An interview with Margaret Watroba
One of the great joys I have discovered in mountaineering, has been the friendships I have struck up along the journey. I have shared tents in remote mountain ranges with people of different colors, races and religions. From different countries and from different cultures. Yet despite all these differences, I have learnt we are all very similar. We desire similar things. Peace, security and safe environments for ourselves and our families to grow up in. Personal freedom. A desire for education and knowledge. And most of all a passion to explore and experience the world.
Below is an interview with a special lady whom I had the pleasure to meet whilst climbing the North Ridge of Mt Everest in 2012. Hear Margaret Watroba’s story in the interview below.
Margaret – this is your 4th Mt Everest expedition. Can you give us a brief overview of your last 4 expeditions and what drives you to go back again this time?
Yes this is my fourth expedition on Everest. I have also attempted Lhotse on another expedition. [Ed’s note: Lhotse is the world’s 4th highest peak and is next to Mt Everest. The standard route up Everest’s south side shares the standard route with Lhotse for most the way before the summit push]
In 2011 I reached the summit of Everest climbing from the south side. That was after a failed attempt the previous year in 2010. Last year in 2012, I made an attempt to climb from the North side. I was unsuccessful due to my chest infection which I got a day before the summit push. So I am going back to try to summit from North again this year.
What drives me? – I like to compete with my body and mind -:) I love Himalaya I love mountains and being there.
I do all my Everest expeditions with Altitude Junkies, run by Phil Crampton. I regard Phil Crampton as a very safe and diligent operator. I also did with him Manaslu [Ed’s note: Manaslu is the 8th highest mountain in the world].
I was 2 x on south side which I love and regard more picturesque then north which is extremely windy and the trek to ABC is a chore -:) While climb through Ice Fall is fantastic and very picturesque although regarded by experts the most dangerous part.
North Face and Lhotse face are very similar , they are both steep, can be very icy, very windy and either very cold or very hot!
Summit day on south side requires to climb 1000m vertically, while on North side only 500m. But the horizontal distance on North is longer so I find both are equally demanding.
Summit push on both sides are very similar, very demanding and hard. Views, if the weather is good, are fantastic on both sides. From both sides you can see the beautiful majestic Makalu. The icon, the land mark of pictures taken from the top of the world.
How important is the goal of being the ‘first’ Australian lady to summit from both sides to you?
Not at all. I truly didn’t think about it when I made the decision to go back
I would just love to conquer my body & mind , since as you know 90%+ climbing is in the mind. Being the first Australian woman to do so would be just very nice. So to say, the “icing on the cake-:)” An extra big bonus!
You have a very interesting background being born and raised in Poland. Can you share with us a little of your journey from growing up in communist Poland to your life in Australia?
I love Poland. It’s a country with rich history and culture. It’s in Poland I got the bug to trek and climb and fall in love with mountains. Every holiday in Poland I spent with my father and twin sister trekking mountains and hills in the south of Poland. However, the worst thing living in Poland before migration was that lack of freedom. Bad economy and then after finishing university, pressure to join the political party or face not being promoted in your professional life.
Then one day when I was 12, I asked my father if we can go overseas for holiday. His reply was “not really, because it’s very difficult to get passport”. I realized then that some government thugs are having power over people and can dictate what we can and cannot do. I clearly remember my thought “no way, if that’s the case I don’t want to live here”.
This thought came again when political situation in Poland become worse and worse with years and then when we had two daughters. I started again to plan and think to take them out to live in a free country as I didn’t want them to live in a country with a restricted freedom and very poor economy. The opportunity came when Australia was taking migrants in 1980.
One of the best things in Poland was access to education. Many schools, universities , society had a huge appreciation to be educated; in my family and around me it was not important how much money you have but how well are you educated. I remember my parents were continuously doing courses and encouraging us to do the same. From very early age I knew I will study at university and biggest goal was always to be the best at school , best in class and eventually to work as a scientist.
Well I didn’t end up to work as a scientist because of Tad! [Ed’s note: Tad is Margaret’s husband]. I fell in love, married , have two daughters and live very happy and still manage to fulfill my professional and sporting dreams.
My other passion was sport , as far as I remember I always did some sport. I was in the top hand ball team in Poland I represented my school in swimming and athletics. That passion for sport still stays with me till now.
Why did you and Tad choose Australia as the destination?
Because Australia was far away from political problems with neighbors had mining industry and fantastic weather.
So do you consider yourself Australian or Polish? Or a mix of both?
When Australia play volleyball vs Poland Tad and I said ” whatever outcome whoever wins we will win …..”-:)
I consider myself Australian, of Polish background. It’s difficult issue, Australia gave me the best life, the best opportunity. But Poland become free country around 1990 so maybe if we stayed I would have the same opportunity, who knows?
I’m so grateful and so happy to live in Australia it’s the best country in the world (next to NZ) ha ha!!
Has Poland changed much since those days of your escape?
Oooooh yes!! It’s totally politically free country and doing pretty well economically.
You are also very successful in your working career. Tell us a little about your job and how you manage to fit in climbing around it?
There was a time when I worked long hours but always had time for gym and sport i.e. tennis, running etc. I always wanted to see Himalaya but because work commitments I was putting it away and postponing till one day I literally woke up and said enough! That very day I went to the Peregrine agency and booked a trip to Nepal.
From then on through the network of engineers I created a circle of few colleagues who know my job and responsibilities and can do my job in my absence. You just have to plan that sort of thing ahead, this way I can take 2 months off and my position and duties are attended and look after.
But I also made a sacrifice not to ‘climb’ the corporate/professional ladder any further not to apply for higher position as a higher position would be more difficult to leave for such a long time as 2 months and find someone to act in my place.
I love being an engineer doing design solving problems going to mine sites etc. It’s very rewarding. I only ever work with men but have no major problem or issue with it. Although I would love more women to join the ranks in the mining in resources as engineers and technical staff.
Whenever I have time I talk to forums promoting ‘women in engineering women in resources’. Last year I got the award of ‘outstanding profession woman’ from CME (Chamber of minerals and energy) and that is an achievement I’m most proud of and want to pass my experience on other women as much as I can.
Are there any themes or values from your working life that you carry over to your climbing life (or vice versa) that you apply to be successful?
Definitely. The most important is ‘safety first’. In mining we are constantly analyzing ‘is it safe, what are the consequences of pushing ahead when in doubt?’. That helped me to make the tough decision in 2010 when I was about 50 vertical meters from the summit of Everest but due to the late time and changing weather I decided to go down. And last year on the North side when I reached about 8600-8700m but due to my chest infection and continuous cough I was getting weaker and I had to think: ‘OK I can summit but will I have enough strength to descend?’.
Vice versa – lots of different experiences from climbing can be use in private and professional life, being on the mountains with people I don’t know in a very tough environment teaches me cooperation with others, not giving up but looking for solutions in moments of disagreement or when a decision has to be made, accommodating others point of view and opinions, reinforces importance of safety, increases appreciation of family friends and lifestyle I have in Australia.
Last year on 19th May 2012, I climbed past you at 8600m on the north ridge of Everest. You were going through the process of making the decision to turn back from your summit bid. How tough was this decision and what were the key factors that affected your decision at the time?
It was extremely tough specially since I was very fit all the time and then as you may remember I got sick just before the summit push.
Then during the summit push every day every hr was so difficult so tough. It was tough because I knew that if not for that infection I most probably could have summitted. The weather was perfect and the summit distance on the north is much shorter then on the south but then I could not stop coughing and it made everything much more difficult in high altitude than at sea level. As you know – you are in the climbing gear it’s clumsy to move, it’s difficult to take gloves or mask off to cleanup your nose to cough.
The key decision was safety, it’s not just about summiting but also being able, having enough energy to safely descend. I would not risk my life my health I have my family I love them dearly. Losing that is not worth any amount of money or achievement goals.
You are a happily married to a wonderful man Tad, with two daughters and 3 grand children. How does your family take your everest expeditions?
They are very supportive. My daughters last year straight away said if you want to try again go for it. Tad was sure I will not go back so when I told him I emailed Phil to go north again his face show total disbelief! But he knows me, he knows he cannot stop me so he is fully supporting me now.
Your approach on Everest is very low key from a media perspective. You do not have a website or blog or market yourself to sponsors. It seems like the word ‘quiet achiever’ would describe your style. Do you agree with this and why do you prefer to climb like this?
The major thing for me to achieve anything like sport or science was to conquer myself. Yes I’m very competitive and I would lie if I deny that I love to win. But I always realized that the main thing is to achieve your best, to bend your own body and mind to the limit because there will/may be always someone better than me. So what then? Give up? Not do it? Cry? Conquering yourself is the best feeling and then everything else, like getting the first prize is a huge bonus.
You are a very strong and fit lady – how do you prepare physically for your Everest expedition’s and how has your training and preparation changed over your 4 previous expeditions?
I’m very often asked that question. I always train as long as I can remember. And I always was doing sports. So it’s not like ‘ok I’m going to climb lets train’. Instead , once I decide to climb I just increase intensity , although over the last few months and following your comment/advise after you read my training regime I was doing in 2011, I took it a bit easier in 2012 to leave some margin and not push my body to the limit.
Some of the media in Australia have dubbed you affectionately as ‘Supergran’. Due to the fact you are a grandmother and yet such a fit active woman pursuing extreme activities. You are indeed inspiring many people through living your dreams. How do you feel about this?
I didn’t like the term ‘Supergran’ at all for many reasons. But if I can inspire a person, then this is most important, most fulfilling. It is the biggest reward.
I would love to fulfill the following motto :
“It’s not just about your achievements but how many people you can inspire”
Margaret, you are an amazing woman, thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule with only 2 weeks to go before you leave for Everest, to take part in this interview. We wish you all the best this year on the North side of Everest and look forward to seeing you back safely to inspire so many more people.
Margaret is a regular guest speaker at events around Australia. All money she raises from her speaking she donates to charity.