September 3, 2008

Araceli Segarra

(info about Araceli Segarra)

An adventure on a high mountain

Thomas Kieller

Photo 1 – Copyright Dario Rodríguez

Photo 2 – Copyright Jordi Cañameras

Araceli Segarra: Rock climbing, one of her passions.

Fascinated by the wonderful landscape of mountains, Araceli has climbed the snow-covered slopes of the Shishma Pangma, K2, Everest and other impressive peaks of nature. With her rope party, she has found in these adventures mysterious places and the satisfaction of realizing beautiful ascensions. She is actually the first woman of her country to have reached the highest summit of the world. But there is no need for her to climb up an 8,000 meter mountain to find happiness. Any mount can give her joy as long as she can taste the exaltation of a given effort and the feeling of liberty which many of us want to grasp. In Kenya, Nepal or any place where her passion leads her, this charming Spanish lady will never hesitate to open her eyes and heart for the persons surrounding her. She has already found during her journeys many enriching cultures! It’s always with the same desire that this radiant woman leaps onto the side of a mountain. Whether it is to rock climb or to explore in an alpine style, on a mountain she is simply closer to the stars…

The phone-interview took place on July 17, 2008 at 14:00 when Araceli was in Boulder, United States where she enjoys rock climbing. It was done in English.

Passion of mountains

Thomas Kieller: You took part in numerous expeditions: two times on Everest (Nepal), Shishma Pangma (Tibet), Mount Kenya, two times on K2 (China and Pakistan), Ama Dablam (Nepal), Gasherbrum I (Pakistan), Kanchenjunga (Nepal), Ganesh (India)… I will only name these mountains because it would take quite some time to name all the ones you have climbed. What do you appreciate so much about mountains?

Araceli Segarra (says with passion): Well, not all the mountains are the same. Sometimes what you are focusing is the adventure of exploring a new place where there is nobody, but the climb may be not that hard. Sometimes, the mountain is in an enclosed area where the trip is not as mysterious, but the climb itself is quite challenging. For me, that’s the beauty. Mountains are quite different. There is a lot of variety. It’s a mix of these ideas.

Thomas: The pleasure of surpassing yourself physically, does it play a role in your passion?

Araceli: The physical part is probably the motivation for training. I would not do it just for the trip itself. Increasing the level a little bit each time and just getting better are a way of training.

Thomas: Also, are you especially fond of the mountain landscape?

Araceli: I love to take photos and draw. And yes, I like to see the beauty of the landscape even in a bad storm! Sometimes, you do not see actually the landscape. During those moments, you can really feel the power of nature.

Thomas: Your first high altitude ascent was in 1991 at Broad Peak, Pakistan which reaches 8,047 meters. You had to stop your climb at 7,100 meters. Can you tell me what were the reasons that made you stop? Was it difficult, at that moment, to accept that the main objective which was the summit would not be reached?

Araceli: My objective was always to get back home. It’s still is. I never had a doubt about it.

Thomas: Even the first time?

Araceli: Even the first time! When I was young, I had less experience and it took longer to decide. But still, it was always clear for me. Yes, I questioned myself on Broad Peak if I should go down or not. It took me quite some time but I chose to go back. It had been the main reason to turn back in the expeditions where I had to because there was bad weather or there was too much good weather and rocks may fall. There is no ice to hold the rocks and that makes the route dangerous. Sometimes, there was some risk of an avalanche. I can take little risks like getting a bit tired or pushing myself very hard. However, when it’s about living or not, it is very clear in my mind that I’m turning back even if the risk is to lose a nail or getting some frostbite. I turn back!

Thomas: On the Broad Peak, why did you stop?

Araceli: Well, the snow was too deep. We were not going to get higher.

Thomas: Moreover, what are the difficulties related to alpinism when we talk about mountains which are higher than 8,000 meters?

Araceli: It depends a little bit on the style you choose. There are expeditions that go through an easy path with less weight, using fixed lines and the help of sherpas and porters who carry all the stuff. The difficulty on such an expedition is less. I always like to choose lines where there is nobody or there is just another team by coincidence. I don’t use sherpas or porters. For me, the most important thing is to go as high as I can while using my own effort. If I’m using somebody else’s effort, I will not feel the same satisfaction. It’s like if you let somebody else write the story of your life. You will not be a writer because somebody else will have done it. You will not feel the book is yours.

For me, the challenges are of an endurance level and of a technical level. Moreover, it’s hard to choose at home which line you will climb, because you have to choose a route that is not too hard or too easy. As they say, you have to be honest with yourself. Everybody would like to be a good climber but we have to recognize that some things are too difficult for our skills.

Thomas: And for you, what is the greatest difficulty the cold temperature or something else?

Araceli: Indeed, when I climb there are some difficulties such as climbing on ice or on a mountain composed of ice and rocks. I mean there are some skills that I don’t have. I did not reach certain outstanding levels that other climbers have. I can say that I deal pretty well with altitude once I’m acclimatized. And yes, I have to be careful with the cold. I remember turning back from the first expedition to Everest because I was too cold and I was getting frostbitten. For me, it does not make sense.

Thomas: Can fear strike on the slope of a mountain?

Araceli: Some people think that alpinists face danger a lot. Actually, it’s not true; we are enjoying what we are doing because we train for it and we have a good skill level. So, we know what we are doing. We are not nervous and we take pleasure climbing mountains. When I reach a point where I’m not enjoying what I’m doing because I am afraid, I try to find out what the reason is. Am I trying to climb something that is too hard for me or are the conditions too dangerous? For me, an alarm goes off. If you are not enjoying the climb, it’s time to turn back.

Thomas: I asked the last question and I am asking the next one because one can say that climbing high mountains is a little bit characterized by the shadow of death! There are avalanches. For you, climbing high mountains represents what above all?

Araceli: There is a lot of mystery because there are no cameras out there. We are not doing a retransmission all the time as in other sports. I have to say that the shade or shadow of death that you are talking about is a good selling and marketing picture. Some people do it because it portrays them in a very interesting way. I think sometime they abuse this idea and I don’t share it. I know that climbing is not like playing basketball, but the idea of tragedy is not always present. Climbing can be dangerous as in formula one or biking on a tour. It’s a sport that you can control a lot if you want. When I was at university in one of my statistic classes, I did a work on climbing accidents and the results of my work show that most of the accidents happen with persons who are not in a federation. They are not climbers, but they decide to climb one day. They don’t necessarily know what they are doing. When somebody gets killed on a mountain, the image which sticks is that all climbers face death every day. So, there is a lot of distortion of reality. I know that my sport is not basketball, but there is less of the shadow of death we spoke of.

Thomas: Like you said, one must know when to stop, but at the same time one must also persevere… On your first expedition to Mount Everest, you had to stop at 7,800 meters, which means you were at 1,046 meters from the summit. You went back to that mountain for the Everest IMAX expedition. For this new attempt, in 1996, you reached the summit (8,846 meters). A success movie followed that event. At that time, did that ascension mark you deeply?

Araceli: As a climber, it did not add anything for me. I just did regular routes. We had to use sherpas for the cameras and all that stuff. One of the cameras was quite heavy. That’s been actually the only expedition that I did with a classic style. It’s not really part of what I enjoy or I will choose for myself. It’s not my style. But I understand that for filming it was the only way that we could do it. And for me, the most important thing was taking part of this documentary and helped make it possible by carrying the camera at the right place and work with all of the team. If we take the alpinism aspect of this story, it was not for me a formidable ascent. My first attempt (six months before) was more important even if we did not get to the summit. The effort, the innovation, the whole idea to climb a very hard route with no ropes and with no extra oxygen gave me much more satisfaction than the IMAX one. However, I have to say that I became by coincidence the first Spanish woman to have reached the summit of Everest. It was not something that I was pursuing or trying to achieve. It happened to be that way. In the end, it changed my life and my entire career.

Thomas: Is there an expedition you enjoy more?

Ariaceli: There were so many. Probably the more remarkable one, because of the whole thing, was when I climbed Shishma Pangma. We were the first team to do the expedition from the south face which is a very difficult face and we reached the summit in an alpine style. Also, we were very young and that was one of my first expeditions. So, I was very enthusiastic at that time. But there are many expeditions I enjoyed such as the Nameless Tower in Pakistan. We did not get to the summit there, but I remember that we were giving much effort. We were the ones ahead; six in the line and doing the entire job. A hard climb in altitude, it was really rewarding.

Araceli Segarra: Passion for mountains.

Thomas: The pleasure of mountains has brought you and still brings you places far way from your home country, Spain. These journeys in foreign countries (Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet and other mountainous regions) do they bring you more than just a sporting adventure?

Araceli (tells with passion): Oh yes! It gives you a completely different perspective of what life is about. I go to very poor places most of the time and I see how people live. You realize how lucky you are to be born in a place as a well developed country. It’s something that we don’t choose; it just happens. Of course, we see this on the news and on television, but the television screen does not touch you as much as the real thing. You don’t need to go there to climb. Just anybody who travels a little bit and who has been to India, Nepal or a very pour country in Africa can experience this. If you like to open your eyes and your mind and not just stay in a Marriott hotel or in a nice hotel in the middle of India, you will realize that you’re luckier than what you may have thought.

Thomas: With all your background, your passion of mountains stands where nowadays?

Araceli: It’s still the same. I feel very lucky. Yes, I change a little bit concerning what kind of mountains I want to do or what style I want to use.

Thomas: And what kind of mountain do you want to do?

Araceli (laughs at the end of her answer): I don’t go through normal routes of high mountains and find people following a fixed line. It’s something that makes me feel very sad. I don’t need 8,000 meter mountains; just any mounts where you can plan a trip, prepare it, work a little bit to find out how to get there and just do the work by yourself. It’s more or less the same idea that I had when I was young, but now I just try to avoid people.

Physical preparation for an expedition in high altitude

Thomas: One must understand that the physical conditioning is quite necessary. What type of exercises or sports do you do to be in form (training in a gym)?

Araceli: No, I don’t like gym. I have been there once or twice in my life. I choose to train outside. For example, if I’m planning to do an expedition where I’m going to need a lot of endurance, I will train exactly that aspect. If I anticipate that there will be bad weather on the mountain, I will train in those types of conditions. You have to be prepared because those are the conditions you will find in an expedition, like waking up early in the morning and everything is frozen and cold. However, I don’t train in altitude. The first reason I don’t do it is because I don’t have high mountains near the place I live. Also, I don’t do it because studies show that you cannot really develop all your potential when you train in high altitudes all the time. The best way to really push your breaking limit and to reach your VO2 max is at the sea level. My training is composed mainly by running, biking, cross-country skiing in the Pyrenees and just spending a lot of time out there.

Thomas: You do some rock climbing. You like that activity? Is it important for alpinism?

Araceli: Yes, I like it a lot. It depends on what you’re going to do. In fact, you don’t really need it for alpinism. I do it as a complement because I like it and sometimes my project is about rock climbing skills. The more techniques you know makes you feel more comfortable, confident and relaxed on the mountain. And being relaxed up there makes you waste less energy.

Thomas: Can you tell me a little bit about the load you have to carry on your back?

Araceli: It’s not always the same. It depends on which part of the expedition you are, meaning if you are preparing camp one or if you are going to the summit. For the final push, you are not really carrying too much. However, like I said, during my alpine expeditions, there are no sherpas carrying the tent. When I was on the north side of Everest, I remember one day I carried a 23 kilo backpack. It was really hard that day. But on average, we carry a 15 kilo backpack.

Thomas: High mountain expeditions take time… For your first expedition to Everest, how long was it?

Araceli: Three months! It was three months because we did not want to give up. We tried different routes. For the Nameless Tower, it was a month. Shishma Pangma was a month and a half. Everest with IMAX was two months. When we were to K2, we took the north side which is a very complicated approach, it took three months.

Thomas: Do you feel fatigue after an ascension in high altitude?

Araceli: Your body does not really have time to recover in high altitude. So, you waste and waste energy and muscles. But when I come down, I don’t feel fatigued. I never felt like that. However, it takes a while to recover the muscles you have been losing. You need to eat again good food which you don’t have up there. It’s another reason one loses body muscle.

Thomas: What are the qualities required to climb such mountains besides the physical conditioning?

Araceli: I have a friend who is a mountain guide and he says that the clients who do better are the ones who enjoy the moment. They are not expecting too much and be really obsessed with reaching the summit. The clients who do their best and enjoy the expedition the most are the ones who finally reach the summit. And yes, there is a little bit of genetics. I have another friend who cannot deal with altitude. He is a great athlete but his body does not want to deal with altitude…

Dreaming of mountains

Thomas: Since when do the mountain landscapes make you dream?

Araceli: I remember practicing sports outdoors when I was nine, such as kayaking. Being out there, observing the nature while doing a sport that makes your body react. But I only started climbing at 15 when I started caving (going inside a cave). That was a very mysterious and amazing world which I never expected was down there. So, I was very young when I started tasting the wonderful things of nature and sports.

View of Ama Dablam, Nepal.

Thomas: And now, your dreams bring you onto which mountains?

Araceli (says happily): Ouf! There are so many. Now, I’m planning to go to Patagonia, Argentina on a mountain which I climbed a long time ago. It’s an incredible place. It’s not a high mountain but it’s a very technical and difficult one where I can rock climb. So, I’m thinking of Patagonia! My passion of mountains is something that will never change. But I can change the style as an artist who uses oil, watercolours or acrylics. It’s the same thing for a climber. Sometimes, I want to ice climb, explore a mountain or rock climb.

Thomas: Thank you Araceli for sharing your mountaineering experience!