…this saying applies to the Swiss mountaineer Evelyne Binsack more than to most people. After she scaled Mount Everest in 2001, she set out to reach the South Pole using nothing but muscle power. Over the course of about 400 days, she put 25,000 kilometers behind her, climbed 120,000 vertical meters on her bicycle and went on to march 1,180 kilometers to the South Pole. Yet it’s not a physical challenge that Evelyne Binsack primarily seeks; in fact, it’s more her style to embrace the essence of being.
If I had to choose which kind of animal she would be, I’d have a hard time choosing between a tiger and a snake. She has the free spirit of a tiger, an inner fire that blazes wildly, that won’t be tamed and compels her to go wherever “it” wishes. She’s also like a tiger because she has that vexing blend of almost childlike playfulness and proud royalty, which arises through the awareness of her own strength. Like the snake, she has the constant impulse to shed her skin, the desire to become new, better, wiser and more aware. She does this in a physical manner by climbing the sheerest rock walls and scaling the highest mountains – on May 23, 2001 she became the first Swiss woman to climb Mount Everest. Once she’s reached the highest summit, she sets her sights on new goals that enable her to become new again. Her goals allow her to become bigger and smaller at the same time, because whoever grows from experience also ultimately feels like a mere spark of light in the vast universe – seemingly lost yet bound to everything that is at the same time.
Evelyne Binsack was born in 1967 in Central Switzerland and as a child, “going to the mountains” was a horror. Today, however, she can’t live without the mountains and hardly a day passes when she doesn’t at least “quickly run up and down a mountain”. Sometimes she sails down on a pair of skis after hiking her way up for a couple of hours. In her first book, Schritte an der Grenze (Steps on the Edge), she writes about her adult relationship to the mountains: “I could talk about God here. I speak with Him often. I feel Him, see Him, in every single waft of breeze, in every ice crystal, in the flowers that grow where nothing else does, on rock faces. My mother imparted religion to me in a very special way. One of our rituals was the sign of the cross, which she traced on my forehead countless times with holy water. I can’t recall exactly when I knew I was drawn to Mount Everest – I only remember one thing: for my twentieth birthday, my mother wrote me a poem wishing me luck for the eight-thousander. I could do nothing but dream, for the longest time, about my wish being fulfilled. (…) When I set out for my Everest adventure, my mother gave me a small bottle of holy water for my journey. It helped to survive in the death zone at 8700 meters above sea level. No, not me. Another climber made it through an icy night in the death zone, which most have not survived.” Spontaneous inspiration led Evelyne to draw a holy water cross on his forehead, just as her mother had done to her, before he began his ascent.
You see: Evelyne Binsack is not purely a sporty mountaineer. Over the years she has become more of a pilgrim on a “physical path to enlightenment.” That is why her next expedition after Mount Everest led from the Swiss Grimsel Pass, near her home along the “Route of St. James” to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Certainly contrary to the German entertainer Hape Kerkeling, who became “a sort of national hero” because of his pilgrimage along the Route of St. James, “I would have been the laughing stock if I’d quit in Santiago,” beamed Evelyne Binsack. First of all, she wasn’t traveling by foot, but with an extremely robust bicycle and secondly, she still had a 22,000 kilometer stretch before her: from Salt Lake City, Utah (she traveled there by airplane) to Punta Arenas, the city in southern Chile where you can catch a plane to the coast of Antarctica. Her goal was the South Pole by foot, a march of 1,180 kilometers in the face of temperatures as low as minus forty degress Celcius and restless winds at speeds of up to 140 km/hr, all with a 115-kilo sled in tow. She was en route for 484 days, 47 of which were spent dredging her way to the South Pole. She did this all alone, with the exception of short visits from friends in France and Mexico and a reporting team in Ecuador.
Just as Hape Kerkeling did not experience any great feeling of happiness or enlightenment when he arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Evelyne Binsack’s arrival at the South Pole was “somewhat disappointing.” All four of her colleagues were already thinking about the return home. There wasn’t that overwhelming feeling she had experienced when summiting a mountain, to have arrived at the point of points, where the view of the entire wonderful creation of God brings a person to their knees.
This leads one to ask whether all of the toils were worth it. “Absolutely,” says Evelyne Binsack (who, by the way, has been a reader of our magazine for years). “I’m often asked if I would do this expedition all over again. I wouldn’t repeat it, no, but I’m absolutely glad that I did it.”
This conversation with Evelyne Binsack could never reproduce the “thousand valleys” she’s traveled through over the course of her life or the “thousand peaks” she’s stood atop. We can only recommend her two books (only in German!), in which she describes her path. The first, as previously mentioned, is called Schritte an der Grenze (Steps on the Edge) and describes her ascent of Mount Everest. She winds the highlights from important milestones in her extraordinary life into this extremely exciting and touching story. The second, Expedition Antarctica – 484 Tage bis ans Ende der Welt (Expedition Antarctica – 484 Days to the Edge of the World), reports on her pilgrimage halfway around the world. It grants many insights into the mental and spiritual aspects of her journey as well as the physical aspect, which becomes a kind of teacher on such a journey. For example, it tells of her bicycling across 1,800 kilometers of the harshest desert in the world before her, the Atacama. It shows how she conquered closed Andes highway passes on her bicycle during fierce, icy snow storms, not to mention, of course, overcoming the multifaceted and almost superhuman challenges presented by the Antarctic, which were not designed to be taken on by humans. Both of her books are as wonderful and exciting as they are touching and informative!
We begin the interview while she is cooking potato and vegetable gratin served with Canadian salmon brought by her friend Sandro who is a helicopter pilot there.
When you think back: which part of your journey demanded the most of you?
The most unpleasant portion was definitely Central America, where I stank like a dead animal. The Panamerican Highway is horrible. Dead animals are all over the edge of the road and produce a horrid stench together with the smell of diesel exhaust. In the evening, the smell is all over your skin because you’ve been sweating all day. The air is 45 degrees (Celsius) and the asphalt is even hotter and you’re forced to ride between six in the morning and noon. And when after all that you can’t find a place to bathe – uahh! It was really atrocious. Luckily it only lasted the 2,500 kilometers through Central America. I was in Ecuador during the rainy season, which wasn’t all that pleasant, although Ecquador is pretty touristy and has good infrastructure.
Were you able to appreciate nature from your bicycle? If so, were there landscapes you felt to be friendly, or any that were especially hostile?
At first, it was extremely hard for me as a mountain girl to leave the mountains. The notion of sitting on my bike and only pedaling straight ahead, and then in the flatlands! No, I didn’t really experience any areas that had a hostile effect on me as a cyclist.
When I rode through the boonies in Patagonia, I came to an area where there is a lot of oil drilling. It didn’t really disturb me to see these giant arms pumping oil, slowing floating up and down. Then I arrived in one of the rare small towns and it was like a shock to the soul. I was so excited for a hotel room after so many cold nights in the tent, but then I felt like I was about to fall into an abyss. Why was that? Because in this industrial town there was nothing of beauty, literally nothing worth looking at!
To have the privilege of being in Nature and to hear the birds chirping in the morning and to watch the geese on the lake, and to see the sheep, horses, cows, and farmers living in such close proximity to Nature – that was food for the soul. When you arrive in a town that is nothing but ugly, you just want to leave again right away. This particular town was hostile, but Nature never was.
I learned to appreciate all of the different forms of Nature. It was no longer like before, when I only felt good up in the mountains. Of course, I was happy every time a mountain popped up in front of me. And the mountain people of the world are extremely dear to me. They’re different than the flatlanders. For one, they can usually be trusted more. Everyone on the mountain has the same goal and fate. We’re all cut from the same cloth.
An excess of civilization often allows humanity to develop detrimental qualities, because the natural connection has been dissolved, because Nature is an extremely regulative power. It’s my experience that a person can’t remain in emotional chaos for very long when out in Nature. After a certain period, everything seems to be calm and set straight.
This is true. It seems to me that a person doesn’t even notice what happens outside in Nature, because it’s such a gradual process that just happens naturally. I don’t mean to suggest though that mountain people are better. That would be arrogant and just isn’t true.
What was your first motive to undertake such an incredible expedition?
(She pauses and thinks…) Curiosity…
How were you able to trust yourself to do this? Were you like a bulldozer, just going into it no matter what stood in your way? You did set a pretty audacious goal for yourself…
Yes, of course, but at some point reason sets in and says: if you pull this off, you’ll come out of it with invaluable experience, from which comes the reward. And then comes the curiosity that spurs a person to tackle such things. When fear threatens to influence my outlook, I don’t think about the path, only about the goal. And then I imagine myself having already accomplished the goal. The cumbersome path unfolds later, but I don’t think about that at all. And then reason says: what is a year and a half? That amount of time flies by!
How do you view life? What is the point?
I recently had a dream in which I saw how my life could have been different. I was a rebellious child. I stole, smoked and drank beer. I was no sweet girl. My dream showed me how it could have been had I chosen a path of decay rather than the path I did choose. And so it was clear to me that I’ve already achieved a tremendous amount, and that’s what it’s all about in the end. It’s about experiences and being able to always learn something new. That sounds sort of odd, since learning always had somewhat of a bitter aftertaste when I was younger because I never liked school; but to learn from experience, that’s what it’s all about.
One might live many lives here on Earth, but right now I only have this one. The amount of time available to achieve goals with physical exertion is insanely short. What I value most is using my body to achieve a goal that allows my soul and spirit to gather valuable experiences.
One could say, provokingly, that you have chosen “the physical path of enlightenment,” in that you walk an extremely strenuous physical path in order to learn the lessons of life. Have you ever asked yourself why?
I just love being out in Nature and I learn so much from her. I also encounter what I perceive as God in Nature. I have no idea where else I’d find Him… and when I’m having these special encounters with Him, other people are just irritating to me. They just want to talk and look for ways to distract themselves in nature and, as a mountain guide, I naturally feel responsible for their welfare. This is why I like to be alone in nature so much, daily, actually!
For you, is alpinism a means to an end for experiencing oneness with God in Nature, or does it have more to do with physically growing out of your body?
In many ways, it has to do with physical exertion and applying years of challenging training. And it’s about confronting and conquering fear. Climbing, especially, is all about common experience, since I practically never go rock climbing alone. Two people can mutually accomplish a goal and are therefore dependent on each other.
The feeling of merging with nature usually first arises after a tour. Of course, we can explain this biochemically, with adrenalin, endorphins and the other substances that discharge into the blood and induce feelings of happiness. It is certainly much more than that. When I, for example, am back in the parking lot after a tour of the Wendenstöcke – these peaks are just in my backyard and are considered one of the best alpine climbing areas in the world – and happen to look up, they’re no longer some random pillars of limestone… I find that I have an intensely deep relationship with them. And then when the sun goes down and they’re bathed in red light, I experience complete bliss.
Then it’s not even communication with God, with something that we were taught is outside of us… rather, it is a feeling of being one with everything that is. I don’t like to use the word “addicted’ lightly, because it’s so often misused, but that feeling is what compels me time and again to aspire to such an experience. Up there, I can climb the same route ten times and it never gets boring!
Have these experiences changed you as a person?
When I began climbing mountains, it was definitely about channeling the pent-up energy in this form and measuring myself against my colleagues in order to constantly improve, to climb higher. At first, this is what mattered and Nature was a minor point. After a while I started to learn from Nature – directly from my failures, through which Nature reprimanded me for my arrogance, ambition, and foolishness.
At some point, achievement is no longer important – from the perspective of others, you might always be ambitious and extreme, because you’ve acquired certain abilities, but then you personally abandon all of that.
It shocks Evelyne Binsack when mountaineers loudly proclaim in the media to have “defeated” a mountain. It is an attitude totally opposite to the one she has approaching the mountain. Yet, and this must be said in the defense of mountaineers’ honor, sometimes such phrases spring from the mind of a journalist or editor who’s never been on a summit himself.
Do you experience the mountain as intrinsic?
Yes, I do. Very much so, actually.
Something of this is expressed in Evelyne Binsack’s description of her encounter with possibly the most impressive mountain in Patagonia, the Fitz Roy:1 “I’ve traveled to Patagonia twice, both times with the intention of standing on the peak of Fitz Roy. When I saw my favorite mountain for the first time, I stood frozen for several minutes as if I were rooted to the ground. I was fascinated with its pride, aloofness, and the enormous pull it exerted on me.
The second time, the weather was beautiful and there wasn’t even the slightest breeze. It was so still and cloudless. Clearly outlined and granite gray, it was silhouetted against the royal blue sky and seemed so close, yet so unattainably far at the same time. It was a scene with which I immortally fell in love. Unfortunately, I found this love to be one-sided. Fritz Roy rejected me both times.
The first time, it let me get really close and in doing so demanded everything of me. Soon I recognized that El Chaltén (“the smoking mountain,” as the natives call Fitz Roy) was showing me my weakness: pure muscle power. Holding me in the frozen crevices, lifting me up, saving me for the next hold... my movement wasn’t at all graceful, rather a brute tour de force. (…) Fitz Roy brought me to the edge of creation. At first Stephan (Siegrist) and I made some good headway – the wind even spared us. But as we neared the edge of the ridge – after thirteen hours of rough going on the protected lee side – the mountain lashed our faces with such a force that the wind was knocked out of me. The storm rolled over us in a rage and brought with it sounds that reminded me of exploding dynamite. I’ve never experienced such a demonically aggressive and destructive wind in my entire life.
Stephan made it up to the next level and he had to pull the rope tight so I could climb up after him. Meanwhile, the storm had morphed it into an uncontrollable snake that wouldn’t be tamed. Stephan wasn’t aware of the fight I was putting up so he’d be able to pull on the rope, but in the end it just stopped pulling all together. And the reason it was stuck was as simple as it was frustrating: the wind had caused the rope to jam in a crevice far below me. I screamed up to Stephan that I would rappel down in order to free the rope, but he didn’t hear a single word. Once I’d reached the spot, the rope wouldn’t budge a single millimeter from the crag no matter how hard I pulled. Then suddenly, the wind hurtled the rope against me and before I realized, it had whipped it over into the next crag where it jammed again. The storm we found ourselves in was merciless. I screamed but my screams were lost in the violent roar, swallowed by the storm. I cursed and I prayed. Cursing and prayer get along well in such a moment, when you’re trying to press the last ounce of strength out of your muscles, like the last drops of juice from a dried out lemon. Success and failure are just a hair’s width apart.
Once my fatigue was so great that I could neither curse nor pray, I begged: “Dear God, please, please, please let this rope come free.” I knew that if it didn’t work, we’d be lost. Emptiness gaped below me.
And suddenly my body was swinging diagonally – carried by the wind – above the vertical rock slab. I screamed out in pain as I scraped my body against an intersection, but I held the rope tight in my hand.”
As Evelyne found her way back to her climbing partner, they were separated by just two difficult pitches from the longed for summit. “We deliberated what we should do, but couldn’t understand a single word we were speaking to each other. The wind had grown even stronger and I was suddenly aware that we had to listen to Nature. She spoke a clear language and she was telling us that we weren’t welcome there. Whether or not we wanted to accept it, whether we gave up or kept climbing, whether we let the mountain bring us to our knees or fought to have our way, putting our lives at risk in the process – we were confronted with all of these decisions.”
Finally, they allowed reason to triumph over ambition and began their descent – something they were lucky to achieve in the middle of such a raging windstorm.
Two years later, Fitz Roy denied her access again. “I still hope to touch his summit one day,” she wrote. “It’s not so much about triumphing over him as it is to feel that he’s accepted me. (…) But it could also be enough just to be in his presence, to just gaze upon him, to feel his mysticism, to converse with the Gauchos in Spanish and enjoy life in the wild.”
Unlike Fitz Roy, Mount Everest, which she preferably calls by its Nepalese or Tibetan name Sagarmatha (“The Star of Heaven) and Chomolungma (“Goddess Mother of the World”) respectively, granted her an audience.
Evelyne Binsack: Mount Everest is a very special mountain. Even when there’s a crowd and everyone is hiking up with their own “crap” in their packs, the essence of Mount Everest is really strong. I get the impression that everyone on this mountain is forced to learn what he has to learn.
Can you elaborate on that?
I was with a colleague in 2001 who was taking the photos up on Mount Everest. This man is extremely ambitious. For him, climbing Everest without oxygen was a matter of honor. I decided to take the oxygen though, simply because I didn’t want to inflict any unnecessary damage to my body. And since I was his employer, so to say, he had to go up with a mask as well. And what happened? Of all things, he started having problems with his mask on the last day before summit. And then it occurred to me for the first time…
On the eve of summiting Mount Everest, the photographer had proposed beginning their ascent at 2 a.m. “But I knew that I didn’t want that… I didn’t want to be with so many people on the mountain.” Evelyne decided to leave at midnight. “At this altitude,” she writes, “ there is no more comaraderie. Individual responsibility is the only thing that matters at that point.” She was on her way back down when she found her colleague again. “‘Where have you been for so long?’” I asked him. He paused and said: “The repairs to my oxygen tank didn’t work. I kept having to rip off my mask and was left panting for several minutes.’”
The one who was too ambitious to use oxygen then said: “I’m probably not going to make summit.” His tank was only a third full, but he still made it to the summit and back down thanks to a full tank of oxygen given to him by a selfless Sherpa!
On her second attempt to summit Mount Everest in 2005, the mountain imparted an important lesson to Evelyne. She was on her way over the south route with three other Swiss mountaineers when the weather made a turn for the worse. While she waited in the camp at over 5000 meters for the weather to improve, a colleague had to give up due to stomach problems and frostbite. The others stayed, convinced they would still make it to the top.
Then on May 21, Evelyne’s two remaining companions suddenly threw in the towel. They simply decided to leave without talking it over with her. Just three days later, notification came that a weather window was going to open. Just after that she told the Swiss tabloid Blick: “I would have made it to the top alone, but it was too late. Camp was already packed up. I cried in dissapointment.”
Evelyne Binsack: I was really disappointed that my colleagues just took off, as well as fairly angry. And what happened? I sprained my ankle on a completely normal trail as I was headed into the valley so badly that I was laid up for six months.
Today, I think that I was channeling a lot of bad energy that Mount Everest's spirit didn't want because I just couldn't get a grip on myself and Everest let it all come back on me. My belief was reinforced when a helicopter flew over me in the exact moment I had the accident and, coincidentally, a boy with a horse was leaving the valley. It was the only horse in the entire valley and at that point in time, it was on its way to the next village! So, I could take the horse and make it to the village in time to take the helicopter I had seen back to Kathmandu. It had to have been more than mere coincidence!
That’s what drives me: the lessons and experiences you gain by stepping into the unknown, and also the thankfulness that comes with success, even if there were blunders along the way. A person learns from their own weaknesses.