Mount Everest—Only the sky above

My journey to the top of the world

Second, revised Edition: 2018

Copyright © 2007 by Helga Hengge. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

For information please write to:

Book Design by Franziska von Walderdorff

Edited by Susanne Bunzel-Harris

Page layout by Franzis’ print & media GmbH, Munich

Printed by Clausen & Bosse, Leck

Printed in Germany

ISBN 978-3-00-060402-7

eISBN 978-3-98-203411-9

Cover photograph: Loppsang Tember Sherpa

Portrait: Gisela Schenker

All other photographs: Helga Hengge


Mount Everest, May 27th, 1999

Kapitel 1

New York City

Kapitel 2


August 1998, Cho Oyu

Kapitel 3

Padmasambhava and the Felicity Scarf


Kathmandu, April 3rd, 1999

Lhasa—»Land of the Gods«




Journey Across the Roof of the World

Tingri, 14,400 feet, April 7th

Shegar Dzong, the »White Glass Fort«, April 8th

Driving up to Base Camp

Kapitel 4

Everest Base Camp, 17,000 feet, April 9th

Puja, April 12th

First Stroll into the Hills, April 13th

Rest Day

Kapitel 5


Base Camp, April 15th

Interim Camp, 19,350 feet

ABC, 21,000 feet

April 17th

April 20th

Oxygen and Radio Training, April 21st

Rapue-La Pass, April 22nd

First Foray to the North Col at 23,000 feet, April 23rd

Camp 1, 23,000 feet

Kapitel 6

The Yeti

ABC, April 24th

Second Trip to the North Col

First Night on the North Col

First Foray Across the Col

Scare in the Night

Vacation Time at Base Camp

April 30th

Second Ascent to ABC, May 5th

Kapitel 7


The Test, May 6th

Camp 2, 25,000 feet

Kapitel 8

Padmasambhava and the Race to the Top

A Nightmare Unfolds, May 9th

Base Camp Vacation

Rongbuk Monastery, May 11th

Old Rongbuk Monastery, May 12th

May 13th

Kapitel 9

The First King of Tibet

May 14th

May 16th

A Call for Help from the Summit, May 18th

May 21st

Kapitel 10

Sun, Moon and Stars

Up We Go, May 23rd

May 24th

Camp 2, 25,000 feet

May 25th

Camp 3, 26,000 feet

May 26th

Camp 4, 27,200 feet

Kapitel 11

Camp 4, May 27th

Camp 3

Camp 2

May 28th

Camp 1

ABC, May 29th

Chomolungma Castle Party, June 3rd



For my children Marie and Luca Tashi

Mount Everest as seen from Tibet, showing the Northern route to the summit.


Himalayan Experience Expedition via the Northeast Ridge, Spring 1999

Expedition leader

Russell Brice from New Zealand


Loppsang Tember Sherpa (sirdar)
Karsang Sherpa
Phurba Tember Sherpa
Narwang Sherpa
Sonam Tember Sherpa
Lacchu Basnet, cook
Kul Badur Basnet, cook
Chimi Sherpa, cook boy

Tibetan team members



Ken Mc Connell, expedition doctor, Tasmania
Geoff Robb, Australia
Kazuhiko Kozuka, Japan
Kunitsugu Kobayashi, Japan
Helga Hengge, Germany

Special thanks to Russell and the Sherpas and Tibetans in our team, to Loppsang Tember Sherpa, Phurba Tember Sherpa, Karsang Sherpa, Sonam Tember Sherpa, Narwang Sherpa, Lacchu Basnet, Kul Badur Basnet, Chimi Sherpa, Kassang, Choldrim and Norbu.

Thank you for taking me so close to heaven.

Mount Everest, May 27th, 1999

Never will I forget the night when we climbed to the summit of the world, that night with an almost full moon, when the stars danced so gloriously in the sky. Carefully, I leaned over the ridge, pressing my down coat into the frozen snowdrift. Then I slowly inched forward to peek out over the Kangshung Face. The mountain seemed to emit a pure white light that illuminated the night. Vast snowfields fell away slowly into unknown depths. Millions of snow crystals glistened in the air. It was completely quiet. The whole world was sleeping under the thick blanket of silver clouds that shrouded the valleys below. We had stepped out of life and entered the heavenly spheres, and for an eternal moment that night I stopped living and started being. This was the home of the gods—the great Himalayas.


»Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.«


New York City

It was late at night and I turned again—for what seemed the hundredth time or more. I tried with all my might to steer my thoughts into calmer seas, into that peaceful realm where sleep comes softly. Then I fastened the laces on my boots and started walking again. The long shadows of dawn wandered slowly over the barren plateau, receding quietly into the sandy hills. Pale stones stood piled on top of one another as if they had grown out of the rocky mountain side, and the dark square windows looked far over the Highland of Tibet. The prayer wheels of the old monastery turned around and around, sending the mantras up into the sky. And there he stood again—glowing in the morning sun—a white stream of cloud trailing from his crown.

For the past two weeks I had been making plans to visit Tibet with a friend. Stefan had never been, and I had only had a short glimpse during my Cho Oyu expedition, which left me even more curious. Russell Brice of Himalayan Experience had sent me a brochure detailing the Everest support trek he was offering: »You are welcome to join our expedition to Base Camp. It does not matter if you are friends and family of an Everest expedition member or if you simply want to enjoy the splendor of the Himalayas. All trekkers will visit Lhasa, ›The Forgotten City‹, see the great Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama, and amble through the fascinating Bakhor Bazaar before moving on to Shigatse, home to the Tashilumpo Monastery. Traveling across the Tibetan Plateau, ›the Roof of the World‹, you will have a chance to explore the extraordinarily beautiful temples of this country’s Lamaist monks. You will stay in Shegar for two days to acclimatize and then move up to the monastery in the Rongbuk Valley. From there it is only two more hours to Everest Base Camp where you can spend three nights with the climbing team. The views of Everest and surrounding peaks are spectacular and our Sherpas will look after you well.«

For Stefan it would be a dream come true; to see Lhasa, to visit Tibet. I had big plans to go to Pakistan and climb Broad Peak, a 26,400-feet high mountain, this summer, and I thought that joining Russell’s support trek would be a great opportunity to see more of Tibet, visit the great Potala and get a good look at Everest—the mountain I had set my heart on. I knew Russell from Cho Oyu and he was a big name on Everest. That afternoon I had e-mailed our confirmation.

The prayer wheels kept turning, around and around. There would be no plastic boots this time, no big down jacket, nor crampons or ice-axe. Base Camp was to be our last stop on the trek. At 17,000 feet, it was just below the glaciers and the eternal snows. I had seen photographs of the Rongbuk Valley where Everest rises majestically from the moraine into the sky.

I turned over in my bed again; I had to sleep now, the night was still. I tried to listen only to my breath, going in and out—evenly, meditative—and with every exhalation I pushed one more sheep over the wooden fence, to the other side where my thoughts would come to rest and fall away into sleep.

The Tibetans say that the clouds have mountains, and they point across the highland hills into thick bands of clouds from which the silhouettes of the Himalayan peaks rise sharply against the blue, closer to heaven than anywhere else in the world. Folk tales recount the story of a magic mu rope that stretches from the mountaintops to heaven. Sometimes it is described as a golden thread of sunlight, a plume of wind or a luminous rainbow-colored column that spirals upwards into the sky, connecting heaven with Earth. The mythical early kings of Tibet made the descent to their earthly throne by way of this celestial rope. While upon the Earth they never severed this mu rope; it remained attached to the crown of their heads. It linked sky, man, and Earth. And when their earthly presence came to an end, their body would dissolve into light, blend with the mu, and return to heaven. The mountains were the pillars holding up the sky and it was by way of these pillars that the kings ascended back to heaven. In Greek mythology, the gods reigned upon Mount Olympus. When we read Homer’s »Iliad« in school, I had always felt an unerring sense of truth in the ancient Greek belief of double motivation—of fate and free will. There was a divine plan in our lives. I often imagined that fate was pulling me, and my free will was charged with the walking. Sometimes I thought that I could feel the divine spirit—at times it was the sun’s rays shining through tree branches, when I suddenly felt that some inexplicable joy had touched me.

The second-hand on my alarm clock broke the silence into even beats, ticking the night away. I was still looking up at Everest, standing motionless between our tents at Base Camp. And then I began to wave good-bye to the daring adventurers I had not yet met, who were leaving so early this morning to start their ascent of the world’s highest peak. My heart felt heavy and tears welled up as I climbed into the jeep to go back home. No, this was impossible. I turned over again. Sleep eluded me. Further and further away the adventurers wandered across the moraine. Smaller and smaller they became; high and mighty Everest looked down upon them. Serene, majestic, unwavering. They were on their way to climb the highest mountain in the world. Why could I not go with them? Why could I not be part of their adventure? Would Russell take me? Did I have enough experience? Can anyone ever claim to have sufficient experience to climb Everest?

I turned over once more, I had to sleep now. In the distance I could hear my boots crunching across the frozen snow. The stars shone brightly in the sky; the air was cold. A siren shattered the night—New York. How I hated the city that night. No peace, ever. The constant noise was nerve-wrecking. I pushed aside the bed covers with determination. »I am not a trekker. How did I ever come up with that idea? Trekking through Tibet, me?«

My intentions glowed on the computer screen. »Hi Russell, ignore my previous e-mails, I’m not the trekking type. I want to climb Everest. If you still have room on your expedition, I would like to join as a climber. Tell me if you think this a crazy idea. Helga.« With a click of my mouse the die was cast. Then I fell into deep, uninterrupted sleep.

The next morning I received Russell’s reply. »It would be great to have your bright and breezy personality on my expedition, plus I think that you have the stamina and ability to climb Everest. I saw you on Cho Oyu and thought you were very strong, so I do not think that this is a crazy idea. I have a couple of chaps who have been training with me. One is an opera singer and a real character; fun to be around. There is also an American. There is room on the ›2000 Expedition‹. I’ll send you an application form. A great way to start the new century.« Everest 2000, but that was the next millennium. I stared at my computer in disbelief. I could not wait for a whole year! Defiantly I typed my response. »No! I want to come this year, now, in six weeks’ time.« Russell’s reaction was less enthusiastic. »Helga: Yes, I could make room this year, but I need to know very soon as I already have my Sherpa staff set and I would need to organize visas and permits for you.«

I called my sister Lu. »I am going to climb Everest,« I blurted out, »but don’t tell anyone. It has to be a secret. I am out of my mind with happiness and I am afraid the bubble is going to burst if anyone asks me why. First I need to figure out how to explain this to Mum and Dad.« Lu said I was crazy, but her voice betrayed her excitement. She promised not to tell anyone.

I had six more weeks to train. And I had to buy new plastic boots and down pants. My cat would board with Lu for the ten weeks I would be gone. Like in a home-movie on fast-forward, everything played itself out in my head that morning while I jogged around the park. Again and again I broke into a broad smile. Unbridled excitement was surging through me and everything else came to a complete standstill. This adventure would cure me of my longing, I thought, attempting to rationalize a decision I hardly understood myself. Either Everest would be the last of my mountain escapades or the beginning of a life-long passion. After this, I promised myself, I would accept the job offer from a German fashion magazine, move to Munich, get married and do all the things my parents expected of me. The money for the trip, $35,000, had already been put aside three years earlier, for I had inherited exactly this amount from my grandparents. Apart from Russell, my sister and a handful of friends, no one knew of my plans.

In the beginning of March, three weeks before my departure, I informed people at my work. »Ok, I’ll mark you out the first two weeks of April,« Michelle replied. »No one can climb Everest in two weeks,« I explained, »make that two-and-a-half months!« »I knew that something was up; I’ve never seen you so happy. So, off you go, climb that crazy mountain—just make sure you come back in one piece!«



»Om Tare Tu Tare Ture So Ha«

Tara mantra

It is related that the Fifth Dalai Lama had once, from the top of his Potala, seen the goddess Tara regularly making a ritual circuit of that palace, a common devotional practice among Tibetans. After noting the exact times at which she went by and ordering an inquiry, he discovered that her movements corresponded to those of a certain poor old man. He sent for him and asked whether he knew that Tara was accompanying him regularly on his circumambulations. Frightened, the old man replied that he did not. Questioned further, he disclosed that he had learned Tara’s text by heart and had been reciting it regularly for forty years while making his daily circuit. He was asked to recite the text, and was found to have it wrong. He was then made to learn the correct text. But as soon as the old man learned it and recited it in place of the other, Tara ceased to appear. He was then authorized to recite the text as he had been used to, and Tara showed herself as before. When he recites the faulty text, the Dalai Lama concluded, his mind is focused on Tara, and she comes to bless him. But when he recites the right text his mind is attached to it. That is the difference.


It was the lure of adventure, of breaking out into unknown territory, the call of the wild that I was longing for when I decided to go climbing in Argentina in the summer of 1996. I could have just as well embarked on a journey through the Gobi Desert traveling with the highland nomads, gone on a safari in Kenya, or snorkeled through the coral reefs of Thailand. But it was the mountains that held a special fascination for me. Their lofty heights, cresting as they do so high above the clouds, were what I longed for.

I had just finished my studies in philosophy, marketing and film-making at New York University. I had a career as a fashion stylist and editor, and I did not know how to combine these interests, even if it was possible. Film-making held a fascination for me, but I was hesitant about embarking on a three-year masters program and abandoning everything else for it—my job, my financial freedom. I had a creative job that I loved, I was successful and should have been content with the stability it afforded me and yet, I did not know where I was going. The happiness that I had felt in New York during my first four years was gone. I came to the conclusion that at least for the moment, my schooling was over. A restlessness was brewing inside me and with it a longing to do something great, something that would challenge me on a whole new level. I wanted to break out of the routine, out of the frenzied running back and forth from designer showrooms to photo shoots, from one advertising job to another magazine editorial, from the importance of »gray is the new black« to berry-colored cashmere sweaters. Sometimes I felt like a bird in a fancy-colored cage with tassels and hoops, surrounded by steel bars built of loyalties and solidarities I did not really feel. In a world where everybody seemed to belong, I felt I was losing my own self beneath the false identities I tried to attach myself to. I had to break out, flee, soar, fly. Something had changed in me, something I could not explain had caused this restlessness I felt, and the uncertainty of it I found hard to bear. It was just like Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, that« … a house changes into which a guest has entered. We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself long before it happens.« It was that summer that I decided to sign up for an expedition to Aconcagua and suddenly I could feel the happiness of embarking on a journey into unknown territory.


I had remembered a dream I had when I was a little girl. The first time we went to visit my grandparents to watch a slide show of their latest travels I had made a wish. My grandparents had just returned from a trekking tour in the Himalayas. Every year they went on a great journey into the highlands, to the Himalayas or to the Andes—to Peru, Bolivia, Nepal, Tibet, or to the tiny mountain kingdom of Mustang. For many weeks they would travel with pack animals. On their return they would bring us gifts, treasures like golden bowls that sang when the rim was caressed with a wooden stick, Tibetan charm necklaces and woolen dolls with long black woven hair. These were the only occasions we went to visit my grandparents. Their apartment was dark, mysterious, and the sweet scent of burning incense wafted from room to room. My grandfather held one of the golden bowls and made it »sing«—it hummed mysteriously with a music that seemed to come from a fairyland.

My two brothers, three sisters and I sat on embroidered cushions on the floor while my grandmother served us tea. My mother was always very apprehensive about these visits to her parents. Ever since she had married my father and moved with him to Chicago where we grew up, she had become estranged from her parents. Her nervousness made me feel uneasy, and I was afraid of this tall grumpy man who was my grandfather. But then he would draw the heavy curtains, turn off the lights and transport us on a magic journey into far-away lands. His deep voice resounded through the room. Strange pagodas glowed golden from the wall, colorful prayer flags fluttered with the wind against a deep blue sky. The sunburned faces of the highland people with their tousled black hair gave off an air of adventure. They traveled with tents and pack animals, proud in their big sheepskin coats, with my grandparents in tow. From the white stupas in which the remains of the Enlightened Ones were buried, the piercing blue eyes of Buddha looked straight into my grandparents’ living room. Reddish stones piled on top of each other as if they had grown out of the rocky mountainside. Here lived the lamas, Tibetan monks in dark red robes, who were at home in the solitude of the great Himalaya. Fascinated, I listened to my grandfather’s words and dreamed that some day, when I grew up, I would visit these mysterious places.

When I was six, we moved to Munich in the South of Germany. For my parents it was a return to their birthplace. My father had been practicing medicine in Chicago for the past eighteen years. Our new house was on the outskirts of the city, and from the living room we could view the Alps. We were not what you might call a »normal« family, and it took me years to appreciate exactly that. Our house had two garages, not because we had so many cars, but because my father loved lawnmowers, even dead ones. Our special »garage« was the building anyone approaching the house would notice first. It was a wooden hut that leaned against the legitimate two-car garage. Its gate was painted sky-blue and led into my father’s world—a world of chaos, as my mother called it. As far as I can remember, it was always in this garage where I felt closest to my dad. It was the starting point for all our adventures and a hiding place when they failed. My father had a medical practice in the city, but he also worked in hospitals in other towns, so we saw little of him during the week. My mother was the family anchor, but it was my father with his crazy undertakings who reigned supreme on weekends. These ventures, or »sunshine operations«, as he referred to them, included all the children but rarely my mother. This was her well-earned day off!

These Sunday afternoon escapades would consist of cutting down trees, building a huge fire, setting free a dog from the pound, or even stealing a Christmas tree from the forest, anything where my father was leading the pack. The goal was to surprise Mum. She was always surprised but often not too happy with the results. The shed that we proudly called »our garage« sprang from one of these »sunshine operations«. Of course the idea had been top-secret. For weeks my father had been getting together the material—a cement mixer, boards, sand, empty paint cans, black tar shingles, and tools of all sorts. It took my father only minutes to get us excited, and by dinnertime, after much fighting, laughing, sweat and tears, we were very proud and blissfully happy. And my mother did not believe her eyes when she came home that evening. Our garage had a special slanted roof with a clear plastic skylight to allow the sunshine in. An orange rain pipe ran down its side to catch the water. We had nailed tar shingles against the wooden boards to protect the shed from storms. The whole construction was masterfully designed by my brother who later in life became an architect. It stood up proudly on four wooden poles which we had cemented into the empty paint cans. It never met my mother’s aesthetic standards, though. She was aghast and had gone strangely pale when we presented her with our »surprise«. My mother had a finely tuned sense of style, of colors and fabrics. She loved Indian blankets and Santa Fe-style furniture, and wild-flower gardens. Style-infused was not the right description for our »garage«. It reminded her of a shanty hut, she said, and in aesthetic terms I had to agree with her. But there was an air of chaos, a mood of adventure about it that I loved. And it became a special place to be with my father—amongst workman’s gloves and hand saws, boxes, garden tools and medical journals, rusty paint tins and broken chandeliers. There I could spend hours with him, fixing things, discussing politics and soul-searching from the medical point of view. Sometimes in the summer we would take our »sunshine operations« to the mountains. At the crack of dawn my father would wake us. »The mountain is calling,« he would say and off we went. A loaf of bread, a stick of salami, a large wedge of cheese, chocolate and a few bottles of apple cider filled our backpacks. We would park the car at the foot of a mountain and wander off into the first light. My father was never one for the marked hiking trails, straight up was always his credo. We followed him through the woods, scrambled up grassy hills and chased the cows across the fields, climbed fences and went bathing in mountain streams. I do not remember us ever reaching any summit, but that did not seem important then. And besides, that would have been the place to run into all the hikers we had avoided by not using the trails. It was always an adventure. We often would not make it back down in the daylight, and when we reached an unlit road at the base of the mountain, my father would muse, »I could swear we parked the car right here,« before we would wind our way through the dark, back up, down or along some stream that no one could remember having passed on the way up. My little sister would cry and have to be carried; the chocolate was long gone, but we persevered. Always my father’s sense of adventure would prevail and keep us excited—we were on a treasure hunt, or on a secret mission. Sooner or later we would come upon some lights; a house where we could ask directions or call Mum to come and rescue us.


I finished high school at the age of eighteen and applied for journalism school. I was turned down for being too young and told that I should try again the following year. With English and history as my core subjects, I had dreamed of becoming a reporter for National Geographic. Most of my friends started business courses or an apprenticeship at a bank, which were solid foundations for future success. I was not into numbers. I wanted to work at something exciting and travel the world. That I ended up as a fashion editor was a series of coincidences. During my high-school years my best friend and I occasionally modeled for a teen fashion magazine. When I finished my studies, I called the fashion editor hoping for an internship as it was the only publication where I knew someone. I was hired for the text department where I answered phones and sorted the mail. When the fashion assistant resigned I was offered her position. I had never cared about fashion but I grabbed the opportunity. My first business trip was to the Canary Islands where we photographed safari clothes in the dunes and flower dresses on the beach. The work was fun. I learned to put outfits together, to book studios and models, order clothes from the designers, and write fashion texts late into the night. The schedule was grueling, but I loved this fast-paced world. After a year at the magazine, I thought I was ready to move to New York. I had never been there, but I always knew that one day I would live there. So I wrote letters of application to every magazine I could think of, but never received a single reply. Then a friend of my mother, a beauty editor at German Vogue, arranged for me to meet with her publisher. »I hear you want to go to New York,« he said. I nodded emphatically. »I will send you there for three months but on one condition. When we launch Miss Vogue, you will return and work with us.« I agreed, thinking that if I liked New York as much as I thought I would, I would surely never return. He may have read my mind. When I met Margret, the fashion director, the next day, she said that I would have to start work right away. The fashion shows for the next season were starting the following week, and I could surely go to New York later.

Three days later we flew to Paris for the spring collections. Margret took me under her wing. She had been working for fashion magazines for more than twenty years, and her sense of style was an inspiration. To her, reproducing fashion on glossy magazine pages was not simply telling women what to wear but taking them away on a journey with a fashion story. These were stories of colors and texture, of journeys to magic places where the inhabitants wore traditional costume. Her office bookshelves carried many large photographic books about the Incas in Peru or about Mayan temples, about the jewelry of the Nubians in Africa, about the splendor of Viennese castles and the grand balls they hosted.

Night after night we would sit in her office and dream up story lines. Eskimos guiding seal-skin kayaks in Greenland, Moroccan Bazaar traders, Tibetan nomads and Gauchos in Argentina, every culture was an inspiration. Feverishly I would then spend days trying to find the embroidered shirts, turquoise jewelry, red cowboy boots, hooded fur jackets and colored felt skirts. My job was like a treasure hunt. I would go to the designer showrooms in Paris, London and Milan and order the gowns we had seen parading down the runways. We would fly to Arizona, wake before dawn to capture the first rays of the rising sun in the photographer’s lens. We flew to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean to photograph Balinese sarongs. We drove to a castle in Vienna where we lit one hundred candles, the flames of which illuminated the pink and red rose petals cascading across black silk gowns as the models moved to an invisible orchestra.

Zimbabwe was the first trip on my own. I met my team in the capital Harare and we spent a week driving through the bush finding our locations as we went. From the porch of a lodge we watched the elephants coming to the watering hole for their sundowner drinks. On the open veldt hippos and monkeys tumbled through the tundra grass. In a small village, merely a cluster of straw-topped huts, we photographed our models standing amongst a group of village children, all wearing the long, colored strings of glass beads I had bought at the local market. When I came back to the office I brought with me a tall wooden giraffe and officially advanced to be a fashion editor. Office politics were often disheartening, though, and the friends I made on these exotic journeys only heightened my sense of loneliness in Munich. It was hard meeting strangers at an airport to go and work together as a team, but it was often much more difficult to leave them a week later at that same airport, perhaps never to see them again. At the magazine, the other editors were often condescending and gave me a hard time when we went to the shows. I lacked their style and wore sneakers with my designer outfits, which was a daring fashion statement in Europe at the time. And I hated the cocktail parties with clients where it was necessary to project a sense of haute couture. Superficial glamour and insincerity were a large part of the fashion world, and I felt that I did not belong.

In May of 1990 I received a phone call from the photographer Hannes Schmid. We were scheduled to shoot a ski story in the Swiss Alps. »Can you organize tents and sleeping bags, cooking gear and ropes for the trip? I want to spend a night on the glacier under the Allalinhorn. It is the only way we can catch the first morning light. I know a place from where we can abseil into a crevasse and get the ice-climbing shots on film. I have a girl coming who can do incredible maneuvers on a snowboard—jumping off ice pinnacles. It will be fantastic!«

Hannes was a famous action photographer, but also an accomplished mountain climber and adventurer par excellence. The pretty pastel ski outfits I had lined up for snowplows on the bunny slopes and après-ski went out the window. I canceled the designers and began calling the back-country specialists ordering ice-climbing gear, Goretex suits, heavy down jackets, ice-axes, backpacks, snowboards, tents, ropes, climbing boots, crampons, Telemark skis, and survival food packs. It took some convincing of my colleagues at the magazine that Miss Vogue needed a mountain adventure story, but my exuberance won them over. I had to promise not to spend the night on the glacier. Margret smiled, »the last time I worked with Hannes, he roped up the models and sent them out into the Eiger’s North Face, while I watched terrified from a rocky ledge. He is crazy. Please be careful.«

Roped up, we traversed the glacier into the ice towers. The light was spectacular, the sun danced on the ice as Hannes photographed the models in action. The Allalinhorn towered over us and the little mountain village of Saas Fe, our fancy hotel and safety were far, far below. Hannes had chosen excellent skiers for our models and we all felt safe under his direction. As the afternoon sun began dipping to the West, we set up the tents on the glacier and watched the last cable car descend to the village below. Then we were alone.

Hannes tied a string of rectangular flags from tent to tent, creating a circle of fluttering color. Tibetan prayer flags, he explained. They would keep away the ghosts of the mountain. Somewhat skeptical, the two models, my assistant and I started preparing tea and soup, while Hannes and his assistant set up an ice-climbing route. Long into the night we huddled around the small stove, drinking tea and listening to our photographer recount his adventure stories.

»Many years ago, some friends and I climbed all the peaks above 13,000 feet that surround us here. On one occasion, we camped at this spot on the glacier. It was a stormy night. I was lying awake in my tent with the wind beating against the canvas when I heard voices outside. I opened the tent flap and looked out, but I could see nothing in those white-out conditions. I called out but no one answered, only the wind howled. Then there were the voices again, screaming into the night. I tried to understand what they were saying, but I only heard the wind as if it had blown the voices away. Perhaps, I thought, I had just imagined it all.« I shivered and poured us more tea. The wind had started up and small snowflakes were flying around us. Hannes continued. »By morning I had forgotten all about the episode until one of my friends began describing the voices and screams he had heard during the night. Then our guide told us the story of the lost souls that roam through the night, crying for help. In the early days of mountaineering a school of Italian mountaineers set out to climb the Allalinhorn. They left early in the morning, and the villagers watched them climb up into the clouds near the summit and disappear. The people from the village waited all day, but none of them ever came back into view while a storm enveloped the mountain. The following day some mountaineers went up to look for the Italians. At the summit they found ice-axes stuck in the snow and neatly coiled ropes but no sign of the Italian mountaineers. Not a trace of them anywhere. It is said that their souls haunt the mountain and their cries can be heard at night,« Hannes finished his story.

It was an eerie night but the snow clouds had passed and the sky was clear and full of stars. The prayer flags beat their own special rhythm in the wind. Hannes had said that they would protect us from evil spirits. For a long time I listened into the wind. It was cozy in my down sleeping bag and before too long I fell asleep.

The next evening we all sat together in the dining room of our fancy hotel, tucking into cheese fondue, and talked about the mountains. There was both majesty and magic to these lofty peaks. A sense of calm reigned among them while they remained unmoved by the swirling world below. I stood on my balcony that night and watched for shooting stars so that I could make a wish, a wish to return to this world of mountains one day.


I survived one more year at the magazine, but its direction had changed. More and more we were shooting in studios in Paris and New York—pure fashion, almost never on location. But here was my opportunity. It was always hard for me to fly home to Munich each time we finished shooting in the New York studio. Ironically, my chance came in 1991 when our publisher shut the magazine down because it was no longer profitable. A week later I moved to New York and began working as a fashion stylist. I was freelancing, doing magazine editorials, advertising campaigns, catalogs, and television commercials. The work structure provided me with my freedom and considerably more money. My father had urged me to continue my studies and so I enrolled at NYU, choosing philosophy and film-making as my majors. New York was exhilarating and I forgot about the mountains quickly. During the day I was steeped in fashion and at night immersed in Homer and Shakespeare, discussing Kierkegaard and his belief on the strength of the absurd. During my final exam I was asked which philosophical idea had influenced me most and I replied without hesitation, »Plato’s Analogy of the Cave«. Of all ideas, the ladder leading up to the sun, the light of wisdom, fascinated me the most.

On a clear day, at the end of our trip into the mountains, Hannes had taken us rock climbing. It was years later in New York when I walked into a sporting goods store and purchased a harness and rock climbing shoes. A new gym had opened near my apartment and was purported to have a spectacular climbing wall. I persuaded a friend to join the facility with me. We became avid rock climbers. Our goal was to scale the wall and reach the »roof«. The roof was a twelve-feet-long ceiling sprinkled with handholds requiring one to traverse upside down. In the summer months we followed our passion outdoors, on the Shawangunk Ridge situated about seventy miles north of the city. These rock cliffs, three hundred feet high, and other individuals of like mind cured me of my homesickness, which I would still feel every now and then. Occasionally I would ask about the mountains, but rock climbing and mountaineering seemed worlds apart. Even within this small circle, I could find no one who would go with me on a »mountain« trip.


In the summer of 1996 I signed up for an expedition to Aconcagua. My sister Madeleine, who lived in Boulder, had sent me a handful of mountaineering brochures and I had picked a Colorado-based expedition. The expedition leader, Bean, had called me and assigned me a training schedule. Within the next two months I was supposed to work my way up to running five miles three times a week. He also recommended taking my pack to the gym and climbing the stair master with weights in my pack.

»Start with five minutes and ten pounds in your pack then slowly work your way up to forty-five minutes and twenty-five pounds,« he said. He faxed me an equipment list: down jacket, Goretex pants, fleece layers, ice-axe, hiking poles, crampons, plastic boots, balaclava, a sleeping bag for –20°F and much more. When my sister came to meet with her sponsors in New York (she had just entered the pro races in snowboarding), I took her with me to a downtown store called Tents and Trails. She could not believe such a store even existed in New York. We tested the sleeping bags, lay with them in the small glacier tents on display, tried on plastic boots and fitted them with crampons, discussed with the experts in the store the advantages of a longer ice-axe versus the lighter, shorter version. In the beginning I was still trying to match the colors of my outfit but then I bought the yellow plastic boots anyway because they fitted me the best. Madeleine kept saying, »I can’t believe you are really doing this. Do you realize that you can’t take your Prada boots with you?« That night I slept on the new inflatable thermo-rest in my down sleeping bag on the floor of my apartment. For breakfast we heated up a menu from Alpine Delights and ate it straight out of the bag.

My parents were shocked when I told them about my plans, but then I met my mother’s old friend Caesar Zurbriggen in Saas Fe. I was on a photo shoot in the small mountain village, working on a campaign for the Swiss Tourist Board. On a free afternoon I went to visit my grandparents’ former climbing guide. My mother had spent many summers in Saas Fe with her parents and had asked me to pay him a visit. He hugged me like an old friend although we had never met before. That afternoon he told me about his plans to go climbing in the Andes.

»My great-granduncle, Matthias Zurbriggen, was the first man to summit Aconcagua in 1897, and I want to take my kids there for the centennial celebration of the first ascent,« he said. I could not believe the coincidence. We were both going to arrive at Base Camp on the same day, the 2nd of January. All of a sudden my idea of climbing Aconcagua seemed not so crazy anymore, and my mother was relieved that Caesar would be there to watch over me. She trusted him. Many years ago he had rescued her father out of a crevasse. With a shudder she told me the story.

»I will never forget how blue his face was when Caesar pulled him out. He hadn’t broken anything but he was trembling like a leaf. There was a terror in his eyes I had never seen on anyone before. We had been walking over a wind-swept snowfield, my father, my friend and I, un-roped, when he suddenly disappeared before our eyes. He just dropped away, broke through the snow with a heart-wrenching scream and left us standing there, paralyzed, afraid to move even an inch. The rope and ice-axes were in his pack, on the bottom of the crevasse. He was crying for help, but there was nothing we could do. I have never felt so helpless. Then Caesar came to the rescue. He was angry with my father, furious that he hadn’t roped us up, that he had disregarded the most basic safety precautions. He looked down into the crevasse and shouted, ›Did you meet your creator down there, Wolfgang? Did he tell you how irresponsible you are?‹ Caesar had no patience with my father who was whimpering from the depths. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone talk to my father that way. It was a deeply humbling experience for him,« my mother said. For her, the mountaineering had stopped right there.

The normal route on Aconcagua is called by many mountaineers an easy walk-up, but in the books I read while sweating on the stair master it also said that due to its position so far South of the Equator, it can be particularly vicious with its cold temperatures, storms and high altitude effects.

Our team, a couple from South Africa, a student from Boulder, a physician from New Mexico and I, met in Santiago de Chile. We drove up to Puente del Inca, a small village just across the border in Argentina. The two mountain guides, Bean and Jon, were young and inexperienced in leading a commercial group. I had no mountaineering experience at all and they tried very hard. I will never forget the day we arrived at our first camp and I asked Bean where our bathroom was. He looked at me for a while and then replied, »You know what, that boulder over there looks like just the right place to me. Here is a nice round rock you can use to wipe yourself off,« and he handed me a rock. I blushed intensely for I saw right away how ridiculous my question had been. This was not a photoshoot in some exotic location where we created the image of a rough adventure story. This was real. I had come to escape the make-believe world I lived in. I wanted to go beyond that surface, on an adventure—unknown, new, challenging—where I could feel the rougher edges of nature, feel physical exhaustion and explore the force of life that made me get up every morning even though I had nowhere to go. Tanya, an emergency room doctor in her mid-thirties, was my tent mate. Her normal life was so much more real than mine. Maybe it was the harsh reality of life and death she dealt with in her every day job she needed to get away from to make up her mind about her future. She had left right in the middle of a big decision—to accept a long dreamed-of job promotion at the hospital or to finally end her long-distance relationship, move to California, marry her boyfriend and look for a new job later. Tanya had climbed the highest points of almost all of the fifty United States as well as Kilimanjaro in Africa. I had not been on a real camping trip since my childhood and then it had usually been in some country backyard. I needed help, much more than I first realized. Not that I would have ever admitted it. The altitude got to me early on and I suffered from headaches, nausea and insomnia. Bean guarded the medical kit like a hawk and would not part with more than one single tablet of Aspirin at a time for fear that the medication would disguise a more serious condition of high-altitude sickness in me. I was at a loss, I was not used to suffer through even the smallest headache and I had no experience with altitude effects. Tanya introduced me to the way of life of the high mountains. »The headaches and nausea will pass when your body gets used to the thinner air. Your body will build more red blood cells to absorb the lower amounts of oxygen in the air more efficiently, but it takes time,« she said. »You have to be patient. The first days are always the hardest.« She gave me strong pain relievers and made me drink tea by the gallon for the headaches were mostly caused by dehydration, she explained.

We hiked through a deserted valley for two days to reach Base Camp. It was quiet and eerie. No birds were chirping, no river gurgling. Sometimes I had the strange sensation that someone had let out the water and we were walking on the empty ocean floor. Gauchos with their herds of mules were crisscrossing the reddish rock and sand hills of the semi-desert like nomads, ferrying colored kit bags and equipment up and down the valley. The great rock face of Aconcagua glowed crimson and golden in the late afternoon light when we arrived at Base Camp. Like desert flowers, over fifty tents in all imaginable bright colors grew out of the rock moraine where an international tumble of hardy mountaineers had set up a home. It was a very dry season on Aconcagua, there was hardly any snow on the mountain. It did not take me long to feel comfortable in the tent village and I was amazed that I needed so little to be happy. Like two contented housewives, Tanya and I set up our tent on the rocks of the moraine. We storm-proofed it by tying the guy-lines to big boulders, strung up washing lines inside and made a small storage corner for snacks and drinks. In the afternoon we brought up water from the stream, heated it over the gas cooker and washed our hair in a big silver bowl. Compared to the other expeditions at Base Camp, ours was bare bones. We had no mess tent, just a tiny triangular cooking tent. Our dinner table was a boulder around which we crouched under the open sky. By the time the fork reached my mouth the food was already cold. But our team was fun, mostly because no one besides our guides had a clue. The food Bean cooked was awful, but we were all novices and did not know any better, this was an adventure after all.

The nights at Base Camp were incredible; the sky was black like ink and the stars glowed golden in the vast firmament, more luminous than I had ever seen them before. Our neighbors, a group of Argentines from Mendoza, had built a rock garden in front of their tents and called it the »Satellite Bar«. Large silver poles and wires were sticking into the air. They tried to establish a cellular telephone connection from Aconcagua out to the world. Motorola and a large Argentine winery were their sponsors and we joined them on their nightly watch for satellites and shooting stars.

Tanya and I devised all kinds of plans to get invited into the big mess tents of the other teams, to meet the hardy mountaineers on whose territory we were trespassing. Of course we had to be cool, we did not want to be taken for trekkerettes or climbing groupies. But I had not climbed a mountain, yet. Knowing Caesar and his entourage was an advantage. He camped not far from us with his son and daughter.