I’m what you might call an unlikely climber. I’m not a professional athlete or a millionaire with an eccentric hobby. By the time I discovered mountaineering, I was already in my 50s, with three grown children and three grandchildren. I was beginning to think about retiring from the family business—a hardwood flooring company that my husband, Vladimir, and I founded in the mid-’90s—but I wasn’t sure what the next stage of my life would look like.
I’m a naturalized Canadian citizen. In 1998, I emigrated from Belarus to the GTA with Vladimir and our three daughters, Olya, Katya and Dasha. We spent a couple of years in Mississauga before moving to Oakville, where we’ve lived for the past 22 years. I started getting serious about fitness in my late 40s. It started with yoga, which progressed to Pilates, gym training, weight lifting and, finally, rock climbing. I started out at indoor climbing gyms—Joe Rockhead in Toronto and Climber’s Rock in Burlington—and, soon enough, I was hooked.
Eventually, I started climbing outdoors. There are quite a few spots in the GTA that offer good learning opportunities for beginners, including Rattlesnake Point in Milton, Mount Nemo in Burlington and The Swamp just outside of Collingwood. I enjoyed immersing myself in nature, feeling the rock beneath my fingertips, balancing atop narrow ledges and experiencing the satisfaction of reaching the top. It gave me a feeling of liberation.
Shortly before turning 50, I set myself the goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, a 5,895-metre dormant volcano in Tanzania, and running a marathon within the year. I don’t know if I really expected to reach it, but before the year was up, I’d run three marathons and ascended Mount Kilimanjaro with my youngest daughter, Dasha. It’s a relatively easy climb, involving mostly hiking, with a little bit of glacier near the summit. I made it to the top in six days, with minimal equipment—pretty much just my hiking boots. It was staggeringly beautiful. Kilimanjaro, which sits high above the clouds, appears to be floating in the sky, a snowy cap defying gravity. I fell in love with the mountains, and mountaineering became a burning passion.
I practised my ice climbing and mountaineering all over the world, including on Mount Matterhorn, in Switzerland, and Pico de Orizaba, in Mexico, slowly developing my skills. There are 14 peaks in the world that are higher than 8,000 metres. By 2019, I thought I might be ready to climb one of them. That year, I ascended Cho Oyu, an 8,188-metre mountain in Tibet. Then, in 2021, I climbed the 8,163-metre Manaslu, in Nepal.
In May of 2022, Dasha and I summited Mount Everest, which I never could have imagined at the beginning of my climbing career. We were one of three mother-daughter duos in history to do it. By that point, we’d been climbing together for more than a decade.
I felt empowered and emboldened by my experience climbing Everest, and I wanted more. I had thought about attempting to climb K2 in the past, but I was filled with self-doubt. Known as the “savage” mountain, K2 is also said to have the “woman’s curse”—of the few women who have made it to the summit, many perished on the descent. I wondered if I had what it takes.
Around that time, I learned that 8K Expeditions, a Nepal-based, Sherpa-led mountaineering company that organizes climbing tours, was heading to K2 with a small team of strong climbers. They encouraged me to join, but I had to act fast. The K2 season is short, and there was little time left to secure a Pakistan entry visa and a climbing permit. I applied, but I didn’t hold my breath—I was expecting to spend the summer with my grandkids.
To prepare, just in case, I stuck with my regular training regimen: running, cycling, weightlifting and rock climbing. I’m always exercising, so my body is ready to perform at any time. Shockingly, the paperwork came in on time. Three weeks after returning home from Everest, I packed my bags and departed for K2.
On June 25, I flew to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, where I met with three members of my expedition: Frank from Norway, Suzuki from Japan, and Tri from Taiwan. We took a one-hour flight from Islamabad to a city called Skardu. From there, we hopped in a Jeep and drove seven hours along the Karakoram Highway, which runs across a remote mountain range near the border of Pakistan and China. The road led to Askole, the final settlement before we entered the wilderness. After that, it was a seven-day hike to the K2 base camp, which took us through forests, across several rivers and along a glacier.
There were approximately 200 other climbers at base camp, an outpost of rock and ice situated on a glacier. Everyone stayed in tents. Two other climbers from our expedition met us later: Kristin from Norway and another Kristin from America. Everyone was tired from the journey but excited to be there. Our team had six climbers and several Sherpa guides. Sherpas are Nepali people who have traditionally lived at high altitudes and have adapted to living in the mountains without the risk of altitude sickness. Today, many Sherpas are employed as mountaineering guides, cooks and porters, making mountaineering tourism—one of the major revenue streams in Nepal—a booming success.
Until recently, Sherpas were the unsung heroes of the Himalayas. Now they’re claiming their well-deserved place in mountaineering history. Sherpas are setting incredible world records and achieving commercial success, building personal brands and founding mountaineering companies like 8K Expeditions.
Because Pakistan lacks its own Sherpa population, Nepali operators have recently expanded into Karakoram, where K2 is located, often undertaking some of the most challenging aspects of the expeditions—fixing ropes to summits and breaking trails after heavy snowfall for other climbers and local Pakistani guides to use. I climbed three of my most recent peaks with Pema Chhiring Sherpa.
We spent a couple of days at base camp to get acclimatized. Oxygen levels decrease at higher altitudes, and our bodies needed time to adjust. Base camp is located at 5,000 metres. Without proper acclimation, climbers can experience headaches, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and even fluid build-up in the brain and lungs. Having recently returned from Everest, I felt good, but several members of my team experienced symptoms, including not being able to keep food down.
There was a big tent on site where we all ate. In another tent, a cook made food for everyone on a gas stove. We ate a lot of rice, pasta, lentils and dal bhat, a traditional Sherpa meal of rice, meat, lentils, vegetables and spices. Water quality is poor in Pakistan, so most of the climbers experienced stomach issues for a few days. The bathroom facilities, like everything else, were modest—we used a plastic drum inside a communal tent.
On July 7, we started our ascent. It took us 11 hours—going up a glacier and steep rock—to reach Camp 1, located at 6,100 metres. We stayed there overnight. The next morning, as we moved toward Camp 2, the weather shifted, with flurries of snow and harsh winds on the mountain. Inclement weather increases the risk of falls, frostbite and avalanches, so we had to go back down to base camp. I was disappointed—I wanted to push higher and continue getting acclimatized. Ultimately, though, it was too dangerous.
We spent 10 days at base camp as we waited for a weather window. There’s not much to do there, so we mostly went on short hikes to maintain our fitness levels. We also played the board game Sequence in the kitchen tent. One day, we danced to rap music with some friends from Pakistan. There’s virtually no cell signal at base camp, so communication with the outside world was limited. Being so isolated led us all to become very close.
When the weather cleared, we made our way back up the mountain. According to the forecast, we had six days to push for the summit, which is a reasonable amount of time. There are four main camps on the mountain. Ideally, we could hit one camp each day, leaving us two days for our descent.
It took 11 hours to reach Camp 1 again. Near Camp 2, we passed through a feature called House’s Chimney, a 30-metre-tall rock face with a shoulder-width vertical gap in the middle. It’s named after Bill House, the American climber who discovered the chute, in the 1930s, as the safest way to climb this section of the mountain. Inside the gap, there’s a rope ladder, which climbers can use to get up. It took House three hours to climb it the first time. Today, using the ladder, it takes only 15 minutes.
We arrived at Camp 2 on July 19. K2 is infamous for its rock falls, and the risks are highest between Camps 2 and 3. This section is known as the Black Pyramid, a steep mass of ice and rock that comes to a point at the top. We had to dig our crampons into the mountainside, potentially dislodging big chunks of rock. It took us over five hours to scale the 365-metre stretch, going up one at a time on a fixed rope line, dodging small rocks that sped past us like bullets. It required so much physical effort that I hardly had time to think about being afraid.
Once we arrived at Camp 3, we boiled some snow on a little gas stove and drank the clean water. We also made soup using little to-go packets. Then we set up tents and tried to get some rest. Between Camps 3 and 4, it’s pretty much all ice and snow. At that point, since we had ascended higher than 7,000 metres, I began using supplementary oxygen, breathing through a mask attached to a hose that connects to a four-litre metal bottle in my backpack. It helps with breathing and combatting fatigue.
K2’s signature feature, the Bottleneck, lies between Camp 4 and the summit. It’s considered to be the most dangerous part of the climb. It requires traversing horizontally across a huge rock with an enormous patch of ice hanging overhead. It feels like something could fall down and hit you at any time.
In 2008, during a summer expedition, 11 climbers died at the Bottleneck when part of the rock collapsed, causing an avalanche. Some were swept away; others fell to their deaths trying to navigate the treacherous terrain; still others were left stranded without ropes, cold and starved for oxygen. It was one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history. I could anticipate the danger in every cell of my body.
After a few hours of rest at Camp 4, we left for the summit around 10 p.m. I took on the Bottleneck in the middle of the night, in pitch black. Most expeditions try to reach the summit at night, when it’s colder and there’s a lower risk of avalanches because the snow is dense. I had a headlamp and a rope to help me stay on track and make it across the steep, narrow trail, taking care not to lose my footing. It was too dark to see the massive hunk of ice above, but I was keenly aware of it.
I reached the summit at 3:30 a.m. on July 22. I was immediately overcome by an enormous sense of physical and emotional relief. I spent about 30 minutes up there, surrounded by darkness and in utter disbelief that I had made it. As I was about to start heading back down, a little reddish-yellow line appeared on the horizon—the beginning of sunrise.
We descended straight to Camp 2, where we spent the night. The next stretch was the most trying and difficult part of the entire expedition: exhaustion and lack of oxygen, sleep, food and water add up quickly. It can spell disaster for climbers. At one point, around Camp 1, I was so exhausted that I was unable to put one foot in front of the other. All I wanted to do was lie down and drift off to sleep. Another climber, a man from Pakistan named Ali, took notice and pleaded with me to keep going. He shared his last energy bar with me, and I shared my last sip of water with him. We safely descended together. I’m deeply grateful to have come across Ali when I needed encouragement most.
After a few days of rest and recovery at base camp, Lakpa Sherpa, the leader of our expedition, shared that I was the oldest woman in history to climb K2. The previous record-holder was a British American woman who was a decade younger at the time of her summit. It felt pretty amazing.
When I set out to climb K2, all I wanted was to prove to myself that I could do it. It had never crossed my mind to chase a world record. But, in recent years, women of all ages have broken into mountaineering, setting new world records and making history. Kristin Harila is challenging Nirmal Purja to become the first person to scale all 14 of the world’s tallest peaks in record time. Grace Tseng is scaling the tallest mountains without supplemental oxygen. And there are countless more women undertaking tremendous mountaineering feats. I may be the oldest woman to have summited K2 right now, but I don’t expect it to stay that way for long. And, when the next woman comes along, I’ll be the first to extend my congratulations.
After K2, Kristin, Grace and I went on to climb Gasherbrum II, another 8,000-metre peak nearby. Since I was already in Pakistan and my body was acclimatized to the altitude, I figured it would be a great opportunity to scale another mountain alongside women I admired. It was my fifth eight-thousander.
I arrived back in Canada on August 19. My daughters and grandchildren met me at the airport, along with our emotional-support beagle, Turbo Ianovski. We celebrated with a traditional Belarusian meal of cabbage rolls, a custom-made cake shaped like K2, and lots of champagne. I was exhausted but happy to finally be home with my family.
As much as I feel at home surrounded by snowy peaks, autumn is my favourite time of the year. I feel lucky to be spending it with my grandchildren up in Haliburton County, foraging for mushrooms, fishing and helping with math homework—all while quietly planning my next big adventure. I’ve only climbed five of the world’s 14 tallest mountains. I wonder if I have what it takes to climb them all.
This content was originally published here.