Journalist seeks to become first British woman to conquer Mount Everest

May 11, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Will Rebecca Stephens be the first British woman to climb Mount Everest?

Sometime tomorrow the world may know, if the organizers of the 40th anniversary of the first scaling of the world's highest mountain keep to their schedule.

Ms. Stephens, a 31-year-old London journalist and mountain climber, was to set off tomorrow from her base camp at 26,000 feet, hoping to reach the summit at 29,021 feet in about seven hours. Then she and her partner, John Barry, would return to their base camp.

"We expect her to put the flag in and then get the hell out of there," said Karen Peterson, one of the press representatives of the DHL courier service, which is sponsoring the climb.

"There's a hurricane forecast for the next 24 hours. They literally have to make a -- up the mountain, then back down."

Each lap of that "--" usually takes 12 hours.

If Ms. Stephens makes it, the Everest climb will be a double triumph for British female adventurers. Last week, Nicky Cole, a 34-year-old British mother, also from London, became the first woman to walk to the North Pole.

It gave her, she said, the "biggest buzz of my life."

After being airlifted from Russia onto the icecap, Ms. Cole walked 120 miles in the company of the 11 men in the expedition, which was led by Robert Swan, who became the first man to walk to both the North and South poles.

During her trek, through cracking ice and in temperatures well below zero, Ms. Cole briefly got lost, saw two of her colleagues plunge waist deep through the ice into the Arctic Ocean, felt the ice breaking beneath her and experienced "a tremendous sense of fragility."

"You have a tent, a stove and a few layers of clothing between you and never coming back," she said.

Before she set out, she said she did not think she would be able to complete the trek. "I surprised myself. . . . It's not a male-female thing. It's mental: Lots of women could do it and lots of men could not," she said.

Of the pole itself, she said: "It was the only place without a distant haze of pollution. It's strange that you have to go that far to get away from man-made dirt."

As for the Everest climb, if Ms. Stephens makes it to the top she will join a small club of female mountaineers.

Only eight, or possibly nine, other women have reached the top of Everest, according to Sheila Harrison, assistant secretary of the London-based Alpine Club, the oldest mountaineering club in the world.

The first was a Japanese, in 1975, followed by a Chinese, a Pole and a West German (who died of exposure in her descent).

Then a Canadian woman did it, then an Indian and, in 1988, two Americans, the same year a New Zealander, Lydia Bradley, went up.

Of Ms. Bradley's attempt, Ms. Harrison said: "It was one of those controversial things. She's not sure she got to the top. I don't know if they are being unfair to her. It was a solo climb, and her camera froze so she couldn't take pictures at the summit."

The purpose of the current Everest expedition is twofold: to commemorate the first scaling of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary May 29, 1953, and to collect money to help clean up the mountain, which over the years has Become a garbage dump for expeditions shedding equipment.

"Everest doesn't seem to lose its mystique," Ms. Harrison said.

In fact, it might be the most crowded peak in the world.

Yesterday 37 climbers in seven separate expeditions reached the summit. They set a record for a single day.

The previous record was set last May 12, when there were 32 climbers at the summit at the same time.

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