Dr Jan Smith MAPS, a clinical child psychologist and longstanding APS member, recently became the second oldest woman to climb Mount Everest at age 68. Succeeding in her third attempt to ascend the world's highest mountain, Jan reached the 8,848-metre summit just before dawn on 27 May 2012 after an overnight climb up the north face assisted by two Nepalese Sherpas. On one attempt last year, Jan made the risky move of hiring her own Sherpas after an American climbing company banned her because she was too slow, but foul weather made that ascent unsuccessful. Jan’s eventual success put her extremely close to being the oldest woman to have climbed Mount Everest, but she was just pipped in June this year by a Japanese mountaineer aged 73. InPsych recently caught up with Jan on her return home to Australia.

When and why did you decide to take on such a challenge?

It’s a 10 year story. I began trekking in the Himalaya from Nepal when I was 58 and saw the silver peaks of distant mountains as we trekked higher and higher. I reached the top of the trekking range in 2004, climbing to the summit of Mera Peak at 6,476m. Everest appeared in the background of that summit photo and I made that my goal. Little did I know that it would be many years before I finally succeeded. Following advice, I went to New Zealand for a mountaineering course to learn techniques for tackling more technical mountains. Then each year I joined expeditions to successively higher peaks in the 7,000 to 8,000m range. In 2009 I climbed to the summit of Cho Oyu (8,200m) in Tibet, which is regarded as the qualifying mountain for Everest and enabled me to be accepted onto an Everest expedition from the south side. This year I decided to try from the north, found the ‘right’ company to support my first attempt from Tibet with Dan Mazur and Summit Club, and the rest, as they say, is history.

How did you cope with the ‘ageism’ that you were confronted with?

Ageism is not overt – no-one says outright ”you are too old”. The closest guides come to saying anything is, for example, “you are too slow descending and would hold the group back”. I have become known to the Sherpa community as ‘ama gaga’, meaning ‘grandmother’, but this is also a term of endearment as many Sherpas are very caring and protective of me. The Western climbing companies are highly competitive and somewhat male dominated. They do not want to take too many risks in competing to get as many climbers as possible to the summit, and tend to deny or minimise the number of accidents or deaths each year reported on their websites. I was fortunate in having a sound climbing record and having met Dan Mazur at Camp Two on the south side last year. When I applied for the Everest Tibet expedition this year, Dan said that he remembered meeting me and deciding that I was ‘a normal person’ (surely a compliment for any psychologist!), and accepted me for the expedition.

How did you marshal yourself to stay motivated and succeed?

I am a determined person and can find it hard to give up. My repeated mountaineering attempts have given me a familiarity with the high altitude environment and I am blessed with a body that acclimatises well. I have never needed to take medications to assist, finding that hydration and a gradual ascent in addition to peak fitness means that I don’t experience altitude sickness. Over the years I have taken advice about upgrading my equipment and clothing. I have learned from my mistakes of not having the right gear in my backpack when the weather suddenly changes, which it is apt to do. Finally, I cross-train for four months before a climb, incrementally building up cardiovascular fitness, load-bearing wearing boots, climbing where possible and covering long distances to pace myself over twelve hours to build endurance. So, in a sense I train myself to keep on going, with breaks, to reach the end point, even if I do not feel like it. It has often taken repeated attempts to reach a peak, so, weather permitting, I expect to make it. I have been highly motivated for the past few years as I got closer and closer to my goal. There was never a question of quitting lightly.

Can you describe your state of mind when you have been absolutely pitted against the elements?

This happened several times climbing to higher camps, but fortunately not on the summit climb. A severe, unpredicted weather change occurred when approaching Camp Two on the second summit bid and I felt my fingers freezing inside my wool gloves and felt cold. The wind increased as we approached an exposed ridge, and I told my Sherpa that I needed to get my summit mitts on over the lighter gloves and my down jacket over my Gortex wind jacket. Geljay Sherpa assisted and then I fastened my down hood around my face, put my head down, braced for the gusts and slowly and steadily climbed up to the camp. It’s good to have support and know that you are not alone, know where you are in relation to the next camp, monitor your resources and have the back-up of extra gear in your pack.

Did you ever fear that you wouldn’t survive?

There is always the knowledge that mountaineering is a risky pursuit and there are deaths on Everest every year. Most mature climbers that I have met have written their Wills and taken out insurance before attempting 8,000m peaks in the so-called ‘death zone’. That is the anxiety that you live with on the mountain. I knew that death was a possibility and made sure that I had satellite phone contact with my husband before we left for the final summit bid. I have never had a near-death experience or near-miss while climbing and fortunately, despite illness and accidents, no-one in my climbing group has died. I have not had to make a life or death decision during a climb, but if I did I would chose LIFE! 

Did your psychology training assist you in any way?

I’ve used several psychological strategies to help me, the main one being ‘self talk’. I talked to myself a lot and sometimes swore under my breath – fortunately most of the Sherpas speak minimal English! At the start of the long 12 hour journey to the summit, I said to myself “every step takes me closer to the summit”. I also used counting when it was long and boring, and made sub-goals such as “when I reach that rock, I’ll stop and have a drink, pee, snack”. I also kept focussed on the task for however long the journey took. It’s the recovery from a stumble or slip that is more important than the slip itself, and one needs to rebalance within the next stride. I constantly monitored my physical state: breathing rate related to pulse, fatigue, coordination and alertness. Learning theory applied for learning from past mistakes and training in correct techniques. I tried to pace myself so that I always had something in reserve. I had to come to terms with the fact that, whereas being a front runner and coming first had always been important to me when younger, I could no longer compete with 40-year-old men and had to be content with bringing up the rear and arriving in good shape!

What did it feel like when you were standing at the top?

It felt terrific! I felt overwhelmed to have reached the summit, thinking to myself, “finally I’m here”. I cried a little to myself and experienced a huge sense of relief that I had made it and would not have to attempt it again! I felt relief for all my supporters and those who had worried about me so many times. We arrived in the dark just before dawn and took photos with my camera. Luckily the flash worked as I had kept the camera inside my down jacket next to my body. The dawn from the East was beautiful on such a clear morning – a blanket of clouds with the black tips of the Himalaya showing through and the colours of sunrise. There was nothing higher to see and it felt like standing on the roof of the world. I slowly turned 360 degrees, thinking to myself – “I need to drink this in as I’m not going to be here again”. 

How do you literally come back down to earth after such a peak experience?

I’m still coming down – it’s a gradual process. The media buzz and huge support from friends, family and acquaintances has kept me in quite a ‘high’ state, and as life returns to normal I get excited all over again when a new person asks me what it was like. People have been most generous in their praise and congratulations and that has been almost overwhelming at times. I returned to work the week I got back and life’s normal ups, downs and former patterns are re-asserting themselves over time. I am really enjoying the rich oxygen at sea-level, the amazing range of fresh fruit and vegetables, water you can drink from the tap without getting gastro, hot baths and a double bed with white sheets and a husband in it. I don’t know if there will be a period of post-Everest blues, but even though the experience will fade, as my son-in-law said to me “Jan, it’s something no one can ever take away from you”.

Are there some take home messages or insights you wish to share with your psychology colleagues?

If you can’t see a good reason to quit striving towards a goal, then, as the saying goes, “if at first you don’t succeed then try, try, try again”. Try a different way or a different route, analyse your mistakes, make sub-goals, seek advice and support, take a bit of time out doing something different, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, put your doubts and other people’s anxieties on the back burner and HAVE ANOTHER GO! 

Thanks to Caroline Giles for arranging this interview.

InPsych August 2012