On the Couch with Rebecca Stephens, first British woman to summit Mt Everest

Stunning views of Everest on the walk from Namche Bazaar to Thyangboche | Peter Walton
Stunning views of Everest on the walk from Namche Bazaar to Thyangboche | Peter Walton

Rebecca Stephens MBE is best known for being the first British woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest and also to climb all Seven Summits. Besides a well-known climber, in daily life Rebecca is a writer, motivational speaker and leadership coach, plus occasionally leads a trekking trip with World Expeditions. Read on to learn more about this inspiring woman.

Going back to the early 90s, can you describe what your life was like back then and how you ended up being the first female Brit to summit Mount Everest?

I was working as a journalist in London in the early 1990s. My Everest story all started with my reading an article in The Times about a group of climbers going to K2. The climbers were giving a lecture to try and encourage people to join them on the trek to base camp and help fund the expedition. It was a lot of money and I couldn’t afford it – but rather cheekily I asked if I could accompany them as a reporter. They agreed, but I failed to get a commission, and honestly it slipped from my mind. Then, a couple of years on, one of the climbers, Roger Mear, was setting off on another expedition, this time to Everest, and rang me up and asked if I could be the reporter on the expedition. That was the most exciting phone call I have ever had. This time I secured a commission for the Weekend Financial Times and set off to the Himalayas for ten weeks that changed my life. I fell in love with everything about Everest – the beauty, the history, the feeling of exhilaration climbing up to the first camp on the North East Ridge (OK, that wasn’t my brief but I couldn’t resist) – and decided then and there that I wanted to climb Everest. That was in the autumn of 1989. I came home and carried on with my journalism, but now my head was full of mountains and I climbed – on walls at first, and then in North Wales – at every opportunity.  Slowly I found the courage to say that I wanted to climb Everest and was lucky enough to find myself amongst people who were happy to help. I fell in with a team led by a very experienced climber, John Barry, and after we had trained together in Scotland, the Alps and Mount Denali, I threw in my job (that was a bit scary) and we headed for Everest in the spring of 1993. I’m not sure I have the space to detail the whole climb here, but let’s just say I couldn’t have done it without Sherpas Ang Passang and Kami Tchering who were there with me on my second attempt. There were just the three of us climbing high on Everest’s summit pyramid. It was magical. And as for being the first female Brit – well, no female Brit had got around to giving it a crack before me.

Have you been back since and what role does the mountain play in your life?

I’ve been back to Everest a couple of times, both times leading treks for World Expeditions. The first time we trekked to the eastern Kangshung Face and then drove around the north of the mountain and trekked again, along the Central Rongbuk Glacier to the Lho La, which sweeps below Everest’s West Ridge and overlooks the Khumbu Icefall on the southern side. The second time we were in Nepal, trekking in the four valleys that fan out from Namche Bazaar, crossing from one to another over high passes.

Mount Everest is a huge part of my life - a vibrant chapter in my memory but also in the work that I do as leadership coach and lecturer. On Everest, I gained unexpected insights into the human condition that reach far beyond the mountains. Everest stripped away any superficialities, revealing only that which matters: head, heart, and values – and honestly I don’t think there is any greater teacher of leadership and of working together as a team.

Sunrise over Mt Everest from Kala Pattar

We also know Rebecca Stephens for being the first British woman to have reached all 7 Summits, an impressive CV! What do mountaineering and the mountains mean to you?

The extreme and sometimes hostile environments of the mountains are where I have learned most about life. Climbing the 7 Summits has influenced my thinking about people and place, leadership, team, ambition and, importantly, resilience and well being as well. But mountains are also where I go to relax, for adventure and also solace – and to reconnect with nature. I’m a sucker for the aesthetic and love the gentle, rolling hills where I live in Sussex just as much as grand, imposing mountains.

In the mountains we call this Summit Fever, and I talk without judgement because I believe I might very well have succumbed to Summit Fever myself – but had luck on my side that I got away with it.

You are a trustee of the Himalayan Trust UK that was founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, can you explain about your involvement and how the organisation helps support the mountain people in Nepal?

I could never have imagined that I would have been invited to be a trustee of the Himalayan Trust UK – that was the fault of the wonderful George Lowe, Sir Ed’s compatriot from New Zealand, who was on the 1953 Everest expedition. I sat next to him at a dinner and he slipped an invitation on a scrap of paper under my plate. I have been a trustee for some 25 years now, with a three-year stint as chair, and it has been one of the most rewarding things I have done. It’s a small charity but every penny goes to the mountain people of Nepal. Ed Hillary founded the charity, back in the ‘60s, and we have never moved from his original principle that it is to help the mountain people help themselves. Originally it supported only Sherpas in the Solu Khumbu valley leading up to Everest, but now most of our efforts are in the far poorer area in the eastern part of the country, Taplejung. The Trust trains teachers and supports children in schools, and supports basic healthcare as well. Please do have a look at the website of the Himalayan Trust UK

You are, among a range of other skills, a motivational speaker on decision-making, what is the one thing you would like to share with our travellers on this topic?

Beware the power of your emotions in decision-making; we aren’t half as rational as we’d like to think! Of course emotional drivers are important. They motivate and drive us, but too much and they can also lead us to our destruction. In the mountains we call this Summit Fever, and I talk without judgement because I believe I might very well have succumbed to Summit Fever myself – but had luck on my side that I got away with it. Put briefly, the magnetism of the summit together with an optimistic bias that fate will treat us kindly – that everything will be just fine – often leads us to push on beyond a point that might be considered reasonable. We are in an emotional bubble, determined to reach the summit and blind to the risks this entails. We can all think of many examples when this might have been true off the mountain as well as on. Like so many things in life, fine judgement is critical.  The important point is to stay the right side of the line, particularly so in a dangerous environment. Safety first. The mountain will always be there. This cannot be over-emphasised when one’s responsibility stretches beyond oneself and includes the lives of others too.

Do you have a book you could recommend to anybody who’s interested in active adventure travel?

Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. Touches on our emotional and imaginative responses to mountains through the ages – and is exquisitely written.

Observe the gentle rhinoceros on a wildlife safari A moment of reflection on Mount Kenya |  <i>Lauren Bullen</i> Mt Kenya at sunrise |  <i>Sue Badyari</i>

What do you enjoy most about leading a trek?

I just enjoy being in the mountains, waking with the light, eating well, walking every day and feeling the sense of well-being that comes with that – and sharing this with friends and trekkers. I love the camaraderie. I love meeting new people, from different cultures – always something to learn. The Simien Mountains are particularly beautiful – enormous cliffs and escarpments right there on the edge of the Rift Valley, the cradle of mankind. 

Africa seems to be special to you, do you have any advice for travellers looking to explore the mountains of Africa?

Well, my exploration of the mountains of Africa has been quite narrow. Kilimanjaro, six times! The Ice Window route on Mount Kenya, much melted away these days, I understand. And Mount Meru, a dormant volcano some 70km west of Kilimanjaro. Meru was great – just a friend Lucy and myself and a guide to walk us through Arusha National Park to get there. There was no one else on the mountain, exquisite flowers and plenty of wildlife – but it was 1991. I would be interested in an update from someone who has been there recently. Of course you can’t beat Kilimanjaro if you want to stand on the roof of Africa. I would definitely recommend taking one of the less trodden routes and taking at least seven days to give time for your body to acclimatise.


Interested in joining Rebecca Stephens MBE on a trek?

> Find the next active holiday with Rebecca Stephens and secure your spot today.

> As a business, you can work with Rebecca Stephens MBE on various projects.

Ethiopia, On The Couch, trekking, Africa, Rebecca Stephens

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