ARCHIVED - The woman mountaineer: An inspiring ascent on Mount Everest and its real-life parallels

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Article / March 9, 2015 / Project number: 15-0051

Ottawa, Ontario — On May 19, 2012, Nathalie Fortin – an Ottawa-based environmental advisor with the Canadian Army – would accomplish what seemed nearly impossible just four years before. After eight weeks of grueling ascent, the tall French-Canadian athlete would crest Earth’s highest peak on Mount Everest. And while four of Fortin’s six teammates would eventually reach the summit, the long-time mountaineer had much more to celebrate than just the magnificent view at 8,848 metres above the ground.

In 2008, four years prior her two-month expedition, Fortin says she unwillingly entered the darkest period of her life. Despairing that she may never climb again, Fortin was nearly bedridden – working only two to three half days a week – for approximately eight months due to excruciating back pain. The agony, caused by years of athletic exertion, seemed to have little or no relief in sight.

Fortin began sinking into a severe state of depression. But one vision kept the experienced alpinist from losing all hope: The dream of one day climbing the highest and most unforgiving mountain on the planet, one that has claimed the lives of 248 people (161 Westerners and 87 Sherpas) from 1924 to 2013, according to Alan Arnette, a leading Everest researcher.

Every night, even when the pain prevented me from getting out of bed, I was envisioning myself on the last ridge to the Everest summit,” Fortin said during an interview in late February. “And when I was finally there, it was exactly what I saw in my dream four years earlier.

After months of failed treatments from various specialists, Fortin finally discovered a remedy that began to ease the crippling pain. Slowly but surely, life seemed to go back to normal – except for one final step in her recovery. On a whim, Fortin contacted the Montreal and Quebec-based clinic that nursed her back to health to seek sponsorship for a landmark expedition. Three weeks later, Fortin would have $45,000 and a ticket to realize her dream.

Although Fortin was the only woman on her team, she did meet several other Canadian women along the trek who were just as mesmerized by Everest’s astounding beauty.  The experience also garnered the opportunity to meet like-minded climbers from around the globe and learn more about the Nepalese Sherpas, an ethnic group renowned for their high altitude acclimatization and ability to fix lines, ferry supplies and guide visitors through the Himalayas.

But despite not knowing what might happen on the rough terrain, Fortin – who manages projects at the national level – says her career with the Army prepared her well for the journey. In the end, both aspects of Fortin’s life require meticulous problem solving skills and the ability to find solutions.

A female Army officer once asked me ‘Aren’t you afraid when you climb the mountain?’ And I asked her in return, ‘Aren’t you afraid when you go on a mission?’” Fortin responded, noting the parallels of Army life and mountaineering.

I said ‘No, I’m not afraid because I’m prepared,’ just as the Army would prepare its troops before sending them into harm’s way. It’s a question of knowledge, of mental and physical stamina and having experience on the terrain. Like military personnel, some conditions in the environment will force a change of plans. You have to wait for the right moment and you need judgement.

The experienced climber, who hopes to embark on another long expedition in 2017, feels that March 8 also serves to remind those struggling with adversity to continue on a determined path towards accomplishment and success.

By Meagan Sylvester, Army Public Affairs

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