Kristin Harila beats all odds with historic climbs
First woman to scale 14 highest peaks in the world in record time
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
–Sir Edmund Hillary, first to climb Mount Everest
Kristin Harila joked as to why she wanted to scale the 14 highest summits in the world.
“I have been wondering myself lately also,” the 37-year-old laughed over Zoom from Oslo.
Switching gears, “It started with my love being in the mountains, outside in nature and the expedition life. It’s a good age for doing a project like this because I am old enough to have enough experience and training in my body, but still not injured everywhere.”
On July 27, Harila, Lama (Tenjin Sherpa), four other sherpas, and photographer Gabriel Torso reached the K2 summit in Pakistan, 8,611 meters above sea level, in a record 7.5 hours, completing scaling all 14 peaks in the world 8,000 meters or higher in a record three months and one day (92 days). In 2021, she set the women’s record on K2 of 12 hours, brought it down to 8 hours in 2022, and now 7.5.
“Harila and Lama’s collaboration has showcased the essence of mountaineering unity, transcending borders and cultures to achieve greatness together,” wrote her publicist Rigmor Berthier on Harila’s website.
The 14 peaks the duo summited:
1. Shishapangma, 8,027m, China (Tibet), April 26, 2023 (rank 14)
2. Cho Oyu, 8,188m, Nepal-China (Tibet), May 3, 2023 (rank 6)
3. Makalu I, 8,485m, Nepal, May 13, 2023 (rank 5)
4. Kangchenjunga, 8,586m, Nepal, May 18, 2023 (rank 3)
5. Everest, 8,848m, Nepal, May 23, 2023 (rank 1)
6. Lhotse, 8,516m, Nepal, May 23, 2023 (rank 4)
7. Dhaulagiri I, 8,167m, Nepal, May 29, 2023 (rank 7)
8. Annapurna I, 8,091m, Nepal, June 5, 2023 (rank 10)
9. Manaslu, 8,163m, Nepal, June 10, 2023 (rank 8)
10. Nanga Parbat, 8,125m, Pakistan, June 26, 2023 (rank 9)
11. Gasherbrum II, 8,034m, Pakistan, July 15, 2023 (rank 13)
12. Gasherbrum I, 8,080m, Pakistan, July 18, 2023 (rank 11)
13. Broad Peak, 8,051m, Pakistan, July 23, 2023 (rank 12)
14. K2, 8,611m, Pakistan, July 27, 2023 (rank 2)
Harila was the first woman to accomplish the feat. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, “one giant leap for womankind.”
“I had been feeling for a while this sport and industry were far from equal,” said Harila, who is of Sámi heritage. “I knew what NIMS (Nirmal Purja) did in 2019 when he took the record over the 14 peaks in six months and six days. At first, I was like ‘do we really need to talk about equality in that way still?’ I didn’t realize the brands were producing a down suit just in men’s sizes. The Norwegian brands are supporting male athletes. The best way to change something is to show that we are just as strong. That made it very hard to find enough money to do this.”
Harila quit her well-paying administrative job in 2019— “I had no plans what I was going to do, I just knew that I wanted to do something else and to be outside more”—sold her home and “everything I had in Norway” in March. She has spent $1.5 million the last two years.
She grew up in Vadsø in Finnmark, the Northeastern-most town in Norway. The terrain was flat with no mountains.
“It’s very cold and very dark,” she said. “We were outside a lot of the time. I skied mostly and played handball, football, and other sports. I think that was very good for us and helped in this project. We learned how to handle bad weather, because we have a lot of bad weather.”
Her father was a lover of the outdoors, too, but it didn’t mean he didn’t fret while his daughter was over 8,000m above sea level for almost four months.
“I am both proud and moved,” he said on her website. “I am also worried for her and will be very happy once she comes down and comes home. I don’t think those of us, outside of the climbing community, fully understand the breadth of what she has accomplished.”
There are many elements in preparation for this trek. Food and medical supplies. Oxygen. The person documenting the trip must be as able and fit to tackle the obstacles as the subject. There are mental as well as physical challenges.
In 2015, Harila climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is 5,895 meters, but it was quite difficult as she lost her sight and vomited a lot. After quitting her job, she went to Nepal and attempted some 6,000- and 7,000-meter mountains and went on skiing expeditions. When COVID-19 hit, she was limited to Norwegian mountains, the highest being 2,400m. In 2021, she did Everest, then in 2022, she began summiting the 14 8,000m peaks.
“The only way to prepare is to do many long sessions, day after day,” Harila said. “The psychological is as hard as the physical. I’m used to it. You have to be comfortable being very uncomfortable for a very long time. We see people struggling going to the toilet or sleeping in a tent. Then, they use too much energy on the climb. You have to be physically and technically in good shape to climb these big mountains, and mentally prepared for very long and very hard days being uncomfortable. When I had a shower in late July, I hadn’t had a shower in a month and had climbed four mountains in between.”
When you climb an 8,000m mountain, you have to factor in getting back. Many have perished on the descent so the climber is aware of the possibility they might not return.
“I am prepared for that and prepared my family for that also,” she said. “If I die up in the mountain, I will die happy. I think it’s more important to live and be alive when we are here. Many people get very exhausted on the way down. We know a lot of the accidents happen on the way down.”
Harila, Lama, Tarso, and the fixing team strated ascending K2 on July 26 around 8 p.m., with fixed ropes around them. They found themselves behind six people at a bottleneck.
“Above camp four is probably the most dangerous area on the most dangerous mountain where one of four people are not coming back alive from that mountain,” said Harila. It’s a very narrow trail, super steep on one side. On the other side you have this big serac, an ice block hanging over us. Snow can collapse below you at any time. We all need to walk extremely close to the mountain. Every minute you stay there increases the risk of accidents for yourself and everyone above and below you.”
Suddenly, movement stopped. Then, Harila, Lama and Tarso noticed the second person in the group in front of them—later identified as 27-year-old porter Muhammad Hassan—was off the trail hanging upside down in the air to the left of the Harila team, holding onto the rope between two ice anchors, about 5m down. Hassan was connected to the same rope as them and the harness was down at his knees. Lama was 7, Harila 8, Tarso 9 in line. It was around 2:15 a.m., so it was pitch black.
“The fixing team was finished with the bottleneck, and they were around the corner from this serac,” continued Harila. “The number three in their line tried to put an ice anchor in the ice. As we were standing there, it was getting tighter and tighter because the people behind us didn’t see what was happening in front of us. I told them don’t come closer. Everyone is afraid that the trail will collapse. To get to Hassan, we had to clip around these people in front of us. That means we have to hold and loosen the take of our fixed rope. We clipped around four people in front of us. It’s very dangerous to clip around people but we had to get to Hassan.
“Lama set up another ice anchor, and I tied myself to it. Lama was only attached to this rope. Lama tried to go out to Hassan and turn him around. He’s not able to do that. So, Lama climbs up on the trail, and Gabriel comes from the bottom. Gabriel manages to get the rope on Hassan and after a while he managed to turn him around. Hassan was not wearing a down suit and gloves and his body was exposed to the cold. There was no sign of an oxygen bottle, mask, or regulator. Maybe, he dropped them. Gabriel gave Hassan his oxygen and tried to calm him. Then Lama and these other guys tried to drag him up.
“As this is happening, around 3:20 a.m., we get a message, there was a big avalanche around the corner where the fixing team is, probably 20 meters or so from us. We are safe because we are under the serac. We decide to split up, so Gabriel stays down with Hassan and another sherpa. He created a pulley system with three anchors and a rope and he, Hassan’s friend, and another man worked on pulling Hassan onto a small snowshelf in the bottleneck. As they did, people were crossing them, trying to get away from the dangerous bottleneck that lies at 8200m. Gabriel gave him more oxygen and hot water to warm him up. At some point, Gabriel had too little oxygen left and he needed oxygen for himself. He had spent 2.5 hours helping Hassan.”
With groups descending and ascending, the bottleneck became dangerously crowded. Hassan was now back on the trail and alive. Harila and Lama continued to the summit, reaching it at 10:45 a.m. When Gabriel rejoined them, he said Hassan was alive but not in good shape, but there were people with him. Then, Hassan died.
People on social media–who are not even her followers–are lashing out at Harila with vitriol, claiming she was among climbers who stepped over the body; that she was selfish, more interested in setting a record and reaching the summit than helping a dying person. There have also been death threats.
The New York Times led with “A Norwegian climber defended her decision to continue a record-breaking series of climbs last month after encountering an injured porter who later died…” implying that she is guilty.
Harila was forthcoming in this interview and detailed in posts on her website and social media channels about what her team did to help.
There were other climbers up there. Why is only Harila targeted? It’s easy to criticize when you’re not 8,000 meters above sea level and don’t know the terrain.
In the Times article, Austrian climber Wilhelm Steindl was quoted as saying “There was no rescue mission” and videoed “70 mountaineers (who) stepped over a living guy who needed big help at this moment, and they decided to keep on going to the summit.”
Seventy, but Harila was targeted. When was Steindl there? If people were stepping over Hassan, he was back on the track after Lama and Gabriel got him back on it. He missed Gabriel providing oxygen and perhaps Steindl was there after Gabriel left because the oxygen was low. When Gabriel left, there were other people with Hassan.
Harila’s role model, Norwegian Cecilie Skog, climbed K2 in 2008 when 11 people, including her husband, perished in the bottleneck area.
The campaign against Harila reeks of sexism and overshadows her accomplishment.
“I think a part of this is, for sure, because I’m a woman,” she said. “In the end, it’s just a tragic accident on the most dangerous mountain in the world. A man lost his life and a family lost a father, husband and a son.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.