A few weeks ago, I opened up Facebook, and to my astonishment, I found a newly posted photograph of my niece, Kirsty Mack, on the top of Mt. Everest! I knew she enjoyed climbing and traveling, but I never expected to find her atop the world’s highest peak, smiling at me from my phone screen. There she stood on the snow-capped summit, bundled up in a blue down suit, sporting bright, red-framed sunglasses, with an oxygen mask hanging from her chin. She held a photo of her dad along with a small handwritten sign that read, ‘For my mum and my big sister Lynzie ♡.’
Three weeks later we met at her home in Menstrie. Sitting in her quiet, unassuming manner and stroking her beloved Miniature Australian Shepherd dog Morar, she opened up to me about her Everest expedition and, more poignantly, what drives her to climb mountains.
“Mountains are my happy place,” she announced quietly, “There is nothing else that fills me with such a sense of peace and that invokes such a spiritual connection with my late dad.”
At 39 years of age, she conquered Everest but notes that her penchant for mountaineering was molded much earlier in life. Throughout her school years she was active in the Cubs and Scouts alongside her father – also a keen mountaineer – who was Group Scout Leader of the Menstrie Scout Group. It was during this time that she learned the basic skills of outdoor adventure, including camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and climbing, setting the stage for her future expeditions. Posters of mountaineering icons Chris Bonington and Doug Scott adorned her bedroom walls as a teenager. After completing university with Bachelor of Science degrees in Medical Biochemistry and Pharmacology, she began volunteer work in Tanzania helping young people afflicted with HIV and other conditions. It was only a matter of time until she set her sights on Mt. Kilimanjaro and was determined to climb it. An elderly man with local knowledge of the tricky terrain offered to guide her to the top which he claimed was a six-day return journey. She completed the trek in only four days and on the third day – her father’s birthday – she stood on the summit of the mountain and watched the sun slowly rise over the illustrious African landscape. Undoubtedly, the experience whet her appetite for mountain climbing.
Once back in the U.K., she continued climbing, but also resurrected her passion for skiing. Having sampled the slopes in many countries across Europe, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, and the USA, she became a qualified Alpine and Adaptive Skiing Instructor, allowing her to teach people with a range of physical and mental challenges. Although she never completely stopped scaling summits, her innate yearning for mountaineering emerged once again in 2019 with a decision to tackle Mount Elbrus in Russia’s Caucasus mountains. Her father had climbed it previously and she felt a level of comfort and reassurance in discussing her plans with him before she set off. Tragically, the week before she was scheduled to go, he suffered a stroke and was admitted to hospital, falling into a life-threatening coma. Despite being traumatized, she was persuaded to continue with the expedition knowing with certainty that her father would urge her to go ahead as planned. Armed with his photograph given to her by her mother and instructions to take it to the top of Elbrus ‘for dad’, she set forth, secretly worried whether she would see him alive again. She climbed Elbrus for her father and raised money for Chest, Heart & Stroke, Scotland. When she returned home, he was no longer in critical care but still very ill. Covid then swept the globe, and all travel plans were put on hold as the world shut down. By the end of April 2021, restrictions were lifted and freshly fallen blankets of snow prompted her to once again don her skis and head for the Cairngorms. Then, tragedy struck. In a remote location, she had a bad fall and was airlifted to hospital with a serious shoulder injury to her dominant left arm. Following a series of surgical operations, she was left with only 65% use of her arm. Undaunted, she climbed Breithorn in the Pennine Alps only two weeks after her second surgery – an endeavour she acknowledges may not have been prudent, but that she nonetheless felt compelled to attempt. A week later she climbed Mont Blanc in the French Alps with success. Sadly, her father passed away in November 2021 never having fully recovered. Showing me his photograph, she adds, “I carry this next to my heart on every climb I make. I know he is with me and is looking after me.”
Despite persistent shoulder pain, Kirsty Mack plans to summit all 82 peaks above 13,000 ft in the Alps. She has managed to scale and conquer a staggering 25 so far. She also aims to qualify for the Seven Summits challenge and the prestigious accolade of having climbed the highest peak in all seven continents. Although there is debate over continental boundaries, it is generally accepted that the peaks are:
Kilimanjaro (Africa) – 19,341 ft
Mount Vinson (Antarctica) – 16,050 ft
Mount Everest (Asia) – 29,035 ft
Carstensz Pyramid ( ) – 16,024 ft
Mount Elbrus (Europe) – 18,510 ft
Denali (North America) – 20,310 ft
Aconcagua (South America) – 22,837 ft
To date, Mack has summited all of these except Mount Vinson and Carstensz Pyramid.
Everest was her latest endeavour and she admits to having had reservations about tackling it, “I was well acclimatized, generally fit, and mentally prepared, but the restricted movement in my shoulder and the persistent pain concerned me.”
Everest is 29,035 ft above sea level. At 26,000 feet, climbers enter the ominous ‘death zone’. At this altitude the cells of the human body start dying, blood thickens, cognitive function is impaired, and there is a significantly increased risk of physical maladies including heart attack and stroke. Over 300 climbers have died on Everest – most of them while descending through the death zone. Some 200 bodies remain unrecovered.
Kirsty Mack tackled the mountain using the South Col route. Flying into Lukla, Nepal – the world’s most dangerous airfield – she managed an eight-day trek through the beautiful, undulating terrain of Khumbu Valley to the 17,598 ft base camp. Extending over a mile, the base camp accommodates the brightly coloured tents and communal facilities used by expedition groups. Once settled there she spent five weeks acclimatizing and undertaking ‘rotations’ which involved climbing higher but returning to the camp after a day or two. This exercise increases the body’s red blood cell count which is essential before attempting to reach the summit. The final push from the base camp to the summit took Mack four days and involved a treacherous passage through the towering glacial walls of the Khumbu Icefall. Stunningly beautiful, this frozen landscape can shift as much as 3 ft each day, giving rise to sudden overhead ice collapses or large crevasses opening underfoot. During her time on Everest, three Sherpas from the rope-fixing team were tragically killed in an avalanche. Her ascent with climbing partner involved a one-day climb to Camp 2 (21,000 ft), an overnight stop, and the same routine the following day to Camp 3 (24,300 ft). The third day was a climb to the final Camp 4 (26,000 ft) with a rest there before setting off for the last stage at 10 p.m. The sun rose simultaneously during the final phase of the trek as she stood atop the highest mountain in the world at 8.10 a.m. the following morning.
She describes being overcome with a sense of wonderment,
“It was a deeply moving experience to stand below a clear blue sky, looking out over the snow-capped Himalayas, and being surrounded by colourful prayer flags waving in the breeze. For thirty minutes I stood on the highest point of the planet.”
However, the dangerous descent came all too soon. She recalls, “It was tough. We were hit by a storm with stinging ice-cold hail. The pain in my shoulder was agony, I had no feeling in my feet and the crampons were failing to grip the impenetrable blue ice. We had several scary slips and we still had to pass back through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.” Her descent to base camp took 24 hours including an overnight stay in the safety of camp 2.
Only five Scottish women before her are known to have climbed Everest and only two have achieved the Seven Summits.
While nursing her shoulder and grappling with frostbite on her toes, I ask if she will now take a break for a while. She smiles, “Only until I have enough money for the next trip. Mount Vinson is now top of my list. My dad will be going there too.”
~Story by Tom Langlands
Photographs courtesy of Kirsty Mack