The astonishing Wanda Rutkiewicz was the first woman to summit 8x8000ers and is still considered the most talented high-altitude lady climber ever. Image of Wanda courtesy of Mark Samuels.
With the Dhaulagiri summit on May 1, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner now has 11 8000'ers.
Image by Ralf Dujmovits courtesy Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Ralf Dujmovits
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is the strongest female candidate to complete the 14 great Peaks without O2...
While another top female climber of the time, French Chantal Mauduit, named her expeditions after flowers, Gerlinde chose her climbs by the shape of the mountains. Image of Chantal courtesy of eolienne.com.
Only Spanish Edurne Pasaban equaled Gerlinde's score. There was a difference though; Gerlinde had climbed all her 8,000ers without O2, often choosing tough mountains and difficult routes. And there was a similarity: Both women refused competition, maintaining their right to climb just for the heck of it.
To Gerlinde, the fact of being a woman was no big deal. She climbed alone, with men, or other women - depending on who she liked. Ralf became favorite mate, and since their 2002 attempt on the North Face of Kangchenjunga also Japanese climber Hiro.
Look ma - no rope! The woman and two men set off to climb Shisha's giant South Face without ropes, camps, Sherpas or oxygen. Awaiting them were avalanches, snow storms, hard ice, whiteout and rotten rock all the way up to the summit.
The slope became steeper, up to 60º, when suddenly - Ralf lost his crampon. As the fear hit him full force, Ralf repeated the question, crying out to Gerlinde a few meters above. Balancing on the tip of only one crampon, Ralf was lucky Gerlinde was still close by. (Click to enlarge)
The fear loosened its grip around Ralf. Clouds came up and wrapped the climbers in fog. (Click to enlarge)
7300 m, where Ralf had noticed a small ledge on the way up. Perched on the tiny shelf, the climbers listened all night to the roar of avalanches down the couloir. (Click to enlarge)
This is the most rotten rock Ive ever climbed, Gerlinde sighed. Pitch by pitch the climbers worked their way up the 800 meter ice gully, without safety lines. (Click to enlarge)
Climbing the upper couloir at dawn. Winds increased and it was freezing. The guys were cold and wasted. They reached the upper part of the summit ridge in the first morning light, discovering that it was 60º steep. (Click to enlarge)
Gerlinde enjoying the first suns rays. All of a sudden, a sense of joy started to well inside them. On the edge of the ridge, a view of the brownish Tibetan plateau - and the highest point of Shisha Pangma. (Click to enlarge)
Gerlinde and Ralf walking the last meters before the summit. They had carried all their gear - including the soaked sleeping bags, all the way to the summit. Now, this offered a rare chance. (Click to enlarge)
At 11:00 am, after almost 12 hours of non-stop climbing, the climbers gazed out from the summit in the hard wind, mad with joy and overcome by fatigue.
Ralf and Hiro on the summit, Shishas Central summit in the background. The original plan had only been to finish the previous year's SF climb, but now the idea came to Ralf. He proposed a traverse to the others. (Click to enlarge)
Hiro's pulse dropped to 50 bits per minute. When Gerlinde tried to shoot him up with emergency drugs, Hiro's body was so cold she had a tough time to find a vein for the Dexamethasone.
The next day, all three climbers left the bivouac. Slowly, the friends lost altitude. With each meter, Hiro got better. Below 7000 meters, a joyous message: Now he can rappel down as a young God. Image of Ralf and Gerlinde helping and cheering up Hiro at their arrival to their BC, by Stefan Nestler, courtesy of Stefan Nestlers Everest-blog, Deutsche Welle/DW-World.de
Best of ExplorersWeb 2005: Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner

Posted: Jan 01, 2006 04:59 am EST
We have covered hundreds of expeditions in 2005. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who continue to linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in the year of 2005.

Today number 1: Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner - Shisha Pangma Traverse, Everest Supercouloir rescue, Gasherbrum 2 summit

The news came out of nowhere on May 7 and astonished the climbing community: Gerlinde, Hiro and Ralf had summited Shisha Pangma in Alpine Style by the South Face. In addition, they made the first traverse from the South to the North side.

Gerlinde and her two climbing buddies were now heading straight for the main course of the season: The Everest Supercouloir. In her usual manner, Gerlinde would give it a shot without supplementary oxygen, and in alpine style.

Without O2

There is often a remarkable gap between fame and accomplishment. Exploration is no different. Ask ten climbers who Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is, check with any climbing or adventure magazine - and watch the confused expression on everyone's face. Gerlinde...who?

Fast emerging as the foremost female climber in the world, the Shisha summit put Gerlinde at the shared top of the list of the most accomplished living female high-altitude climbers in the world. With 7 summits bagged, only Spanish Edurne Pasaban equaled Gerlinde's score.

There was a difference though; Gerlinde had climbed all her 8,000ers without O2, often choosing tough mountains and difficult routes. Edurne on the other hand had several of the tallest over and done with. And there was a similarity: Both women refused competition, maintaining their right to climb just for the heck of it.

Side by side, the two women now closed in on Polish Wanda Rutkiewicz magic number - 8 summits - before the last one took her life.

Sound of Music

The saga of Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is a lyric straight out off Sound of Music. Growing up in a small Austrian village, a priest took Gerlinde climbing every Sunday after church. Little did he know, that he had a super champ on his rope. In fact, amidst the dandelions and the edelweiss, the priest was training one of the greatest future climbers in the world.

But while another top female climber of the time, French Chantal Mauduit, named her expeditions after flowers, Gerlinde chose her climbs by the shape of the mountains. And time passed.

As Gerlinde sharpened her mountaineering skills, one by one, her sisters vanished in the mountains. Wanda died on Kangchenjunga in 1992. Chantal Mauduit perished on Dhaulagiri in 1998. French Liliane Barrard and British Julie Tullis had both died on descent on K2 in 1986. Nine years later, British Alison Hargreaves was lost to K2 as well, in 1995. All the women's lives were cut short in their prime - all in their thirties and forties.

After 1995, the world had virtually no top high altitude female climbers left, and only a few new emerging. One of them was Gerlinde. In 1993, at the age of 23, she climbed the fore summit of Broad Peak and was hooked.

Alone, with men, or other women

Other climbs soon followed. Nanga Parbat was a favorite, "the most beautiful Base Camp and a grandiose mountain," she told ExWeb. But Makalu was great too, "a big, stunning mountain. The only one I dont have a good memory of is Annapurna. Until now, its the only peak I dont want to come back to," she said about the mountain inducing most fear in the world's altitude climbers.

To Gerlinde, the fact of being a woman was no big deal. She climbed alone, with men, or other women - depending who she liked. Ralf Dujmovits became favorite mate, and since their 2003 attempt on the North Face of Kangchenjunga also Japanese climber Hirotaka Takeuchi, "a very uncomplicated and nice person and a very strong climber too." About her closing in on Wanda, she said, "I never felt a pressure to break Wandas record of 8000ers. I do my own climbs and I will never get into competition with anybody. What makes me truly happy, is to climb."

The climb

May 1st 2005, with a single wave of their hand, Gerlinde and her two climbing mates left their cook Sitaram and his helper Phintso alone in Shisha Pangma's Base camp. It would be another ten days before the Nepalese heard from the climbers again.

The woman and two men set off to climb Shisha's giant South Face without ropes, camps, Sherpas or oxygen. Awaiting them were avalanches, snow storms, hard ice, whiteout and rotten rock all the way up to the summit.

Slowly, the three climbers approached the wall. 50 vertical meters up they carved a platform and pitched the tent. The weather heldfor now. The next day, they went straight into action. Climbing on the front points of their crampons most of the time, they worked their way up a steep 50º flank on sheer ice, occasionally powdered with some fresh snow.

If this mountain didnt want you, you would have fallen already!

The slope became steeper, up to 60º, when suddenly - Ralf lost his crampon. Already the year before, the climbers had been forced to abort their attempt on the same wall, when Ralf was hit by falling ice. Now, putting his weight on the front points of the other crampon, Ralf felt a wave of fear:

Is this going to end again, so soon, just like last year? he thought to himself. As the fear hit him full force, Ralf repeated the question, crying out to Gerlinde a few meters above. Balancing on the tip of only one crampon, Ralf was lucky Gerlinde was still close by.

She descended the ice towards him. No! she shouted: If this mountain didnt want you, you would have fallen already! Ralf stared down at the 80 meters of ice wall below, and hoped she was right. Gerlinde came by his side, and then climbed down the wall to retrieve his crampon. She grabbed it, climbed back up to Ralf, and helped him out of there.

Fog

45 minutes later, the fear loosened its grip around Ralf. Clouds came up and wrapped the climbers in fog. After 450 vertical meters there was nothing else to do but find a place to bivouac. They carved out a platform, and watched the snow bury the wall. The next day the ice led to almost vertical fragile rock, overloaded with snow. This is the most rotten rock Ive ever climbed, Gerlinde sighed. Pitch by pitch the climbers worked their way up the 800 meter ice gully, without safety lines.

Reaching the ridge, the snowstorm intensified and they heard the first fresh snow avalanche roaring down the gully below them. The next day snow fell in full loads. Over several days of climbing, the climbers forced their way through, up to the thin air of 7400 meters. The day before the summit push, exhausted, they looked for a spot to bivouac - but there was no large enough in sight. Three attempts to dig out a platform ended up hitting ice and rock. The climbers had no choice but to descend back to 7300 m, where Ralf had noticed a small ledge on the way up. Perched on the tiny shelf, the climbers listened all night to the roar of avalanches down the couloir.

Doubts

The next morning, Adventure Weather alerted about several days of severe weather coming up. After six days of climbing, lying on a tiny shelf in wet sleeping bags high up on the wall, the guys began to feel the effects of the altitude and the fact of the immediate risk to their lives. With the bad weather report, demoralization spread in the tiny camp. For the first time, doubts filled their mind: They were in a very exposed place, sitting in wet sleeping bags, unable to rest or recover. They had no appetite, while avalanches swept outside. We are gonna make it, Gerlinde simply said.

On Saturday, May 7, the weather cleared. The climbers headed out at 1:30 am. They worked hard on the ridge for the first 100 meters, but the recent avalanches had left a track of hard snow, which they could follow in the dark. Winds increased and it was freezing. The guys were cold and wasted. They reached the upper part of the summit ridge in the first morning light, discovering that it was 60º steep. This high up, the snow conditions also got really tough. Silently, the climbers followed the ridge as it turned to the right.

All of a sudden, a sense of joy started to well inside them. On the edge of the ridge, a view of the brownish Tibetan plateau - and the highest point of Shisha Pangma. At 11:00 am, after almost 12 hours of non-stop climbing, the climbers gazed out from the summit in the hard wind, mad with joy and overcome by fatigue.

Traverse!

They had carried all their gear - including the soaked sleeping bags, all the way to the summit. Now, this offered a rare chance: A traverse - the first from South to North on Shisha Pangma! The original plan had only been to finish the previous year's SF climb, but now the idea came to Ralf. He had summited Shisha already in 1997 and remembered that the route went under the 50º steep slope below the central summit, traversing to the north side. He proposed the idea to the others.

They reached the north ridge without further problems and late afternoon on a couloir at 7000 meters, they pitched their tent for a final cold and stormy bivouac. 10 days after they had left, the climbers shook the hands of their two Nepalese helpers back on the south side of Shisha Pangma. They had climbed the south face in true alpine style, and traversed down the north.

Everest

Jumping with triumph, the team took off for Mount Everest. No female had ever climbed Everest off the standard route, in Alpine style, and without oxygen. In addition, the Japanese Couloir/Hornbein Couloir combination route is one of the most difficult and dangerous routes on Everest. Few have attempted it, and fewer succeeded. Only Erhard Loteran and Jean Troillet summited without O2 in 1986. The last time the route was repeated at all was in 1991 by Swede Lars Cronlund.

Gerlinde's summit number eight would not only equal Wanda's but significantly raise the bar in female climbing.

Once again, the crew kicked their crampons up a giant wall - this time in blue ice leading the way to the top of the world. As Everest normal routes boiled with aspiring climbers, the woman and two men began their lonely ascent on the deserted Supercouloir - without fixed ropes, camps, Sherpas or supplementary oxygen.

A friend's life

The 2005 season's uncommonly bad weather held all Everest climbers hostage in low camps, unable even to fix ropes on the higher sections. While meetings were held, and strategies were debated on the normal routes, Ralf Dujmovits, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and Hirotaka Takeuchi were on their non-stop summit push on Everests north face. They had made it all the way to 7650 meters when Hiro suddenly lost the ability to talk. Climbing on the North Ridge in the morning he had been perfectly fit - now the climbers raced to pitch the tent and get Hiro inside.

Inside the bivouac their loyal climbing mate's state rapidly deteriorated to a scary level. Hiro's pulse dropped to 50 bits per minute. When Gerlinde tried to shoot him up with emergency drugs, Hiro's body was so cold she had a tough time to find a vein for the Dexamethasone.

Bivouacked on a lonely face one thousand meters below Everest summit, the climbers glanced in horror at their friend's wide, empty stare. After a while he opened his clenched teeth and spat blood. Without losing a second, Gerlinde and Ralf put Hiro in their down suit and got him in the feather sleeping bag. Then they called a doctor in Austria over satellite phone, asking for advice.

Take a picture before I die

Gerlinde and Ralf fought for their friend through the night, treating him with altitude drugs. Take a picture of me before I die, he said when he regained consciousness for a while. Ralf and Gerlinde kept their cool. They knew exactly what to do. Slowly, the climber improved.

Without fixed ropes or Sherpas, the climbers knew that Hiro must regain his capacity to move - and then be strong enough to climb down by his own power, if he was to survive. Ill belay him with a rope, and we will traverse to Everests normal route on the north side, Ralph decided.

The next day, all three climbers left the bivouac. Slowly, the friends lost altitude. With each meter, Hiro got better. Below 7000 meters, a joyous message: Now he can rappel down as a young God. The team reached ABC on the normal route and got help from a commercial outfitter. Hiro immediately fell asleep. Ralf and Gerlinde looked up at the summit of Everest; they would have liked to stand on the top together. "However, whats in a summit, compared to the life of a friend? they said. Now Hiro is sitting with us at the table in BCs mess tent, very weak but alive and kicking Almost a miracle!

Yes, a miracle. The miracle of climbing with friends.

Gasherbrum 2

With the recent triumph and near tragedy, Ralf and Hiro had had enough drama for 2005. Not so Gerlinde. Eager to capitalize on her hard won acclimatization, Gerlinde booked an air ticket - to Islamabad. Awaiting her, another unclimbed giant - Gasherbrum 2 - and the season's uncommonly bad weather trailing her all the way to Karakorum. The winter's heavy snow falls had buried the Pakistan peaks under loads of snow and climbers all over the area dispatched frustrated reports. "Dangerous!" was the one word echoing between valleys and high camps.

On Gasherbrum 2, large commercial outfits abandoned their attempts, one after the other. Deep snow and howling winds had climbers packing up or sitting put, waiting for someone else to break the trail. "A few teams did move up today, but as expected reported poor snow conditions and slow going, one commercial outfit dispatched. Those few were 19 international climbers. Among them Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, and an Italian couple. They took turns to break trail, reaching C2 after seven hours of climbing.

The next day, the conditions were so tough, that climbers surrendered, one by one. About half way up to C3 a big avalanche went down. Finally, only Gerlinde, the Italian woman and her mate were left to deal with the deep snow.

On July 21, Gerlinde finally bagged her summit number 8, once again doing it her way. The last 200 m took the trio 5 1/2 hours to get through very deep snow. Wading in sections of snow up to her chest, Gerlinde broke through another death zone, summited, and survived.

Edurne

The climb took its toll. Back in base camp Gerlinde had frostbite to her toes and her feet were very bloated. But with the summit, Gerlinde had equaled Wanda's score, and stood side by side with the second top female climber in the world, Edurne Pasabán, who had reached her 8th summit - Nanga Parbat - only 24 hours before, on July 20, in a large team of climbers.

The brand new queens of Himalaya, Edurne Pasabán and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner - who would be next for number 9? When Edurne got the news in BC of Gerlinde summiting G2 and thus equaling her summit record, she said, This stuff about the 8000ers race is getting on my nerves. I climb to climb for Christ sake. I'm really glad for Gerlinde, and I wish her all the best for her next goal. With that, both ladies decided that enough was enough - and went home.

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has summited Cho Oyu, Makalu, Manaslu, Nanga Parbat, Annapurna, Gasherbrum I and 2, and Shisha Pangma in a new traverse, all without supplementary oxygen. This year, she went on a massive triple header, helping Ralph on Shisha, Hiro on Everest and making tracks on G2 when no one else would. A great adventure holds equal measures of danger, challenge and heart. In 2005, no one - man or woman - beat Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner on the three.

Gerlinde stays in our memory for fulfilling all of the award criteria and for doing it her way.

By their performance, the awarded expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:
- Courage
- Determination
- Persistence
- Self reliance
- Ingenuity
- Pioneering
- Idealism
- Comradeship
- Compassion
- Respect towards competition
- Honesty

Previous in the countdown:

2. Matty McNair Arctic and Antarctica - for fulfilling all criteria adding astonishing professionalism, leadership and courage to take on several great challenges after each other.

3. Simone Moro and Piotr Morawski Shisha Pangma first Winter Climb - for pioneering, persistence, idealism, comradeship, honesty and fair play.

4. The German Alpinclub Sachsen - as a symbol for climbers' courage, idealism, self reliance, ingenuity, compassion and heart.

5. Ed Viesturs and Christian Kuntner - for courage, idealism, determination, comradeship and the spirit of a climbing life.

6. Didier Delsalle and his Mystery Chopper - for pioneering, courage, ingenuity, and magic.

7. Broad Peak SW face - for pioneering, courage, self reliance and persistence.

8. Expedition Siberia - for heart and Shackleton Spirit.

An additional 4 expeditions have received a special mention award:

Marcin Miotk - for his self-sufficiency and courage to speak up.
Minoru Saito - for his humble life of great adventures.
Pavel Rezvoy - for his power of will and refusal to retire.
Fedor Konyukhov, the Renaissance explorer - for his pursuit of fairness.


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