Reaching the summit

KATE DAVIDSON
Last updated 12:00 08/03/2014
jan hall
JAN HALL: Doesn't believe any mountain is really ever conquered.
Jan and Rob Hall
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MT EVEREST: Jan and Rob Hall at Mt Everest in 1993.

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The term ''conquering'' a mountain does not sit well with mountaineer and Nelson doctor Jan Arnold.

''I like to get on top of things, but I don't think that means anything is conquered in the process,'' she says.

She should know. She completed her goal of summiting the seven highest peaks in the seven continents last month, a trail that has taken 24 years and saw her travel to some of the world's remotest places.

''I would say, if your goal doesn't slightly take your breath away, you need to aim a little bit higher. It should slightly take your breath away.''

It's also a journey that has taken her past the grief of losing her husband, world-renowned mountaineer Rob Hall , who died on Mt Everest in 1996 in a blizzard that claimed seven other lives.

Jan says a climber is at the mercy of the mountain, both its raw beauty and brutal force. 

She started climbing at 22 and, five years later, reached the first of her seven summits on Mt McKinley-Denali - on a date with Rob.  

''Normally people go out for dinner, but we went to Alaska. It was absolutely magic''.

She did not know then it would take more than two decades to complete the peaks but, being goal driven, it was something she ''really wanted to finish off''.

''I've got the peak bagging gene. You've either have it or you haven't,'' she says.  

In 1993, she and Rob became the third married couple to stand at the highest point in the world.

''Everest was really quite special. It was satisfying because I really didn't expect I was going to do it. I didn't go with the aim and certainly didn't think I could, because I was such a lousy acclimatiser,'' she says.

In January 1994, she went to Antarctica with Rob's guiding company Adventure Consultants. She not only got to climb Mt Vinson, but also visited the South Pole as a doctor accompanying a group of elderly adventurers.  

The same year she climbed Mt Kosciuszko in Australia  and Carstensz Pyramid-Puncak Jaya in Indonesia - there was some debate about which one was the tallest peak in Oceania, so she climbed both. 

Any further plans were put on hold in 1996. She was pregnant with the couple's daughter, Sarah, as the shocking events unfolded half a world away.

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As he was trapped high on the mountain, Rob was able to talk to Jan on his radio through a satellite phone. They had three conversations. 

Grief was made easier because she had a chance to say goodbye, which many people don't, she says.

''When Rob died, or was going to die, there was nothing left unsaid - there wasn't stuff I wished I had said to him. 

''How lucky was I to speak to him? He could have died in a car accident and be gone and you don't get that chance to say anything, but we could connect.''

The last time she spoke to him, after a rescue party had to turn back, they shared their love for one another and he signed off: ''Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much.''

''The strangeness you've got of sitting in your house in Christchurch and talking - he is possibly the highest person on the ground alive in the world, but not for long,'' she says.

''I knew he was going to die, but I just felt lucky I had that chance to talk to him and I had his baby and for me it was like you have a part of someone when you have a child. 

''When she popped out, she just looked like him and she has his eyes and his big generous mouth and his long legs and his gentle nature - so daily I am reminded of him.

''It was a good death.''

She was proud of Rob, but there were other feelings, too.

''I was also quite weighed down with the feeling that one of his guides had died, two of his clients had died and I felt a responsibility to those families so, actually, my own grieving for Rob was on the back burner plus I had a baby, a new first baby so there was so much to do.

''My mind was quite occupied.''

It was only in recent years that she decided it was time to reconsider the remaining three mountains.

''I thought I need to do this before I am 50 because how long am I going to have this fitness?'' 

Jan went to Africa in September 2011,  climbing Mt Kilimanjaro with Sarah. She made her first attempt at Aconcagua in Argentina in January 2013. After reaching 6300m, about 600m below the summit, she had to turn back as altitude sickness set in.

Russia's Mt Elbrus was next in July 2013. She reached the peak, but getting off the mountain proved more dangerous.

A power cut had knocked out the ski lifts, and she had to get a lift in the back of a former army truck on a rough, steep track.

''I was just sitting on the tray of the truck and it bounced around and felt like it was going to go off the road and I thought 'Goodness, I have just been to the top of this peak not feeling really at risk and I am going to lose my life on this truck. If this truck rolls you know we are finished'.''

But she made it down, and set her sights on the remaining peak, a second attempt at  Aconcagua. 

To overcome her acclimatisation problems, she headed to South America early and climbed the 5434m Cerro El Plomo  in Chile, a place of Inca human sacrifice.

On February 12, she made it to the top of Aconcagua, but not without it taking a toll. 

''When I look at photos of myself I was absolutely blue on the lips and I took this video and I am slurring my words,'' she says.

''I thought I cannot do this to my brain again - this is it. Luckily, I've done it now.''

She has experienced the full risk mountaineering carries with it. But, she wouldn't change a thing.

''I didn't ever rail against the fact that Rob had died,'' she says.

''I accepted it quite quickly because I had wondered if sometime that might be in the future.

''You marry an 8000m mountaineer, what do you expect? I think that protected me. But, heck, it was rich and it was alive and vibrant and it was so worth not avoiding. 

''You want to make the most of it while you have got it because you don't know how long it will be and it makes it all the more precious. 

''It sharpens, it clarifies, and it brightens.''

Despite achieving what most would consider a mammoth challenge, Jan says she is not in the league of technical climbers like New Zealanders Pat Deavoll , Lydia Bradey  and Paul and Shelley Hersey who are pushing the boundaries of never-before-climbed peaks. 

The more technical climbing ''scares the hell'' out of her. 

''These peaks are hard because they require stamina and physical fitness, but they are not groundbreaking in any sense and these last three peaks, if they had involved great risk to my life, I wouldn't do them because of my children.''

With two daughters, Sarah, 17  - who she was pregnant with when Rob died on Everest -  and Helena, 11, it was a balance between motherhood and chasing her goals. 

''Someone once said to me, 'Is Everest the hardest thing you have ever done?' and I actually said parenting a two-year-old is much harder,'' she says laughing.  

She loves the opportunities that climbing brings -  ''travelling the globe with a focus in mind and learning about the area and this planet of ridges and hollows '' - but also the challenges.

''It's cold, tent living for days and days and days. Your tent mat goes down and you wake up cold in the night. There's a storm outside, the wind is blowing, the tent is rattling around. It requires a focus. It requires confidence in the people around you and the logistics of the organisation you are with.'' 

Letting yourself off on the bad days and knowing when to dig in is crucial, she says.  

Mountaineering is something anyone can do with commitment and careful planning ''bit by bit'', she says.

''The really big things are breathtaking. You stand at the base of Everest and you go, 'It was so much work getting to this altitude, how I am going to get three and half kilometres above me vertically?' and the truth is, day by day, step by step, camp by camp.''

-Jan Arnold completed the seven summits with support from Adventure Consultants and Mapua-based adventure company High Places.

- The Nelson Mail

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