You don’t bump into many woman climbing the worlds highest peaks without oxygen, let alone 26-year-old, tall blond ones! Hear first hand from my teammate from Everest 2012, Liudmila Mikhanovskaia about her audacious plans for 2013.
Mila – you about to leave in 7 days time to attempt an audacious challenge. Please give us an overview of what you will be attempting?
I will attempt to climb Everest via the Southeast Ridge route without the use of bottled oxygen. My plan initially was to try to attempt Lhotse [immediately] after Everest, but I have now ruled that out because I don’t think it’s a realistic proposition, at least, not for me. I am, however, interested in trying to swim across the frigid Pumori Lake at about 5300 meters, near Everest Base Camp. Needless to say, the climb is the priority and something I would like to – and have to – focus all my energy on.
Mila carrying out one of her other passions: swimming in Pumori Lake in December 2012
The summit of Everest has only 30% of the available oxygen that we have at sea level here. This lack of oxygen hugely affects our bodies capability to perform. Last year on the summit of Everest I took off my mask for 4 minutes and subsequently lost my memory for the next 20 minutes. What are the main issues that concern you with climbing without oxygen and how do you plan to combat these?
Naturally, I have many concerns related to climbing without supplemental oxygen. Pulmonary and cerebral edema as well as severe frostbite become much more serious risks for someone climbing without O2 than someone using the gas. If on my way up I feel like I absolutely must use oxygen to tackle those risks while still making the summit, I will use it: I plan to have a climbing Sherpa trailing me with bottled O2 for this purpose. Thus, I will rely on plenty of emergency oxygen, a dedicated climbing assistant and common sense to keep safe on my way up. My biggest worry is not going up – when I can still stop and return to the relative safety of a lower camp quickly enough – it’s exhaustion on descent. I know from my last year’s experience on the North Side that it can be deadly; it probably would have been for me, if I wasn’t using supplemental oxygen. The top of the world is one of the most dangerous places I can imagine, where assistance is impossible; to get there and have no strength to get down on your own past the Death Zone above 8000 meters is stay there for good. How will I tackle this risk? By trying to resist the summit fever and just being honest with myself about how far I can go – and whether I can come back – without oxygen.
Why is going oxygen-less important to you?
To me Everest or, as I prefer to call her, Chomolungma, is more than a mountain: it is something that reshaped both my body and my character, something that, I feel, made me a better version of myself. The challenge of climbing to the top of the world, the toughest one I had taken up, exposed my every weakness, and I have tried, during and after the 2012 expedition, to work on myself. By returning to Chomolungma, I want to ‘thank’ Mother-Goddess of the World for teaching me so many invaluable lessons in what counts and what doesn’t. It is not, in fact, important for me to climb without oxygen; rather, it is something I would like to do as a way of learning even more about myself from the best of teachers.
What is the highest altitude to date that you have climbed without breathing supplementary oxygen?
Mila relaxing at Manaslu Camp 1 in September 2012
I have been to 7450 meters, the elevation of Camp 4 on Manaslu, without bottled oxygen, twice. The first oxygen-less ‘visit’ ended my 2011 Manaslu expedition as I suffered from frost nip on the night before summit day. On my second attempt I simply used O2 from that elevation onwards. What makes me think I can go higher this time without risking frostbite? Experience. I have climbed quite a bit since my fingers and toes got dangerously cold at 7450m, and, I think, have learnt how to keep myself warm and what gear to use.
You reached the summit of Everest on 19 May 2012 climbing via the North Ridge. Just how tough was that expedition?
Very tough. The summit push was especially hard because I was suffering from a chest infection and climbing with a fever. I made it to the top, but the descent was extremely unpleasant: my body kept trying to go to sleep every time I would sit down to rest and cough; I could feel it shutting down, and there was nothing I could do about it. Getting back down to Camp 3 on summit day felt like the most amazing accomplishment.
It took a while to recover from the expedition: I coughed persistently for about 1.5 months after returning to Kathmandu, and felt very weak. I only really got better after climbing again in Kazakhstan in August :).
You are born and bred in Russia, have any Russian woman summited Everest without oxygen before?
Not to my knowledge, no. Then again, I don’t get terribly excited about Everest statistics: the mountain has already seen too many ‘firsts’, and doesn’t need another one. Nor do I. Climbing Everest, with or without supplemental O2, is a personal challenge; a pilgrimage, if you will.
You seem to have had a complete re-think of your approach to training and preparing physically for this climb. How have you prepared differently and why?
My physical weakness on descent scared me. I detest the feeling of helplessness, and I experienced it often on Everest last season. My age (I was 25 last season), general fitness and experience in Himalayan climbing certainly played greatly to my advantage, but they would not have seen me through an oxygen-less ascent. I had to make sure that this spring I would have that extra physical and mental strength and endurance if I was climbing without O2. Last season I was preparing by climbing in Nepal; this season I find myself in Thailand, training Muay Thai for 5 hours daily. Last season I was teaching myself to put up with extreme cold, climbing throughout the winter; now I am learning to deal with heat and humidity, too. Last season I had rather long periods of rest between my climbs; this season I only have Sundays off training. I think, variety is great for the body and for the mind – keeps one ready for ‘surprises’, of which prolonged oxygen deficiency must be one of the most dangerous.
Mila with her trainer at Sitsongpeenong Muay Thai Gym in Bangkok
Mentally how are you preparing?
By being punched in the face, quite literally. I chose Muay Thai as a means of training for this expedition because I knew it would push me way out of my comfort zone every day. I am very shy, clumsy, and I absolutely hate my physique: well, I have to wear short shorts as, surrounded by some of the best Thai boxers out there, I perform my complete-beginner-style punches and kicks. I never used to run because of the pain several old injuries cause me – I now run 10-12km every morning as it is part of the training. However, the most difficult aspect of Muay Thai to come to terms with is that it is a contact sport: you hit people and they hit you back. I didn’t think I would be able to do that, but doing it I am, and actually enjoying myself in the process. Muay Thai is teaching me humility and reminding me about my weaknesses and limitations, which, I hope, will keep that summit fever in check.
What chances do you give yourself of success?
About 1% for the oxygen-less ascent. Yet, I know I will work at 100% to be successful, and that is the percentage that counts. An ascent which would have me pushing my limits very hard but not overstep them, balancing on the tips of my toes without falling over, would be a successful ascent, be it with or without O2, to the summit of Everest or just as high as Kalapattar
As a climber on Everest, getting help or assistance if you become incapacitated very high on the mountain can make it impossible to be rescued. What are your thoughts on this?
Two people died on my summit day between the top of Everest and Camp 3 [Ed’s note: these 2 died on the North East ridge, 4 others died on the South side during the same summit window]. I have seen the corpses from previous years, which remain in the death zone because it is impossible to remove them without risking lives. I know exactly why they are still there, because I have walked that route and experienced first hand the state beyond exhaustion, where you are just as alive as you are dead. In a situation like this, one could not be of any assistance and, therefore, ought not to expect it from others in the same position. As a climber on Everest, I accept that fact.
What lessons has mountaineering taught you that you apply to other area’s of your life?
I think, the most important lesson I have learnt in high-altitude mountaineering is to just keep getting up no matter what. Your mind could be telling you that you can’t; your body could be numb with exhaustion, but if you want to see the people who you love, sleep in a warm bed or go swimming in the sea ever again, you have to keep going – or crawling, if that’s what it takes. This is extreme, of course, but this particular mountaineering lesson helps me overcome all kinds of small everyday weaknesses, failings and embarrassments. Another important lesson I learnt by watching people in high mountains is that we are really quite weak, even the toughest-looking ones of us; and that it’s great to help each other when we have the strength to. Mountaineering has also taught me humility and shown me that there are some things out there that cannot be done without putting one’s own or others’ lives at risk.
What does your family feel about climbing?
I think, only one member of my family, my mother, truly understands my love of mountaineering. Her first husband died climbing, so, naturally, she is very concerned about me. Yet, she also respects this passion that defines a sizable part of me. She is very brave and supportive.
The rest of my family have little interest in or understanding of high-altitude mountaineering. Being as it is to them ‘but another one of Mila’s unreasonable pursuits’, it’s not something we talk about much when we meet. Naturally, they still care and worry about me while I’m climbing, but not as much as they would have, perhaps, if they knew exactly what I was doing – I’m glad they don’t.
You support a local charity in Nepal – can you give us more info on this?
How can people follow your progress on Everest this year?
After the climbing is finished, I usually post expedition accounts on my blog here: http://sixthsymph.com
I do not normally blog while I am on the mountain. I tweeted occasionally during my last winter expedition on Pumori and will probably do the same again while on Everest: https://twitter.com/Liudmila_M
Mila – thanks for taking the time just 7 days before you leave for this enormous challenge to answer these questions. Your ambition alone is inspirational, how hard you are training is admirable and just going there and trying makes you sensational! We wish you a safe journey and all the courage to make the right decisions at the right times on the mountain this year. Bon Voyage!!!