Six Down, Eight to Go: Interview with Kristin Harila

“On Annapurna, you could feel the place was dangerous. On Dhaulagiri, loads and loads of snow to deal with. And on Makalu, the beginning of the summit push was terrifying.”

Thirty-six-year-old Kristin Harila‘s first mountain of note was a hike up Kilimanjaro in 2015. But the Norwegian athlete has won worldwide notice in the mountaineering community by climbing six Himalayan 8,000’ers in record time this spring.

She has quieted those skeptics who didn’t take her seriously at first. Still, she has a long way to go before completing her project of summiting all 14 8,000’ers in six months.

Right after climbing Makalu, she was waiting in Base Camp for the weather to clear so she could catch a helicopter to Kathmandu. Although she was about to fall asleep — and did so two seconds after finishing this interview — Harila spoke to ExplorersWeb about her project. And she didn’t avoid some difficult questions.

“I am physically great, I could climb another mountain tomorrow,” the open and enthusiastic Harila said between bouts of coughing. She’d picked up the cough at Makalu Base Camp.

Harila and ‘Uncle Dawa’ on the summit of Makalu in bad weather. Photo: Kristin Harila

 

Harila admits that she didn’t have a lot of time to plan or train for this mega-endeavor. “I just came up with the project some months ago, so there was no time for thorough preparations.”

“Yet I think being 36 is better than being 20,” she said. “I am more experienced and have a long background of good training that I can draw on.”

A northern athlete

Born and raised in northern Norway, Harila‘s sports background unsurprisingly revolved around cross-country skiing. She competed at a national level from ages 16 to 23.

Beginning in 2013, she focused totally on her career. “I worked so much…too much,” she said. “I was an executive for an important Norwegian company, and I stopped training almost completely. Then in 2019, I decided I needed a change and quit my job. I took up cross-country skiing again (but didn’t compete), and did a lot of trail running.”

Climbing was not among her sports. “Northern Norway is totally flat. There are no mountains to climb!”

Still looking fresh on Annapurna, her first peak this spring.

 

After Harila went up Kilimanjaro in 2015, she caught the climbing bug. She discovered the Himalaya in 2019 by summiting two trekking peaks, Lobuche East and Putha Hiunchuli (also known as Dhaulagiri VII).

“I decided I wanted to focus on mountains and do something big,” she explained. Her first idea was the Seven Summits. That’s when she first began to eye Everest.

“Then came the COVID pandemic and all plans stopped, but at least I was able to train intensely in Norway’s mountains,” she recalled. “They are not tall but offer endless possibilities for long routes.”

She also managed to climb Aconcagua in 2020.

Thinking bigger

In 2021, she joined a Madison Mountaineering team to Everest and Lhotse, which she summited. That was when the 14×8,000m project started.

“Back in Camp 2, people were celebrating the summit, but I couldn’t help feeling sad because it was over. So, I started thinking of new projects. Something bigger than the Seven Summits.”

Harila had seen Nirmal Purja speed up the 8,000’ers and decided that she would take his record as a challenge. When potential sponsors passed, she sold her apartment to finance the project.

“At the same time, I realized this sport and this industry [mountaineering] was far from equal,” Harila said. “On Everest, there were many more men than women. History speaks virtually only about men climbing mountains…I recall a brand I was speaking with, which was launching a new collection of super cool, cutting-edge, high-altitude clothes, and they only came in men’s sizes. The message is that girls may go hiking but not high-altitude climbing.”

Pasdawa, Harila, and Dawa Wongchu received a heroes’ welcome in Kathmandu.

 

“Likewise, on Everest, I noticed that the women in my team were well prepared mentally and physically, but the men were not, because their attitude was: Sure, I can do this.”

Sponsors didn’t believe me

When asked if Harila believes that would-be sponsors took her projects less seriously because she is a woman, Harila was clear: “Yes, I do. When I presented the project, they simply didn’t believe me. And now that I have come so far, many of these companies are contacting me to resume negotiations.”

Hence Harila’s “Women too” motto. It not only means that women can also climb, but that the outdoor industry should focus more on women.

“In the end, I do not care that much about beating a record, I care about inspiring young women. This is not about making the impossible possible, but proving that women can do it too. That they can do it even better.”

Although this message of empowerment is important, we noted that the number of women climbing Himalayan peaks has increased dramatically.

“It is true, I saw this, especially on Annapurna. It is great news, and some of these girls are remarkably young. [This is another] reason to pressure the industry.”

With fellow 8K expedition climber Purnima Shrestha of Nepal.

More about teamwork

Harila sees her project not as just an individual achievement, but as the result of coordinated, efficient teamwork.

“In this sense, I have a different narrative than the one in Purja’s film. This is not about one person doing something amazing. There are so many people involved! For me, it is essential to show the work that the Sherpas are doing. I have Pasdawa and Uncle Dawa [Dawa Wongchu is Pasdawa’s uncle] with me…I want to share the record with them because they deserve it so much. I hope they can complete the challenge with me.”

Besides her two Sherpa companions, Harila notes the work done by all those working in the mountains, from rope-fixing teams to porters. And of course, logistics teams, which are vital for this kind of project.

A team of three.

 

“Logistics have also been an essential part of the project, and 8K has done an amazing job. They are a new company, but the leaders are experienced and the Sherpa guides are so strong. They have engaged 100% with making my project happen.”

Not a walk in the park

Harila is using all the help that technology and human resources can provide: helicopters, O2, and support up the route.

“I am hiding nothing. The most important thing is to be open from the start about what you are doing,” she said. “For me, people can climb in whatever way they want but [should be] honest about how they do it. I am using oxygen, I don’t carry loads, I rely on Pasdawa and Uncle Dawa.”

Other factors cannot be controlled. “On Kangchenjunga, I was so sick [likely a stomach bug]. I had a really difficult summit push and it was long. On Annapurna, you could feel the place was dangerous. On Dhaulagiri, loads and loads of snow to deal with.

“And on Makalu, the beginning of the summit push was terrifying. We went out in complete darkness. It was snowing and the ropes were nowhere to be seen. But Pasdawa and Uncle Dawa just kept going, breaking trail in deep snow, upwards, non-stop. I was thinking: Oh my goodness, there are no ropes, what if we miss the route, I see nothing…And then, after hours, there were the ropes. They knew exactly where they were going and eventually found them.”

And on Everest?

“I don’t want to say that it’s a walk in the park but the roped-up trail on the upper sections is like a motorway!”

Challenges ahead

Harila hopes to keep the same Sherpa guides for the entire project. The second phase starts in two weeks on Nanga Parbat, then moves to the Karakoram 8,000’ers.

Continuing the project won’t be cheap. At present, sponsor Bremont pays for a fifth of the budget. Harila is footing the rest.

“We need to get some more sponsors, but now I am sure we will get them, and we have signed an agreement to make a film.”

For the project’s third leg, the hardest obstacles are not physical but bureaucratic. China remains closed to foreign expeditions, which could prevent Harila from summiting the final two peaks, Shishapangma and Cho Oyu.

“We have started the process of applying for a special permit and I am hopeful we will get it. Norway and China have often worked together in the past and I hope they’ll still find common ground. After all, Nirmal Purja obtained one, so I don’t see why I should not get equal treatment.”

It might be possible to summit Cho Oyu from Nepal if Harila joins the teams trying to open a commercial route up the SSW Ridge. But that would still leave Shishapangma.

Arriving in Base Camp at night after summiting Makalu.

 

Time will tell if she can tick off the upcoming 8,000’ers as swiftly as the first six. Did Harila think it was going to work out as well as this spring, at least, has gone?

“Yes, I was positive that I could make it, although I was also aware that we had to be lucky with the weather. But I actually didn’t think much about it. I just went one mountain at a time. And I will continue to do so with the other peaks.”

Angela Benavides is a journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news working with ExplorersWeb.com.

Angela Benavides has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of national and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive, radio reporter and anchorwoman, etc. Experience in Education: Researcher at Spain’s National University for Distance Learning on the European Commission-funded ECO Learning Project; experience in teaching ELE (Spanish as a Second Language) and transcultural training for expats living in Spain.

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Lisa
Lisa
1 month ago

Thank you for this interview and article, Angela! Rooting for you Kristen!!! My interest in mountaineering and the Himalaya came from a book I read as a teen about an all-woman team on Anapurna in 1978. A big message in that book was that women in their mid 30’s are at their mental and physical peak for high altitude climbing (which gave me so much hope and a positive mindset about age as a girl), so l enjoyed that tidbit in the article. I hope you get them all this year! I now understand why opening a route on Cho… Read more »

P.R.
P.R.
1 month ago

Honesty is everything! Maybe she can be the first person to stand on the summits of all 14, 8000, in one year. She deserve it.

Max Madera
Max Madera
1 month ago
Reply to  P.R.

The first person? Up to now and by her own words, Pasdawa and Uncle Dawa have been doing the same, plus brekaing the trail, carrying the stuff and finding the routes!

P.R.
P.R.
1 month ago
Reply to  Max Madera

You are right. I should have said “the first persons”, if they continue until the finish.

Tsering
Tsering
1 month ago

First of all, Nirmal Purja has lifted the entire Sherpa community in the film. It’s because of 14peaks that the world finally knows about us. Crazy to see your biased reporting and how this western woman although copying him in every way is downgrading him. While using Sherpas to break the trail and carry her load. You have no idea how Nims have inspired Nepal and all of Asia. Maybe find your own goals than follow him. That would be more empowering.

Armchair Critic
Armchair Critic
1 month ago

More of a bucket list climber than anything else. Good on her but these sorts of achievements on 8000ers just reinforce the fact that the 8000ers have become easier and easier. If you’re going to put “High Altitude Mountaineer” on your LinkedIn profile to boost your ego, then by all means go ahead,

SpeakTruth
SpeakTruth
1 month ago

That’s because her sherpas are doing all of the work for her. But she’s convinced herself that this is her “accomplishment” and she’s representing women against “systemic” oppression in mountaineering. Someone give her some meds so she can stop chasing windmills.

SpeakTruth
SpeakTruth
1 month ago

An insufferable feminist Dona Quixote. Companies focus more on men because there are more men interested in the sport. There isn’t rampant sexism like she wants to claim. And what’s with her portrayal of men as careless and uninspired neanderthals? She could have ended it with women can do it too, but had to add in a totally unnecessary sexist remark of women doing it better. If a man were to say that he would be crucified. Sorry, but if women can do it better then your whole team should be comprised of women or you should be doing this… Read more »

Jmaf
Jmaf
1 month ago

Peak bagging up fixed ropes with multiple climbers carrying you and your gear up the mountain for you. Not sure inspirational is the expression I’d use but whatever.

chris
chris
1 month ago

Lots of insecure guys on here complaining about how she is doing something the “wrong” way when they themselves have never accomplished what she already has.
Sad so many negative comments were allowed.
Nirmal used an army of sherpas too.. so what?

Tsering Lhamo
Tsering Lhamo
1 month ago
Reply to  chris

Nirmal also broke the trail himself and carried load AND rescued others while doing so.

Elmo Francis
1 month ago
Reply to  chris

Some who are commenting here are “book mountaineers” wonder if they can climb a fleet of stairs.. If you are a mountaineer you will know the challenges, than criticize. With or without Sherpas, try doing what she or Nims did.. And then talk..

Purist
Purist
1 month ago
Reply to  Elmo Francis

I have climbed 3x7000ers in the remote Indian Himalayas and it was all self-supported. Stop posting these textbook “armchair mountaineers who can’t climb stairs blah blah blah” comments. Not everyone is an armchair mountaineer. There are purists and non-purists.

Joe
Joe
1 month ago
Reply to  Purist

“remote”

Purist
Purist
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe

By “Remote”, I mean Climb from Home remote.

fred west
fred west
1 month ago

Good on her for including the Sherpas in her project. Without the Sherpas there would be no climbing.

Uttam
Uttam
29 days ago

ya mountaineering is crying out for more diversity, for more stories on women and people-of-color climbers. this interview fills that need. oh the kaleidoscopic range of mountaineering stories waiting to be told in the future. at the rate she’s going, i think Harila can easily beat Nims Purja’s record time ….all the powers to her. the race to climb the highest 14 peaks in record time is on the cusp of becoming like the 100 m race in the olympics, easy to understand even by lay people and by sponsors. this is a good thing. high altitude mountaineering needed something… Read more »

Deano
Deano
26 days ago

Climbing mountains just ain’t what it used to be. Get some gear, some money, take the elevator to the top and say yahoo I’m great! The only ones really climbing the mountain are the Sherpa. Anyhow, lol to all good efforts

Stephen Lewis
Stephen Lewis
4 days ago

It will be some achievement, if she succeeds in completing the 14 peaks
Already she has shown what an elite climber she is ,onwards and upwards