In 1993, former financial journalist and keen skier, Rebecca Stephens, broke through what could arguably be called nature’s most impressive ‘glass ceiling’ when she became the first female British climber ever to reach the summit of Mount Everest. She left her job at the Financial Times to take on the challenge, climbing just over 29,000 feet alongside a highly-experienced team that included three local Sherpas.
Now a motivational speaker and expedition leader, Stephens was first drawn to Everest in 1989 after the climber and Polar explorer, Roger Mear suggested she write a series of articles for the Financial Times about an Anglo-American expedition due to set off there in 1989. Stephens felt that the only way to truly understand the passion of these intrepid explorers was to undertake the exact same challenge herself, climbing 23,000 feet with them and falling irreversibly in love with the mountain along the way. Four years later at the age of 31, Stephens returned to tackle the full 29,028-foot mountain in an expedition of her own, earning herself her place in the history books.
Paramount to Stephens’ success was, she would be the first to admit, the three Sherpas employed to help her achieve the seemingly impossible. They were Tcheri Zhambu, Ang Passang and Kami Tchering. At first, the odds were firmly stacked against the expedition, as opportunities to begin the ascent were thwarted one after the other. Finally, despite a potentially risky weather forecast, the group decided to ‘go for it’, follow their hearts and climb to the very top of Mount Everest.
They faced high winds and hostile temperatures almost the entire way, which plummeted at times to minus 33 degrees Fahrenheit. Several times they feared that they would be blown off the summit, even if they were able to get there unharmed in the first place. Wisely, Stephens trusted in her Sherpa team implicitly. In an interview given in 2007, Stephens revealed that she had “…grown to know, trust, respect and even love the Sherpas in the seven weeks we spent together… they were brilliant at altitude – and importantly they were cautious.”
Thanks to the Sherpas’ caution and expertise, the group not only reached the summit but were able to stay there for 15 minutes – enough time to take photos and plant a flag as irrefutable evidence of their record-breaking success. Stephens even took off her oxygen mask for a short while, exposing her skin to the elements. However the punishing conditions quickly led the team to return their masks and start their descent. Stephens was awarded the MBE in 1994 for her efforts and has completed several more expeditions since, including sailing the Southern Seas to Antarctica and crossing the Canadian Rockies by bike, canoe and on foot.
Her website can be found at www.rebeccastephens.com.