“With me, people initially get the benefit of the doubt in terms of trust”

Text: Erik Brühlmann | Photos: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Trust in society – September 2019

Extreme is perhaps the best word to describe the expeditions that Evelyne Binsack has been undertaking for many years. And the self-confidence of this Hergiswil native is also extreme: she knows precisely what she wants and what she does.

Evelyne Binsack, you’re often referred to as an adventurer, extreme athlete or even pioneer. Which descriptor do you like best?

They all apply to me, but none of them gives a full picture of who and what I actually am.

You did an apprenticeship as a sporting goods salesperson. Why did you leave this relatively “safe” environment?

My apprenticeship in Engelberg was merely aimed at getting me admitted to the sports school in Magglingen. Then, everything came out differently than planned. To think, as a teenager I always weaselled my
way out of going hiking with my parents!

Yes, hard to imagine …

… but true. Once, I even ate soap so I could throw up and stay home. Prior to Christmas when I was 15, my father told my sister that he’d be giving her ski touring equipment as a present. I snuck away to the furthest corner, hoping to high heaven that this particular chalice would pass me by.

Tossing plans out the window and daring to undertake something completely new takes courage. Are you a self-confident person?

I’ve managed to develop an extreme degree of self-confidence. I always made rapid progress in whatever I did, so as an impatient person I also wanted to put that knack straight to work on the mountain. Coupled with my iron will, urge to win, stamina and boundless enthusiasm, this made me unbeatable on the cliffs for years. I was quite aware of that, and anyone who wanted or claimed to be better than me had to prove it first. Needless to say, I was also sincerely miffed when others started to catch up with me over time and ultim­ately pass me by. Today, I can chuckle about it. In all honesty, though, I don’t have this kind of self-confidence on all levels of life.

Can you trust others as well?

With me, people get at least the benefit of the doubt rather quickly when it comes to trust. Whether that’s justified or not only becomes apparent once we’ve travelled a certain distance together. To stick with
the mountain motif: when I make the initial ascent to the hut with a guest, the climb gives me all the information I need to correctly assess the guest’s abilities for the next day on the mountain – namely, their endurance, surefootedness, experience and so forth.

Can you also read people that well in your private life encounters?

It takes longer. I can easily recognise the basic characteristics of a person, but in order to really get to know someone, it takes the shared journey I was talking about. Nobody can avoid that. And I have to confess that sometimes I’m wrong in my assessment.

Evelyne Binsack (1967) was born in Stans (canton of Nidwalden). After an apprenticeship as a sports equipment salesperson, she earned her diploma as a mountain guide in 1991 and seven years later obtained a licence as a helicopter pilot. She has repeatedly drawn broad public attention for her unparalled athletic accomplishments. In 2001, she was the first Swiss woman to climb Mount Everest, and in 2007 she travelled on foot, by bike and on skis from Innertkirchen (canton of Bern) to the South Pole. She trekked to the North Pole in 2017 and today works as a mountain guide and lecturer.

As a mountaineer and helicopter pilot, you also need to have trust in your material. Is this to some extent blind trust, coupled with the hope that the material will actually hold up if things go awry?

Be it on the mountain or in a helicopter: when something goes wrong, it’s rarely the case that the material is at fault. You gain trust in this material also by repeatedly running through emergency procedures in your head and, during rescue exercises and so-called check flights, by reviewing everything that can, yet should not, happen in actual practice.

So, is trust in oneself more important than trust in one’s material?

Indeed, because you absolutely cannot panic in an emergency. This is one of my major strengths: in dire situations, I can still call up 20 to 30 per cent of my energy reserves even though most of them have already been drained or become apathetic due to the dilemma. At that point, my body and brain switch to autopilot and I function whatever way the situation requires.

How do you acquire that ability?

You can’t. It’s either there or not there. Training or simulations are of little help. It took me some time to wake up to the fact that I have this talent – even in the most precarious situations, it turns out that I simply did what had to be done. And I felt ,it was completely normal. Only afterwards did I come to the realisation that this emergency autopilot thing is not normal; it’s extraordinary. It’s a raw will to survive that I can instantly switch on not just for myself, but also for the other people involved.

Another one of your extraordinary achievements occurred back in 2001 when you became the first Swiss woman to summit Mount Everest. Did that give you the feeling of having “made the grade”?

No, I had that feeling when I climbed the Wetterhorn spire for the first time at the age of 20. And then again after ascending the Eiger north face in winter when I was 22. I had the feeling that nobody could teach me anything now. Atop Everest, it felt more like the reward for a lot of hard work, know-how and skill. Only when I was back in Switzerland and everyone was lauding my achievement did I realise that I had accomplished something extraordinary.

Today, mountaineers on Everest are trampling on each other’s feet. Doesn’t this kind of take the shine off your performance from back then?

That’s like comparing apples and oranges. Nowadays, practically anyone can go “glamping” on Everest. What those mountain tourists can’t really appreciate is the guts it took for Reinhold Messner, the first person to summit Everest without bottled oxygen, or even me, with my solo assault on the peak, to have actually accomplished those feats. Reinhold Messner has long been hot under the collar about this mass mountaineering trend; for me personally, it’s none of my business.

You’re not really keen on the phrase “conquered the mountain” …

Because it reflects an arrogant attitude. If you want to conquer a mountain, you have to cart it away. The mountains stand and will continue to stand whether we climb them or not. As the saying goes: Regardless of what happens, the Eiger doesn’t care.

You were under way to the South Pole for 484 days – on foot, by bike and on skis. Did you have to conquer yourself?

The entire route of more than 25,000 kilometres, through 16 countries and the Antarctic, was extremely exhausting at times and not just a beautiful and exciting cakewalk with Mother Nature. What’s more, I didn’t know whether the money would hold up or whether I was sufficiently prepared despite the four-year planning phase. Sometimes, I also had difficulties motivating myself. But all these obstacles make you suddenly realise how exhilarating small things like a moonrise can be. All the highs and lows, ups and downs merge to become an extremely rich experience. And when you witness a weird weather phenomenon at the South Pole where you think you can see four suns at the same time, you know: Yep, that’s exactly why I took all this torture. No luxury round-the-world trip can beat that.

“Sometimes, I also had difficulties motivating myself. But all these obstacles make you suddenly realise how exhila­rating small things like a moonrise can be.”

Why then the subsequent trek to the North Pole?

Originally, I’d had enough after the South Pole adventure. The expedition had drained me to the core. But somehow the North Pole kept knocking around in my head, and in the end this particular expedition also helped me to get over a bad private situation.

Those who seek the extreme can find the abyss. That’s what happened to Ueli Steck, who died in Nepal two years ago …

Sure, something unforeseen can always happen. And the risk of a fatal self-made mistake increases the longer you do something at this nosebleed level.

There’s a fine line between self-confidence and overconfidence …

Very, especially at a young age. With Ueli Steck, it became obvious that his focus was gradually shifting away from himself and his expeditions, to more and more on the public eye. The pressure on him grew steadily, and there were an increasing number of factors that distracted him from what’s so essential to endeavours like his: namely, the absolute concentration on oneself. This was probably at least one of the reasons for what happened.

Does one take death into account before leaving base camp?

I’ve always updated my last will and testament before each major undertaking. Because at latest when the first of your colleagues doesn’t come home from their expedition, you become totally aware of all the crap that can happen.

You, too, have taken some heavy hits in life. How do you regain confidence in yourself and your body afterwards?

Through targeted training, the body quickly returns to its usual self. But on the mental side it can get more difficult, depending on which factors are involved. Fortunately, I have a small circle of friends with whom I can discuss my worries and problems – because eating everything into yourself doesn’t get you anywhere. A second thing is to be honest with yourself, allow for weaknesses and fess up to them. Sometimes, you also need to take tough decisions, for example when you have relationships that, if you think about it twice, don’t do you well. These days, I’m ready to break off such contacts. This has nothing to do with egoism – it simply means taking good care of yourself.

Your customers today place their trust in you as a mountain guide. How do you go about dealing with this responsibility?

Taking on responsibility has never really put me under pressure, not even in my younger years. That’s probably because I know my craft like the back of my hand. But I also don’t shy away from asking other people for advice if necessary – even on the mountain. You should never be too shy for that!


Evelyne Binsack – up close and personal

Which goal have you set for yourself this year?
A very personal one: to take more care of me.

What “extreme” goals do you still have?
Actually none anymore. I can’t walk backwards to the South Pole. But I do have a project in mind – several mountains I’d still like to climb – and that could turn out to be a bit on the extreme side.

How do you stay fit?
I don’t have to – it comes automatically. My body is like a puppy that needs to get out and about every day.

Can you simply spend a weekend doing nothing?
Nope, no way. That doesn’t work.

Which place is the most beautiful on Earth to your way of thinking?

Switzerland from November through late May – when there are practically no tourists around.

Are you afraid of growing old?
Not at all. The wrinkles are somewhat annoying, though.

Are you a loner?
Yes, I am. Of course that’s not appreciated very much in today’s society, but hey – I simply need a lot of time for myself. Others have to go to seminars to learn this. Me, I’m just that way.

What advice would you like to pass on to our readers?
The most important, yet most difficult, thing in life is to remain true to yourself.