“I’ve coped quite well with the corona pandemic so far,” Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner tells me. “I’m very lucky that we live in the countryside. The forest starts right behind the house. I’ve always made an effort to be out in the fresh air a lot and to strengthen my immune system.” In 2011, with her success on the Chinese north side of the 8,611-meter-high K2, the Austrian became the first woman to scale all 14 eight-thousanders without bottled oxygen. In 2017, the Italian Nives Meroi also managed to do so.
In recent years, Gerlinde has faded from the limelight. With her partner, yoga instructor Manfred Jericha, she lives at Lake Attersee in Upper Austria. Together they offer yoga courses and trips. Kaltenbrunner is also still in demand as a lecturer. This Sunday she turns 50.
Gerlinde, half a century, how does that feel to you?
Very well. Now I’m turning 50 and I’ve been able to experience and learn so much in my life. It has been so intense so far, there have been so many positive moments, but also difficult ones. I am just grateful. Everything that is still to come is an encore. If – which of course I don’t wish for – my life ended now, I would look back and say: It was good, I’d do it again like that.
What does it mean to you today that you scaled the 14 eight-thousanders without bottled oxygen?
I’m still incredibly happy that I made it and that I always came back without frostbite. I can remember most of the expeditions as if it were yesterday. The most intense memory, of course, is this of K2. I will never forget that for the rest of my life. At my lectures I can tell about it and maybe inspire some people. That’s why I’m doubly happy about it.
Is there a special moment from your many expeditions that you always remember – perhaps even when you’re not feeling so well?
Then I think of the moment on K2 at 6,600 meters, after 14 hours of effort, it was freezing cold. We were shoveling a plateau for our tent and both of us (she and her then husband Ralf Dujmovits) were totally exhausted. At that moment, the sun was setting on the six-thousanders around us. That was a magical moment. I felt a deep silence inside me and just marveled. I felt how small and tiny we are and how great nature is. I opened myself to it and felt how much energy and strength nature gave back to me. This moment is there quite often, even in difficult situations, when things don’t go my way. It gives me confidence and reminds me of the big picture.
You have also experienced sad things in the mountains – for example, in 2007 on Dhaulagiri, when two Spaniards died in an avalanche and you barely escaped with your life. Do such experiences still haunt you today?
No, not anymore. I have been able to put that behind me. In the year following the avalanche, I dreamt almost every night that I was stuck in the avalanche and couldn’t get out. In 2008, I returned to Dhaulagiri with David Göttler. At the site of the accident, I stopped and faced my emotions. It was painful, I had to cry a lot. But I consciously faced my fear and was thus able to process it well for me. It was clear to me that something like this happens in the mountains and that I can’t undo it, that I have to look forward.
After the 14 eight-thousanders, you withdrew little by little from the glaring limelight of the mountaineering scene. Why?
Basically, I rather love silence, seclusion and also solitude. After K2, there was quite a hype. The media attention also helped me. I was asked to give talks and gained new sponsors. That helped me to really live my life the way I want to. My big task was to strike the right balance, which I managed quite well. But it’s also been very good for me to step back a bit and reflect on my life. A lifelong dream that had occupied me for years had come true. I had to reorient myself.
Are there things that are more important to you today than mountaineering?
The mountains are still very much anchored in my heart. I still love to go to the mountains, for example for rock climbing. You’ll laugh, but I also still feel inside me that feeling of setting out, sleeping curled up in a sleeping bag in a tent, and waking up in the morning with a cold nose when the first rays of sunlight hit the tent. I realize that I still long for those moments. However, it is no longer the eight-thousanders that excite me, but beautiful five-, six- or seven-thousanders.
But in the meantime there are also many other topics in my life. I have developed myself further, have made important trainings for me, for example in existential coaching (ways to a fulfilled existence) or also as a yoga teacher. This is a real school of life, with many things to make life and togetherness positive. The aid projects in Nepal are also important to me. Stefan, after we successfully finished our joint project “School up!” (the reconstruction of the school in the mountain village of Thulosirubari after the earthquake in 2015), I now have a new project: the construction of a daycare center near Kathmandu for children and young people with disabilities, who have so far not been taken care of at all.
I’ll come back to the mountains again. That just sounded as if we would soon see Gerlinde on expedition again. Is that impression deceptive?
(Laughs) There are two mountains in the Karakoram that have fascinated me since my first expedition and are still circling around in my head. That’s where I’d like to go back to someday. I can’t say more, but I think I will go back.
Can you at least tell me about one mountain? I heard something about the 7932-meter-high Gasherbrum IV?
(Laughs) Yes, it fascinated me from the beginning. It’s such an imposing and majestic mountain that I still dream about. And one of my guiding principles is: never underestimate the power of your dreams!
And which other mountain do you still dream of?
Of the beautiful (7,668-meter-high) Chogolisa.
Gerlinde, how will you celebrate your 50th birthday?
Not really. I will make up for the celebration with my family later. I hope to spend a wonderful day in nature with my partner Manfred, maybe climbing, very relaxed. But I’m not a celebration type anyway. I have never celebrated my round birthdays in a big way. The best birthdays for me were always those when I could be out in nature, on the mountain, with my loved ones.