Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has a gentle presence. Her voice, shaped by an Austrian accent, is soft; her words chosen through a thoughtful, compassionate disposition.
But make no mistake about it: In the world’s highest mountains, this woman is a force of nature. After reaching the top of K2 in 2011—after six summit attempts over four expeditions—she became the second woman to have climbed each of the 14 peaks above 8,000 meters, and the first to have done so without the use of supplemental oxygen.
Before she comes to Olympia to speak at the Washington Center on Friday, February 19, RootsRated had the chance to speak with Kaltenbrunner, 45, about her climbing philosophy, coping with tragedy in the mountains, and the relationships she forms with every peak she climbs. Here’s what she had to say.
At high altitude there is much less oxygen available than at sea level, which makes even the act of putting one foot in front of the other extremely difficult. Because of this, most people who venture to heights above 8,000 meters (about 26,000 feet) do so with the aid of supplemental oxygen. Did you ever consider using supplemental oxygen to climb an 8,000-meter peak?
From the very beginning I decided to climb without bottled oxygen or a high-altitude porter. It was always clear to me that had it become impossible for me to continue climbing so high without bottled oxygen, I would have stopped and chosen smaller mountains. However, I was lucky and with my very intense acclimatization it worked and I have been able to scale all 8,000-meter peaks without bottled oxygen—something I am very grateful for.
You also seem to prefer to climb as part of a small team (or sometimes even on your own). Is independence in the mountains important to you?
Climbing in a small team has disadvantages, such as having less manpower to break trail or work together to open the route. However, it also has many advantages. In a small team you are much more flexible; many things are easier to handle, such as making decisions, and it gives me a free and happy feeling.
What do you consider in determining who to climb with?
The most important thing for me is to know your expedition partner very well and to be familiar with his or her strong and weak points. Another important point is to be honest to each other and have a healthy amount of self-responsibility. For me, honesty, trust, friendship, self-responsibility, and self-sufficiency are a good base for a good expedition team.
There are so many wild cards in mountaineering … things like altitude sickness or bad weather can come on very suddenly. How do you plan for the unexpected?
I usually plan my expeditions very carefully, however, one is never prepared for the unexpected—and that is certainly part of an expedition. Despite excellent weather forecast [technology] these days, the weather and the general conditions on the mountain can change very quickly.
It is important to stay calm in situations that sometimes seem hopeless. Spreading panic just wastes precious energy, which is needed on the mountain. So I try to prepare for the unexpected—as far as that is possible. For this reason I always carry a very small light tent and other light equipment. I usually do not set up fixed high camps, as I want to remain flexible. If you set a camp in a certain place, it is difficult to move again. By carrying my own light tent I can set up the camp as I go along. I also carry my gear while acclimatizing up and down the mountain.
How do you maintain that calm? There are so many intense highs and lows in mountaineering—how do you maintain the focus needed to stay safe?
At home it is not always easy to maintain the focus [laughs]. In the mountains, while ascending or climbing in difficult sections, I am naturally completely focused. But before descending after I have reached the top, I always make myself insistently aware to keep again the focus 'till I am safe down at base camp. The summit starts at the highest point of the mountain and ends only once I am back at base camp.
Another important skill needed for mountaineering is having a good gut or instinct, in order to be able distinguish between the discomfort that inevitably comes from pushing your body so hard from something more serious, or to make judgment calls about the weather. How did you develop, and learn to trust in, your instincts in the mountains?
Already in my childhood I often tried to follow my gut feeling. Of course, whenever I climbed with older and more experienced people, I let them make the decisions, as they were in charge. However, I also consulted my own gut feeling and asked myself how I would have decided. It was only later, when I was more experienced, that I had the courage to tell others about my thoughts and feelings. However, at the beginning, these thoughts and feelings were not always accepted.
Later in my life I l also learned that if I stay calm for a moment, without thinking about anything but just listening to my feelings inside, there will be a moment when I get an impulse of what to do next. It comes automatically, with complete inner silence ... and it does not take a long time.
One important thing: Everybody can avoid high altitude sickness when they really listen to their body! Your body knows if something is wrong and usually sends a signal on time. If you experience symptoms like headache, vertigo, then you should act accordingly—meaning to climb or hike down immediately. This is the only solution! Staying at altitude and taking lots of medicines does not solve the problem and will probably end in serious high altitude sickness.
You had a career in nursing before you became a professional mountaineer. Do you think that background has enabled you to be a better climber?
I won't say I am a better mountaineer—every professional mountaineer has his or her strong sides and also weak points. But my nursing career helped me in many points: listening to my body for example, or being patient and working very precisely and focused. However, what has been a great advantage of my medical knowledge is that I have been able to help other people medically on the mountain. I think this is a very nice "left-over" from my career as a nurse, and I would not want to miss it.
In your book, Mountains in my Heart, you briefly discuss how nursing in part shaped your relationship with death—and helped you cope with death when you encountered it the mountains. How so?
Working as a nurse and having to cope with illness and death every day has given me the opportunity to be better prepared for death and what it means to lose someone. During my nursing career, I also visited some special seminars on end-of-life care, which was very helpful and has certainly made it easier for me to cope with death in the mountains. Those experiences and my belief have helped me accept and process mortality. But despite all this preparation, I think losing someone who is close to you is still difficult to cope with.
How did your relationship to mountaineering change after becoming a pro?
I had more time to intensify my training. I could also focus more on my regeneration. So without having to earn my living with a nine-to-five job, I actually had more time for everything. At the beginning I woke up every morning feeling grateful for having turned my life into my passion and to this very day I very much appreciate the opportunities I was given to become a professional mountaineer.
In your book, you also discuss forming a relationship with the mountain—that you need to feel connected to it before you go for the summit. How does that relationship form, and what does that connection feel like to you?
Yes, forming a relationship with the mountain I am about to climb is a very important part of an expedition for me. It starts with the walk to base camp. When trekking to base camp, I get the chance to get to know the area and meet the local people of the region. It is often the case that the mountain means a lot to them and it is good to find out a little bit about it.
Once at base camp I often just sit and observe the mountain—check out the route and familiarize myself with the climb. I look at the difficult sections, plan where I could put the high camps, and try to imagine what it is like to be up there. Before I go for the summit I have usually climbed the mountain in my mind beforehand. This gives me the chance to prepare myself well for the climb.
And yes, I talk to the mountain I am intending to climb. I usually don’t expect an answer, but it gives me the feeling that I am less of an intruder on its slopes. I have to get to know the mountain, and the mountain has to get to know me. We have to work together to be successful. For me it is not about “conquering” a mountain—it is achieving this goal together, and I am always very grateful if the mountain accepts me and allows me to stand on its summit.
Climbing the 14 8,000-meter peaks was a huge part of your life for nearly two decades. You must get the “what’s next” question all the time—how do you respond to it?
Climbing the 14 8,000-meter peaks was for a long time part of my life—but it was not my goal from the very beginning. It happened gradually. At the beginning I went to the high mountains because I enjoyed it and I loved being on expedition. And of course, I noticed that I did well at high altitude, but the desire to stand on top of all 14 8,000 meter-peaks only came later. However, I climbed every mountain for the mountains they are, and it was never a “package” for me.
K2 was the last of my 8,000-meter peaks, however, when I reached the top I did not feel “relieved” that I had finally reached the summit of my 14th 8,000-meter peak. I was so happy to have reached the top of K2. Again, it was not the package but the mountain. K2 meant a lot to me. I made several attempts, and every time the mountain taught me something. When I finally reached the summit I finally felt that we have achieved this together.
Yes, people ask me about my next goal, which has not formed completely yet. I have closed the chapter of the 8,000-meter peaks, but I have some ideas in my head what I would like to do. I have been on some smaller expeditions since I summited K2. For example Nuptse, Denali, and an expedition to Carstenz Pyramid—which was fascinating, especially the wild trek to base camp. But at the moment I enjoy being in the Alps climbing and ski touring—and it is actually nice to spend spring, a season that I love, in Europe. But of course, once you have the travel and expedition bug it is hard to stop, and I am still far from it.