Edurne Pasaban: Queen of the top of the world

A woman from the Basque country has conquered nearly all of the world's highest peaks – and now she's racing for a record title. Elizabeth Nash reports

When Edurne Pasaban was 16 and still at school, she set off from her home town of Tolosa in the Spanish Basque country for an Alpine holiday with her family, and climbed nearly 5,000m to scale Mont Blanc. A year later, in 1990, she headed for the Andes and conquered seven new peaks, reaching a height of 6,310m at Ecuador's mighty Mount Chimborazo.

She was passionate about climbing, but it took her several years to turn professional. By then, Pasaban had taken an engineering degree, set up her own business and suffered, by her own admission, a disastrous love life. Today, she is well on the way to beating her female mountaineering rivals to a remarkable new record.

In 2001, she began her Himalayan challenge: to conquer 14 of the world's highest mountains, those more than 8,000m high. First she scaled Everest, the world's highest, then Makalu, Cho Oytu, Lhotse, and Gasherbrum II and I. And in 2004 she vanquished K2, considered the world's most dangerous mountain, where she brushed with death and lost two toes to frostbite.

Last week, Pasaban, now 35, conquered the mighty Himalayan peak of Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, at her first try; it is her 12th "eight-thousander". Her achievement puts her within reach of her ambition to be the first woman in the world to climb 14 mountains higher than 8,000m.

But Pasaban faces fierce opposition, with two other women competing in the race for the honour: the Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, 38, conquered Lhotse, her 12th peak, last Wednesday, two days after Pasaban's record-breaking achievement, running her a close second. The Italian Nives Meroi, 47, remains one down: she had to call off her attempt on Kangchenjunga last week because her climbing partner and husband Romano Benet, was exhausted.

Only 13 men have mastered this feat since the Italian Reinhold Messner blazed the trail in 1986. They include fellow Basques Juanito Oiarzabal, the first Spaniard to conquer "the 14" in 1999, and Alberto Iñurrategi, who did it in 2002. Oiarzabal is among Pasaban's climbing companions and he partnered her to the summit last week, in a gruelling 16-hour ascent from their fourth camp at 7,700m. Other teammates, Asier Izaguirre and Álex Chicón, sometimes kill time on the mountain – and wear themselves out – by engaging in the traditional Basque competition of chopping tree-trunks, she writes in her blog. "They are good, true friends. They have to be, otherwise I couldn't do it."

Pasaban descended safely to base camp in Nepal on Wednesday with the help of oxygen brought up by a couple of Sherpas, at the limit of her endurance and suffering frostbitten toes. "I just want to rest," she said. "Thanks to my team, because if it weren't for them I wouldn't be here. I thought I might die on that mountain. Now I just want to rest."

"You don't really enjoy being at the summit," Pasaban confessed on television before tackling Kangchenjunga. "You get there, you're exhausted, you take photos and you know you've got a long, difficult descent. You just want to go home. The best bit is when you're approaching the top, the last four or five metres before you reach it. It's really hard and takes ages."

Kangchenjunga is considered one of the most difficult mountains in the Himalayas. Pasaban's climb was slow and hazardous, in the face of strong winds and corridors of ice, the route made treacherous by rocks that obliterated any clear trail. After reaching the peak on Monday, the team stayed overnight in camp to rest, before making their descent. "We are very tired, but very happy to have reached the summit in good health," Pasaban told her parents by telephone.

She is from a prosperous family who had hoped their eldest daughter would take on the family engineering business. "It took them a while to adjust to my choice of career but now they're thrilled," she insists. After a stint in Barcelona ("for love, but it didn't work out"), Pasaban returned to her homeland and opened a restaurant and rural guesthouse in the Basque village of Zizurkil, near Tolosa. She still collaborates with the Barcelona business school where she took her MBA, drawing on her experience of extreme situations to give lectures on teamwork.

Her next mountain is Shishapangma, which she plans to climb this autumn; then Annapurna, in 2010, to complete the historic 14 before, she hopes, either of her rivals. She seems cool about the challenge. "I have to do it now, and if I don't, that's that."

Her apparently zen-like approach contrasts with the steely conviction of many who undertake such challenges. Pasaban says she lacks that inner strength. "I'm very weak inside. Just because I climb mountains it seems I must be very strong, but I'm not," she told the daily newspaper El Pais last month in Bilbao, while preparing her latest expedition.

"I was in my thirties when I started questioning being a professional mountaineer. I wondered if it was worth so much sacrifice. I wavered between the mountain and my work as an engineer. My life is unstable, and that instability sent me into a depression I escaped only by believing in what I do."

After scaling "the 14", she wants to climb Everest again, she says, this time without oxygen. Then her ambition is to quit the mountain for motherhood. "Now is the time of the eight-thousanders," she said four weeks ago. "When I've done that, I want to be a mother; that was the dilemma that made me depressed."

Spending so much time alone with men on the mountain is not as glamorous as it sounds. "You can imagine the conversations they have amongst themselves ..." And living in such intense comradeship makes it harder, not easier, to find love, she finds. "A partner, when you're surrounded by all these men? It's impossible. My love life is terrible."

But, she was asked, suppose you had a daughter who set off for the Himalayas? "I'd back her, of course."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam