Beyond The Summit (Physical & Mental Realities Of High Altitude Climbing)

Cathy O’Dowd Podcast


Welcome back to another episode of the Adventure Diaries with your host, Chris Watson.

My guest today is the extraordinary Cathy O’Dowd, a South African rock climber, mountaineer, and adventurer who made history as the first woman to summit Mount Everest from both the north and south sides.

Cathy’s journey from the flat plains of Johannesburg to the towering peaks of the Himalayas is not just a tale of physical conquest but also one of mental fortitude and emotional resilience.

Cathy O'Dowd Podcast
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From Johannesburg to Everest: Cathy O’Dowds Climbing Journey

Growing up in the suburban expanse of Johannesburg, Cathy discovered her love for climbing at a summer camp in the Drakensberg. “I grew up in suburban Johannesburg. It’s high, but it’s a huge flat grass plain, not a mountain in sight,” Cathy reminisced. Her passion for mountaineering blossomed at university, where she joined the rock climbing club and began to explore her potential.

Despite her initial struggles with team sports, Cathy found rock climbing to be a deeply personal and rewarding challenge. “I was terrible at sport at school… then I found rock climbing and it’s not competitive. You don’t have to win or lose. It’s deeply personal,” she shared. This personal journey led her to climb in various locations, from Central Africa’s Rwenzori Mountains to the Andes and the Alps, ultimately preparing her for the monumental challenge of Everest.

The First South African Everest Expedition

Cathy’s path to Everest was unconventional. She joined the first South African Everest expedition, a team primarily composed of men, after responding to a newspaper competition aimed at finding a female climber. Despite the sexist undertones of the competition, Cathy saw it as an opportunity. “I put aside all my feminist scruples… and went like, okay, I’ll sign up. And yeah, it changed my life completely,” she admitted.

The expedition was marred by dysfunction and tragedy. The infamous 1996 storm on Everest, which claimed the lives of several climbers, including notable guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall, also impacted Cathy’s team. “We got asked if we could go and see if these missing people were back because maybe they’re back at camp and their radio batteries are dead,” Cathy recalled, highlighting the chaotic and life-threatening conditions they faced.

Overcoming Tragedy On Everest and Public Failure

The storm was not the end of their challenges. Cathy’s team decided to make another attempt at the summit of mount Everest and succeeded, only to face another tragedy when a team member was killed on the descent. This roller-coaster of emotions, from triumph to despair, was a stark reminder of the unpredictable nature of mountaineering. “

Within 12 hours, a member of our team had been killed on the descent. And the media went batshit crazy,” Cathy recounted.

Despite these hardships, Cathy learned valuable lessons about failure and resilience. “If you realize you’re going to have to drop the summit and turn towards a safe exit for goal number two, come home alive, that can be very interesting because it’s going to happen in a moment of crisis,” she explained, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing safety over ambition.

Climbing Beyond Everest: New Adventures and Inspirations

Cathy’s adventures didn’t end with Everest. She continued to push her limits, climbing in diverse and challenging environments, including Nanga Parbat via the Mizehno Ridge.

She also explored new sports such as skiing, sea kayaking, and canyoning. “I’ve done some big ski expeditions… and now, I’ve also taken up sea kayaking and canyoning,” she shared, showcasing her relentless pursuit of adventure.

Empowering Women in Mountaineering

Throughout her career, Cathy has been a trailblazer for women in mountaineering. Her achievements have inspired many young women to take up the sport and break through the gender barriers. “There’s much more space to be who you are as a woman and also be a high-achieving athlete,” Cathy noted, reflecting on the progress made in recent years.

Episode Takeaways

  • Cathy’s journey from Johannesburg to Everest is filled with personal and professional challenges.
  • The first South African Everest expedition faced severe difficulties, including a deadly storm.
  • Resilience and learning from failure are crucial aspects of Cathy’s mountaineering philosophy.
  • Cathy has expanded her adventurous pursuits to include skiing, sea kayaking, and canyoning.
  • Cathy’s achievements have significantly impacted the representation of women in mountaineering.

Call To Adventure

  • Call To Adventure From Cathy O’Dowd
  • “Everyone who hasn’t tried climbing, go to an indoor climbing gym.”
  • “And if you’re kids from the age of about three or four, there is no age limit, there is no weight limit. Everyone.”
  • “For the most of you who are already indoor rock climbers, try going outdoors.”

Pay It Forward – Promote Ocean Conservation

  • How To Pay It Forward – From Cathy O’Dowd
  • Fundraising For a British society called the Friends of Kagando.”
  • “This is trying to take small amounts of money and make them as effective as possible.”
  • “Nurses out to the road head on the back of little scooters.”
  • Walking into these villages, doing education for the mothers.”
  • “Village-based insurance so there’s a pot of money when you need to bring the child in.”
  • Do whatever you can to support the Friends of Kagando.


Cathy O’Dowd’s remarkable journey from Johannesburg to the peaks of Everest exemplifies the essence of adventure and resilience. Her achievements inspire others to embrace their own challenges and pursue their passions, regardless of the obstacles.

Through her story, we are reminded of the limitless potential within us all.

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