As the first woman in the world to complete 'The Seven-Seven', Katie Sarah's name is now synonymous with mountaineering, but the milestone has done nothing to curb the 49-year-old Adelaide mum's ambition.
It takes you down a long winding road of self-discovery, and shakes you to your very core. For most of us, it controls the paths you choose in life, and ultimately determines your future.
In Katie Sarah's case, it was her mother's death to cancer when she was a teenager which she says defined who she is today, forcing her into independence and self-sufficiency at a very young age.
Already a ‘goal-orientated’ young person, it's no surprise then that she has ended up making history as the first woman in the world to climb the highest peaks and volcanic mountains on each of the seven continents.
But this humble mother-of-three didn't set out to be a mountaineer. In fact, the thought of it makes her laugh. "No, but I was a pretty determined person and also a perpetual student. My mother did an undergraduate degree and that application to achieve was obviously from her.”
Working in accounting and finance for 12 years, her segway into mountaineering came instead, after she followed husband Tim into triathlons.
"I realised I was quite good at running, I don't sprint — unless there's an avalanche — but I am a good distance runner!"
The pair would ‘tag team’ so they could both fit in training around their children. “My husband would get home and I’d be out the door for a one and a half hour run. I really looked forward to that time on my own after being at home with three young children."
Sarah’s passion for distant running soon turned to half marathons, marathons and then a 100km event.
“It was the Adelaide Oxfam Trailwalker that got me in the hills. I went on a trek in Flinders Ranges and at the end of the trek was an abseil down the Moonarie Cliff and that completely terrified me, but I clipped in and realised I was safe and noticed chalk on the wall. I had never been exposed to rock climbing, but being someone who liked challenges I thought going down is the easy part, I’d like to go up!”
That determination and application to achieve kicked in, and Sarah started rock climbing, and she says mountain climbing seemed a natural progression.
Fortunately at the adventure company she was then working for, an opportunity came up to climb the highest peak in Bolivia, Nevado Sajama at 6542m, and Sarah got a spot on that. It was to become her first altitude climb.
“We had a group of 13 with two guides, and I managed to climb with the guide who summited, and so I felt I could do this and while I felt rubbish in altitude, I was able to do it, and had the physical strength and mental perseverance, and that was the start.”
From that first climb, she says it was a matter of setting goals and, "just going for it".
"I went to Everest the first time in 2007. Months earlier I had broken my ankle and had a moon boot on for six months, and I had very little experience, and the ankle hadn't healed properly and it was bone on bone.
"I got to 8,400 metres and the ankle just wouldn't work, so I turned around and then thought, hang on I got that far, I am going to have to come back! Six months later, I had major surgery on the ankle so it was fused and that fixed it and I went back in 2010 and summited."
While she makes it sound like an easy feat, describing it as putting one foot in front of the other, the training is daily, and the climbing relentless. Think 12 to 18 hours on summit day, and it can take six to seven weeks to climb Everest.
"There were many times I felt really uncomfortable," Sarah admits.
"On Mount Vinson in Antarctica, we were load carrying and I knew if I’d fallen it wasn’t going to end well, and there are no guarantees of getting out. An inexperienced Sherpa had fallen and had to be flown out, and was in a really bad way, and I was inexperienced and so it might have been in my head, but it felt really dodgy. I breathed more heavily and deeply on that climb than any labours!"
Sarah says she was also always mindful of, “wanting to come home with fingers and toes, and still moving …”
The look on my face must have said it all as she added, “it’s just a reality, you pass dead bodies on Everest. Once you get to the high camp and there’s only really one route that’s the best and easiest way to go, you normally can’t get the body down and it’s frozen in the snow, and you know there are dozens more there.
“That's a reminder of the dangers, but it should only serve as a reminder.”
FINISHING THE SEVEN SEVEN
I say to Sarah she must be so proud of your achievement, and she is, but she’s also incredibly humble about it all and surprisingly didn't set out to achieve the goal of being the first woman to achieve ‘The Seven-Seven’. In fact, she says she didn’t even realise she had, until her last climb.
“It was a huge surprise, I do this because it’s the most amazing experience, and locations, and the people you meet, it wasn’t about ticking off summits and being first. It was such a bonus and it’s so cool.”
Sarah says the summit of every peak is really just a huge sense of relief.
“The first time I went to Everest I had to turn around and I thought I’d have to go through all that again, so any summit is hard work no matter how high the peak to get there is, and then once you do it, it's a feeling of, cool, I can move onto the next one."
While she’s the first woman to achieve The Seven Seven, Sarah by no means wants to play the gender card.
"I don't do this as a woman, I do this as a team member. I'm incredibly proud of doing this as a woman, but I don't play that card. In mountaineering there's no reason a woman can't do it and be part of a team."
With three sons, I ask her if her achievements have inspired her boys to follow in her climbing footsteps.
"I took my eldest to Mount Kilimanjaro about three years ago when he was 20 years old, my youngest is rock climbing and trekking and he loves that, and the middle one has done a bit of rock climbing too.”
That bit of rock climbing includes two volcanoes, including summiting the 5,230 metre Iztaccihuatl in Mexico.
With her 50th birthday approaching this year, Sarah says her next goal (in August) is to climb Manaslu in Nepal, an 8,163 peak which is the eighth highest mountain in the world, one which she says is, "nowhere near a K2, it’s a straightforward peak ... it takes about five to seven weeks to do that."
Then in December she'll do the South Pole; and the North Pole in April the following year, because well, why not!
"It’s one of the things I think I may as well do. There will be a bit of skiing involved, and we'll get some dog sleds."
Between all this climbing, three teenagers, and the 1.5 hours of training she does daily, there's also a business to run.
Sarah now owns the adventure company she was working for when she did her first altitude climb in Bolivia, now called Sarah Mountain Journeys, and says, "it's fun, and I have no plans to take over the world".
She says she just wants to continue making a positive impact on people's lives.
"There are trips which people say have changed their lives. They realise the training and embrace it, and are focused, and I love those success stories."
I ask Sarah what she thinks her mother would make of her achievements. “As a mother, she’d probably be worried, but I’m sure she’s proud.”
And her parting advice for those aspiring to do what she has done is exactly what you’d expect from this down-to-earth, born and bred Adelaide girl: "just set your goals and go for it."
MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES
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- High-altitude trek leader Dan Slater discovers when leading clients through the remote Eastern Himalayas, the logistical obstacles are often harder to conquer than the physical ones.