Compiled: Tracy Knox
At 8 a.m. on 29 May, Cathy O’Dowd, a 30-year-old mountaineer from South Africa, stepped onto the summit of Everest and into history. She became the first woman to climb the highest mountain in the world from both its south (Edmund Hillary) and north (George Mallory) sides.
To achieve this, Cathy had to face the ultimate risks of Everest. During her first ascent from the south in 1996, she and her team were trapped in the killer storm described in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air. They finally reached the summit, only to have the thrill of success snatched away when a team member disappeared on the descent. In 1998, Cathy, attempting the north side of Everest, stopped only a few hundred metres from the summit to try to help a dying American climber. The woman’s first words were, “Don’t leave me.” Yet Cathy eventually had to leave her to save her own life.
Cathy has captured the drama of her four attempts to climb Everest, her passion for the challenge of climbing mountains, and her love for wild places in this story. She tries to answer the question of why, if climbing Everest can be so dangerous, people still want to do it. This is a book about challenge, adventure, courage, love, life, and death. This is Everest, the world’s highest mountain, climbed ‘just for the love of it’.
About the Author
Cathy O'Dowd is the first South African to climb Mt Everest and first woman in the world to climb it from both sides. She spent the first 30 years of her life in South Africa, but now lives in the Pyrenees Mountains, in Andorra. She is a professional inspirational speaker and author, who spends the rest of her time climbing, ski mountaineering, and mountain running.
Talking to Cathy O'Dowd
DO IT NOW Magazine caught up with Cathy O'Dowd to find out about life after Everest.
Q: This new edition of your book has an extra chapter, telling the story of your attempt to climb a new route on the east face of Everest in 2004. What have you been up to since then? Any more Himalayan projects?
I often meet people who assume that Himalayan climbing, particularly 8,000 m peaks, is somehow the ‘best’ or ‘most challenging’ form of climbing. It doesn’t feel like that to me. You spend months planning and raising money, because it is expensive. Weeks travelling, more weeks acclimatising, waiting for weather, and waiting out health problems all for a few days of real climbing. You can get so much more done with less money and less hassle by staying at lower altitudes.
This is a long-winded way of saying after all the Everest trips, and an ascent of the west summit of Lhotse, I had had enough and moved on to other things in the mountains. I always said it would take a very special project to get me back into the high Himalaya and last year that project happened, an offer to join an attempt to climb Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest peak in the world, by an unclimbed route, the Mazeno Ridge.
The combination of a new mountain, a new country (Pakistan, I’d never been there), and a route that had been tried, but where no one had succeeded, made it an invitation I couldn’t turn down. It turned into an epic but very exciting expedition. The Mazeno Ridge is nearly 10 km long, and mostly at over 7,000 metres high. We were a team of six. After acclimatising, we started from base camp alpine style (no pre-set camps, everything on our backs). After 11 days of climbing we made a summit bid and failed, I turned back around 7,600 m. Four of us spent the next two days descending a route we knew nothing about. The other two tried again, succeeded, and finally got to the base after 18 days of climbing. They won a Piolet d’Or for that!
The Mazeno Ridge is some of the wildest, most committing, and most beautiful climbing I will likely ever do.
Q: You moved to Europe a decade ago. What made you decide to go and where do you live now?
I mostly moved to Europe out of a sense of curiosity. Once travel normalised for South African passport holders, I wanted to get out and see more of the world. That being said, the steadily sinking rand had something to do with it - it meant that every year I had to raise more sponsorship rands for the same number of dollars. It is easier to fund climbing in euros. And I do like the fact that I now live in the mountains and can go out alone for hours or days at a time, with no worries about my personal safety.
I also quickly became addicted to skiing once I got over here, and that is something that South Africa just can’t offer.
I live in a village in Andorra, a tiny principality in the Pyrenees Mountains, between Barcelona and Toulouse. I can trail run from my front door and a 20-minute drive gets me into great ski touring country. Within three hours driving are more than 20 important rock climbing areas, some of them world class. And the whole of the rest of Europe is just a two-hour plane ride away. Oh yes, and the sun shines here for the majority of the year, very important to a South African! I love living here!
Q: Are you still getting out into the mountains?
Absolutely! I’ve branched out in the various sports I do and I’ve tried other things: scuba diving, kayaking, and paragliding, but the sports that really catch my interest are always about mountains, and involve different ways of travelling through them. So, my top sports are ski touring, trail running, rock-climbing, and alpinism.
Q: Skiing and ski touring doesn’t sound like a very South African activity?
That is true, but it is a brilliant sport. It is much faster and much more fun to ski back down a snowy peak than to trudge down it on foot. I took up skiing when I moved to Andorra and started with resort skiing to get my standard up. But I always knew that what I really wanted to do was climb peaks on skis. So you can ski uphill, with special ‘skins’ stuck to the base of the ski with something resembling post-it note glue. If it gets very steep, the skis go onto the rucksack (these are special lightweight skis). And then once at the top, you head off down wild virgin snow. It is a huge rush.
The system of manned mountains huts in the Alps and Pyrenees means that you can travel from hut to hut with light rucksacks and cover a lot of ground. I’m completely hooked!
Q: Your Facebook page this season has been full of photographs from mountain trail races. What is that about?
Trail running is a sport that happened by accident. I needed to do something in summer to keep up a high level of fitness for the ski touring in winter. Trail running has exploded in Spain and particularly in Catalunya, which has produced a number of the current best in the world, notably Kilian Jornet. There are races every weekend in wonderfully wild mountain landscapes. I’ve been going from race to race like a tourist, meeting people, finding new areas in the Pyrenees, and getting very fit in the process.
I’m pretty slow, as I come to it as an alpinist rather than as a road runner, so I do better on the steep uphills or suicidal downhills and lose ground whenever we actually have to do proper running. But it is great fun. I’ve managed some short ultras (up to 60 km) and am wondering if I can get as far as 100 km. We’ll see!
Q: How do you fund all this mountain activity? It looks like more than just three weeks leave a year?
Big trips like the Nanga Parbat expedition are paid for through sponsorship. But I do find trying to raise sponsorship exhausting and demoralising. Most of my adventures I fund myself. I work as an inspirational speaker on the international corporate speaking circuit, using my experiences on the Himalayan expeditions as case studies to look at issues around motivation, teamwork and leadership. It is a great job that has taken me to more than 40 countries. It also leaves me with quite a lot of free time to do the fun stuff.
Q: Are you off anywhere interesting in the near future?
I’ll be spending six weeks in New Zealand at the end of the year, visiting an old friend who I first met at the rock climbing club at Wits University. He’s part of the great South African diaspora. There are no great plans, it is just a chance to run, climb, and explore.
Q: Do you have another book in mind?
I’ve just started planning out a book about my first mountain expedition. We went to the Rwenzori Mountains in central Africa, approaching via what was then Zaire. It was an epic expedition and one from a different time. I simply vanished from the radar for six weeks with some guy I barely knew, leaving my poor mother at home worrying over her 21-year-old daughter. None of this daily texting and blogging.
Q: How can people keep up with your current adventures?
My Facebook page is CathyODowdEverest. My twitter is @CathyODowd, and my website is http://cathyodowd.com.
Just For The Love Of It has recently been re-released in an electronic edition, and is now available at all good online book stores.