Lee den Hond
Pics Marty Schmidt
The third South African woman to climb Everest
Lee den Hond (43) from Pretoria. Previous big adventure – Kilimanjaro, 2004.
Height of peak 8848m
Duration of expedition 2 months
Risk of death by misadventure Fairly high. There were 9 deaths on Everest in 2013.
Highlights The relationships formed and the physical challenge. Reaching the summit standing on top of the world with the South African flag in her hands.
Her only previous mountaineering experience was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro a decade ago. But that didn’t stop Lee den Hond from aiming to be only the third South African woman (after Cathy O’Dowd, the first woman to climb Everest from both sides, and Mandy Ramsden) to stand on the highest mountain in the world.
No stranger to endurance events, Jo’burg based business woman Lee den Hond has completed three Ironmans, the Comrades Marathon, several Two Oceans Marathons and many more of South Africa’s toughest races - frequently placing among the top female finishers. So she’s clearly a good endurance athlete. But however painful and stressful Ironman or Comrades are, they’re one-day events. Climbing Mount Everest takes two months – a whole different ball game.
‘I made the decision to climb Everest last June,’ laughed den Hond. ‘Initially I planned to hike to Base Camp, then I thought “why just Base Camp, why not the top”'. None of the South African guiding companies were offering trips to Everest in 2013, so den Hond contacted Canadian expedition company, Peak Freaks – known not just for their 100% safety record, but also for their willingness to allow climbing novices to have a bash.
She spent a week in the Alps learning how to use crampons and other high altitude skills. It was some preparation, but she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. ‘Everest was a gift,’ acknowledges den Hond ‘but I totally underestimated what it would entail. The biggest challenge was the cold. I kept having to say to myself: “Lee, the cold mustn’t manage you, you must manage the cold”.
'And I didn’t have nearly as much help as I’d imagined I would. I’d paid an extra US $5000 for a personal Sherpa who I hoped would essentially be my personal guide. But I soon realised that this was an unrealistic expectation. His English was exceptionally poor, and he was unable to offer me any training. There is one rope on the south side of the mountain, which every climber uses to get up and down. You climb Everest on your own, clipping into the fixed line for safety. I carried my own personal gear, my own oxygen and my own food between camps with very little support from my personal Sherpa.’
Fortunately inspiration and strength came from veteran Peak Freaks lead guide Marty Schmidt. This coupled with den Hond’s innate determination and self-belief that nothing would stand in her way carried her through all the challenges and on Sunday, 19th of May she stood on the summit of Everest, the highest point on earth.
‘Summit day was unbelievably tough,’ she concedes. ‘It’s only 848m from Camp 4 to the summit, but it took me 14 hours up and another 9 hours to get back to camp. I was exhausted. The commitment to reach the top came from knowing that so many South Africans were supporting me and essentially climbing the mountain with me.’
The toughest part of all was undoubtedly holding onto her vision despite extremely trying circumstances. ‘Each day I was reminded that I was a complete novice. My body had never experienced these heights and I really struggled to adjust to the altitude. And I was cold. The temperatures were exceptionally low. On the first night at Base Camp temperatures dropped to minus 21 degrees C.'
Raising funds for her chosen charity, Carte Blanche's Making a Difference campaign - which offers help to children whom are heading up their households - was a major motivating factor that carried her through. ‘After meeting a 13-year-old boy taking care of his eight-year-old sister I decided to give something back to the Schaumburg community,’ she explained. ‘Several special children had signed their names on the South African flag which I held proudly on the summit so that was a huge moment for me.’
There were other highlights too including the relationships she formed with her fellow climbers, especially the leader of the expedition, Marty Schmidt, who taught and trained her over the course of the climb.
‘But the greatest “Gift of Everest ” has been taking away the pure belief that nothing is impossible if you truly believe in it.’ She insists. ‘The gift of being able to share my story with children and adults and to inspire them to “climb their own Everest” - to overcome their own personal challenges.’
The dangers of high-altitude mountaineering were all too apparent. Over 600 climbers summitted Everest in 2013 but there were nine deaths. Then, two months after den Hond and Marty Schmidt stood on the top of the world, there was personal tragedy when Schmidt and his son Denali were killed in an avalanche on K2. ‘I feel privileged to have spent so much time with Marty, he was a great man who taught me all the skills required on the mountain. His incredible attitude and his respect for the mountains were awe-inspiring.'
So has the bug bitten? ‘No way,’ insisted den Hond when she returned to South Africa. ‘I gave all my gear away once I got back to base camp.’ You’ll never catch me on another mountain.’
But, like so many mountaineers, after a time of reflection she’s had a change of heart and direction and has just announced her next adventure - SUMMIT SOUTH AFRICA ONE PEAK AT A TIME - the main purpose of which is to raise awareness of the mountains that so many children in South Africa climb daily in looking after their siblings as the guardians of child-headed households.
In April 2014 a team of climbers and youths will attempt to summit 10 peaks in South Africa – the highest peak in each province and, in addition, Table Mountain. The climbs will be led by Lee den Hond, Gustav van Rensburg, an experienced climber and technical coach, and photojournalist, Mark Wessels. The climbing team will comprise five youths responsible for heading households in South Africa, and a full support team, including a social worker and medics. Sponsors are invited to be part of the climbing team. For more information contact Lee at [email protected].