Friday, November 05, 2010

CULTURE SPAIN – 14 8,000 METRE MOUNTAINS AND A SPANIARD ON TOP OF THE WORLD » Culture Spain – for all things Spanish



Spain has had an amazing sporting year with trumph following triumph – not least in tennis and football.  However, one of Spain’s less well known achievements has been to be the birthplace of the first woman to climb all 14 8,000 metre mountains in the world.  This extraordinary feat was completed this year when the remarkable Edurne Pasaban stood on the top of  Shisha Pangma (8,013 m – 26,289’) – the final and fourteenth 8,000 metre mountain she had summitted.

I can almost here you sighing with ennuie from here! 

After all, climbing is nothing if not a minority sport and interest in it from non-afficionados is generally restricted only to epic climbs of Everest ending in tragedy.  Even then, it is hard for most of us to raise much interest in a sport where any drama and action is almost impossible to convey meaningfully. Even the terrifying and vertiginous heights of climbs and the fearful exposure of climbers is rarely accurately portrayed.

So, what is so special about climbing all 14 8,000 metre mountains?

Well, firstly, only 20 men have ever climbed to the top of all 14 8,000 metre mountains,  despite many trying.  This is because to do so requires not just great technical ability and supreme qualities of personal endurance but also – luck.  Without the latter, no climber is ever likely to successfully summit (and return safely from) any 8,000 metre mountain.

I remember a friend of mine, Stephen Venables (the first Briton to climb Everest withoutoxygen), saying to me that you do not conquer Everest – she allows you to get to the top and back.  By this, he meant that successful climbing of mountains is often beyond the control of even the very best climber.  Not least, the weather on high mountains can change abruptly and turn a fine day into a ferocious storm – so brutal and long lasting that any battle for survival will end in failure. 

In other words, luck plays a big part in mountainering and never more so that when you are at high altitudes.  Unexpected avalanches can occur, crevasses open up or the weather can change unexpectedly for the worse – even if that change involves the weather becoming warmer and thereby destabalising the surrounding snow and ice. 

Meanwhile, operating at high altitudes is extremely hazardous.  Above 8,000 metres,  the cells of a human body are dying faster than they can be made.  This is appropriately called the ‘death zone’ and is somewhere that, by definition, no-one can survive for long.

If all of this was not bad enough, all high altitude climbers that I have known admit to a change in their mental abilities.  Simple tasks become complicated, mood swings are not unknown and hallucinations common, whilst every climber is constantly battling utter and complete mental and physical exhaustion – day after day.  Needless to say, tiny mistakes at high altitude can lead to devastating tragedy, in circumstances where the emergency services are incapable of helping.

So, as only one out of 21 people to have indisputably climbed all 14 8,000 metre peaks, is Edurne Pasaban’s achievement extraordinary?

Well, frankly, it is nothing short of astonishing!

For a woman to have climbed all 14 8,000 metre peaks is a fantastic feat and one of which we should all take notice.  In fact, for all of us, Edurne Pasaban’s achievement should be proof that with ability, determination and luck – almost anything is possible…

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