The perfect day begins under a full moon at 8pm on a lifeless, frozen wasteland where the human body begins to die, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast. The South Col of Mount Everest is a windswept mess of discarded oxygen bottles, rubbish, human waste and tents housing a down-suited, masked mob of high-altitude mountaineers. Welcome to the death zone – there’s no place you’d rather be. It can’t sustain life, but it somehow manages to sustain a dream.
Midnight overtakes your laborious ascent as you join a queue, sometimes waiting 10 minutes between steps. The rock lying in the shadows that you step over reveals itself to be a body, frozen where it fell. Come for the summit, stay for a lifetime. All going well, you’ll reach a point where every direction slopes down. On a planet of 7.5 billion people, no one stands taller than you.
When 19-year-old Alyssa Azar became the youngest Australian to reach the summit of Everest at 3.45am on May 21, it marked the fulfilment of a dream – a dream that had already been wrenched from her grasp twice before, in circumstances traumatic enough to make even the most hardened mountaineer reconsider the risks. The elation of her success, though, was tempered by news that another Australian, Maria Strydom, 34, had died on the mountain the following day. Alyssa had seen Maria twice, the first time high on the south-east ridge: Maria was suffering altitude sickness and had called off her summit bid. The second time was on the descent the next day, a short distance below the South Col where Maria would die soon after.
Alyssa would return to Australia in triumph, finally defying the doubters who thought she was too young to climb, too inexperienced at altitude, not strong enough, too different from other mountaineers. But her strange, isolated existence, where a single-minded fixation on one goal has left little room for human connection, raises the question: how will the young mountaineer cope if her life should ever cross paths with the real world? Is the biggest danger of Everest that the view from the top leaves you looking into a void?
If dreams can come true at 3.45am, they can also be rudely interrupted. The alarm is cruel. I drive across the Story Bridge, spanning the Brisbane River like a ladder over a bottomless crevasse.
A security guard unlocks the padlock to Albion Park Raceway and a dark four-wheel-drive tails me into the car park. Alyssa Azar alights and lithely climbs the stairs to a gym built into the grandstand. She’s a compact package of toned muscle with a hardened core. Her dad, Glenn Azar, never far away, flicks on the lights to reveal this morning’s instruments of torture. Alyssa’s getting back into training after a short break spent processing the culmination of her Everest dream.
It’s a dream that germinated while hiking the Kokoda Track, aged eight – becoming the youngest person in the world to complete it – on an expedition led by Glenn. The 110kg ex-soldier, personal trainer, founder of a trekking business called Adventure Professionals and self-styled “success coach” is not exactly the type of person to squash your ambition, even if he could squash you with one hand. Businesses can sign up to his $4500 one-day “Corporate Game Changer”. He’s not a guy to sit on the fence. His website’s homepage gives two options: Inspire me, or No, thanks.
I’ve rashly put my hand up to join Alyssa’s 4am workout. We have two gym sessions planned, plus a hike. This morning calls for 10 pull-ups, 50 push-ups, 10 toes to bar, followed by nine pullups, 45 push-ups, nine toes to bar, and so on, down to zero. Did I mention it’s 4am? No, thanks.
The workout was devised by another ex-military man, Scott Evennett, who designed Alyssa’s training regimen for Everest this year. According to Scott it’s about providing mental mountains for Alyssa to get over; creating an impossible-looking workout and developing strategies to overcome not only the physical challenge but also the much tougher mental one. “It’s blocking out the outside world, essentially, so that your only thought process is forward.” Blocking out the outside world is one thing Alyssa Azar needs no training in.
Fiercely focused, a self-confessed loner, goal-blinkered, uncompromising, naturally shy but necessarily media-savvy, she doesn’t smile easily, doesn’t do humour. She makes for subdued company as we later hike the slopes of Brisbane’s Mount Coot-tha. It’s called a “pack hike”. I assumed it meant we’d be hiking in a group, but no, it means you put a pack on your back and hike. I’m wearing Glenn’s old army pack, which he’s carried on 55 Kokoda trips.
“Alyssa doesn’t train with other people,” Glenn explains. I’m also warned she doesn’t talk much when she hikes – or when she works out. To that list you could probably add “ever”. Glenn makes up for it, though. Despite his formidable exterior he’s personable, hospitable, accommodates lesser mortals with good grace. Sometimes the motivational maxims are befuddling, but his conversation is warm, varied and refreshingly open.
He funded Alyssa’s Everest expeditions by selling his Toowoomba gym, working round the clock and drumming up sponsors. Brand alignment is important: they turned down a substantial offer from a Queensland mining company just when they needed the money the most. He lays it out straight:”We know who we are and what we’re about.” Alyssa talks more when Glenn is around, knowing he’s there to finish her sentences, pick up threads and shape the story, catch her when a question throws her off balance. Email Alyssa and Glenn might reply. Without Glenn, Alyssa retreats within herself, blocking out everything except the ground in front of her, the goal of the day.
We hit a steep section and I stride out a bit faster. I notice Alyssa has dropped back. Could it be I’ve outstripped the conqueror of Everest on the benign slopes of Mount Coot-tha? I turn round and see that she’s stopped to put headphones on. Message received: Less talk, more walk.
A book detailing the remarkable achievements of Alyssa Azar’s young life, The Girl Who Climbed Everest, is out on Monday. For a long time people doubted the past tense would ever make it into the title. This year was her third attempt on the 8848m peak. As Glenn says, “She got tired of being the girl trying to climb Everest.”
On her first attempt, in 2014, she witnessed one of the darkest days in Everest’s history, when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas. It ended the season for all expeditions on the Nepalese side and sparked an uprising among Sherpas, sick of helping Westerners climb their sacred mountain. Alyssa was heading to the mess tent when the news came through and she watched helicopters fly bodies back – dead Sherpas dangling against the backdrop of their mountain goddess, Chomolungma, whom they prayed to for forgiveness prior to climbing.
In that same season an Indian girl named Malavath Purna, just shy of her 14th birthday, became the youngest person in the world to reach the summit of Everest, climbing from the more difficult Tibetan side.
The Nepalese government doesn’t allow climbers under 16 to attempt the summit. A year later Alyssa was back, only to experience the devastating April 25 earthquake, again while at base camp. The quake killed almost 9000 people in Nepal and sent her home again. It was the lowest point of her life. For weeks she didn’t leave the house. “I just didn’t know what to do next, or where to go,” she says. “It’s hard to be at home knowing that this would have been summit week.
To not be over there in those two months was incredibly difficult. I was depressed.” To refocus, she called on the only thing she knew that was strong enough to bring herself back: her own mind.”I had to start the rebuilding process,” she says.
Glenn says a common assumption is that he pushed Alyssa to take after him, tried to mould her into some sort of trophy version of himself.
The truth, he says, is that he dismissed her early ambitions to walk the Kokoda Track (she first pitched the idea at age six) and agreed to it only on condition that she adhere to what he thought was an unachievable training regimen. By the time she was 12 she had climbed the 10 highest peaks in Australia, simply because she wasn’t old enough to be allowed to climb the mountain she really desired: Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro. That would come two years later, when she was 14. “I was the perfect image of someone who shouldn’t be doing this,” says Alyssa. “I was small, blonde, a girl. But my motivation is always about the challenge. It makes me work harder.”
She took up competitive boxing at age 10. Glenn recalls watching her much bigger opponent rain down blow after blow on his girl. Alyssa was crying and Glenn begged her to stop fighting, but she refused to quit. He told her the alternative was to stop crying. “It’s not like we bred her to be like this,” he says. “It’s just the way she is. We’ve got four kids; she’s different to the other three.” Alyssa’s brother, Christian, born in 2004, is autistic. Alyssa took a photo of him to the summit of Everest. Glenn’s love for all his children is evident, even if his unique connection is with Alyssa.
When Glenn and his wife Therese separated in 2011, Alyssa moved with Glenn while the other three kids stayed with their mother. Alyssa sees her mum and siblings regularly, and in her book dedication she pays tribute to her mum as a “tower of strength”.
Glenn and Alyssa share a two-bedroom apartment in Brisbane, where the blue and yellow down suit she wore to the summit of Everest hangs proudly in the garage. I prod one of the thick gloves slung over the suit, turning it over mindlessly, as though it might reveal something. I step away and Alyssa discreetly reaches over and turns the glove back the right way round.
Hidden amid the clutter of barbells, workout equipment and climbing gear is a large, framed underwater photograph. Glenn picks it up and dusts it off. It shows a 16-year-old Alyssa diving underwater with a kettlebell to help her sink, enveloped in cool blue and laced with bubbles, like clusters of pearls bursting to the surface.
Glenn runs Adventure Professionals from a rented office in Teneriffe. Alyssa says the motivation for climbing Everest wasn’t that it was an investment in the family business, even if bookings for treks have gone through the roof since her achievement.” When I prepare for something like Everest I often think of the worst-case scenario, which is me lying dead on the side of the mountain. Is that worth it, just for a commercial opportunity? No. That’s not worth dying for.”
Now that Everest is done, she says she will divide her time between mountaineering trips – she plans to climb the “Seven Summits”, the highest peak on every continent – and helping to run Adventure Professionals. “One feeds the other,” says Glenn. “It’s how we can afford to do what we do.”
Alyssa first realised she was different around the age of six. “My favourite thing to do was train. Over time I stopped caring about fitting in. I knew this was what I loved doing.” Problems at school began when she was about 12. Glenn says teachers were harassing her to be normal. “We got called into the school a few times. They were worried Alyssa was depressed, saying she doesn’t talk, doesn’t hang out with people.”
“I would use my lunchtime to do schoolwork because I’d be training after school,” Alyssa says. “I was in the office a lot because they thought it was unusual that I wasn’t socialising with other kids.” Were the teachers right? She shrugs her shoulders.”I told them I was training for Kilimanjaro.”
She left school at 14 – “I just found school was more about the social aspect and I thought I should be there to learn” – and was homeschooled until halfway through year 11, then left the school system altogether.
But the girl’s no dummy. She devours books (her favourite, Warrior Trainingby former SAS soldier Keith Fennell, is so well read that its cover has fallen off) and is prone to bursts of unexpected lyricism, such as when she describes her perfect day: “I’d wake up some mornings at base camp and go through the [Khumbu] icefall, and I’d just think there’s nowhere I’d rather be. If I wake up and my whole day ahead is climbing to Camp Two, that’s great to me. My place is being in my bubble on the mountain. That’s my place.”
Her quest to climb the world’s highest mountains hasn’t been without controversy. Before this year’s Everest expedition Glenn and Alyssa became embroiled in a heated dispute with Ronnie Muhl, the leader of a South African expedition company called Adventures Global. Alyssa climbed with Adventures Global on Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, in 2014, as well as on her first two Everest expeditions in 2014 and 2015. According to Muhl, the Azars still owe him around $US10,000. Glenn disputes the amount owed. But Muhl is also scathing of Alyssa’s attitude on the mountain. “It’s almost as if she has zero social skills. She’s completely selfish,” he says.”I don’t know what drives that but I think her dad has a rather large influence on her thinking and behaviour. At some point that’s got to change. She cannot go through life living the way she does at the moment.” Muhl mentions Alyssa’s refusal to take part in any group activities or discussions. “After dinner she would just walk out of the dining tent without even saying goodnight to anyone. She would completely ignore everyone. It’s just not normal behaviour.”
Nima Namgyal Sherpa, one of the leaders for Asian Trekking, the company Alyssa climbed with on this year’s expedition, says he didn’t see any of the traits Muhl describes. “She’s very reserved, but I never found her selfish,” he says. “I had no problems with her attitude. She was an active follower – that is, she would do what I told her to do. My priority was to get her up the mountain, and that’s what I did.”
But other climbers back up Muhl’s character assessment. Lisa Gering was a tent mate of Alyssa’s for two weeks in 2014 during the unsuccessful attempt on Aconcagua. “She was very distant, very unapproachable. I put in a big effort to get to know her – I mean, we were about to spend two weeks in a flipping tent together – and she just didn’t let me in. Everyone’s there to climb the mountain but there’s a social etiquette and social context in which you climb.” Gering says she was mystified by Alyssa’s behaviour, and offers three explanations. “Maybe it’s because she’s young. Or maybe it’s because she’s focused. Or maybe it’s because she’s just bloody rude. I really don’t know. But I do think her dad has disempowered her to manage in this world. She can’t think on her feet.”
Alyssa maintains she gets on well with people.”I don’t try to change people. I accept people for who they are. One of the things I like about expeditions is I can be who I am. That’s my environment so why should I pretend to be someone I’m not?” Does she think she has the balance right?”I’m not sure about balance. I’m very much all or nothing. With Everest that was my whole life. It was who I was meant to become. This is where I’m meant to be, and that’s a really good feeling.” What was she afraid of? It’s her favourite question, because it requires a one-word answer. “Failure.”
My work is not done. I’m strapped to something out of a James Bond film called a “leg-press”. Glenn lifts what look like tractor tyres while Alyssa swings kettlebells up from the floor and over her shoulders. She’s in her element, headphones in ears, a taut, hard-muscled body contorting through a familiar routine. Her happy place is a house of hurt. Glenn finishes his workout and walks with me outside. He says the reason Alyssa doesn’t do team sports is she can’t stand it when people fail; when they aren’t as strong as her. We look back into the gym, where Alyssa has put the kettlebells aside to swat a boxing speed ball, unblinking eyes staring it down, hardened knuckles jabbing it in a steady, syncopated rhythm: puck puck puck puck. “She’s just different,” her dad concedes.”People don’t like different.”
In 1997, Brigitte Muir became the first Australian woman to climb Mount Everest, and the first Australian to climb the Seven Summits. In July this year she received an email from a 15-year-old boy, who told her he was planning to climb Everest next year. His reason: to beat Alyssa’s record. He confessed he’d never climbed anything other than Mt Kosciuszko. “That’s not what climbing mountains is about,” says Muir, exasperated. “This is not a competition between people. I’m lucky I didn’t grow up in that environment. Mountaineering used to be about climbing mountains and immersing yourself in an amazing environment with people who would become your friends for life.”
“I find that mountaineers are generally Type A personalities,” says Chris Burke, another top female mountaineer. “They are very goal-oriented. You have to be extremely focused. Climbing Everest is 50-70 per cent mental. A lot of people physically can keep going but their minds give up, they lose their nerve, lose their courage, start to doubt themselves.” Burke has seen people arrive at base camp, take one look at the mountain, turn around and go home, never to return. She says the five most important attributes of a successful mountaineer are focus, courage, determination, perseverance and strength. When the same question is put to Alyssa, her answers are almost identical:self-motivation, resolve, toughness, determination, perseverance. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get the same flavour of tent-mate.
“Most of us underachieve,” says Glenn. “Alyssa could die tomorrow and she wouldn’t be considered an underachiever.” Is he concerned by criticism from fellow mountaineers? He shakes his head. “My kids all have a very healthy self-respect. They won’t be pushed and I’m not big on them being subservient to adults.”
The girl who climbed Everest finishes her training session and waits patiently for the guy still doing push-ups. I’m determined not to give up. Toughness. Resolve. Perseverance. The lactic acid in my arms floods into my brain; the pain is all I can think about. I remind myself it’s just an obstacle I have to get over. “You can do it sitting back on your knees if you like,” Glenn suggests. I think he wants to get going. No, thanks.
I lurch forward, summoning my arms to flex again. Instead, they collapse beneath me. I rest for a few seconds and reset. This time I make it up. One more. I exhale loudly, groan, and at a glacial speed my trembling arms jack my broken body off the ground. It’s over. But it’s more than just over; I’ve attained my goal. A sense of achievement washes over me and I stumble towards Alyssa, raising my arms in the air like a champion boxer. Her hardened expression cracks into just a hint of a smile and she offers her hand for a high-five. It is tiny, soft and supple. Warm.
The Girl Who Climbed Everest, by Sue Williams (Michael Joseph, $32.99), out on Monda
This article first appear in the Australian