Meet the adventurer: mountaineer Rebecca Stephens on conquering Everest

Rebecca Stephens became the first British woman to climb Everest on 17 May 1993 and was subsequently awarded an MBE. The following year she went on to become the first British woman to scale the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent.

Published 12 Nov 2020, 15:54 GMT, Updated 13 Jan 2021, 10:06 GMT
Everest, in Nepal's Himalayas, is the world's highest peak at a staggering 29,029ft. On 17 May 1993, ...

Everest, in Nepal's Himalayas, is the world's highest peak at a staggering 29,029ft. On 17 May 1993, Rebecca Stephens became the first British woman to summit the mountain, and was awarded an MBE for her achievement. 

Photograph by Getty Images

What was your first big adventure?

When I went to the Himalayas for the first time in my late 20s, it felt like coming home. It just seemed to be my natural environment. Everything was so colourful and bright and intense. It was one of the most exciting trips of my life. I went there as a reporter to cover an Everest expedition and found myself surrounded by people from all corners of the world who were utterly passionate about climbing this mountain; they lived and breathed it. I was left wondering: why do climbers climb? So, I decided to climb up to Camp 1 on the Northeast Ridge to see for myself. The camp was at 23,000ft, and one of the climbers was kind enough to accompany me. It was hard work. But we kept going and got up to that first camp after about nine hours. That was my day of conversion. I felt so alive, like I had electricity buzzing through me. I decided there and then — one day I was going to come back and climb Everest properly.

What inspires you about the mountains?

We clutter our lives to such an extent; there are so many distractions. But in the mountains, life is simple, and you're surrounded by this extraordinary nature, which just fills you up. It offers a lightness as well. We're always looking through our own pair of eyes, and our lives seem incredibly important. But when you're in the mountains, somehow you get this view from above — you're one tiny bit of this extraordinary universe — and that just makes me feel light somehow. I never feel better than when I'm in the mountains.

Rebecca Stephens has been a leading motivational speaker for more than 20 years, and now guides bespoke mountain adventures for private clients all around the world.

Photograph by Rebecca Stephens

What was it like to stand on the summit of Everest?

It was extraordinary. It was 1993 and the three of us had the upper reaches of Everest completely and utterly to ourselves. I had a sense of it being quite unreal. I was with two Sherpas — Ang Passang and Kami Tchering. They hadn’t been to the summit before either and were thrilled! That shared moment was very special. I could never have done it on my own and I've never felt that togetherness before or since in quite the same way. That was the biggest lesson I drew from Everest — it’s only with other people that you can make things happen. It changed my life completely.

What was your biggest challenge doing the Seven Summits?

There was another British woman, Ginette Harrison, who was planning to climb the Seven Summits as well. She was ahead of me, having already climbed a few of the mountains. Around that time, it was made very clear to me that if I wasn’t the first British woman to climb them, then there would be no sponsorship money. So, I had to climb four mountains in five months. Aconcagua in Argentina was the crux because we were forced to climb it in October, out of season. It was incredibly cold and there were very high winds — I was literally blown off my feet. We nearly didn’t make it. But on the last day, a window opened up and we reached the summit. Then we were benighted on the descent, and huddled together like a couple of penguins, waiting for the first light of day.

“When you're in the mountains you get this view from above — that you're one tiny bit of this extraordinary universe — and that just makes me feel light somehow.”

What did it feel like to be the first British woman to climb the Seven Summits?

Vinson in Antarctica was my last summit, and I climbed it immediately after Aconcagua. By comparison, it’s a much smaller mountain. So, apart from the cold, it was fairly straightforward. We had plenty of time on the summit. I cried. It was such a relief and so sad all at once. This extraordinary, colourful chapter that I'd been living for the last three or four years had come to an end.

What’s the most important lesson that climbing mountains has taught you?

So often we’re on what I call the vertical axis of achievement, striving for the summit. But now, as I’m getting older, I'm more and more aware of the horizontal axis, too — of resilience, of reflection, of rejuvenation and wellbeing. And I think we need to focus on this horizontal line with the same intent as we do the vertical line, otherwise we burnout. There are so many metaphors for this in climbing. In the mountains, you can’t rush it. You’ll only be able to climb at the speed your body allows you to acclimatise; and you need to take time to look after yourself too, otherwise you won’t make it to the summit. So, in climbing, keeping focused on that horizontal axis allows you to perform at your best on the vertical. If we could think more about pace and balance, and the horizontal as well as the vertical axis, then we’d live healthier lives, which would be a benefit not just to ourselves, but everybody around us as well.

What advice do you have for other people wanting to go on similar adventures?

Listen to your inner voice and have the courage to follow your own chosen path. I think many people are living to meet other people's expectations. But we don't all have to achieve things by certain stages in our lives, we can live differently if we want. And we shouldn't feel confined by convention. Prior to Everest, I wandered through life without really knowing what I wanted to do. When I decided to climb Everest, it was the first time I felt that my inner self was totally aligned with my actions. It did feel risky, and I gave up my job to do it, but it also felt incredibly liberating and my path to being true to myself. If I’d followed a path that I didn't feel passionate about, then I wouldn't have had the motivation to keep going. It’s like flowing with the stream, rather than trying to paddle against it. Don't procrastinate. Don't hang around, just throw yourself into something that's important to you.

Where next?

I was supposed to be guiding a trip to Kilimanjaro in February 2021. I guide bespoke trips for clients — to Africa and the Himalayas mostly. Unfortunately, that’s now been postponed due to coronavirus, but I hope to be back in the mountains soon. My intent is to lead treks for as long as my body will allow.

Rebecca Stephens has been a leading motivational speaker for more than 20 years, and now guides bespoke mountain adventures for private clients all around the world.

Listen to the full story of Rebecca’s Everest and Seven Summits climbs on the Armchair Explorer podcast, where the world’s greatest adventurers tell their best story from the road. 

Read more interviews from our Meet the Adventurer series

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