The list of alpinists who've climbed all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen is exceedingly small—Reinhold Messner, Jerzy Kukuczka, and Ed Viesturs among nine others—and includes exactly one woman: Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner.
If, like me, you expected the greatest female alpinist of all time to be a stern matron of the summits, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner will be a pleasant surprise. The 41-year-old Austrian has to be among the kindest and soft-spoken climbers around; she was an oncology nurse, after all. Nine months after she finished her last 8,000-meter peak—K2, via the tremendously difficult North Pillar route—Kaltenbrunner came to Everest Base Camp to attempt a new line along the ridge from Lhotse (27,939 feet) to the summit of its neighbor Nuptse (25,790 feet).
With Kaltenbrunner at Base Camp is her husband and constant climbing companion, Ralf Dujmovits, 50, one of Germany's top alpinists during the '90s. I caught up with the pair at their camp, and, over espresso and German chocolate, we discussed their K2 climb, the accident that led Kaltenbrunner to attempt that mountain's more difficult north side, and the hype surrounding the supposed race to become the first woman to summit all of the world's 8,000-meter peaks. Here's what mountaineering's royal couple had to say about a life spent climbing the world's tallest mountains.
In August 2011, Kaltenbrunner climbed K2's North Pillar. It was her fourth attempt on K2, but her first on the north side of the mountain.
What pushed you to try K2's north side instead of the standard routes up the south side?
Kaltenbrunner: Ralf climbed the Abruzzi Spur route in 1994. In 2007, 2009, and 2010 we tried the Cesen route. But after the accident in 2010 [the death of swedish skier Fredrik Ericsson] I didn't have the mental power to go back to the south side. After that, we climbed Carstenz Pyramid (16,023 foot), in Papua New Guinea, and talked a lot. After some time, a good positive feeling for K2 returned. But I knew I never wanted to go back to the south side.
So you wanted to try the more-dangerous north side?
Kaltenbrunner: It's not more dangerous.
Dujmovits: It's just much more difficult.
Kaltenbrunner: There's no the big ice serac in the bottleneck. I also thought that I wanted to know a new side of K2. In 2010 Ralf told me, if you decide to go back to K2, I will never join you. But when I told him I'd like to go to the North Pillar, he said, To the North Pillar? OK, I'll join you. Most people told me that what I was doing was completely stupid. But I jut followed my gut. I told Ralf that this time, everything feels different. It was quite difficult also to explain to my family, but they accepted it.