She conquered Kokoda at eight and was attempting Everest when it was struck by an avalanche in 2014 and the 2015 earthquake. But on her third attempt in 2016, Alyssa Azar successfully summitted Mt Everest, becoming the youngest Australian ever to summit the mother of all mountains.
We caught up with Alyssa Azsar before her attempt on Mt Everest to find out what makes this extraordinary women tick:
In 2005 you completed the Kokoda trail. How old were you then, whose idea was that and what did the locals make of a young blonde Aussie girl taking on a trail that makes most grown men (and women) weak at the knees?
I was eight years old when I completed Kokoda. It was my idea and something I had wanted to do since I was five years old. My Dad was (and still is) a trekking guide and worked on the track and that’s how I knew about it. I would regularly train with him and his clients and a few years later went and crossed the track. The locals at that time had never seen someone so young who wasn’t a local. We would stop in villages along the way and they’d come out and say hi and some would touch my skin or play with my hair. It was an amazing experience.
Where does this insatiable desire to climb mountains and take on challenges most of us only dream of come from?
I think I’ve always had the desire to pursue a challenge and I like seeing what I am capable of. Climbing mountains puts you in a real and raw environment and you have to dig deep at times and I think it exposes your true character and what you’re capable of to yourself. I like having a challenge in front of me to take on.
You have made two previous attempts to summit Everest. First in 2014 when a tragic avalanche claimed sixteen Nepalese guides. The 2014 avalanche is the second-deadliest disaster in Everest's history, only superseded by avalanches that struck the southern side of the mountain the following year, on 25 April 2015, when you were also there for your second attempt. That kind of thing would be enough for even the most seasoned climbers to call it quits, but not you. So why are you going back?
The last two seasons were tragic and really reinforced that you never really know what is going to happen. It’s not easy to just bounce back after two expeditions but I was never going to just walk away. I knew I still wanted to climb and I never considered not going back. I love climbing and Everest is still my dream and I only think of Everest still in a very positive way. I always expect to be tested when I’m on a climb, especially on Everest, and I view the last two seasons as being a real test to my commitment. Just like any other obstacle on the climb I never wanted to give up.
Can you share with us what it was like to be there when those events took place? What helped you stay focused and safe?
The first season I was on Everest was 2014. I was in Base Camp on the 18th of April when an avalanche happened in the icefall right outside of Base Camp. Then, on April 25, 2015 I was at Everest Base Camp when the Nepal earthquake occurred. We were meant to begin our climb that morning when our head Sherpa in camp wanted to delay it one day as there had been a lot of snowfall in the icefall. I was in the mess tent and then went to my singular tent and was there for about 20 minutes when I felt everything shaking. It took a second to process what it was and I could hear a noise outside so unzipped the back of my tent and saw nothing but white cloud and snow coming through Base Camp.
Base Camp was torn apart with casualties as well as a large number throughout Nepal. Most of my tent had been buried under the avalanche but a small section at the front was clear which meant I could get out. Immediately after it stopped I began looking for the rest of our team. After we’d found out that the earthquake came from Kathmandu we knew we would have to stay on the trails but also knew aftershocks could set off more avalanches so we continued down to Namche and other villages along the trail and stayed put until it was safe to fly out. There’s a lot of luck with being safe but also I think it is important to keep a really clear head and keep calm under pressure.
What goes on up there on Mt Everest? How long are you on the mountain and what is the day to day life like during the summit attempt?
It is a 65 day expedition. I leave in late March and after a couple of days in Kathmandu and meeting with other climbers on my expedition we fly to Lukla and from there begin the trek into Everest Base Camp. After we spend some time in Base Camp we begin our ‘rotations’ up the mountain which means we climb up to different points, slowly acclimatising to higher altitudes and coming back down to base camp in between. This process takes several weeks and once we’ve done our last rotation, usually up to around 7,000m or even higher, we then rest in base camp and sometimes at an even lower altitude before heading back up the mountain on our ‘summit push.’ We’ll also be looking at weather forecasts frequently to determine when is best to push for the summit.
So far, of all your adventures have there been some key highlights that stand out to you?
I think Kokoda in 2005 was definitely a highlight as it was the beginning of my adventures and it was a huge goal of mine at the time. Also climbing in South America was a highlight. I was on Mt Aconcagua in 2014 before heading to Everest and I’ve been wanting to go back ever since.
What have been some of your biggest hurdles?
My biggest hurdles have been the circumstances outside of my control. You have to accept in the mountains that you can’t know what’s coming and have to be able to adapt to your environment. Other major hurdles have been getting these expeditions together and finding sponsorship. Also being mentally and physically prepared is a hurdle that I always take very seriously.
What motivates you to keep going?
I am motivated by my goals and I am driven to achieve them. There are some really tough times but that’s what makes the climb so significant and special. I enjoy all aspects of climbing and I keep going because I don’t ever want to quit. I am always motivated to push through whatever I’m going through and accomplish what I set out to do.
After Everest, what are your hopes for the future?
It’s hard to say right now and I am not looking too far ahead with this expedition in front of me. There is still a lot I would like to do. I would like to complete the Seven Summits next and am also incredibly inspired by 8000m peaks. High altitude expeditions are what I enjoy the most and I see myself continuing that. I also would love to do North and South Pole Expeditions and pretty much anywhere in very remote wilderness interests me.
For our readers who are facing their own mountains -- be they physical or otherwise -- what is your best piece of advice?
I would say to believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to go for your dreams. I’ve learnt from climbing that everything you need to succeed is within you. It is about what’s inside and strength of character. Just have faith and go for it.
If our readers want to follow your journey and find out more, where can they go?