The Trailblazer Series Featuring Lydia Bradey

23rd Feb, 2021

This month we sat down with the incredible Lydia Bradey, who at 27 years of age became the first woman in the world to climb Mt Everest without oxygen in 1988 (only 6 women since have gone on to complete this incredible feat).

Since then, Lydia has gone on to work as a motivational speaker and mountaineer guide – helping clients to make their ascent of the world’s highest peaks, Everest included. We were drawn to Lydia’s story, not just because of her superhuman trekking resumé but because after her first climb three male climbers who were in her group disputed her claim after not making the summit themselves. Fearing a lengthy climb ban from Nepalese authorities for taking a route she hadn’t acquired a permit for, she withdrew her claim. It wasn’t until a few years later when some journalists dug deeper that her incredible accomplishment was officially recognised. We sat down with Lydia, in awe of her incredible story and triumph in the world of high-altitude mountaineering.

Where did your love of extreme environments come from?

I had already become a high-altitude climber and started mountaineering in NZ late 70’s early 80’s. I wasn’t very good at climbing nor sports but I was quite OK at Alpine climbing. I could look after myself and I was naturally quite resilient. I had the drive and I was driven to do something, go somewhere, be something. I was passionately drawn to the concept of travel, and experiencing other ways of living, other ways of texture, environments and people. My first trip was to Alaska, where I had the rude awakening that I wasn’t as good a climber as I thought I was, that was a huge reality check but it just motivated me to master my art further.

What sort of training and preparation goes into a climb?

My first Himalaya expedition was in 1984, it started at the big Himalayan chain, which includes the likes of Mount Everest, Karakorum (K2), Kanchenjunga, Nanga Parbat, Annapurna, and Manasklu. When I first started climbing there wasn’t even weather forecasting, so when you’re on a mountain that big that takes 5 days to get to the top of, it means if you get hit by a storm up high it’s serious.  We have Sherpas and Sherpa guides, technology and wifi now (thankfully) and one thing you learn quite quickly is the importance of decision making. You learn that your decision making in the mountains at high altitude has the same balance and patterns as any extreme sports person. It’s not life or death, it’s living a life of consequence.  We love to live a life that doesn’t have any consequence, and then we go arghhh I don’t know why I feel so dissatisfied with life.

One of the things that draw people to big nature (including me) is that your decisions have consequence… If you get up early, you get that dawn which is the most beautiful place on earth to be. But then the consequence of not drying out your boots properly when you’re at 7,000 metres means the consequence is that tomorrow you might get frostbite on your toes… Everything has a consequence. There are not many decisions but they are meaningful decisions.

What goes through your mind when you’re climbing?

There’ll be two if I’m working as a mountain guide and I’m on Everest or Broad Peak (the 12th highest in the world which we climbed a year and a bit ago). We’re working with the staff that fix ropes, so we know the route because we’ve done it before, and it’s the route that people have climbed before. So, you don’t have to go ‘Oh my god can we climb it”, we go, “how are we going to get these people up here”? You may have a steady eddy [client] who is slow but cautious or another person who has a cough, you might be thinking – should I leave them at a low because that cough could turn into pneumonia?  You’re not worried about the summit for yourself; you’re focussed on the people in your group and how to get them up the summit and down safely.

We know this would be a hard one, but what has been your favourite climb so far?

There’s a few really and some of them were a long time ago, back in the 80’s I spent three seasons in the Yosemite Valley, California climbing big sheer cliffs. It enabled someone who wasn’t very gymnastic but good with ropes, some of them took 7 or 8 days to climb. It was adventure right to the end, it was terrifying, it was everything. We were dirty and hungry and scared a lot and we got to the top and it stayed in my heart.

Part of what draws me to climbing is nature… Nature draws me and the craft of living simply but quite well in big nature draws me. It’s definitely type 2 fun…

Do you know about type 2 fun? It’s really good for people who need some inspiration in a way…

Type 1 fun is enjoyable while it’s happening. Also known as, simply, fun

Type 2 fun is not so much fun as the time while it’s happening, but fun in retrospect. It usually begins with the best intentions, and then things get carried away.

Type 3 Fun Type 3 fun is not fun at all.

Read more on the Fun Types here 

You say in an interview I’ve watched you are ‘Spiritually attracted to the mountains” can you explain in more depth what that means to you?

I grew up in a fairly secular environment people weren’t very religious, no one ever spoke about spiritually, we didn’t have a culture of that. I was on K2 in Pakistan and on both of those trips I spent time with Eastern bloc climbers, they were the best climbers, hands down, definitively. They did the sort of things you couldn’t even dream of; we couldn’t suffer 30 min of what they’d done for days and days. These big burly men would talk to me and they’d say ‘you know Lydia, these mountains are not for women, but you are very strong’.  But they would occasionally talk about spirituality so I saw that there was a class of people that did talk about spirituality… They talked about what you find inside yourself and here they were talking about a greater energy and a greater being. So, there’s more than just rocks and snow that draws me to that place, the same reason that people are drawn to the water.

There was some controversy around the climb, looking back how has that affected you/motivated you? Do you think you would have had the same thing happen if you were a male?

My climb was ‘dissed’ on an international level, I was commonly asked why the men I climbed with part of the way to Everest would claim I didn’t summit when in fact I did and my reaction would always be ‘because they could’. It was a classic bullying situation and a classic #meetoo situation. So, to go back to your question, If I was a man would this have happened to me? Possibly not, unless I was the type of man that threatened their manhood. The good comes out of it in time, and that is the beautiful thing about growing older, time is more precious. We become better at managing our losses because we know that they are growth…

Tell me more about your book ‘Going up is Easy’ – what are the main take-outs from it?

The main takeout is functionality, it’s the first story of Everest, and the main takeout is in that time I have grown. I was very ambitious and I wanted to climb Everest with oxygen and drive, drive, drive and I probably stepped on a few people to get there. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and it’s inspiring for women to think of harnessing that chip and smoothing it but using that ‘chip energy’ to drive you into the direction you want to go. And then, with age, it all changed. I now just wanted to be the best person I can be, not the best person in the world, just the best version of myself, always.

Are you planning another extreme adventure soon? Can we know what that is?

I can’t tell you everything about it, but it might just happen. I could be narrating a trek for a movie… But I might be leaving at the end of February and then there is a high possibility I’ll be going to Pakistan heading to Broad Peak which is the 10th in the world then straight to K2 which is the second-highest in the world which I haven’t been on since 88 and it’s fierce, it’s pretty much considered the hardest mountain in the world. I thought I should go, and it’s intimidating but I thought I should go before I get too old because I’m 59. You’ve got the world of big, strong alpine men, then you’ve got me this little old lady tapping them on their shoulder saying ‘excuse me I’m your guide’. You gotta keep moving. Use it or lose it as I like to say.

If you could tell your 20 something-self what would it be?

You’ll get there…

Grab every opportunity. Find a mentor, honestly I have mentors that are in their 20’s, find people who inspire you. Choose inspiring people, you’ve only got a limited amount of time in your life, and you’ll meet lots of lovely people. But you haven’t got time for everybody so be utterly brutal and support and nurture people who have either supported and nurtured other people because it doesn’t necessarily have to come back at you. Or support and nurture those who have made you laugh, who inspire you. It doesn’t have to come bouncing back and outside of the box too, they don’t have to be the most beautiful, or the strongest or young, or listen to the same music. Go on and inspire yourself.

Feeling inspired and want to know more about Lydia Bradey? Check out her interview with YouTube channel Frank here

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