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Helga Hengge, 53: Gentle Resilience in the Face of Uncertainty

At 30 years old, to combat stress, Helga Hengge started climbing at the gym. Two years later, she climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. For the past 20 years, mountaineering has fueled her, providing a mental challenge to match the physical, and inspiring a mindset for overcoming life’s challenges. Today, it is fair to say we face a collective Everest.

Experience taught her it is the journey, not the destination, and that wisdom is knowing when to turn back. But writing about mountaineering is filled with clichés. A mountain is perhaps the most obvious and atemporal metaphor for a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or, in the bigger picture, for life itself in all its beauty and peril.  Mountains are also revered for their inherent connection to the divine; their peaks, that sacred place where earth meets heavens, is a place reserved for few. In his journey, the climber also becomes an archetypal character — overcoming a series of difficulties to accomplish the heroic but also Sisyphean task. Yet, in spite of all its clichés, or because of them, mountains and mountaineers continue to inspire us. Towering over generations of people made humbler at their sight, mountains are persistent omens of the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead. Climbers, on the other hand, are a reminder of the infinite source of strength and fight we have within us.  

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Helga Hengge – Carstensz Summit Rocks

Not Your Cliché Mountaineer

In many ways, Helga Hengge, 53, is not your cliché mountaineer. The petite blond with delicate features is worlds away from the burly, rugged characters you often read about in adventure books yet, at 32 years old, Helga became the first German woman to successfully complete the 8,848 meter ascent of Mount Everest. More surprising than her small frame, however, is the fact that Helga only took to the sport two years prior to the Everest achievement. She was first lured to the vertiginous climbing wall at her gym as an outlet to her high-pressured job as a fashion editor in New York: “I came from a very hard-working and tough environment. I think I needed something more gentle as a hobby. Climbing is really quiet; it’s just you and your partner — you move gently and quietly though the wall,” says Helga. 

Inspiring Professionals to Overcome Obstacles

In the twenty years since Everest, Helga has claimed several other peaks and accomplishments. She was the first German woman to scale all seven summits, the highest mountains in every continent, and she has written three books about her mountaineering adventures. Helga is also regularly invited by the likes of Daimler, Airbus, and Adidas to talk about her deeds, inspiring bankers, engineers, and other professionals in overcoming their own Everests, whatever they may be. 

Emotional Side of the Challenge

When Helga gives speeches about her climbs, she is often credited for inspiring her audiences on a deeper level. “So many men come to me after my talk with tears in their eyes. ‘Finally someone is talking about the emotional side of the challenge,’ they tell me. That’s what I bring to the expedition, too: emotional openness. I’m not the one to carry the heaviest backpack, but I have my own strengths.” Climbing a mountain, Helga says, is about much more than physical strength. Sure, there is a standard amount of training recommended before any given climb, but that alone will hardly take you to the top of Everest. The mind must also be prepared and trained towards greater resilience, for every climb is filled with uncertainty: “In the mountain, nothing is permanent; the weather comes and goes, there are very good days and very bad days, your heart and mood change, too, as well as your team’s,” says Helga. 

Denali summit

“You climb step by step, not in one push”

There are many parallels to be drawn between Helga’s challenges at the mountain and our own everyday obstacles. In many ways, life requires of us the same things the mountain required of Helga in her ascent: preparation, resilience, courage. Today, it is fair to say we face a collective Everest. Microscopic in size, the coronavirus has imposed on us mountainous challenges. Above anything else, the difficulties and uncertainties inflicted by this pandemic are a test to our resilience. “You climb step by step, not in one push. Up and down, up and down, through good and bad days,” says Helga about the climb — or was it about the last couple of months? 

Letting Go to Conserve Strength for the Next Battle

Beyond all the tough, hardy qualities you’d expect from mountaineers, there’s a whole set of softer skills needed for a climb. Firstly, there’s teamwork — for no one climbs a mountain on their own. Secondly, there’s knowing when to let go. “You can fight so hard in the mountain and you have to realize when it’s enough. It’s a fine line where you realize: ‘If I take one more step I’m not going to come back’,” she says. One of the main reasons why climbers die on Everest, Helga explains, is due to not being able to let go. Often, these climbers will push themselves beyond their limits to reach the summit, not saving enough energy and strength for the way down. That crucial, life-or-death decision is surprisingly relatable — all of us, be it in work or relationships, encounter moments where we have to choose between continuing to fight or letting go. Stripped from all the variables and complexities of everyday life, making this decision on a mountain accentuates the true meaning of letting go. Letting go isn’t always about giving up, rather it’s about conserving strength for our next battles. It’s about survival: “You absolutely have to find your turnaround time, where you know you have given it your very best and you can still make it down safely to your base camp to renew and rest,” says Helga.

“What fascinates me the most is mountain people’s connection and appreciation of nature”

Hanging behind Helga’s work desk in Munich is a picture of Mount Kailash, a Tibetan mountain sacred in several religions. For the past eight years, Helga’s been writing a book about the world’s holy mountains — several of which she has climbed or walked around. One only has to think of Olympus, Mount Sinai, or Temple Mount amongst many, many others to grasp the meaning and importance humanity has always attributed to these natural elevations. “In ancient religions, mountains were where the gods resided. For many shamanistic religions, that’s where thunder, lightning and life-giving water came from,” says Helga. “What fascinates me the most is mountain people’s connection and appreciation of nature. Rediscovering it through this book is really beautiful.”  

For Helga, Mountains Shouldn’t Be Reduced to Their Summits

For Helga, mountains shouldn’t be reduced to their summits. Every expedition she recounts is filled with anecdotes about the local culture and religion, the exotic food served at the tents, the kind guides and memorable team members. “Everyone has their own intentions when climbing a mountain. For some, all they want is the summit crown, they are ready to ‘endure’ all the rest as long as they claim the summit. That’s not me. I commit to the whole experience,” she says. Just like life itself, mountains are uncertain. Regardless of how much you’ve planned, paid, or trained, a force majeure, bad weather in the climber’s case, might simply and mercilessly put a halt to your journey. Again, it might be a cliché, but mountaineering in itself is about learning how to enjoy the process, no matter how arduous it may get, and regardless of the outcome. It’s the process that gives our achievements any meaning, after all: “You can’t give too much importance to the summit, this is something you have to prepare for at home, before the climb.”

You can purchase Helga’a book here.

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Gaia Lutz
Gaia Lutz
Gaia has been working as a journalist in London for the past five years. She has worked for Monocle Magazine and Radio in London. She is now based in Lisbon where she continues to write and produce content for print, digital, broadcast and live platforms.

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