Mountains Beyond Mountains

One woman’s quest to climb the eight tallest peaks on seven continents in three years
View a photo gallery of images from Lisa Amatangel’s climbing expeditions.
March 19, 2013

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Many evenings last winter, Lisa Amatangel would enter the lobby of a friend’s high-rise condominium building in Houston and sign in at the visitor desk, trying to look as nonchalant as a 40-year-old woman carrying an orange mountaineering pack stuffed with books or bricks or cans of pet food, and lined with dripping water bottles, can look. She would ride the elevator to the 19th floor of the north tower, as if to visit her friend, who was in fact in Costa Rica at the time. Then she would sneak into the stairwell to practice climbing Mount Everest.

The building stood 30 stories tall. Amatangel, dressed in black shorts and a moisture-wicking T-shirt, would attack its 567 concrete steps at something like a sprint. By the time her long legs had carried her halfway up, she would be panting and sweating. Whimsically, she would say hello to the dead, upturned cockroach at the 21st floor (she started calling him Charles, “a dignified name for a not so dignified end,” as she later put it). At the top of the stairs, she would catch her breath for a moment before racing back to earth.

A quick chug of a sports drink at the bottom and she would be off again. Thirty stories up, 30 stories down, six or eight times over the course of two hours. And so it went almost daily for three months, her oscillations fueled by a playlist of peppy tunes, including a song by a band called the Cataracs with the refrain “Tell me where you want to go . . . to the top of the world!”

The routine may sound extreme, but when your destination really is the top of the world, extreme measures are in order. All the more so for people like Lisa Amatangel, J93, who hate to do anything for which they have not thoroughly prepared. “I might wing it with cooking,” she told me recently, “but for nearly everything else”—including a career as a litigator, in which she would polish a closing statement or brief to within an inch of its life—“I am an über-preparer.”

One summiter’s words inspired her: “There will be a million reasons to turn around. The challenge is to figure out, How can I keep going despite all of the doubts, discomforts and frustrations?”

The stair climbing was just a small episode in a long windup to Everest. Amatangel began preparing years earlier, when she set out to climb some of the world’s other highest peaks first. On July 19, 2012, she achieved one of mountaineering’s loftiest feats: she completed the Seven Summits Challenge, scaling the highest mountain on each of the seven continents—including an eighth peak, in West Papua, Indonesia, that is often substituted for Australia’s unimpressive highpoint.

Official records for the challenge, established in 1985, have yet to be updated for 2012. But it appears that Amatangel is the fifth American woman to have summited all eight peaks, and—having done so in two years and 363 days—she can claim the fastest time for an American woman and the second fastest time of any woman on the planet.

The youngest of seven Amatangel children (the name is pronounced AmaTANjel—an o at the end disappeared around the time her Italian brickmason father married her Irish-American mother), Lisa grew up in Newton, Mass. Her sister Coleen Austin, eight years older, spent almost as much time raising her as their parents did. “When Lisa was born, she was sort of like my doll,” Austin said recently. “I had fun putting her to bed and entertaining her, playing school with her, stuff like that.”

Two things were clear about Amatangel from the age of six. One was her reluctance to ad-lib. She scored high on an intelligence test, but the diagnostician observed that she “would not attempt any item she was not absolutely sure of.” The other trait was what Austin described as “a very competitive spirit.” She picked up a tennis racket that year and was soon playing in tournaments. She competed all through her childhood and teens.

Amatangel entered Tufts at an emotionally raw time in her life. Her mother—a strong woman from a line of strong women—had just died of a brain aneurysm. “I learned early that this will all end, possibly a lot sooner than you think,” Amatangel recalled. “If there’s anything you want to do, now is the time to get started”—a lesson that guides her to this day. She added: “I was motivated to do the best I can with the gifts I was given, in honor of my mother.”

Though stunned with grief, she made the varsity tennis team, and took up squash, which she also played at the varsity level. Her squash coach, Bill Summers, was and is a huge fan. “Everyone knew, even her opponents, that she was going to give her all,” he remembered last summer. “And if you were to best her, you would have to play the match of your life.”

Nothing bolstered Amatangel’s confidence like a compliment from Coach Summers. “After every match, he would shake your hand and have a Tootsie Roll in his palm,” Amatangel recalled in her gentle, soft-spoken manner. “He would say, ‘You’re terrific! You’re a superkid!’ ” She graduated magna cum laude in psychology and won the Rudolph J. Fobert Award for the most accomplished female multisport athlete.

After Tufts she worked as a paralegal for two years, and decided she liked law. Just before entering Boston College Law School, in 1996, she climbed her first mountain. “I had frequent flier miles from my paralegal job, and I thought, Before I go to law school and spend a lot of time indoors again, it would be great to have an adventure,” she said. She bought a book of women’s travel essays and picked out a destination that caught her fancy: Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

In June of that year, Amatangel learned that reading a book was less than adequate preparation for climbing a 19,000-foot peak, even one of the easier ones. Her sister Coleen pleaded with her to sign up with a reputable guide company. “I don’t want to have to fly down to Africa and drag you off a mountain or something,” she said.

But she very nearly did. The night of Amatangel’s push to the summit, everything went wrong. Her guide got sick, her headlamp went out, her water bottle froze, and the Tanzanian replacement guide, who spoke no English, seemed unaware that she had paid for a round trip. He left his exhausted client to descend the mountain on her own. “I ended up sitting on the path and going to sleep—which I now realize is a very bad idea,” Amatangel said. Altitude sickness can set in quickly, as it did in 2010 for another tennis champ, Martina Navratilova, who had to be wheeled down the mountain on a stretcher. Lucky for Amatangel, a passing climber roused her to take his photo, and got her moving again. “It was really good timing,” she says.

Fast-forward to June 2007. Amatangel was working as an attorney for Hale and Dorr (now WilmerHale) in Boston and running marathons. After racing in Anchorage, Alaska, she hiked and kayaked through Denali National Park, where she came under the spell of the 20,320-foot Denali (aka Mount McKinley), the tallest peak in North America.

“I thought, My gosh, what a beautiful mountain. Maybe I could come back someday and try to climb this.” Her guide put her off: “This is a really serious mountain. You need technical mountaineering skills.” But after observing her stamina for a week, the guide warmed to the idea. Back in Boston, a package arrived. It contained an ice axe, with a note from the guide urging her not to forget about Denali. “And that,” Amatangel said, “is the ice axe I’ve used on every trip since, including Everest.”

As Denali beckoned, Amatangel studied how to work up to such a demanding climb. She learned about the Seven Summits Challenge and realized: “I’ve done Kilimanjaro—that’s one. These other mountains, like Elbrus and Aconcagua, could be part of the training to get up to a mountain like Denali.” The idea that she could make it all the way through the list to Everest hadn’t dawned on her yet.

Climb Every Mountain

Over the next two years she saved up enough money to fund her adventures, and in July 2009 quit her job. A month later she was standing atop Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet), the highest point in Europe, in the Caucasus range. In December she scaled Aconcagua (22,837 feet), in Argentina (it took two attempts—the first was thwarted by weather). Then, in January 2010, she climbed Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, at 7,310 feet the molehill of the bunch. She learned technical climbing on Mont Blanc, in the French Alps, and by June she felt ready for Denali.

It was a brutal ascent, as the guide had promised. Climbers carried 85-pound backpacks (they needed several weeks of food in case they got stuck in bad weather) and pulled heavy sleds. Driving winds and snow forced them to build ice walls around their tents, and to shovel out in the middle of the night—“or else you’d end up with the tent in your face by morning,” Amatangel explained. It was the hardest climb of her life.

Amatangel continued down the list of summits: Antarctica’s Mount Vinson (16,050 feet) in January 2011, then Carstensz Pyramid, in West Papua—the 16,000-foot alternate to Australia’s vertically challenged peak—in July. There was just one summit left. Everest—29,029 feet of snow and rock, with frequent avalanches, unstable ice towers called seracs, hidden crevasses, a noxiously thin atmosphere up top and the frozen remains of some 225 ill-fated climbers dotting its slopes.

A practice run up Cho Oyu (26,906 feet), another Himalayan peak, in the fall of 2011 shook her confidence. The weather was terrible. A major earthquake left climbers on edge. A climber just ahead of Amatangel’s team died, his body found hanging in the fixed lines. Plus her stamina ebbed to the point where a single step required six or eight breaths. The guides called off the climb at 23,000 feet. “Not having a shot at the summit was hugely disappointing,” Amatangel said. “When I came home from that, I thought, Oh my gosh. Can I even try Everest?”

Her sister Coleen Austin tried to talk her out of going. Austin and her husband, both M.B.A.s, own a FedEx Home Delivery business in Houston, and Amatangel had recently moved there to help out and to be close to her young niece and nephew, whom she adores. (Amatangel herself can be quite childlike, her sister said. “Kids love playing with her. She loves to play.”) Austin recalled telling Amatangel: “You’re alive. We’re having fun. Don’t do it anymore. Anything can go wrong there.”

There was no changing her mind. As Jon Krakauer observes in Into Thin Air, his book about the disastrous Everest climbing season of 1996, “Attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

After Cho Oyu, Amatangel prepared for Everest with new intensity. “I would work smarter, train smarter,” she said, adding: “Fear is a great motivator.” She signed up with an online trainer who offered a routine tailored to Everest. Mornings she loaded FedEx trucks. (“Moving boxes around is basically squats,” she said. “It was great exercise.”) The rest of the day she did some combination of weight lifting, running, working on cardio machines, yoga and balance exercises and climbing those infamous stairs. And she gulped smoothies made from yogurt, protein powder, greens, flax seed, chia seed, bananas and berries.

Mental preparation was key. She quizzed friends who had attempted Everest about what kept them going or made them turn back. One summiter’s words inspired her: “There will be a million reasons to turn around. The challenge is to figure out, How can I keep going despite all of the doubts, discomforts and frustrations?”

By March 24, 2012, the day of her departure, Amatangel was as prepared as anyone on earth for an attempt on Everest—though not for a flight to Kathmandu. “Did she tell you that she was very sick the day we brought her to the airport?” her sister asked me. She did not. “There’s a picture of her lying down in the back seat of our car with a bowl. My mother-in-law said, ‘Lisa, just put your fingers down your throat. It’s once in a lifetime.’ At the airport she was sick as a dog, but she figured she’d feel better after sleeping on the plane.” She did.

Amatangel met up with her fellow climbers—she was part of an expedition run by a private company, International Mountain Guides—in Kathmandu on March 26. The group took a Twin Otter plane to the village of Lukla, at 9,100 feet, two days later, and began hiking the 40 miles to Everest Base Camp, 17,600 feet above sea level.

Arriving at Base Camp on April 8, the group went through the now-standard regimen for Everest climbers: several weeks of training, resting and acclimatizing at higher and higher camps. At Base Camp, the air contains half as much oxygen as at sea level; at the summit, only a third as much. Acclimatizing gives the body time to make the necessary adjustments, including a big increase in red blood cells, which carry oxygen.

But all the waiting comes as an anticlimax. “You train really hard, you research the gear, you research the mountain, you show up ready to go, in the best condition of your life,” Amatangel said. And then—weeks of practice runs, alternating with inactivity. “You have to be patient, and you have to rest, which a lot of people find very difficult,” she said. “Being with your teammates and keeping each other positive and focused is a big mental challenge on Everest.” The downtime stretches on as climbers wait for decent weather, which typically comes in mid- to late May.

The forecast predicted two good days for reaching the summit—the 19th and 20th. But as the 19th began to look like the better day, hundreds of climbers from different expeditions rushed to position themselves for a push to the summit on that one day. Amatangel’s party left Camp Three, at 24,500 feet the next-to-highest camp, the morning of Friday, May 18. They were soon caught in a traffic jam seen in news reports around the world, as 200 or 300 climbers, all clipped to the same course of fixed ropes, made their way to Camp Four, at 26,000 feet—the final stop before the summit. “It was like being on a crowded escalator,” Amatangel says. “There were times when you just had to stand in place for an hour, an hour and a half.”

Delays can be lethal, even despite the oxygen tanks that most climbers use at that altitude. “It’s an exhausting place to be,” Amatangel said, “and you’re still using oxygen just to stand in place. Being out in the wind and being exposed for longer periods of time—that’s how you end up with people not making it back to camp.” There were four such unfortunates on Everest that day, all done in by exhaustion and altitude sickness.

Amatangel belonged to a group led by a combination of Western and Sherpa guides. For the final 3,000-vertical-foot push to the summit, team members would climb individually, each paired with a specialized climbing Sherpa. Her turn came after just a few hours’ rest at Camp Four.

Aamatangel and her climbing Sherpa started out for the summit at 8:30 p.m. on May 18, their headlamps flickering against the snow. Traffic had thinned only a little, and there were other setbacks. Her guide began vomiting, so Amatangel radioed for a replacement. The new climbing Sherpa spoke no English and never stopped for a break. And because the zipper of her jacket had frozen solid, she couldn’t reach her water bottle or food or the lozenges she had brought to combat the dry air (mountaineers really do calm their coughs with Ricola).

But these were minor distractions in what, for Amatangel, was a time of intense concentration. “You’re constantly monitoring your fingers, your toes and mostly focused on your breathing, making sure your oxygen mask is functioning right, watching your feet, aware of who’s above you,” she said. “People drop things—water bottles, oxygen tanks.”

Around 7 a.m., they reached a Rubicon that many climbers, including one of the friends Amatangel consulted before the trip, have failed to cross: the South Summit, at 28,750 feet. Amatangel had fretted endlessly about this landmark. But once there, “I just thought, Yes!—we are getting there,” she said. “For me, the South Summit was all green lights.”

From there to the top of Everest stretches a quarter-mile ridge that Krakauer describes as “a slender, heavily corniced fin of rock and wind-scoured snow,” with 7,000-foot drops on either side (“It definitely requires your attention as you walk toward the summit,” said Amatangel).

The steepest spot is a sheer rock face known as the Hillary Step. “It involves some scrambling, some nearly vertical climbing,” Amatangel said. “But after you’re over that piece of the climb, there’s a relatively gentle slope leading to the summit.” Gingerly walking along the ridge, eyes trained on the ground in front of her, she became peripherally aware of people gathered up ahead. Strings of prayer flags flapped in the wind. It was a few minutes to 10 on May 19, a brilliant, clear morning at the top of the world.

Standing on the summit, she took a few moments to exult and to take photos. But mostly, she thought about her mother. “My mother—and then my grandmother and great-grandmother—were inspirations for the climb,” she said. She tried to picture how they would have reacted to the news that she had climbed Mount Everest. “They were pretty matter-of-fact people, so I got a good laugh out of imagining their reserved enthusiasm.”

She also felt a little wistful about an old photo she had wanted to have with her at the summit—a snapshot of herself, her sister, and those three revered females. It was packed in a bag that was supposed to arrive at Camp Four ahead of her, but didn’t. Luckily, a German friend offered to bring the bag to the summit the following week. It contained an assortment of precious objects: family photos, a marble from her niece, a Card of Safe Return from her nephew’s Yu-Gi-Oh game and—the sign of a woman who’s got her priorities straight—the cover of Tufts Magazine.

Having climbed the tallest mountain on earth, all she had to do was live to tell about it. The descent, which climbers usually undertake in a sleep- and oxygen-deprived state, is serious business. Most deaths occur coming down, not going up.

Amatangel’s teammate Duane Nelson, a 56-year-old Intel executive who is her frequent climbing buddy, narrowly escaped such a fate himself. On his way down from the summit, which he reached just hours before Amatangel, he lost his sight—his corneas may have frozen—and ran out of oxygen. “I thought to myself, So this is how people die up here,” he recounted. He managed to rappel down the Hillary Step by feel, and gradually regained enough sight to make it back to Camp Four.

But, he told me, “when I took my boots off to crawl into my sleeping bag, I noticed that all my toes were frozen solid.” He later descended to Camp Two and was helicoptered to a hospital in Kathmandu, where he was rehydrated with seven liters of IV fluid. Doctors in Portland, Ore., managed to save both feet except for the toes on his right foot. Now he’s back to running ultramarathons.

Amatangel’s descent was less dramatic, but not without incident. While negotiating the Hillary Step, she lost her footing and slid toward a ledge until her safety line caught her. She suffered painful whiplash and hurt her left hand so badly she couldn’t grip the ropes with it (weeks later, x-rays would show she had broken it).

Back at Base Camp, she faced a choice: helicopter out, or walk the 40 miles to Lukla, where her climb had commenced. She chose to walk. She had trekked in, and by God she would trek out. Too tired to put on her hiking boots, she wore her beat-up sneakers and ended up with massive blisters. “Sometimes she’ll make crazy decisions like that,” said Austin, ever the big sister, adding: “Once she puts her mind to something, she’s going to complete it.”

By completing the climb, of course, Amatangel also made good on her bid to scale the highest peak on each continent. But she had one more goal. “I had thought before going to Everest, If I actually make this mountain, maybe I would go back to Kilimanjaro,” she said. “And then I would have done them all within a three-year period.” And so, in July 2012, Kilimanjaro—the site of her first climb—became the close-parenthesis to her Seven Summits tour.

Life after Everest has been dull by comparison. She has done a few little outdoorsy things: climbing Mount Rainier and Mexico’s Mount Orizaba, canyoneering over 130-foot waterfalls in Zion National Park, running the Chicago Marathon (in under four hours, her best marathon time yet) and completing an ultramarathon at the Grand Canyon. To stave off boredom, she has given a number of talks—all frighteningly well prepared—to professional and mountaineering groups. And lately she has been puttering around the Colorado attorney general’s office, in Denver, where she has a new job as an assistant attorney general. Other than that, things have been pretty quiet.

Living under the Rockies will give Amatangel plenty of time to think about the inevitable “why” of climbing. Why, other than because it’s there, does a mountain exert such a pull on her? Why is it worth quitting work for, sneaking into stairwells for, enduring physical torture and mortal risk for? For the time being she offered at least a provisional answer: “These giants have been here for years and years before me, and will be here for years and years after,” she said. “Whatever worries are going on in my mind are so minor by comparison, and I find that reassuring. Besides, there is nothing more beautiful than a mountain.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.  

David Brittan can be reached at david.brittan@tufts.edu

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