Ain’t no mountain high enough for these women!

These song lyrics come to mind when we think of Alda Waddell and Tumi Mphahlele, two members of the all-women team scheduled to summit Mt. Everest in 2020. In preparation for this mammoth adventure, these two intrepid women are embarking on the 9 Peaks Challenge (the ascent of the highest point of each province of the Republic of South Africa) to fulfill their dreams and to inspire young women entrepreneurs to have the “courage to start and the strength to endure” – the motto of the Everest expedition.

Completing the 9 Peaks Challenge will increase awareness of the team’s Everest 2020 plans, and contribute to securing the much-needed sponsorship of R5million. We spoke to Alda (who works for BMW SA) and Tumi (director at IG3N and Amperion Energy), who shared what it takes to prepare for a mental and physical challenge such as this.

1. When did you do your first climb and what was the purpose behind it?

Alda: My first real mountain climb was Kilimanjaro in 2008. I got the idea after hearing on the radio that Patricia Lewis and Nathaniel just summited Kili. I thought if they could do it, then so could I. I’ve always been an outdoor adventurer and not really a mountaineer, but I believe that you must explore, test yourself and discover as you journey through life.

Tumi: I consider my first climb to have been Mount Mulanje (3002m) in Malawi. I was touring the country solo for a few weeks and decided on the spur of the moment to spend some time in the area. My next big climb was Kilimanjaro, for no reason other than to challenge myself and to see the beauty of the mountains and the local people.

2. What appeals to you the most about mountain climbing?

Alda Waddell. Image supplied

Alda: I love nature and fresh air, the wide-open spaces and the fact that we live in a beautiful world with amazing scenery and interesting people.

Tumi: I like the fact that you get to reach the places that no car can take you – you get to see the real beauty of nature. You get to interact with the environment, for example, you often move through different vegetation in a single climb. I also like the challenge. It is not every day that you decide to climb a mountain – or several mountains, as in this case.

3. How long does it take to prepare for this kind of challenge?

Alda: You need to be very focused, and physically and mentally prepared for a big challenge like Mount Everest. Physically, you need to be fit and strong, because you will be drawing from that strength and tenacity when you feel you cannot continue anymore. You will have to dig deep and be committed when the going gets tough.

Tumi: This kind of challenge will take maybe two to three months of training as the physical preparation is very important – and a few weeks of planning, mostly at your desk. It is also important to talk to others who have undertaken the same challenge. 

4. Can you give examples of the kind of physical and mental training you do?

Alda: Every morning I try and climb about 1 600 stairs in 45 minutes and I get very creative with my stair climbing: single, doubles, sideways, etc. I also do some strength training, and 8km walks or hikes regularly.

I prepare mentally by reading and building my knowledge of what is waiting for us on the mountain. I’ve learned that the better prepared you are, the more you achieve. Understand what will be expected of you, the cold weather, the correct equipment, drinking enough water, etc.

Tumi: Knowledge of the terrain is key – and this also relates to the weather. You may need to pick the right time to do the climbs – mid-summer or mid-winter would be very difficult, but it depends on your objectives. You may specifically be looking for those extremes. You also have to have the correct tools and maps that you will need.

Most of my mental training comes from gleaning as much information as I can from those that have completed the challenge. You tend to have more confidence when you know what to expect, and the belief that you can achieve a challenge is key – it really sets the tone.

5. If you have children/family, how do you prepare them for (and how do they react to) the dangers you may face on expeditions?

Alda: I have 17-year-old twins, Craig and Clair. They’re very supportive and understanding. I hope to show them that anything is possible with focus and hard work.

Tumi: I don’t have children but I have sisters, and both my parents are still alive and very supportive. I’ve proved myself to them over the years and even though it may be risky, they’re confident that I’ve done the necessary homework on my side.

6. Some of our followers want to know simple things like:

  • What is/are your top toiletry item/s you will take with you?

Alda: Wet wipes! These will be my “bath” for the eight weeks on Everest. I think you just feel so much better if you can just wipe away all the hard work of the day.

Tumi: Wet wipes, contact lens solution, toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant!

  • How do you manage hygiene on an expedition?

Alda: Personal hygiene is very important to me, but space and weight are important on a trek like Everest so there will be limited showers and toilet facilities. But you can still maintain great personal hygiene even in these circumstances with the correct products and preparedness.

Tumi: Mountain showers (or wet wipes) are the most common – especially on climbs above 5 000m. There is the occasional opportunity to have a warm shower at high altitude at some of the camps, but they come at a high cost. For example, at Aconcagua (in Argentina) you can have a shower only at base camp, and although you may do a few rotations when you end up at base camp, you might not have a shower every time you end up there. When we do the 9 Peaks Challenge, the “base camps” will probably have showers.

“I think Everest is a metaphor for life, as woman always have some sort of “mountain” to climb. You have to dig deep and soldier on during some parts of the journey.”

  • What do you eat and drink on these expeditions?

Alda: I eat everything! Luckily, I’m not a fussy eater and I know how important it is to maintain your strength. You need to ensure you eat, especially at high altitudes. Drinking between four and five litres of water per day is crucial to prevent altitude sickness.

Tumi: Expedition companies really do go out of their way to make the meals at base camp very good. They employ professional chefs in some cases, depending on the company you use. At higher camps, you can mostly eat freeze-dried meals, but you will need to include a small stove and fuel in the load. 

  • How/when do you sleep?

Alda: Sleeping well is very important to maintain your strength, not just mentally but physically as well. There will be nights where you only get three hours’ sleep and then there are rest days on the mountain during rotations when you have days to sleep. Like everything in life, it is all about balance.

Tumi: With great difficulty, mostly because evenings are bitterly cold and because you are required to drink a lot of water for acclimatisation – this may require waking up several times for the loo which, as you can imagine, is not so easy on a mountain.

  • How do you maintain contact with your support team?

Alda: You wouldn’t believe how much there is to arrange for such a project, so we are in constant communication with each other. We have about three WhatsApp groups for different requirements. We also get together, and train and hike together when we can.

Tumi: Most base camps will have internet service, even though this is expensive. At higher camps we rely on radios. There are also satellite phones that are now being used quite a lot. These are very handy and we’re allowed a few SMS messages a day to designated numbers.

  • What kind of personal financial preparation (i.e. life insurance adjustment, special insurance, etc?)

Alda: To be honest with you, I haven’t paid much attention to this as part of my positive thinking, but I’m generally well organised in life. My will and policies are all filed and up to date.

Tumi: Some medical aids require that people taking part in extreme sports complete a specific questionnaire. Mountaineers also complete the questionnaire, but the impact on my life cover has been quite small.

  • What are the biggest concerns you have?

Alda: At the moment getting sponsorship is a concern, as it’s a big financial commitment.

Tumi: The weather. Even with the best prediction models, there are times when the weather changes abruptly leaving little time to adjust your plans.

7. What kind of support do you get from family and work?

Alda: Both my family and my work (BMW SA) are very supportive. They are my biggest fans and very interested in what the four of us are up to. Without their support and interest, it would be very difficult.

Tumi Mphahlele. Image supplied

Tumi: My husband participates in most of what I do – we have done climbs together, so that is a lot of support from him. We do not have children, so he can afford to join me.

8. How much of this is mental versus physical strength?

Alda: Both physical and mental strength play a big role in mountain climbing and I think Everest is a metaphor for life, as women always have some sort of “mountain” to climb. You have to dig deep and soldier on during some parts of the journey.

Tumi: I am a firm believer of “what you think, becomes”. So, if you have doubts about what you can do, it shows in what you are eventually able to produce. The physical (or the body) takes direction from the head.

9. August is Women’s Month. How significant is this to you as you prepare to summit the 9 Peaks this month?

Alda: Tumi and I would love to be the first female team to complete the 9 Peaks Challenge in August and the fact that it is Women’s Month is just fitting. We are both strong, independent women with big dreams, but we are not so naïve as to think it will be easy. It’s about endurance and focus, and testing ourselves and having fun along the way.

Tumi: It is important to highlight the strengths that women have, especially this month. It is important that we add our voices in our own special way through taking on challenges such as the 9 Peaks – and showing other women that there should be no spaces that they cannot reach.

10. How important is it to you to role model ambition and tenacity to other women?

Alda: This is so important. We need to learn from and support each other. Sometimes we inspire people (and are inspired) through actions rather than words.

Tumi: It is important to me that women understand that we can truly become anything we want. An expedition requires huge sacrifice and tenacity. You must stay on the course and if something like the weather prevents you from proceeding, you must accept that – and then come back to try again.

Note: The peaks are Iron Crown (2 126m) near Haenertsburg in Limpopo; De Berg (2 331m) near Lydenburg in Mpumalanga; Seweweekspoort Peak (2 325m) in the Groot Swartberg Nature Reserve in the Western Cape; Nooigedacht (1 816m), the highest point of the Magaliesburg in North West; Mafadi (3 451m) the highest peak in South Africa in the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal; Toringkop (1 913m) in Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve in Gauteng; Kwaduma (3 019m) in the Drakensberg in the Eastern Cape; Namahadi (3 291m) in the Drakensberg in the Free State; and Murch Point (2 156m) in the Karoo in the Northern Cape.

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