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Off the Couch, Onto the Mountains

Off the Couch, Onto the Mountains

Jul 2016

Words Ryan Scott

I first met McGill at the start of a 12-kilometre hike. A seemingly innocuous distance in an ordinary context, but when taking into account that the end point of the relatively short hike would result in our reaching one of the few ice-waterfall climbing opportunities in South Africa, one can imagine the gradient covered would be pretty intense—and it was. 

McGill was not the only one who struggled to haul her hefty pack up the Giant’s Castle ascent. When she later explained this was part of a plan she’d set in motion to get her conditioned to take on some of the highest peaks on the planet, I remember thinking there’d be a lot of work to be done. 

Two years later, she was crunching snow and ice under her crampons on the treacherous ascent of Manaslu—an 8 156m high mountain in Nepal. It’s the eighth-highest peak in the world, and she was the first South African woman ever to take on the challenge.

To get above 8 000m was the big goal; although Manaslu was not the first choice, when the authorities closed Tibet to Westerners, those with aspirations to summit peaks like Cho Oyu and Shishapangma had to make alternative plans. McGill chose Manaslu, which was by no means a compromise and still afforded her the opportunity to attain the goals she had worked so hard for: to climb to the height that Boeings fly on their intercontinental journeys, to go over 8 000m, and to emphatically end the relationship with her couch that had claimed so much of her time in 2013. 

Having grown up in a hiking family and becoming a member of the Mountain Club of South Africa at 11 years old, Jeannette always had mountaineering aspirations. Work was also a high priority, though; without even noticing it, in an intense time of life—due to a huge workload and a wane in her dedication and enjoyment of a physical, healthy lifestyle—she sunk from the impressive heights of Colorado state squash champion, into the depressions of her couch. 

Her 100kg mass was the heaviest she’d ever been, and physical activity had all but stopped.

Thankfully, after six months of languishing in despair, her spirit of adventure was rekindled—and when McGill made the decision to climb Kilimanjaro for a second time, the momentum had shifted. “On that successful Kili trip, I again found the spirit of a person who had once spent so much of her childhood in the mountains, progressively improving and taking on greater and greater challenges: from hours on end in the mountains of the Eastern Cape, to leading in the Drakensberg, to overseas expeditions in Bolivia, Chile and Peru, and eventually my first visit to Everest base camp and Island Peak in Nepal,” she recalls with a true love for the challenge of the outdoors.

“As part of my new-found insatiable appetite for mountains, I continued with hikes in the Drakensberg [including the ice-waterfall experience we shared in 2014], complemented by a trip to the North Col of Everest, Mount Damavand in Iran, and back to Peru, bringing me naturally to the cusp of a trip I’ve lived my whole life for: a significant expedition to Nepal to climb an 8 000m mountain. 

“The strange thing is, I don’t need this the way I needed to get certificates, degrees, medals or tick boxes. Previously, I had goals because I needed to feel worthy or to hide behind my accomplishments. Now it’s a lot simpler, with less ego attached. Some girls want new shoes. I want to get up Manaslu,” McGill adds. 

The ever popular peaks of Tibet hog the attention of the northern hemisphere autumn season of climbing, but with the denial of access to Westerners in 2015, the shift was to the less assuming Manaslu; some would underestimate it at their peril. 

Expedition operators had made the transfer to Manaslu to make sure they didn’t miss out on the business from those who had already booked with them for the season’s climbing. Customers were assured of the feasibility of the peak—notwithstanding the 67 deaths and only 672 summits. Earthquakes in 2015 had reinstalled fears of a repeat of the 2012 avalanche that had claimed 12 lives in a single incident. The icy, technical aspects to parts of the climb and unpredictable weather, potential overcrowding (106 climbers registered to summit in 2015) and politicking about contributing toward the fixing of ropes and ladders, and generally accommodating each other on the limited space in the camps leading up to the summit meant those on the mountain were tense and patience would be tested.

McGill comes from an analytical job, with a PhD in Mining Engineering, Economic Geology and Mineral Economics. She currently heads technology and innovation at Anglo Platinum, is president of the Geological Society of South Africa, and a non-executive board member of the Council for Geoscience. As one would imagine, this adventurer had ensured she had all the correct equipment, a reputable operator in the form of Altitude Junkies based in New York, and had prepared for two years to hone her skills and build her confidence.

Then, after making it onto the slopes, and with the summit looming larger than she could ever imagine, the reality hit: “No more reading about bygone expeditions, no more Internet surfing and daydreaming. I’m going to summit Manaslu—the stunning, eighth highest mountain in the world. I’m at last doing a full-scale mountain expedition in the true remote Himalayas. Just like the stories I started out reading.”

The first leg saw McGill and her team helicopter into the gateway village of Samagaon. This flight saves a four- to five-day trek into the valley, and then the serious stuff starts. The altitude of 8 000m necessitates the body to acclimatise to the reduced oxygen pressure. The expedition would go up each day, pushing a little higher on each rotation and returning to base camp to rest and allow red blood cells to do their thing. 

When the weather gurus forecast a good weather window on the summit, it would be time to go up one final time—all the way to the summit. But above 6 200m, the body struggles to maintain health; it basically starts metabolising itself for energy. Waiting out the weather at base camp can be a challenge. McGill was fortunate to be able to stay in touch with family and friends back home in South Africa—despite having no cellphone signal on the mountain, with the SPOT Gen3 satellite messenger. Her Facebook wall was filled with ping-type, pre-trip customised “I’m ok!” updates, which she could activate from the device on a daily basis. In addition, it has an S.O.S and assistance button that sends an alert message to an international emergency centre—imperative in nasty conditions.

And the bad weather did come in. While resting at the remote Camp 3, the ominous news of snowfalls on the higher slopes reached her group via a crackling radio soundtrack. With a tricky crevasse ahead, and fresh snow sitting precariously on the tighter packed slabs, the ever increasing chance of a dreaded avalanche was all too real. In the end, McGill respected, without regret, the decision by Altitude Junkies to abandon the attempt on the summit. She met others on the mountain who were not as fortunate to make it home safely. Death is all too real when taking on this challenge, and although some stayed and made the summit, a man died and others needed rescuing.  

The goal of summiting an 8 000m mountain wasn’t attained this time, but the consolation was the whole experience that strengthened McGill’s resolve to relish the next opportunity: to once more face this momentous task, to take her as far away from the lazy couch as possible, and to keep reminding her adult self of the fantastic stories that her 11-year-old adventurer spirit created those many years ago. 

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer