Keller Sports: Gerlinde, you're one of the best extreme mountaineers in the world. How did you first get into this sport?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: I've been drawn to mountains since I was a little girl. They fill me with energy and a sense of power. I went on my first mountain trips with my hometown priest, Dr Erich Tischler, and attended a presentation on K2 when I was 16. That was what sparked my dream of seeing these beautiful, high mountains first hand... and later I had the idea of even attempting to climb one.
Keller Sports: At just 23, you’ve already climbed the pre-summit of the Broad Peak (8.027m) and the summit of the Cho Oyu (8.201m). How did that feel?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: During the Broad Peak expedition I was just concentrating really hard on doing everything right. At such great heights, every single move is of great significance. I learnt early on that even the smallest mistake can have fatal consequences, so I felt a bit too tense climbing to the pre-summit. It was only when we were back at base camp that I was overcome with joy at having stood on the pre-summit. At the summit of the Cho Oyu, I felt deeply grateful. I can't put into words just how happy I was to be standing there with an incredible view of the neighbouring Mount Everest.
Keller Sports: After the Cho Oyu, you joined even more expeditions to climb the highest mountains in the world. Which was the most challenging? Why?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: That would be the K2. This is the one that has made the biggest impact on me over the years, the one that’s given me the broadest range of experiences - some beautiful moments and very positive experiences but also very difficult and sad moments too. The K2 is hard to climb from every angle, and there’s always the danger of falling rocks and ice. It was on the seventh attempt that three of my teammates and I succeeded in climbing up the seldom trekked and highly challenging north face of the mountain. Most importantly, we all got back to base camp safe and sound.
Keller Sports: And which expedition would you say was the ‘easiest’?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: The extreme height and the ensuing low oxygen partial pressure on every eight-thousander alone is already a huge challenge. I wouldn’t describe any of my expeditions of ‘easy’; every mountain has its own character. But the least problematic so far has been the Dhaulagiri expedition in 2008. The expedition up that very same mountain just the year before had caused a lot of difficulties.
Keller Sports: You're actually a trained nurse. Do you find that this helps you during these kinds of mountain expeditions? Not just for giving first aid but also when it comes to keeping calm in tough situations?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: Oh yes, my nurse's training always comes in useful. On the one hand, it means that I can help others. On the other, I feel that my experiences in the healthcare sector have helped me come to terms with the ephemeral nature of life. As for staying calm in difficult situations, I'd say what helps me most is my outlook on life and several coping methods I've developed.
Keller Sports: Are there any specific techniques you use to stay in control when you find yourself in a tough spot?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: I meditate for around 20 minutes every morning to improve my concentration, inner peace and serenity. This helps me master difficult situations in the mountains, like sleeping on my hunches in a bivouac tent at the edge of a cliff at -40 C. Apart from that, when I’m at base camp before a climb, I go through the entire climb and descent in great detail in my mind, trying to prepare for anything that could happen. I try to imagine how to overcome all of the challenges I might come up against, but I also envisage the beautiful sights I’ll enjoy, like the sunrise. Only once I’ve gone through every step up and down the mountain and back to basecamp am I truly ready for the real thing.
Keller Sports: For big challenges up such great heights, you must be extremely fit, both mentally and physically. How do you prepare for expeditions? Do you have any special training methods or tools to help you? Could these be useful for non-extreme mountaineers preparing for their mountain hikes?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: When it comes to physical preparation, I train intensively. I vary my workouts a lot and I focus on endurance and strength, but I don’t have a training plan. For me, it’s always been important to listen to my body and to feel what it needs and doesn’t need at any given moment. Meditation, relaxation and good nutrition play a vital role in this. I also find it very important to use my imagination to prepare for the unexpected.
Alongside individual work, we also go through meticulous preparation as a team. We try to assess any potential risks and we distribute tasks based on every team member’s strengths. For me, the top priority is getting home safe and sound. In order to do this, you have to be able to prove you have willpower, discipline, patience, the ability to self-reflect, inner peace and serenity in desperate situations. You need to treat nature with respect and pay close attention to it, and you have to acknowledge and trust your intuitions. These training methods are great for non-extreme athletes too. I highly recommend them!
Keller Sports: Are your current workouts different to the training you used to do in preparation for past expeditions? If so, what’s changed?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: During my time climbing the eight-thousanders I trained very, very intensively. Physical training is still part of my everyday routine today, alongside meditation, a healthy, purely plant-based diet and yoga.
Keller Sports: Apart from the successful climbs up eight-thousanders, did you ever experience setbacks and failures that made your passion for your sport falter at all?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: It was the hard moments that helped me grow the most. But I’ve never seen it as a failure to abort an expedition because getting home safe and sound is my top priority. When my friend Fredrik Ericsson fell as we climbed the K2 together, I felt truly broken. It took quite some time to process and accept this tragedy.
Keller Sports: You’ve climbed to the main summits of all 14 eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen. You’re also the first woman in mountaineering history to achieve this feat. After such enormous achievements, do you find it easier now to set yourself and reach smaller goals? Do you have any other big challenges and expeditions planned?
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: My dream has come true. These days I feel completely fulfilled in many different areas of my life, and also when I climb smaller mountains. But I must say that the eight-thousanders had a very unique effect on me. So far away, so isolated, so minimalistic. I still love these aspects today. The feeling of achieving something with very little to help me makes me extremely happy. Most of us are so overwhelmed by things and opportunities in everyday life that it does wonders to just leave everything behind and feel humble for a change. I just love it.
Keller Sports: Thank you so much for you time and the very interesseting insights in your sport. All the best for your next expeditions.
How did you like our interview with the first woman to climb all 14 eight-thousanders on Earth without supplemental oxygen? If you are as excited as we are to start a small hike or even a bigger expedition right away, we have prepared a big packing list for you. Feel free to download and print it to check everything you packed. Equip yourself, lace up your shoes and off you go.