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."

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