Where do you go after competing in the Volvo Ocean Race? Well, most sailors come back for another go – but after taking on the 2014-15 edition, Team SCA's Sara Hastreiter has taken on an altogether new challenge.
She was one of the least experienced members of the team, but was selected for her strength and determination to succeed – and she certainly needs those qualities in her new hobby: climbing some of the world's tallest mountains.
Where do you go after competing in the Volvo Ocean Race? Well, most sailors come back for another crack at sport's toughest test of a team – but after taking on the 2014-15 edition, Team SCA's Sara Hastreiter has taken on an altogether new extreme sport.
She was one of the least experienced members of the team, but was selected for her strength and determination to succeed – and she certainly needs those qualities in her new challenge: climbing some of the world's tallest mountains. Here, she chats about the similarities between sailing and climbing, her Volvo Ocean Race experiences and her determination to conquer Mount Everest.
Sara, you recently returned from a successful ascent of Aconcagua, located near the Argentina/Chile border – and the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, standing at 6,961 metres. This time 2 years ago you were sailing in the Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA, what took you from the ocean to mountain climbing?
I've been looking for something as challenging as the Volvo Ocean Race as it began to look less likely that a women’s team would find sponsorship for the next edition of the race. I’m happy to continue sailing but few things are as extreme as the Volvo, and I’m someone who is always looking for adventure and challenges. I think I might just have found a challenge equal to the Volvo Ocean Race in training and attempting to climb Mt. Everest.
Do the Volvo Ocean Race and mountain climbing have anything in common?
There are many similarities – not showering, freeze-dried food, very few changes of underwear, exposure to the elements, extreme temperatures, a beautiful night sky…. and pushing yourself further than you thought possible.
How can you compare the physical training between preparing for a Volvo Ocean Race to attempting one of the world's biggest peaks?
The commitment level is the same. During the Volvo Ocean Race, we always felt like we could never be strong enough… I feel much the same with mountaineering because of the variety of challenges and particularly the difficulties at altitude. You can never be fit enough – and even then, you never know how altitude will affect you. It’s a different type of fitness though. Instead of always trying to be stronger and build muscle, cardio is one of my biggest focuses – and instead of concentrating on muscles for pushing, pulling and lifting heavy objects like we did during the Volvo Ocean Race, I’m looking at carrying heavy loads on my back and building my legs to support me. There are small areas that I'd never thought of concentrating on but when I go to climb something now, I write down where I feel I have a weakness or need to concentrate on and then I can apply that in a gym setting. Like most things though, getting out and doing that activity is the best way to train, and especially for me, as altitude is something that will always be a huge challenge. At 18,000 feet you have 1/2 the amount of oxygen you do at sea level. Aconcagua, the peak I climbed in February, was 22,841 feet tall (6,962m). At the summit of Everest, 29,035 feet, you have 1/3 the oxygen.
Do you think that the Volvo Ocean Race set you up to better cope with the challenges you came up against climbing Aconcagua?
One thing is for sure, the challenges will continue to get harder as I become more experienced and push to bigger and more technical mountains. It’s like going into the Southern Ocean for the first time. You're four legs into the Volvo Ocean Race, so you know how hard this race can already be, but you know the Southern Ocean is going to be an entirely different beast. So far, I’d describe the climbing at a similar challenge level to a good day in the Southern Ocean. It’s cold and uncomfortable but still enjoyable. Summit day on Aconcagua… that was a different story.
What are your thoughts on the rule changes to make it easier for female sailors to do the race in 2017-18? Your ex-team mate Carolijn (Brouwer) has already got a spot on Dongfeng...
It was really great to see the race take what was a really bold step in making the rule change. By making it more advantageous to include women on a team of seven men, they showed their commitment to women in the future of the sport. I'm not sure we'd have these same opportunities otherwise. I was really excited to hear the announcement of Carolijn joining Dongfeng. Having sailed around the world with her, I know she's a fantastic sailor and helmswoman with a great spirit offshore. Her level of commitment to performance offshore and fitness onshore was something I always admired. She'll make a great addition to an already fantastic team.
Tell us a little more about the day you reach the summit of the mountain – it was pretty tough by the sounds of it...
I’d describe summit day as the equivalent of a never-ending chinese gybe. On Aconcagua, summit day is 3,583 feet from high camp. You’re sleeping at more than 19,000 feet so the effects of altitude are pretty extreme. I woke up on summit morning at 4am with a screaming headache (which is fairly typical), and tried to soothe it away with a 600mg ibuprofen and about 1L of hot tea. The pain was so intense it actually made me vomit and I lost all that vital hydration, so my morning did not start out ideally. I worried the guides wouldn’t even let me leave the tent. I was luckily able to get some medicine to ease the nausea and the headache from our guide and felt better enough to get ready. We left camp three around 5:15am. Our summit day stood between two big storms and it was ridiculously cold. I’m luckily a human radiator when I’m moving so I was fine but by sunrise several people were feeling the effects of the altitude and cold. One was losing feeling in their toes and fearing frostbite, another suffering from a form of snow blindness, and two others who just generally weren’t feeling well…four climbers turned around in two separate groups, going down with two of our three guides. From this point, Independencia Hut, we were 1 mile from the summit. This may not sound far, but at 21,000 feet a mile may as well be 20. This left us with 6 climbers and 1 guide. This meant if one person needed to turn around, it was likely that we would all have to turn around. As we went along it was very evident that people were starting to feel worse and worse. One man completely collapsed after half a mile and we weren’t able to continue to climb toward the summit as a group. Myself and another guy, Rui, were still feeling quite strong and mentally sound and wished to carry on but not everyone in the group was pleased to be turning around and we found it safest to all turn back. Nearly back at Independencia Hut, we knew one of the other guides was on his way back up from camp three after safely depositing other members so Rui and I turned back around and headed toward the summit with an expectation that the guide Sebastian, would catch up. Only minutes after turning around Rui told me he could no longer go on – I tried to convince him otherwise but settled for accepting his warm tea and sugary snacks as I set off alone toward the summit. I picked a spot and rested and waited for Sebastian to catch up to me, not knowing if he would even want to continue, but I was still very willing!
Seb caught up and was keen for the summit so we set off again. We had expected initially to be at the summit at noon but because of the back and forth, Seb and I stood on the summit at 4pm. My legs had definitely decided they had had enough multiple times over the last few hours but Seb kept pushing and I kept following. I had dedicated my climb to a friends 6 year old son, Austin, who had been diagnosed with Very High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I was carrying his bear with me that he takes on hospital visits and thinking about that little man going through radiation that same week was a huge motivator for me to get that bear to the summit and share the story. In all, it took us nine hours to climb up and less than two hours to get down as we hustled to get back to camp three before the next storm, just on the horizon.
Not many people can say that they've sailed around the world, climbed one of the biggest peaks on the planet, and are planning to conquer Mount Everest too. What have you taken away from your experiences so far?
It’s really exciting for me to have a new goal and to figure the ins and outs of a new extreme sport. I have a huge advantage coming from the Volvo Ocean Race and sailing in general as it’s given me a baseline confidence to push my boundaries and step outside my comfort zone. It’s also very empowering to be in another sport where the elements see no gender, and it’s down to you as an individual, your determination and skill. The biggest thing I take away from these adventures is the inspiration to never stop exploring. By that I mean never stop exploring the world nor my undetermined personal limits.
Hear hear. So what's up next?
I’m headed to the Caribbean for some sailing and my next race is the feeder race from Antigua to Bermuda in May. I’ve then planned some mountaineering courses in the summer and am then headed to Russia in August to climb Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in “Europe” (under the definition of the ‘Seven Summits’). I’m currently working on sponsorship for climbing Everest and a few other adventurous endeavors I have in mind. Hopefully, as the plan stands now, I will continue on to Denali in Alaska next year and Broad Peak in Pakistan before heading to Everest in the spring of 2019.