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  • Jeannette McGill

Mountaineering Moments #15 . . . Katlego Letheo

Mountaineers need to be steadfast and determined, knowing that big goals are multi-year commitments. Katlego appreciates this better than most; having since 2009 set her sights on the 7 Summits. She is two down and has attempts on another 3 . . . she is the first black African woman to attempt Everest from the North (China/Tibet) side: her 2015 attempt being cancelled due to the devastating earthquake. It was a privilege to at last meet Katlego in person during the Summits with a Purpose 2019 mountaineering event.

Katlego also knows just how hard lobbying for an underrepresented “sport” can be. In response she founded Afrika Freedom Climbers aimed at closing the gap of woman and children’s participation in mountaineering sports. I like this online quote from Katlego: "I don’t fall into a ‘typical climber’ category. I have asthma and I have had a lifelong struggle with my weight – but I got tired of being told I can’t do well in mountains because I don’t look like an athlete. I have found climbing to be a sport where one is essentially competing against themselves – and this understanding changed my overall outlook to focusing on doing my best.”

Favourite mountain expedition to date: It would have to be Denali. I loved the feeling of being isolated, in that you are dropped off by a plane on a glacier and it’s all white. It’s an independent climb in many ways. All climbers carry their own load, fix their own tents and help melt the snow for water. In terms of fitness you cannot really cheat on this mountain: upper body strength is equally important as core - you are pulling a sled with about 15kg and carrying more in your backpack - so where I usually rely on my legs for endurance, this adds a different dynamic. The landscapes are also magical - it is a beautiful mountain.

Top 2 gear must haves: A good sleeping bag (I am obsessed with Feathered Friends’ goose range) - sleeping in comfort at high altitude makes all the difference. I’ve had several sleeping bags over the past 10 years for different temperatures, and I got Feathered Friends for 40 degrees Celsius and it’s the best of the lot. Then, a fleece with a chest pocket: there are things that you just want to be able to reach for without getting your backpack out - your phone for a picture, or a quick lozenge to soothe an uneasy throat, or just keeping some spare batteries close to your body so they don't die because of cold temperatures.

Hardest lesson: Team dynamics are the key to any successful expedition - this extends to guides too. I used to book a place with a tour operator and hop on a plane to meet an entirely new team at the hotel a day before we started climbing. But I’ve missed out on the summit of Aconcagua because a climber who was warned about their low oxygen levels at Camp 3 proceeded to attempt the summit (and the guides allowed this) and when this climber collapsed, all 5 of us had to abandon the expedition to help bring them back to safety - this could have been avoided if the climber had been experienced enough to know that their decisions affected all of us. These days, I interview the tour operator, the proposed guide and I request introductions to the climbers who’ve already signed up so I can learn about their climbing experience and get to know them as people ahead of the expedition.

Music or Audiobooks: Music

Shewee or Squat: Squat

Sunrise or Sunset: both - I used to hike up Table Mountain in the late afternoon to watch the sunset and if it was full moon we’d spend the night atop the mountain - waking up to watch the sunrise was equally amazing...

1st mountain project post Covid? Somewhere along the Andes - I’m still sorting out the details, but I love their variety from rain-forests to volcanoes to glaciers. I made a decision later last year to diversify my experience, so I am no longer doing just higher altitude.

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