comes.
What home luxuries did you miss the most while you were on Mount Everest?
Would you climb Mount Everest again, maybe via a different route?
Not now. I have two gorgeous daughters and a part of me feels very lucky that I’ve ventured high and got away with it. That doesn’t mean to say, though, that I’m not curious to know whether I might have been able to climb it by way of the North Ridge, or without oxygen.
Have you ever had anyone tell you that you should not be climbing dangerous mountains because you are a woman?
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
I think Mallory and Irvine could possibly have made it to the summit, but not necessarily by way of the ridge line and Second Step, but lower on the face, continuing the line that Norton and Somerville took just a few days before them, turning around short of the summit only because they ran out of time.
If you would like to find out more about Rebecca then please pay a visit to her website at www.rebeccastephens.com