Bonita Norris, this year’s Prize Giving guest, told our students about her amazing feat of being the youngest woman to climb Everest aged just 22. She said: ‘When the sun came over the horizon and flooded the Tibetan valleys with this beautiful golden light and washed over our planet as we stood just below the summit of Everest, there were tears, not only in my eyes, but in grown men’s eyes. It was beautiful.’
Her journey started years earlier when she was invited to attend a lecture by two climbers who had just returned from Everest: 'When they looked down after months of hard work they could see the curvature of the earth, as if they were looking down from space. I thought that was the most incredible thing I had ever heard. At that moment I said to myself “I am going to climb Mount Everest and I am going to see the curvature of the earth with my own eyes.” I had no idea how I would make this happen but … I was totally inspired. For some reason my life was changed forever.’
Her adventure started from small beginnings: ‘I went to an indoor climbing wall, as far away from the world’s highest mountain as you can possibly imagine. I climbed a 10m wall as part of my first training session but it was the first step to the top of the world.’ From there she tackled increasingly ambitious ascents including Mount Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest mountain in Nepal where she encountered potentially fatal avalanches and crevasses, the huge voids that could open up underfoot without warning:
‘The second we got there I realised I had jumped into the deep end, it was my baptism of fire. An avalanche could obliterate our camp or wipe out any roped off areas but beyond the avalanches that were terrifying, the ground beneath our feet was just as scary. Crevasses 300m deep and perfectly human sized were just waiting to swallow us up. My role, as the smallest person in the team, was to be tied to a rope and sent out first to find the safest way through. You could whoosh through a crevasse and be dangling down in this sparkling world of damp, dark ice.
‘I remember looking up at this scary world of avalanches and crevasses and I thought “well if I just take one step, maybe that is not too bad”. An hour later I was still walking up the mountain.
‘A week later we made it to 7,000m. The rewards of climbing are the most amazing views. There was an ocean of cloud beneath us and I could imagine the millions of people on planet earth just going about their everyday business and yet I was above the clouds in this whole new world. We made it to the top of Manaslu and I was crying my eyes out - joy, fear, disbelief. I couldn’t believe it. I knew that I could climb Everest. Take the path less travelled because you never know where you will end up.’
Bonita had to raise £40,000 to take part in an expedition to Everest. She approached thousands of companies with no success. However, with just a fortnight to go one company agreed to sponsor her and so the adventure was back on: ‘Everest is an incredible place, a beautiful wilderness. You have nearly two and a half miles of vertical ascent and it will take nearly two months to climb. Take it one step at a time.’
One challenge was traversing crevasses using ladders that were laid across them: ‘Taking one small step, from solid ground where you are safe, to over the abyss is monumental. That first step is always the hardest and if I could just get that first foot on that ladder then the second one would follow. So much about climbing mountains is about taking leaps of faith. There is no guarantee, you just have to be prepared to do your best.’
‘When we left camp three you could see the summit for the first time and my dream was becoming a reality. At this point the altitude was such a killer that you could barely move. Taking three steps forward was like running a marathon. I knew that if I could keep moving I would eventually run out of earth. We weren’t looking up at the stars any more, we were in the stars, we were so high. It was like sitting on one of Saturn’s rings looking out at the galaxy.
‘We were wading through knee-deep snow and hoping to get to the ridge line in the distance and we never seemed to get any closer. Finally at five o' clock in the morning we reached the ridge and the mountain dropped down on the other side into Tibet and we could see this glimmer of hope on the horizon …
‘We took the last few of millions of steps on that mountain. It is about courage or the will to keep going and to know that you can always find the strength to take just one more step. It is not overwhelming, it is not difficult, it is just one more thing that you can do when you want to give up. That is what got me to the top of the world. I fell to my knees on 17th May 2010 on the summit of Everest.
'While we were up there I thought about my family five and a half miles below me and thousands of miles across the other side of the planet. I finally returned to base camp three days later. The moment we stepped into safety this wall of pain hit me. I turned and looked back up the mountain and I said “I am never going up that mountain again!”
‘For this year I hope you all remember to take opportunities, don’t be afraid to try something new. Knuckle down, work hard and take the path less travelled. Remember that it is all about finding the strength and knowing that you can always take one more step.’