Daring to Be Lydia

by Lisa Kostova

Photo: Lydia navigating in a white-out on the Tasman Glacier

Thirty years ago this October, something extraordinary happened. A lone 27-year-old girl set off in the middle of the night from Camp 4 to climb the world’s highest peak. It was dark and she had never been there before. Unlike today, there were no fixed ropes to guide the way and since she was climbing without oxygen, the only other party that set off at the same time as her, a group of Catalan climbers, quickly surged ahead, leaving her alone with the darkness and her thoughts.

As she describes in her book Going up is Easy, Lydia Bradey got to the South Summit and had to make a life-and-death decision. She knew she had enough energy to make it back down to camp. She also knew she had enough energy to reach the summit. But what she didn’t know is if she had enough energy to do both. At that moment, she recalls flipping her thinking from “If I climb Everest, I can survive” to “If I survive, I can climb Everest.” She told me that she was in effect reasoning with herself, convincing herself that she was capable of climbing her mountain. Less than 24 hours later, Lydia became the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen. This would be the first of five Everest ascents so far and according to Lydia, she’s still got at least one more Everest in her.
As I quickly came to find out, most of the world and certainly New Zealand knows Lydia as much for the controversy that surrounded her first Everest ascent as for the achievement that was a major landmark for women and mountaineering. Which I find incredibly frustrating. Long story short, the two male Kiwi mountaineers that Lydia was climbing with at the time, Rob Hall (portrayed by Jason Clarke in the movie “Everest”) and Gary Ball accused Lydia of lying about making it to the top. According to them, she hallucinated the whole thing. In short she was “confused.” But more on that later.

The She’s On Ski’s group in the helicopter (author is on the left).
Photo by Lydia Bradey.
I’ve come to New Zealand for the winter with my partner Brent and his daughter Inez. Brent somehow learned that Lydia is leading a women-only ski touring group in the glaciers of the Southern Alps with Elke Braun-Elwert, the talented guide who taught us mountaineering. The trip is aptly named “She’s on Skis”. In typical fashion, Brent becomes my biggest cheerleader, “You HAVE to do this!” he says emphatically in the spring as me make our way to Alaska to climb Mt Fairweather. “We have to come back to New Zealand and spend the (Southern Hemisphere) winter climbing and ski touring. And you get to tour with Lydia!!!” His enthusiasm is infectious.

As a Kiwi, Brent tries to impress me with how much of a badass Lydia is, even by New Zealand standards, and I take note. I’m also excited to try ski touring. I’ve already watched the trailer of Symphony on Skis, a movie about a ski touring journey made by Elke and her sister. I’m entranced by the idea of putting my skis on glaciers, exploring some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery and being in the company of tough women, including of course Lydia, whose story fascinates me.
So here I am, in August of 2018, with my trusty downhill skis hastily configured with touring bindings. I’ve got a few days under my belt of touring experience in the The Two Thumbs range, where I’ve learnt avalanche prevention and avalanche rescue with Pete Ozich of Alpine Recreation. But this is the first time I’m ski touring on glaciers. And for the first time in my climbing and skiing experience, I’m surrounded by women.

Lisa Kostova and Lydia at Aylmer Col above
the Tasman Glacier.
The cast of characters includes, Jade, an Aussie with a quiet determination; Carla, a bubbly Brit who is a hardcore ultra marathoner and is smoking all of us up the hill; Anna, a gentle but strong Kiwi mother of two whose husband, a helicopter pilot, has gifted her this trip as a birthday present. And of course, there’s Lydia herself. Wearing a pink hat with a canary yellow jacket and a purple undershirt, she has mischief in her eyes. Those eyes have seen the glory of untold mountain peaks. They have scanned vistas that few humans have experienced, but have also seen tragedy and loss. Her voice is strong, commanding, and unapologetic in taking up the space around her. Her laughter is infectious. She’s bubbly and chatty and will talk endlessly about beautiful clothes and mountain fashion. And yet she exudes the authority and discipline that only comes from years of breaking trail and pushing herself to the extreme. I quietly marvel at the enigma that is Lydia.

There’s so much I want to know. I somehow score the bunk right next to Lydia in the leaky attic section of the unheated Kelman Hut, the second highest structure in New Zealand, perched above the Tasman and Murchison Glaciers. In the evenings, after the exhaustion of a full day of touring, making dinner and cleaning up, we have a precious few minutes to relax on our bunks. I’m conscious of not bothering Lydia who has the rare moment to read and focus on herself, not the group. But as I lie there, next to her, reading her biography, reliving her emotions and her achievements from long ago, my mind is swirling with questions. Was she afraid up there? Did she think she was going to die? How did she feel when her Kiwi teammates abandoned her? How did she feel when they and the media turned around and attacked her viciously, calling her a liar and a “confused” woman who had hallucinated her life’s crowning achievement?

 Lydia in front of Kelman Hut. 
Confused—a word used to describe women who are brave enough to live their dreams, speak their truth, and who dare to break out of the social norms of what a young girl should be able to do. With the stroke of eight measly letters, a woman’s life is reduced to a hallucination, to something not tangible, not able to be proven, measured, or verified. Confused. Not loud, and established, and endowed with society’s automatic and blind trust that is conferred to male climbers and Supreme Court nominees who throw around that word easily and freely at anyone who threatens their comfortable perch. Confused. Why would it be that the word of men carries so much weight that not even the preponderance of evidence in her favor could shield a woman from the maelstrom unleashed by this dismissive term?

I read Lydia’s account of how she was practically left to die by her male Kiwi teammates. But she was stronger than that. “As soon as I reframed my thinking, I knew I wasn’t going to die.” She says that while she was very much afraid of dying, her experience helped her “manage her way away from it.” But there’s no way her Kiwi partners could have known that. Instead, the day she was having her life-and-death mental moment on the South Summit, Rob Hall and Gary Ball packed up all the expedition’s gear and left Base Camp. They didn’t know if she was dead or alive. They weren’t manning the radios, leaning in and straining to hear her voice, waiting for confirmation that their partner was among the living, up there somewhere near the top of the world, still clinging to life in the “death zone.” They weren’t ready to send help for her if the radio went silent or she sounded sick or hurt. They simply left.

Having read the chapter on her first Everest journey, I sit with Lydia over steaming pasta with veggies, our breath visible in the frozen air of the hut. I share with her that what struck me about her Everest climb is that she spent most of the chapter, multiple pages, describing the relationships that she formed on the mountain and the experiences she shared with the Slovaks and other climbers. And the actual summit took only a paragraph and was over within two sentences—short and to the point, much like her communication style on the glacier where, she is all about safety and survival. She seems to appreciate that observation and her eyes grow heavy with sadness as she says of the Slovaks: “I lost all of them. None of them made it back.”

There is pain and heartfelt love in Lydia whenever she talks about the Slovaks. They were a team of young men who climbed without oxygen, attempting a new technical on Everest. None of them came back from their summit climb and nobody knows what happened to them. I realize suddenly that at the heart of Lydia’s climb was not the “Lydiagate” scandal that surrounded her upon her return, courtesy of the self-assured men she was climbing with. The defining experience for her was her friendship and love of the Slovak climbers and her subsequent loss of that intimate connection with people who saw her for who she was. That’s the part that is raw and powerful and meaningful for Lydia in her Everest journey. Not the noise and resentment of her Kiwi teammates.

Lydia summarizes the whole scandal succinctly: “I set myself up to be bullied.” She tells me as we watch over melting pots of snow that the deepening relationship with the Slovak team was the reason for her being ostracized by Rob and Gary (who were climbing with oxygen, and did not manage to gain the summit during that trip). I open the book to a place where a pretty, bright-eyed girl stares back at me from the page. It’s easy to imagine her shifting sympathies causing intense feelings of jealousy in the young males on the mountain. It’s primal and it is ugly. The female chimp gets punished by the alpha males for daring to stray from the tribe. Especially if she dared to outshine them.

Despite all of this, Lydia doesn’t climb with fear. She lets out a rip-roaring laugh as she recalls being described by one of her book reviewers as an “eternal optimist despite her series of failures.” Lydia knows a thing or two about failure. There is the time where she survived no fewer than SIX (!!!) subsequent avalanches in the same day and the time when she had to turn around on K2, the “savage mountain” that claims the lives of a third of the people who attempt it. Lydia loves talking about failure as a necessary ingredient for success. In fact, until the rise of guided Himalayan climbing, failure rates of 50-60 percent were common and were considered standard for mountaineers. So while they reached their objectives “only” 40 percent of the time, they spent the rest of their climbing careers getting stronger and more experienced, gaining that survival mechanism, so they could live to climb another mountain.

As an experienced high-altitude mountaineer, Lydia talks a lot about mindset. During an impromptu prusik self-rescue demonstration, I ask her what type of mind-frame she thinks is necessary to climb Everest. I ask her to think about what makes her best clients successful and what makes it difficult for other people to adjust. It all comes back to the personalities of people putting Everest on their bucket lists. Lydia prides herself on creating strong connections with her clients and I can see that. Nowadays, in addition to guiding groups on Everest, most of her time seems to be spent with repeat clients who book her on private climbing adventures around the world.

Having said that, Lydia also describes a type of Everest bucket-list climber. “Insecure overachievers,” Lydia calls them. She knows, she considers her younger self to have been an insecure overachiever too. And she adds that true preparation matters. The type of preparation that comes from doing non-glamorous climbing trips like the one we’re on. Remembering to dry your inner boots and dry your socks. Prepare, pack, unpack, rinse, repeat.

She has lost count of how many times she has been expected to take care of people, especially clients who are used to other people running their lives. “They’ve got armies of nannies, housekeepers and personal assistants. They outsource their lives.” Taking care of your needs yourself, including simple things like packing your socks and gloves and paying attention to the essentials is a habit you develop when you climb often, you climb for many years and you climb for the joy of climbing. There are many valuable resources and support that money can buy on the mountain. But a climber’s common sense cannot be bought, it can only be developed.

On our ski-touring trip, Lydia teaches us what to pack for all kinds of emergencies—from prusiks and slings, to spare parts for our ski poles, skins and skis, including tape, and a tool set with different sets of tool bits. I’m feverishly taking notes—up on the mountain, a climber has to be her own repair shop and rescue resource. Lydia gets everyone to practice crevasse self-rescue on the rope in the hut and drills people through transceiver search - quickly locating a buried avalanche transceiver. She is relentless when it comes to getting the details right - whether it’s the technical turns when you ski down, the efficiency of your skinning technique and how to improve it, your transition times and how to cut them down. She’s also a perfectionist when it comes to housekeeping. She delegates tasks around the hut that keep the whole place sparkling clean and running smoothly during meal prep and clean-up. I swear we left the public hut in a much better shape than we found it.

Ski touring with Lydia is the ultimate ego-buster. Watching Lydia plow up the slope in a relentless pace, I get used to the feeling of trying to keep up and failing. My only solace is that everyone else seems to be in the same boat (with the exception of Carla, who’s a true energizer bunny). Nonetheless, I grit my teeth and forge on. My heart pounds and I focus intensely on the sequence of movements anytime we stop for a transition. Yet, I always seem to be the last one and I’m told to “transition faster next time, please.” I talk to my fear while perched on a hill, feeling the heft of my backpack. Lydia coaches us on how to ski the stickiest snow cement I’ve ever experienced. Turning would be difficult, “a knee buster,” so “watch out and don’t fall.”

After the mental check of making sure none of my boots are in walk mode, I brace myself for the leg burn of executing the turns as smoothly and in control as is possible, working my willpower and concentration more than my muscles. Lydia seems to have evaluated my technical skiing skills and found them lacking. The cold matter-of-factness of her assessment is non-partial—she also extends it to her own skiing, which she deems “competent” but far from great. After years of resort skiing where I’ve skied double blacks, chutes and trees, I find myself a beginner in the art and craft of backcountry skiing. I have to pick myself up over and over again, playing the mental game of just getting by to the best of my ability.

As soon as I let go of my identification as an “expert skier,” I am free to move about the mountain and enjoy the whole experience. I also notice that on the last day everyone, including Lydia and the more technical skiers—Carla and Jade—are survival skiing. Lydia deems the snow to be “the worst she’s seen on the Tasman” and is proud to have delivered the whole group back to base without any knee injuries.

Once everyone is out of the danger zone, Lydia somehow manages to miraculously turn a difficult time into a funny moment, lightening the situation with her ability to laugh at herself and whatever it is that may have seemed scary. With a glint of mischief in her eyes and wise crack of a joke, she infects everyone with her laughter, releasing all stress and tension like an escape valve. That smile, that laugh, that ability to surmount any obstacle and find joy and share it with others is the memory of Lydia that will stay with me forever. And as much as my confidence in my skiing has taken a hit after the trip, I know that touring with Lydia has cracked me open and elevated my game as a climber, skier and human being.

Check out Lydia’s book Going up is Easy and keep an eye out for a movie about her life coming out soon. The She’s on Skis trip was organized by Alpine Recreation —a family-owned guiding and climbing company out of Tekapo, New Zealand.

About the Author: Lisa Kostova is an entrepreneur. She blogs about her mountaineering, skiing and outdoor adventures at www.dispatchesfromthe45.com.

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