A Leave No Girl Behind Discussion: Women who opened doors
CONQUERING YOUR MOUNTAIN
A Leave No Girl Behind Interview with Cathy O’ Dowd (the first woman to climb Mt. Everest from both North and South sides)
- When was the first time that you wanted to climb a mountain like Everest and what made you believe that you could do it?
- What would you say was the moment that you first realized your own strengths and abilities?
- What made you persist in going on the 1996 expedition even after being forced to descend back down to base camp after the great storm?
- How do you stay focused and calm yourself at those moments when everything seems to be working against you during your climb?
It was not so much pursuing a mountain like Everest, as following a curiosity about what it would be like to explore ever wilder places. I was more focused on any opportunity to get to the Himalaya than on Everest as a specific objective.
Nor did I approach the challenge with the belief that ‘I could do it’. I was simply interested in trying it, in gaining the experience that comes from being part of a big project like that, in discovering how I would manage in such a situation. I approached it as a process, not as a goal.
I don’t think there has ever been one moment. It has been a long – and ongoing – process of discovery. There have been moments of revelation, like the moment when you crest a mountain ridge and for the first time see the view that lies beyond it. But there are always new discoveries waiting for you in the territory you see laid out in front of you.
Being successful in my first ascent of Everest was certainly one of those moments of revelation, a moment where I realised that I was capable of much more than I was assuming, that many of the limitations that I believed constrained my life were in fact self-imposed. Oddly enough the experience of failure that went with that expedition – team members walking out, a member killed, massive negative press coverage – was also an important moment of learning. Fear of being seen to fail is one of the biggest obstacles most of us face in trying risky enterprises. Discovering that it is possible to survive failure and keep on going was a liberating experience for me.
It is a huge – if common – mistake to assume that success is a one way path to the top. Any worthwhile enterprise will entail failure, setbacks, moments of having to recalculate and find a new path. Being forced back down and working out how to find the energy, physical and emotional, to carry on is just part of the journey.
A few key things that help:
- Know why you are doing this and what you hope to achieve, to keep you focused on why this is worth persisting with.
- Be conscious of all you have learnt and achieved up to this point, so that you look forward at what still needs to be done from a place of strength rather than from one of apparent failure.
- Always remember that there are times when you really should walk away from a challenge – it has become too dangerous in whatever way. Knowing that you are prepared to walk away when needed can make it easier to keep going right now.
- Try to distinguish between the kind of fear that is real, that is telling you that this challenge is no longer within your acceptable safety parameters, and the kind of fear that is irrational and self-defeating.
- If you can, take a break from the project, even if it is no more than disappearing into your own head while trapped in a tent and taking yourself off on a fantasy of a tropical island. Don’t let the challenge dominate you
- Where you can, surround yourself with people who can offer you positive support and humour, and allow yourself to lean on them, to ask them for help. Know that in time you will get to return the favour. It is not a weakness to ask for help but a sign of maturity.
Dealing with negativity and criticism is a hugely important skill in adult life and not one that it is easy to learn. I feel that the first great skill is to tell the difference between that criticism that has something valid at its heart, even if we don’t like the way it is phrased, and that which is just founded in resentment or jealousy.
Once again I feel that key points are being clear about why you are doing what you are doing, why it matters to you, what you hope to achieve. If you are secure in your own desires, it is easier to shrug off irrelevant criticism. And where possible seek to surround yourself by people who share your vision and are supportive of your mission.
The arrival on the summit itself was not in fact a moment of pure joy. It was a mixture of incredulous elation at having actually got all the way to the top, sheer relief at being able to stop pushing upwards all the time, and worry about the risks I and my team-mates would face on the way down.
The purest moment of joy came some two hours earlier when I stood on top of the south summit and saw the summit ridge and the infamous Hillary Step for the first time. These things are the last obstacles on the way to the top, they cannot be seen from below until the moment you cross the south summit, and they have a huge reputation. When, after nine weeks on the mountain, I finally got to see them, my thought was: that’s not so bad! I can do that!
That was the first time in the entire project that I really believed that I would get all the way to the top.
Heartaches can come in many different forms. Conflict among the team members is always one of the most demoralising. Doubts about my own capabilities always creep in at one point or another. Losing friends in the mountains is always difficult.
But as to why I would continue…. The interesting things in life aren’t easy. They take patience and determination and hard work. The many different kinds of difficulties are simply part of the challenge of reaching out for big goals.
I have given up on specific projects for various reasons but have never given up on my general activities in the mountains. The rewards are worth all the difficulty and all the effort.
A useful skill to have is being able to judge how genuinely risky something is, rather than just accepting the opinion of the crowd! I have done many things that carry varying degrees of risk. I have always approached them cautiously, doing the best I can to educate myself as to the risks involved and how best to minimize them. I can and have walked away from things because I no longer felt the goal was worth the level of risk now involved.
However, there is enormous satisfaction in attempting things that I find intimidating and finding that I am capable of doing them. I have greatly increased my confidence and my skill levels by accepting such challenges. The things that I have learnt from climbing on mountains (whether I reached the summit or not) have enriched my life in innumerable ways and have been worth the risks that I ran in doing them.
Honestly… I can’t think of any. Because I approach things as a process / a journey, rather than as a goal, I’m not likely to think of things as insurmountable.
That being said, my teenage self who was so worried about how she would ever be able to make an interesting living without getting caught in the formal corporate world that my father was part of, would be astonished by what I have achieved twenty years later. Back then it did feel impossible. In retrospect it does look as if I followed a plan that resulted in the wonderfully free and fulfilling life that I now lead. But in fact I seized opportunities as they presented themselves and then put hard, focused work into making the most of them.
I have mostly been lucky with my climbing partners and have faced little sexism on expeditions. Showing basic competence is usually a good way to overcome any lingering doubts in the minds of partners. Mostly I have been able to choose partners and I have climbed with some amazing men. Some men are still very sexist but many, many of them aren’t, and those are the men we should seeking out.
There are advantages to being a woman in a male-dominated sport like expeditioning. You stand out, you get more attention. That may make your partners resentful but it can also be very useful in raising the profile of the project.
One of the biggest challenges women face – as a sweeping generalisation – is getting their voices heard when making decisions in a group of confident capable individuals. We are brought up to be polite, to defer, to stand back. That is a disadvantage. If we want to make a contribution, we often need to be much more forceful – raise our voices, push into the conversation, stop waiting for the invitation to join but instead confidently step forward to create our own space. I still struggle with this but am much better than I
used to be!
They have made me much more confident about what I can achieve.
They have made more comfortable with trying things even if they may end up being seen as a failure.
They have me more self-aware about what I want in life and why, about what things I feel are worth pursuing and what things simply don’t interest me. I have come to be more in tune with what success means to me personally, rather than how success is defined by the society I live in.
Try your best to be sure why you are pursuing this particular mountain. Is this really something you want or are you doing it to keep other people happy?
If this mountain really matters to you, don’t expect it to be easy. There will be setbacks. You may need to try it several times using different strategies. You will make mistakes. You will be held up by obstacles outside your control. Other people will judge your progress and call you a failure. All of this is inevitable.
Remember why this mountain really matters to you, do all you can to surround with a ‘team’ of supportive people, don’t beat yourself up for not succeeding faster than is realistic, don’t shy away from hard work.
Break it down into stages, go after them one at a time, camp by camp, day by day, step by step. Take the time to recognize and celebrate your successes as you reach milestones on the way.
Don’t be afraid to redefine the nature of the mountain as circumstances around you change, or as you yourself change.
Don’t just focus on this particular summit. Know what you hope to do next, where you will go once this mountain has been climbed.
You are capable of more – much more – than you think you are. Your potential is enormous, you just need to find ways to access it. You are as capable, as worthy and as important as any man, as any other woman. Know what really matters to you and pursue that, don’t let your society try to force you into second-best choices.
Cathy O’ Dowd is a passionate climber, skier, lover of mountains, author, and motivational speaker who has spoken in over 40 countries. She is the first South African to climb Everest, the world’s highest mountain, and the first woman in the world to climb the mountain from both its north and south sides. Cathy has climbed mountains across southern and central Africa, in South America, in the Alps and in the Himalayas. She is a constant testament that a woman is capable of anything she chooses to undertake.