This spring, Korean Oh En-Sun and Spaniard Edurne Pasabán became the first women to join the ultimate boys' club—climbing all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks. However, it wasn't long before doubts began to surface regarding whether Oh made it to the true summit of Kangchenjunga. Writer Tetsuhiko Endo tracked down Pasabán at her home in the Spanish Pyrenees to about her successful quest to climb the tallest mountains on Earth, her thoughts on the controversy, and finding freedom in the mountains. Photography courtesy of the Edurne Pasabán Collection
The train from San Sebastián to Villabona winds through the mountainous, green heart of the Spanish Basque Country. Along the way it passes towns with names like Loiola, Martutene, and Erdia that are perched in the nooks and crannies of the Basque Pyrenees. Small farms and pastures spread over the the highlands, each punctuated by an old caserío, or farm house, traditionally facing East to welcome the sunrise. Every caserío has a a name in accordance with the old Basque belief of "Izena duen guzia omen da" — "that which has a name exists." The one I'm searching for is called Abeletxe which means "house of animals." It's owned by Edurne Pasabán, one of the first women to climb all of the highest mountains in the world, and one of the best mountaineers in history.
I get off the train at Villabona and snag one of the town's two taxis. In Basque accented Spanish, the driver explains to me that Abeletxe isn't far, but I'll never find it on my own. He takes me to the old section of a tiny town called Zizurkil, halfway up the Aiztondo valley. From there, I walk past a crumbling church and a few small buildings plastered with pictures of Basque separatists, and up a country lane surrounded by steep, mountain pastures where a few cows graze. Abeletxe sits on a high bluff, overlooking almost all of the valley. When I arrive, a cleaning woman lets me in, leads me through a large restaurant adorned with pictures of Pasabán standing on different mountains around the world, and out into a deck to take in the views. She points out tiny pueblos in the valley below which are little more than old stone churches surrounded by a few houses.
As she is doing so, Pasabán saunters onto the deck and introduces herself. At 36-years-old, she is built like Greek god but with the face of a young girl. She stands a little over six-feet-tall and has broad shoulders. Her presence would be intimidating if not for kind, searching eyes which almost always seem to be posing a question, except in the disarming moments when they soften into a guileless grin. She wears no makeup and only a few pieces of understated jewelry, including a silver bracelet engraved with the names of all 14 8,000-meter peaks. Unable to help myself, I snatch a quick look at her feet. She has two toes that are truncated from frostbite on K2, and she is displaying them, unapologetically, in sandals.
We sit down at a picnic table to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of a life dedicated to mountaineering, the moments that almost brought it all crashing down, and the controversy that has clouded her greatest athletic accomplishment.
Can you talk about how you got into climbing?
I was born in Tolosa, a small town near here, and actually lived there until about five years ago. There is a very strong climbing tradition in the Basque country so when I was 14, I signed up for a climbing class offered by one of the three climbing clubs in our town. By the time I was 15, I was going to the Alps. At 16 I took my first trip to the Andes. When I turned 18, I took my first trip to the Himalaya.
What attracted you to the sport?
It sounds a bit pompous to say this, but I found freedom in the mountains. I come from a family of businessmen–I was born into a house beside the factory owned by my family and from the time I was very little, I grew up in a very business-oriented world. My parents have always helped me and provided for me, but they have always been very protective of my brother and me, maybe because they were born after the Spanish Civil War in a time of great economic hardship. So I was very sheltered in my home and it was always expected that I would study engineering and work in my father’s company. In the mountains, I was able to find myself because what I was doing (climbing) was totally mine–my parents didn’t have anything to do with it. Climbing has always been something that I have done for myself. Because it wasn’t laid out for me I had to struggle and fight for it. That's also the reason it's so fulfilling.
Was if hard for them when you decided to climb professionally?
Yes. I think, initially, my parents, especially my father, thought that climbing was the hobby or passing whim of their little girl. But with time, I kept at it. I worked with my father in his company for four years and I was in charge of machine design. One day, I told him that I was leaving the company to dedicate my life to climbing. I would start a restaurant even though I didn’t know anything about catering, and use the money from that to spend more time climbing. He said:
“You’ll come back. It’s just a hobby, and you’ll come back.”
But with time, I think he has realized that his daughter is very, as we say in Spanish, de su casta (of his caste)–which in this case means very strong willed, very stubborn, and very clear about what her goals are.
What are the down sides of having pursued your goal to climb the 14 8000ers for nine years?
One of the hardest parts is the toll it takes on your personal life. Of course I have my family and friends as well as an amazing group of friends through climbing, but being that dedicated to something makes it difficult to start a family or have a boyfriend. Also, you are risking your life more than other people so being in relationships is difficult–you have to sacrifice a lot on a personal level. What hurts the most is that I’ve attained my goal, I’ve finished all the 8,000ers, but in some ways, I'm more alone than ever.
The Basques have always been known as people who excelled in outdoor activities. Are good mountaineers born or made?
Euskadi (the name for the Basque Country in the native language of Euskera) is a mountainous land and we have always had a very strong climbing tradition. We also have a lot of traditional sports, like stone-lifting, wood-cutting, and open ocean rowing, that we have always excelled at. So I think it's true that Basques are, as we like to say, muy bruto, which doesn't have an exact English translation, but mean something like, "strong, raw, and a little wild." It's something in our roots.
It's also true that many good climbers are born with certain exceptional traits that help them perform at altitude. For example, my resting heart rate is 38 beats per minute. But beyond the purely phsyical, I think climbing is much more of a mental game. At least 50 percent of it is psychological—being confident, and being able to fight through bad situations when they arise.
What were the worst situations you encountered over the last nine years?
Certainly, the descent on K2 in which I almost died was bad. And last,year, descending Kanchenjunga, I got to a point where I told the rest of my team that I couldn't go on, that they should leave me behind.
What brings a climber like you to say those words?
For me, it was egotism, puro y duro (pure and hard). Of course I didn't want them to leave me, so it was a way of telling them I was in trouble without necessarily saying it. Sometimes your own pride keeps you from saying those types of things. And that's when having a wonderful team, like I had, becomes very important.
What does your accomplishment mean to you as a woman?
On one hand, the accomplishment is simply personal and not influenced by gender. Also as an elite athlete, I try to leave social and political agendas out of my professional life.
On the other hand, as a woman, I think we have the tendency to underestimate ourselves and believe that there are many things that we aren’t capable of simply because we are women. I didn’t set out to prove anything, but if I can be a reference to help women believe in themselves, I will be very content with that.
Many people don’t know that, after summitting K2, you began suffereing from depression and almost quit climbing. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Between 1998 and 2004, when I climbed K2, I had to balance climbing with work, which basically meant missing out on a lot of things in my life. I was a woman in her 30s. A woman in her 30s begins to ask herself lots of questions. She begins to think about finding a husband, starting a family, and beginning the type of life that society has inculcated us to want. Everyone around me had that kind of life. My brother, my sisters–all of them had lives that were socially very acceptable. And there I was doing a sport that, at the time, wouldn’t even allow me to support myself. So I said to myself: “I’m wagering my life with this sport…I just lost two toes on K2; I’m 30-some years old; I don’t have a partner; I’m starting to thinking about having children.” I felt like a load of things piled up on me all at once and all of a sudden, I became very depressed.
I was sick for about two years. During the worst of it, I spent a lot of time without the energy or motivation to do anything. Sometimes I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning, much less go climbing. People are always telling me that I’m risking my life in the mountains, but when I was sick, I tried to kill myself twice. I’ve seen death a lot closer than in the mountain–I’ve seen it in my own home.
Do you still deal with depression?
Yes. I confront my illness every day, and I know I’m going to have to fight it for the rest of my life. I was taking anti-depression medication until the final day of climbing the 14. Since then, I’ve been able to lower my dosage and that is a personal accomplishment on par with anything I’ve done in climbing.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Has climbing helped you deal with the depression?
Without a doubt. The mountains have taught me to value myself more and that I have the power to achieve goals I set for myself. I can’t conceive of my life without the Himalaya. As you can probably tell, climbing is very personal for me. I’m not out there trying to conquer anything or compete with anyone.
Funny you should mention competition…who is the first woman to climb all the 8,000ers?
[Laughing] The first woman was my coleague Oh Eun-Sun. However, there are still doubts about her record, and she still has to present some kind of proof for some of her accomplishments.
Do you still have doubts?
Yes. But I'm not the only one. There are many people in the climbing world that doubt her like I do. Since we don't have any "judges," I don't think the matter will ever be resolved, but it's like Reinhold Messer told me the other day: "The only important thing is that women have conquered the 14 8,000ers, and they both did it in the same month."
So it doesn't bother you even a little bit, being the second woman to climb all the 8,000ers?
No—and I'm being sincere. My life isn't going to change much if I'm the first or the second woman to do it. In my personal life, I'll continue having the same friends, the same family, and the same people who care about me—at the end of the day, that's the only imoprtant thing in life. The ones who are truly by your side are always going to be there whether you are first or second. Also, I have no doubt about my own accomplishments. I know I climbed the 14 highest mountains in the world, and I can live happily with that knowledge. If someone has to live with something that weighs on her, I feel sorry for her.
What are your plans for the future?
At first, the idea of attaining my goal gave me a bit of vertigo, because I wasn't sure what I was going to do afterwards. But I'm a person that can adapt to anything, and I have found that there are so many more things i want to do with my life. Right now, I'm giving conferences both in Spain and abroad. I have always been interested in working in television, so, in the future, I would like to see about hosting my own program. Of course, I would also like to settle down with someone and start a family, but I'm not worried about being alone, like I used to be. I'm not a woman who wants to be tied down and I think, at the end of the day, everyone finds his or her place in the world.