Words by Nina Zietman
When you hear about a person tackling Mount Everest for the first time, people often assume certain things.
Firstly, the person is rich. Secondly, they are a white man approaching middle age and thirdly, they come from a long line of weather-beaten, hardy mountaineers.
She wants to be the first British woman to summit the world’s tallest mountain from both sides…
Mollie Hughes is none of these things. She is an average British woman in many ways, living in Edinburgh and working part-time in an outdoors shop selling ice axes and crampons.
But at the same time, she’s not so ordinary at all. Mollie is one of the youngest British climbers to have summited Mount Everest.
Now she’s attempting to do it again – and this time, she wants to become the first British woman to summit the world’s tallest mountain from both sides.
“I don’t like heights very much,” says 24-year-old Mollie as we chat over Skype from her Edinburgh flat.
This seems ironic, considering her life has revolved around climbing the world’s tallest peaks since the age of 21.
Neither of her parents had a background in mountaineering. In fact, Mollie grew up in the flat county of Devon, where the highest elevation is a lofty 621m.
It was only after she scaled Mount Kenya on a school trip to Africa that Mollie caught the mountaineering bug.
While studying psychology and sports biology at the University of the West of England, she saved money to travel in her holidays – from Scotland to the Himalayas and the Andes.
But is it possible to one day just decide that you want to climb the tallest mountain on the planet? Well, yes.
After writing her dissertation on Mount Everest, Mollie decided she needed to tackle it herself. It took 12 months of gruelling training, tackling mountains in Chamonix in the French Alps and the Himalayas.
However, it wasn’t the training that Mollie found most challenging, it was trying to raise £30,000 required to get a single person up Mount Everest. “I was a university student, so I had no money, just a lot of student debt. Trying to get sponsorship was definitely the hardest thing.”
Finally, after months of preparation, the money came through and Mollie finally climbed aboard that plane to Lukla in Nepal.
Climbing Everest is no picnic. Just reaching Everest Base Camp is a nine-day hike. You then spend six weeks acclimatising to the altitude before waiting for a perfectly clear weather window, allowing you to safely make the 12-hour climb to the summit.
“There’s usually a jet stream buffeting the summit with 200 mile per hour winds. You don’t want to go up there then because you’ll just be blown off,” explains Mollie.
By the end of May, there was a short 24-hour gap where the winds were dying down and it looked safe to bag a summit for Mollie and her team. “This meant everyone at Base Camp – around 250 climbers – were heading for the summit on the same night, which was really dangerous.”
You have to cross 50m deep crevasses on ladders like those you might have in your garden shed
As soon as you step out of Base Camp and start to head up Mount Everest, you’re in the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous sections on the South Col route to the top of Everest.
Huge blocks of ice – the size of large houses – can tumble down and crush you at any moment. The glacier moves so fast that large crevasses often open without warning.
Mollie explained that you have cross these crevasses – usually four metres wide and 50m deep – using ladders. “These ladders are just like garden ladders you might have in your shed, just strung across a crevasse. Crossing them was just horrible. There were about 27 of them between Base Camp and Camp One.”
Beyond here you enter the Western Cwm, a huge wide flat glacial valley, and into the ‘death zone’. This is the area above 8,000m where temperatures drop and oxygen levels are extremely low.
“There was only one time where I actually thought I was going to die,” said Mollie. It was in the Western Cwm. “It’s really beautiful and peaceful, but it’s renowned for avalanches.”
This avalanche was headed straight at me. It was the kind of moment when you think, ‘Oh, this could be it’
“We were heading on our summit attempt when this avalanche erupted on the right hand side of the Western Cwm and was headed straight at me.
“It was the kind of moment when you think, ‘Oh, this could be it’. I took off my rucksack and ran as fast as I could. But at 6,500m, the altitude as so high that running was just impossible. Luckily it dispersed before it got to me.”
What did her family think about her attempting something so dangerous? “They were super supportive, but I don’t think my mum slept for the first two months I was away.”
One of the most surprising facts about climbing Everest are the queues to reach the summit. Imagine a long snaking line of brightly coloured climbers all waiting their turn to top the highest peak in the world.
“We got to the top before most people that day,” said Mollie. “But we met them all on the way down on Hilary Step. This is the crux of summit day. It’s a really thin rocky section with massive drops on all sides with lots of people waiting to move up. I was stuck there for a good two hours.
There’s so little oxygen, it feels a bit like you’re drunk – which isn’t good when you’ve got big drops around you
There’s so little oxygen, it feels a bit like you’re drunk – which is not good when you’ve got big drops around you.”
What does it feel like to finally reach the highest point in the world? “There was no sense of joy or happiness,” said Mollie. “Just this overwhelming relief that we’d got there and this huge exhaustion.
“I just sat down and tried to drink my water but it was all frozen. I guess it’s because you’ve still got the getting down bit looming over you.”
Statistically, you are more likely to die on Everest coming down, rather than climbing up. “After you’ve reached the top, you’re so physically and mentally exhausted.
“You’ve been climbing in the death zone for over 12 hours. It would be so easy to trip on your crampons, not clip into a rope or mess up an abseil on the way down.”
Luckily, Mollie and her team made it down safely, but the big question is why does she want to climb this beast once more? “Everest is such a big part of my life now, but I feel like I’ve only experienced half of the mountain.”
The North Face – which Mollie wants to summit in spring 2016 – is on the Tibetan side of Everest, the opposite side to Edmund Hilary’s original route.
“Less people do it partly because it’s tricky to get permits from the Chinese government. It’s also colder and you spend more time above 8,000m in the death zone.”
Until then, Mollie will keep giving motivational talks at schools, universities and corporate events around the country – while working an outdoors shop. You can’t help but think she must be the most inspirational sales assistant in the world.
I don’t think there’s much difference in men and women in their ability to climb
There are still only a handful of female mountaineers taking on the world’s highest peaks. Mollie has seen first hand how few women there are on expeditions like this.
“I don’t think there’s much difference in men and women in their ability to climb,” she says. “It’s very much an internal thing. Everest evens people out a little.”
“We’re definitely hugely outnumbered. When I was climbing in the Himalayas last autumn, it was just two women in our team of seven people.
“I’d love there to be more women in the sport, I hope it’s on the rise.”
What advice would she give someone looking to climb Everest for the first time?
“Just do it. It was the most incredible thing to experience. It takes a lot hard work and training.
“You need to be a competent, confident mountaineer, who can look after themselves. You don’t want anyone else to have to look after you. Just do it and enjoy it.”