CLIMBING EVEREST WITH MARIAM KTIRI
It’s 2:35 am on May 22, 2019. The night is calm, the moon almost full. Mariam Ktiri is closer to the heavens than any other human on the planet. She can’t see a thing, but ‘the feeling of just standing here, knowing there’s nothing higher; it’s an unbelievable feeling.’ Not only has she summited Everest, she’s just completed the Seven Summits – climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents – in under a year. And, thanks to a decision to leave for the summit earlier than most groups, she’s avoided a queue which will snake its way to the top of Everest and go viral on social media . In the week to follow, at least nine climbers will die on the mountain
When it comes to magnificent mountains, Mariam’s surrounded by the cream of the crop. The Moroccan lives in Switzerland and fell in love with alpine climbing in her mid-twenties while living in Munich. Initially, she was content hiking through picturesque Bavarian villages, but she soon sought a bigger challenge. Inspired by individuals who’ve climbed peaks like Kilimanjaro, a desire to do the Seven Summits evolved. She quickly discovered that conquering these mountains is no mean feat. Intense physical training aside, Mariam explains that ‘the Seven Summits are mostly about mental preparation’. She used yoga to sharpen her focus, and when she left for Denali – her first climb – her body and mind were in peak condition. She summited Denali on May 28, 2018, and has since summited Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Vinson, Aconcauga, Carstensz Pyramid, and, most recently, Everest.
Mariam wasn’t concerned about ascending Everest in the dark; in fact, she loves climbing in the still of the night. ‘You hear only your breath, you see only the light from the headlight. It has some kind of magic.’ Caught up in the journey’s magic, she didn’t even realise that she’d reached the summit: ‘We were approaching the summit and there were some people in front. I thought “What is this?” The sherpa smiled at me and continued. I kept saying “Tell me, what is this?” Then he said “This is the summit!” I thought it was only a break spot because it was all dark.’ Once the reality sank in, she was on top of the world.
Making it to the summit was the icing on the cake of an incredible trip. Mariam climbed Everest with the Climbing the Seven Summits (CTSS) crew as she’d met its director, Mike Hamill, at Mt. Vinson, Antarctica, and had been impressed with the way he handled a ten-day period of bad weather. ‘People were missing their first Christmas with their families. Mike and his team were doing very well. They were all happy.’ Her decision to climb with CTSS did not disappoint. For starters, they provided fresh, hot meals – important to Mariam who believes ‘food is your fuel. It has to be good, clean and full of energy.’ She also shared a lot of laughs with climbers from around the world: ‘I felt that Everest was the international meeting point this year for the climbing community. I felt like I was among my people.’
But climbing Everest isn’t all fun and games. Coming down from the summit, Mariam had to weave her way through the wave of people ascending. It’s a narrow stretch and ‘people were moving very slowly, basically waiting more than moving’. Some turned back due to fear of frostbite and inadequate oxygen. Mariam tried to be even more focused on her descent, aware that this is when climbers are most likely to make mistakes and fall. And while she didn’t see anyone pass away that day, she did see bodies at Camp 4 and on Lhotse, which she summited the next day. It’s one thing to imagine, quite another to experience: ‘I was expecting to see bodies, but there, we were confronted with their stories.’ The only comfort is knowing that they’ve died doing what they love.
Everest’s sombre side has made headlines recently. So what went wrong in the days following Mariam’s ascent? From her perspective, the danger was in the number of inexperienced climbers and the fact that everybody was trying to summit it during a small window of good weather. She explains, ‘what we need to do is create more awareness about what Everest is. You need to be in good shape, you need to be prepared.’ Being technically proficient, moving swiftly through areas like Khumbu Icefall, analysing weather patterns, and staying hydrated can all minimise the risk of injury and death, and enable climbers to achieve their lifelong dreams.
Mariam hopes her own achievement – becoming the first Arab, Moroccan and German to climb the Seven Summits in under a year – will shake up the old school image of Arab women. There’s no stopping this independent, passionate adventurer.
Check out what Mariam’s up to at @mariamktiriadventures
Words by Amy O’Toole