She stood for all the things a woman can do


THERE is something both very funny and a bit odd about the cult surrounding the sport of extreme ironing. Its official website describes it as "the latest danger sport that combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt".

Taking a bag of ironing and a board to the top of mountains, and to the tops of bronze statues, ski slopes or underwater, is amusing simply because it drags a mundane, house-based activity to wild, dangerous and beautiful locations.

Even if the history of women climbers shows many would have happily clambered up mountains and scaled cliffs to avoid doing the ironing.

Extreme sports are cooler than ever - but with the death of a BASE-jumper in Norway, the emergence of a traumatised, ill and frostbitten Lincoln Hall after a near-fatal climb on Mount Everest, and the loss of Australia's most experienced female climber to the icy cracks of another Nepalese mountain, they aren't looking quite as appealing this week.

Many call those people addicted to adrenaline - who want to fly in the face of death to feel more alive - selfish, foolish and suicidal. And while BASE-jumping really does seem truly insane, it is hard not to admire the passion, abandonment, and dedication of those who grapple with the uncontrollable moods of nature. Especially the wonderfully named Sue Fear.

Even, or perhaps particularly, in the moment of her death, there was something profoundly inspiring about Fear, the first Australian woman to climb the north face of Everest, in 2003.

Respectful, determined and totally lacking in pretension and bravado, she proved wrong those people who still believe women should not scale dangerous mountains, or cannot climb as well as men.

She did so quietly and respectfully, and with little fanfare - as is the wont of female mountaineers today.

Her predecessors were a raucous and attention-seeking lot. History is pocked with adventurous female climbers defying edicts that women should stay at home to tend the hearth, and suffragettes clambering through the snow in long petticoats and heavy, rib-crushing corsets.

In the late 1800s, Lucy Walker famously lived on a diet of sponge cake, champagne and asti spumante during her various expeditions throughout Europe. All while wearing a bulky, flapping dress.

American climber Annie Peck Smith, who climbed the Matterhorn at 44, planted a flag that read "Votes for women" on a peak in Peru. She declared in 1896: "Although one is not inclined to be timid or nervous, it is nevertheless a trifle depressing to receive letters full of expostulation and entreaty: 'If you are determined to commit suicide, why not come home and do so in a quiet ladylike manner?"'

There certainly wasn't too much ironing going on.

The irony was that as many Western women came to the holy Himalayas, with teeth gritted and eyes locked on the sky, they were usually aided in their ascent by the local men. It has only been recently that Nepalese women have begun to climb too. Pasang Lhamu, the first local woman to climb Everest, in 1993, died on descent but is revered as one of Nepal's 15 national heroes, alongside kings and holy leaders.

We should applaud women like Fear, too - for their sheer grit and achievement, for the discipline required of any athlete, and for walking with dignity "into the lap of the gods" as the Sherpas consider the ascent to the summit of Everest to be. We should admire Fear in particular for her suspicion of celebrity climbers, as well as those who collect summits like trophied moose heads, and for her respect for the holy mountains she climbed.

Fear, who grew up in St Ives, shrugged off suggestions that she was being reckless. As she said repeatedly, she was climbing for herself. In doing so, she climbed five mountains exceeding 8000 metres - Gasherbrum II in 2004, Everest in 2003, Shishapangma in 2002, Cho Oyu in 1998, and Manaslu last weekend, before the fall which has claimed her life.

She told one reporter after she trod on the peak of Everest at last: "I am a big believer in not having regrets in life. I tell people: 'Go for your dreams, come home and be at peace'."

Henriette d'Angeville, the second woman to climb Mont Blanc, in 1838, told those who asked why she was driven to scale sky-piercing mountains that: "That is where I find my particular pleasure and happiness. The soul has needs, as does the body, peculiar to the needs of each individual."

Fear seemed to know the needs of her soul, too. She did come, after all, from a proud tradition of little-known, defiant female mountaineers who refused to be told what was possible and were looking for far more than the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.

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Female climbers are few in the world of men scaling peaks and rocks. So when women like these achieve the uncommon glory of climbing to the top, it is an event to celebrate and to talk about. If we were to compare a literal 'climb to the top' of a mountain to an analogical situation with a career woman 'climbing to the top' of the corporate ladder, the response would still be the same. It is because of the ascribed female position in the society where they are expected to fill subordinate positions rather than be 'at the top' of things.

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