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ExWeb series on Kangchenjunga: Another lady killer
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Jan 31, 2005 11: 24 EST
The mighty Kangchenjunga, currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ascent, is known as a difficult and exposed mountain. Many climbers claim it is the toughest of the 14 8000ers.

The mountain’s windy slopes have taken the lives of many accomplished climbers. However, the death rate for female climbers has been even more drastic.

Few women have attempted the dangerous mountain. Briton Ginette Harrison is the only woman to reach the summit and make it back to BC alive. Unfortunately, another mountain, Dhaulagiri, took her life one year later.

Wanda Rutkievicz, of Poland, is often considered the best female climber in history. Last time she was seen alive, she was nearing the top of Kanchenjunga. Nobody would ever know if she made the summit.

Climbing a way to the legend

Both Ginette and Wanda were superb climbers and their names will surpass their relations to Kangchenjunga, and carve themselves a permanent place in mountain climbing history.

Ginette Harrison, born in 1955 climbed up her way from Bristol’s rock crags to Denali -where she summited at 25 years old – and later, the Himalayas. She started climbing some lower peaks in Nepal and would soon lead an all-male expedition to Masherbrum.

In fall, 1993 she joined the Himalayan Kingdoms expedition to Mount Everest. There she met Gary Pfisterer, and her world shook. They reached the summit hand in hand - Ginette thus became the second British woman to reach the top of the world. The couple married soon after. For their honeymoon, they climbed Cho Oyu and Ama Dablam. Apart from knowing how to climb mountains, Ginette also knew how to diagnose from them—she was a doctor who specialized in high-altitude medicine.

The climbing couple was ready to tackle greater challenges. In 1998, Gary led an expedition to Kangchenjunga, through the Czech route on the north face. On May 18, they launched the summit push, starting a long, shaking day for both of them. Ginette herself described the climb to Mountain Zone:

Memories from the summit bid

“As we traversed below the Croissant we realized that what had looked like a rock in the snow the day before was in fact a body - a pair of boots with crampons was clearly visible poking out of the snow… It became apparent that it was one of the Japanese climbers when we stumbled across a second body sitting in the snow and still clipped into the rope, his hat pulled over his face… As we climbed higher we heard the sound of a helicopter below us. My emotions and thoughts were whirling - how many more dead bodies would we find?”

“We were soloing having left harnesses and helmets at the top of the Rock Band to save weight. Gary was moving more and more slowly having to stop for breath every two steps. At 12:15pm having reached a height of 8450m he was exhausted and concerned that he would be unable to get down before nightfall if he continued. He turned around. I still felt strong and decided to continue; although I had no idea how much farther it was to the summit.”

“I continued on up the summit ridge feeling small and vulnerable. The route stays to the south side of the ridge. The Japanese had fixed rope along the ridge and my left hand gripped it firmly whilst my mind knew full well that without a harness it was nothing more than a psychological boost. About three quarters of the way along the ridge there is a steep ice-filled chimney that one has to descend followed by a gap to step across. I tried not to think about the thousands of meters of South face below, and concentrated on planting my feet and axe firmly.”

“I was heading for a peculiar jutting-out rock on the ridge and as I stepped left around the rock I realized I'd made it - there were the summit prayer flags. But it took a full minute for my hypoxic brain to register that there were still footsteps upwards and it was another 20 feet or so to the summit. I followed the steps to the top and stood there with mixed emotions of relief and elation having finally made it, but disappointed not to be sharing this summit with Gary.”

Ginette became the first woman ever to stand on top of Kangchenjunga. Afterwards, she and Gary would summit Shisha’s Central summit and Makalu. The climbing community referred to Ginette as the ‘second best climber of the century’ after Wanda. She had no chance to change positions. In autumm 1999, caught in an avalanche on Dhaulagiri, she lost her life.

Rutkiewicz’s soul

There is plenty of biographic background on the Polish climbing ace, Wanda Rutkiewicz. She was a force of nature with an iron will that would astonish an entire generation by being the only woman to climb eight 8000ers, a record yet to be broken.

Wanda Rutkiewicz became first woman to summit K2. She would also summit Shisha Pangma, Everest, Gasherbrum I and II, Cho Oyu, and Nanga Parbat. Her life ended tragically in 1992 when she disappeared while attempting to climb Kangchenjunga – she was last seen on the mountain at 8200m.

Back then, Mexican Carlos Carsolio was climbing the mountain as well. Carsolio met Wanda on his way back from the summit. He tried to convince her to head back down, but the Polish climber wouldn’t listen. She was getting ready to bivouac for the night and decided to attempt the summit the morning after. Stubborn and focused, she refused to turn back, despite the approaching storm. No one will ever know if she died that night, or actually kept on climbing up. Whatever happened, she chose to stay. The climbing community all over the world still honors her memory, as the greatest female climber ever.

Images of Ginette (top three images) on Kangchenjunga courtesy of Shiva Charity – her friends set up a Ginette ‘Harrison Memorial Fund’ in order to honour her memory. This helps to promote education in Nepal through SHIVA charity.

Image of Wanda (last image), courtesy of Bergfieber.de.
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