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.
Dujmovits: When we had the first impression—seeing the North Pillar for the first time—it was like a fist ramming into your stomach.
Kaltenbrunner: In the morning, when we opened the tent, the first view was always of the North Pillar. It was very important for me to have this connection.
ON THE DEATH OF FREDRIK ERICSSON
In 2010, Kaltenbrunner and Ericsson joined forces for the final push to K2's summit. Kaltenbrunner and Ericsson were both trying to summit the mountain without oxygen, but Ericsson was also trying to ski down. When Kaltenbrunner returned from her summit of K2 the following year, Ericsson's father was the first to call, via satellite phone, to congratulate her.
Kaltenbrunner: We decided that when we got into the bottleneck [the same feature that touched off the 2008 disaster that killed 11 people], and it got very steep (70 degrees), we would belay each other. We had really good conditions like I'd never had before on K2, and I was in walkie-talkie contact with Ralf. He told me that after some hours we would have very good weather. This was our last real conversation. In the bottleneck, we knew that maybe some ice from the serac could fall on us. This was our biggest concern. One of us broke trail 50 meters, and then the other followed. At the time of the accident, I was standing behind a rock to be protected a little bit. Fredrik climbed up maybe 20 meters and wanted to make a belay. I heard that he was hammering a piton and in the next moment, he just fell down—maybe three meters away from me. I couldn't react. If I'd been tied to him, I'd have gone with him. Where Fredrik fell was the first place where we wanted to belay. I don't know if you've ever had this feeling, but in this moment, everything stopped. I could not help him. I could not catch him.
Dujmovits: The weather was still quite foggy and cloudy. Already the next morning, he was half covered by snow and ice. I immediately called his parents and spoke with them and explained the situation. His father very quickly asked not to have other people go and risk their lives trying to bring him down.
Kaltenbrunner: When I came down to base camp at 11 p.m., I felt that my body was working without function.
Dujmovits: Gerlinde and I were never worried about Fredrik's skiing. He skied so safely.
Kaltenbrunner: We asked him to climb down with us [earlier, at a lower camp], instead of skiing, and he was just laughing.
ON THE "RACE" TO BECOME THE FIRST WOMAN TO CLIMB ALL 14 8,000-METER PEAKS
Even broaching this subject causes Kaltenbrunner to laugh. No matter how many times she's tried to convince reporters that there was no race to be first, nobody believes her. The exciting climax of the "race" came in 2010, when Korean Oh Eun-sun, then 43, claimed victory. But within weeks, there were accusations—backed up by her own Sherpas—that she stopped 150 meters short of the top of Kangchenjunga. Himalayan record keeper Elizabeth Hawley, a.k.a. The High Priestess of Posterity, marked the ascent as disputed, which sent Sun into hiding and left the door open for Spanish climber Edurne Pasaban to claim the prize in December 2010. Kaltenbrunner finished her final 8000-meter peak, K2, nine months later. Oddly, the comparison between Pasaban and Sun's use of oxygen and Kaltenbrunner's avoidance was seldom mentioned in the press. But in the spectrum of sports achievement, climbing the 8,000ers on oxygen isn't so much like winning the Tour de France on EPO as it is winning it on a motorcycle. Of course, as Kaltenbrunner says, there was no race.
Kaltenbrunner: It was, on the one hand, very interesting and, on the other, not so easy. Edurne was a good friend of mine from the very beginning. I always told the media that there is no race, but they didn't believe. Sometimes I was just a little bit ... I can't say angry. In 2008, a big German newspaper asked about the race, and I told them I didn't care whether I'm the first, second, or fifth woman. The thing that is important to me is to climb without the help of Sherpas or high-altitude porters and without oxygen. But he said: You cannot tell me that there is no race if you're climbing in Nepal in the spring and then going to Karakoram during the summer; this is bullshit. And I became almost angry and told him if he'd read my biography he'd know that I always do it like this because I love climbing in Nepal, and now I have enough time to go to the Karakoram as well.