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.