While many of her teenage friends in Orinda, Calif. (pop. 17,599), were daydreaming of clothes, friends and parties, a young Mimi Vadasz was dreaming of climbing the world’s highest mountain.
It was an aspiration that came into focus when she was just 14. As her father lay dying of cancer, he asked her what she wanted to do with her life. “I knew it was the last time I’d see him,” Vadasz says. “I told him that someday I would be on top of the world by reaching the top of Mount Everest.” Her father then assured her that when that happened he would be there with her in spirit.
Thirty-four years later, on May 26, 2003, Vadasz realized that dream, becoming the 13th American woman to conquer Mount Everest, and at age 48, the oldest. The year also marked the 50th anniversary of the first summiting of the mountain—which lies near the border of Tibet and Nepal—by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
For Vadasz, the typical 4- or 5-day roundtrip from base camp at 17,000 feet to the summit at 29,035 feet took her and several other climbers 12 grueling days because of strong winds that stalled their ascent. But step-by-step they reached the top, accomplishing what many other climbers have failed—and even died—trying to do.
Looking back, Vadasz says her time on top of the mountain was well worth the climb. “I felt him there,” she says, referring to her father. “It made the moment that much sweeter.”
Of course, it wasn’t simply her world-class mountaineering skills that allowed her to reach the summit. “Climbing is basically mental,” says Vadasz, who resides in Truckee, Calif. (pop. 13,864). “A lot of people failed because they looked toward the end. It’s about taking it one step at a time and not giving up.”
Vadasz credits her teenage years, which were filled with hardship, as the character-building period that made her a survivor. When her father died and her mother left the family, she and her three older siblings found themselves poverty-stricken and homeless. Vowing they could make it together, they lied about their ages to get jobs while continuing to go to school. “We had a heck of a life fending for ourselves,” she says. Acting as head of household for four years until her mother returned, however, taught her she could do whatever she put her mind to.
That determination to succeed and to survive carries over to her professional life as a mountain guide. In 1979, she, along with her husband, Bela, opened the Truckee-based Alpine Skills International (ASI), which allows her to instruct clients on how to safely and properly climb and ski on the greatest mountain ranges in the world.
“She has a way of taking difficult situations and making them seem attainable,” says Tony Peterson, ASI office manager. “She always makes you want to look on the bright side of things.”
Will Pryor, a 70-year-old ski mountaineer from Sun Valley, Idaho (pop. 1,427), says Vadasz can hold her own with the best guides in the world. An ardent outdoorsman, Pryor has made a series of winter backcountry trips with ASI in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. “Mimi has tenacity and physical and emotional strength,” he says. “No matter what the circumstances, she’ll find a way to get to a conclusion.”
Much as she learned the love of mountains at an early age from her father, Vadasz is passing this passion on to her sons, Tobin, 13, and Logan, 10. Already accomplished skiers and mountaineers, the boys have climbed in Nepal with their mother and have set their sights on climbing the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. If they decide to climb Everest, Vadasz says she’ll be there beside them. Like many mothers, she believes having children is her greatest achievement. “Raising children is way harder than climbing Mount Everest,” she says.
To Vadasz, climbing has always been somewhat spiritual. “You feel so close to heaven since you’re so close to death,” she explains. But it’s also about the people she has shared her beloved mountains with. “I believe you have to have compassion and care about people along the way.”
To learn more about mountaineering, visit www.alpineskills.com or call (530) 582-9170.