Shortly after the news was official, I announced through Facebook and Twitter that Austrian alpinist Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has become the first woman to summit the world’s fourteen highest mountains (above 8,000 m./ 26,246 ft.). That feat alone is worth an accolade and a book deal these days, but Kaltenbrunner went a step further. She climbed these mountains without supplemental oxygen.
Mountaineering celebrates first the way baseball does; first pitch and first ascents; leaders in batting average and leaders in categories. Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment has been sought after by men and women alike. While nearly 30 alpinists have topped out on all fourteen 8,000ers, only about a dozen – all of them previously men – have done so without using “gas.”
Gas is essential for climbers to get to that top. At higher altitudes, particularly above 6,000 meters, but also much lower, the lack of dense air can make mountaineers feel lethargic, similar to the feeling of a bad sinus congestion with sleepiness brought on from medication. Put into a fog that slows down reflexes and thinking processes, many climbers choose to use oxygen bottles to enhance their air density. In fact, some climbers find it necessary to use gas and would not be able to summit otherwise.
Earlier in climbing history, it was thought that it would be impossible for man to attain the summits of the Himalayas without gas. However, in 1978, Reinhold Messner showed the world that it was possible – through proper acclimatization and will power – to climb 8,000ers without, as Ed Viesturs put it, “cheating.” On May 8, 1978, Messner summited Everest completely under his own lung power.
It is unclear to me at this time whether Kaltenbrunner felt she was racing against other women to be first or had the ambition to be first. Regardless the title was clearly sought after. You may recall that in August 2010, South Korean female alpinist Oh Eun-Sun claimed that she summited Kanchenchunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.), which if that attempt was not disputed by several reputable sources, would have made her the title holder.
Kaltenbrunner also deserves more attention. In North America, outside the climbing community, there has been very little coverage of Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment and even less about who she is and how she got there. I suspect that it is her language and nationality that separates her from my English-speaking world. But as a woman and a climber, her story should be retold more broadly. Everyone can benefit.
Sources: 1) “Gerlinde Kalkenbrunner Summits K2!” PlanetMountain.com, August 23, 2011; 2) Viesturs, Ed, with David Roberts, No Shortcuts to the Top, Broadway Books, 2006.