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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Buddy DeFranco
people
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015