Vera Komarkova

Pioneer of women's mountaineering

Of all the slogans to have emblazoned the "official" T-shirts of mountaineering expeditions, none has gained the popular currency of that worn by the members of the 1978 American Women's Himalayan Expedition - "A woman's place is on top". Although they initially ordered just a few dozen of the T-shirts, the sharp mix of double entendre and feminist statement yielded sales worth $60,000 - three-quarters of the estimated cost of the climb.

Vera Komarkova, botanist and mountaineer: born Pisek, Czechoslovakia 25 December 1942; three times married (two sons); died Leysin, Switzerland 25 May 2005.

Of all the slogans to have emblazoned the "official" T-shirts of mountaineering expeditions, none has gained the popular currency of that worn by the members of the 1978 American Women's Himalayan Expedition - "A woman's place is on top". Although they initially ordered just a few dozen of the T-shirts, the sharp mix of double entendre and feminist statement yielded sales worth $60,000 - three-quarters of the estimated cost of the climb.

Vera Komarkova was the resolute dynamo who, with Irene Miller, ensured that the slogan was turned into reality, reaching the summit of Annapurna I (8,091m/26,545ft) on 15 October, in the company of Sherpas Chewang Rinzing and Mingma Tsering. Six years later, on her last major climb, she made the first women's ascent of another Himalayan giant, Cho Oyu (8,201m/26,906ft), the world's sixth highest mountain.

Born in Pisek, in the former Czechoslovakia, in 1942, Komarkova was an individualist with extraordinary talents and determination. She was only 16 when she entered Charles University in Prague, graduating six years later with an MSc in Biology. Early in her student years, she discovered climbing and made many first ascents - summer and winter - in the Tatras and Carparthians.

The 1960s bred a now legendary crop of mountaineers in the former Soviet bloc; Poles and Czechs to whom the activity offered a freedom denied in ordinary civil life and opportunities for the top performers to travel - climbing having more the status of regular "sport" in Russia and its erstwhile satellites than it does elsewhere. Komarkova's insouciance as avalanches poured off Annapurna, almost ending the expedition, was at one with the East European mindset of the time, hard and fatalistic.

The young Komarkova visited Switzerland, with ascents including the Matterhorn, and the French Alps. Then she and three other Czech women climbers dreamt up what she called "a great plan to get out". In September 1967 they began a 5,000-mile walk across Europe, the United States and Mexico to attend the XIXth Olympic Games in Mexico City. It took nearly a year. Following the Games, she climbed the Ixtaccihuatl volcano (5,286m/17,342ft), and journeyed north to make several ascents in the Rockies, including the north-east ridge of the Crestone Needle (4,327m/ 14,197ft) in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo range.

Komarkova emigrated in 1970, settling in Boulder, Colorado, where she gained her PhD in Biology (Plant Ecology) in 1976. A naturalised American by the mid-1970s, she worked as a research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, undertaking applied ecology projects in northern Alaska and Canada with Patrick Webber, Professor of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. Her two-volume thesis, Alpine Vegetation of the Indian Peaks Area, Front Range, Colorado Rocky Mountains (1979), remains the classic reference work on plant ecology for the range. She also participated as a research biologist on expeditions to the Antarctic (twice to the South Pole), China and Tibet.

In 1976, Komarkova climbed the highest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley (6,194m/ 20,320 ft), by the South Buttress route. She returned to the Alaska Range a year later to climb Mount Dickey (2,907m/9,545ft) opening a new route on the vertical south-east face over 28 wind-blasted days. It was, she said, "like being a bird living on a wall."

It was Komarkova's record on some of the hardest wall climbs achieved by a woman, in particular the Mount Dickey epic, that impressed Arlene Blum as she put together the "manless" team she was to lead to Annapurna, in Nepal, with the backing of the American Alpine Club. Other sponsors were the National Geographic Society and OB tampons - "the unexpected advantage of an all-women team", as Komarkova observed.

Blum said she found Komarkova the most enigmatic of the 10 women in the party. "I didn't know whether I would eventually rejoice or regret that we had invited her, and I wondered why she never took off her tinted glasses," Blum wrote in her frank account of the expedition Annapurna: a woman's place (1980). Komarkova's blunt contributions to the group discussions which had been intended to sooth hurt feelings and rivalries (rows and resentments seem endemic on big mountains) shocked Blum and several others. "This psychological crap is a waste of time," was Komarkova's verdict. More fundamental, though, was the disagreement within the group over the role of climbing Sherpas.

Blum wanted the enterprise to be as advertised - an all-woman effort - but accepted the practical need for Sherpa support. The purist line was taken by the one British member of the group, Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz, who did not want Sherpas on the climb at all. The Sherpas took this role reversal as both an affront to their dignity and a denial of a chance to earn more money in future with an 8,000-metre peak to their credit.

As the ascent via the Dutch Rib wore on, with brushes with avalanches and the usual debilitations of high-altitude mountaineering, Sherpas were taking a share of lead climbing and trail-breaking, and lobbied for two places on the first summit bid. Blum resisted; the first party would be three women, Komarkova, Irene Miller and Piro Kramar, with two Sherpas to be included in any second attempt.

Komarkova had a close rapport with the Sherpas and favoured their presence on a first ascent. As the summit bid unfolded, she and the Sherpas got their way. The party that left the top camp shortly before 7am comprised Komarkova and Miller, plus Chewang Rinzing and Mingma Tsering. Kramar had dived back into the tent after her right index finger froze while she was putting on her crampons.

Blum, who was 3,000ft lower down the mountain, was dismayed - not only had the all-woman ethos been lost, but so had Sherpa support for a second bid. In the event, though, an effective unit had emerged; Mingma and Chewang did much of the trail-breaking while Miller struggled. She and Komarkova began using supplementary oxygen 1,200ft below the summit.

For an hour after gaining the windy crest, the four climbed over and around a succession of cornices and bumps, unable to decide which was the real summit. Finally there at 3.30pm, they planted the Nepalese and American flags and one bearing the "woman's place" slogan. Komarkova took the summit photos. "The view was deeply fulfilling," she wrote in her diary. Meanwhile, at the lower camps with a clear sight of the summit, other climbers were dancing and shrieking with delight. Most of all, recalled Blum, was the "joy in knowing that a woman's place was indeed on top".

Sadly, as before on Annapurna, triumph was followed by tragedy. Alison Chadwick had written to her climber husband Janusz Onyszkiewicz that life on Annapurna was a constant game of Russian roulette. "It's the most dangerous mountain I've been on," she said. Two days after the success of the first party, Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Vera Watson fell to their deaths on their way up to the top camp, hoping to attempt Annapurna's unclimbed centre peak.

In 1980, Komarkova returned to Nepal as leader of a women's attempt on Dhualagiri (8,167m/ 26,794ft). She chose the technically demanding and unfinished "Pear Route" but the team was forced back by high winds and storms from Camp IV, 3,300ft below the summit. Four years later, she signed off from high altitude mountaineering, aged 41, with an ascent of Cho Oyu by the south-west face with her fellow Czech Dina Sterboua and the Sherpas Ang Rita and Nuru.

Komarkova moved back to Europe in 1986, joining the teaching staff of the American College of Switzerland in Leysin as Professor of Science and information technology. For all her great sense of humour, she was a secretive individual and somewhat eccentric, hoarding her lifetime's work and archive in boxes upon boxes in her apartment.

Stephen Goodwin

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