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Nancy Hansen: Fear, Motivation and Mt. Everest

March 24, 2015


By Meghan J. Ward

Nancy Hansen never talks about her objectives before she climbs them, with one exception: Mt. Everest. This spring, the 46-year-old Canmore mountaineer will attempt to climb the world’s highest mountain with German alpinist, Ralf Dujmovits, 53, via the Norton Couloir on Everest’s northern (Tibet) side. We caught up with Hansen while she’s in Bühl, Germany, to train in the Alps, and discussed her fears about this upcoming expedition, what drives her, and why she compares climbing to a game of chess.

Nancy Hansen training in the Bern Alps, Switzerland. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Nancy Hansen training in the Bern Alps, Switzerland. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

MW/ What instigated this expedition to Mt. Everest? 

NH/ I had an invitation to go there. I have never before been in a situation where it was even a remote possibility. I can’t say it was something I thought about on a daily basis. It’s just one of those things. I’d be surprised if there were any climbers out there who never thought about it at all because it is the highest mountain on the planet, and the challenges that presents are different from most other climbing trips. So, I got an invitation from Ralf, who is one of the most accomplished and best high altitude climbers on the planet, and I thought he was crazy for asking me. I still think he’s crazy. But, how could I say “no” to this opportunity?

MW/ How long has this trip been in the works? 

NH/ He asked me in November, 2014, and I decided in mid-December. So, not very long!

MW/ How did the choice come about to climb the Norton Couloir?

NH/ This is an unusual situation for me. I’m used to being the organizer and planning the trips, coming up with ideas, finding the partners, doing all of that. So when Ralf asked me if I wanted to climb Mt. Everest via the Norton Couloir, I said, “sure, why not?” Not quite that casually, but it’s all his idea. This is his seventh attempt on Mt. Everest without oxygen. It’s the only one that he’s used oxygen for [to climb all the 8000-metre peaks].

MW/ Do you know how busy the North side of the mountain will be this year?

NH/ Not exactly. Ralf was there last year and he said there were about 60 climbers, not including the support staff at Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp. He figures this year it could be double that because of the big accident that happened last year. There are definitely some companies that have shifted from the South side to the North side.

If the normal route on the South side was the only option for climbing this mountain, I would not be interested in climbing it. It’s just way, way too busy over there.

MW/ Your usual rule is not to talk about an objective before you’ve climbed it. What changed with Everest? 

NH/ Honestly, it was only six weeks ago that I hit the total panic button and realized how much this was going to cost. I was like, “what am I thinking!?” So, I let the cat out of the bag. I never talk about climbs before I do them because so many things can change and I’d way rather talk about things after. With this one I had no choice because I couldn’t afford not to do it. I was also a bit scared because I thought, “who supports trips to Everest anymore?” It just doesn’t happen. I was totally shocked at the response to the fundraising. I have raised about $20,000, plus $8,000 in gear and plane tickets, and the actual cost of the trip is going to be about $25,000, plus $10,000 in gear.

Nancy Hansen training in the Bern Alps, Switzerland. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Nancy Hansen training in the Bern Alps, Switzerland. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

MW/ Do you have any fears about this expedition?

NH/ Yep! I was definitely more fearful at the beginning, the first month, when I was thinking about it. There are so many unknowns. To be honest, I have never been a fantastic acclimatizer. But I have learned a lot over the years about myself, how I acclimatize, and what I can do to maximize it. I know what to expect. So, I think I’ve wrapped my head around that.

Also, I have zero interest in attempting [Everest] using supplemental oxygen. It’s just really unappealing to me. I don’t care what other people do, but just the aesthetics of wearing this giant mask on your face…it’s too weird. So, that’s a huge factor in everything, from frostbite to exertion, and that has created some fear, for sure. But, I think I’m going in with my eyes wide open.

I’m mostly aware of what I’m getting into and what the consequences are. Hopefully, I’m old enough and experienced enough to pay attention to my body on the mountain and know when my limit has been reached. That is going to be a challenge because you lose your ability to think clearly as you go higher.

Healthy fears, I think.

MW/ This expedition comes at the tail end of your quest for the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Do you still have your eyes on that prize? 

NH/ I have no idea, Meghan. I had already planned on taking a break next year from the Fifty Classics. Somehow I’m taking a break from the Fifty Classics and I’m going to climb Mt. Everest instead, which seems a bit crazy. I’ll very likely get back on [the Fifty Classics], though. I’m planning on going to Mt. Waddington this summer, and it’s on the list.

So, that would be three more [Classics] after that, but they are just so epic. I don’t even feel that I’m halfway done, but Ralf is keen to try the Hummingbird Ridge [on Mt. Logan] in 2016. He is the only person on the planet who is remotely interested in climbing this thing.

I’ve had debates with him and other people about which is more dangerous: Mt. Everest or the Hummingbird Ridge. We’ve all concluded that the Hummingbird is.

Nancy Hansen training in the Bern Alps, Switzerland. Photo by Ralf Dujmovits.

Norton Couloir route on Mt. Everest. Photo by Jerome Ryan.

MW/ What drives you to take on these big projects?

NH/ I think I’m kind of lazy (laughs). Having a list of things to do… I don’t have to think about what I’m going to do next. I just have to look at the list and there it is. One of the things I’ve discovered over the years working on these different projects is that you have to take the good with the bad. You can have the best day of your life out in the mountains, or you can have some really difficult experiences for different reasons. Not all climbs are perfect days out, and I like that.

If it was all pleasant and perfect, I’d be bored.

MW/ So you’re lazy and you’re bored? That’ll make a good quote.

NH/ Exactly (laughs). It takes some of the climbing experience out of my control. And I have to do this. It’s all in my head. I don’t have to do anything and I can stop any time. But it presents a unique challenge in that way.

I have always likened climbing to playing chess. There’s making the plan, knowing what your next moves are going to be, changing them when something changes, knowing when to run away, when to move forward. I think that’s why I have enjoyed climbing for the last 21 years.

Nancy Hansen. Photo by Renée Lavergne

Nancy Hansen. Photo by Renée Lavergne

MW/ Imagine you’re warm and cozy in your sleeping bag high on the mountain. It’s 1 a.m. and the alarm goes off for an alpine start. What gets you out of bed? 

NH/ One of the hardest things for me in life is getting out of bed. I hate going to sleep and I hate getting up. I just do it. I just get up. I don’t even think about it, like if you’re about to jump into a cold lake.

Don’t think about it. Just do it.

Connect with Nancy

Editor’s Note: Nancy Hansen and Ralf Dujmovits were hiking up to Advanced Base Camp when the earthquake struck the area on April 25, 2015. The Chinese Government decided to close the North side of the mountain for climbing this season, putting an end to Hansen’s big for the summit of Everest. You can read her story and thoughts in A Safe Return from Everest


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Writer, adventurer, outdoorsy mama and summit cartwheeler. Meghan J. Ward is the editor and co-founder at Crowfoot Media and lives for backcountry getaways.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.