Rebecca Stephens, first British woman to summit Mount Everest

Today’s 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog looks up to the awe-inspiring mountaineer and journalist, Rebecca Stephens. Sussex-based Rebecca undertook her summit attempt to the roof of the world on 17 May 1993 and became the first British woman to reach the top of Mount Everest. She was also the first British woman to have achieved the Seven Summits, the highest mountains of each of the seven continents.

‘Everest stripped away any superficialities, revealing only that which matters: head, heart and values.’ Rebecca Stephens, 2019, talking to World Expeditions.

Rebecca Stephens, from the series 100 First Women Portraits, by Anita Corbin

In the 1980s, Rebecca was working as a journalist in London and was commissioned to write a series of articles about an expedition to Everest, which was attempting to scale the still unclimbed North East Ridge of Everest in Tibet. She describes it as the ‘most cherished journey of my life’. Rebecca found herself on a voyage of discovery, surrounded by passionate mountaineers for whom mountains were an all consuming obsession. ‘It was the romance of Everest that I fell in love with. When we were on the mountain, there were at least two, or even three, hundred people of all different colours, creeds and nationalities each with an unrelenting desire to stand on the summit.’ On this trip, Rebecca climbed higher than any British woman had before. It ignited a desire to come back and attempt to climb to the very top, a desire that Rebecca only acknowledged at the time as a distant dream.

Rebecca grew up in Kent on the edge of the North Downs and her family holidayed in Dartmoor and in the Yorkshire Dales. Her mother remembers her marching straight up hills, or tors, no zig-zags, just straight to the top. But her love of mountains was superseded by office work, buying flats and city living.

The dream of summitting Everest came into focus during a lunch in December 1991 when she was invited to be part of an expedition by mountain leader, John Barry. Rebecca describes herself, ‘as a girl with lots of dreams but no experience whatsover.’ The expedition was booked and Rebecca spent two years preparing, including┬ásummiting Mount Denali, (McKinley), in Alaska as practice.

Within a couple of days of arriving at Everest Base Camp, in April 1993, Rebecca and her group were negotiating the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, gateway to the higher camps of Everest. Enroute to Camp 2, Rebecca discovered she was suffering second-degree frostbite in her little finger, and began worrying that if that happened at 20,000 feet, what would happen at 29,000 feet….

Over the next month, the odds of summiting seemed stacked against Rebecca and her team but finally, despite a potentially risky weather forecast, Rebecca and three Nepalese Sherpas went for it. Facing hostile weather the whole way, the group reached the summit on 17 May, and Rebecca made history by being the first British woman to ‘break the glass ceiling’ of mountaineering. Rebecca attributes their success to the expertise and caution of the Sherpas, Tcheri Zhambu, Ang Passang and Kami Tchering.

Since that record-breaking day, Rebecca has been awarded an MBE and has undertaken many more adventures, including competing in an eight day Eco Challenge with polar explorers, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Mike Stroud, and crossing the Island of South Georgia in the footsteps of Sir Ernest Shackleton. She is also a trustee for the Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Rebecca is part of Anita Corbin’s exhibition, 100 First Women Portraits. See the exhibition online here.

Quotes and references for this blog are taken from Rebecca’s book, On Top of the World, published by Macmillan

For more information about Rebecca visit her website.

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