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mit Stefan Nestler

Helga’s Everest nightmare

In fact she was the second but in a way the first too. Helga Hengge summited Mount Everest on 27th May 1999. As second German woman after Hannelore Schmatz. But Hengge also survived the descent – in contrast to Schmatz who died from exhaustion on 8300 meters on the south side of the mountain on 2nd October 1979. For years climbers passed the corpse called „The German woman” which was sitting in the snow. Later the storm blew it into the depth. Almost twenty years after Schmatz Helga Hengge reached the highest point on 8850 metres after she had climbed up from the Tibetan north side. „I felt like a goddess”, Helga later said, „as if I could float.” Hengge was 32 years old when she stood on top of the world. Today Mount Everest sometimes gives her a nightmare, Helga, aged 46 now, wrote to me after I had asked her for her thoughts on occasion of the 60th anniversary of the first ascent.

Elevator to the ridge

At the summit of Everest in 1999

„I dream that there is an entrance at the bottom of the glacier, a kind of cave where you can use an elevator from its depth up to the ridge.” The crowds push upwards using steep iron ladders via the Second Step, Helga continues. „At the summit there is a restaurant with a large terrace. Tea and cake are served. Suddenly the wind is getting stronger, clouds are gathering, a storm is coming up. The people with their colourful sneakers continue to climb up on the ridge. They are laughing, joking. I have to stop them, to tell them that it’s too dangerous, that they will die – but then they enter a long slide and rush down happily. And I wake up drenched in sweat.” In reality we’re not there yet, but Helga’s nightmare is initiated by what’s currently happening on Everest. „If everybody in addition would get a bravery medal and candy floss at basecamp only the mountaineers would be left to complain. This make me sad”, Helga writes.

From sport climbing to high-altitude mountaineering

Helga Hengge spent her life alternately in Germany and USA. She was born in Chicago and grew up in Bavaria. From the village of Deining, located between the cities of Nürnberg and Regensburg, on clear days she could see the Alps in the distance. Aged 25 Helga moved to New York, studied and worked as a fashion journalist. In her leisure time she did freeclimbing and later turned to high-altitude mountaineering. In 1997 she reached the summit of Aconcagua (6962 metres), the highest mountain of South America. Afterwards she climbed several other 6000-metre-peaks. In autumn 1998 Hengge reached 7500 metres on Cho Oyu. The following spring she succeeded on Everest, as the only woman in the commercial expedition team of the New Zealander Russell Brice.

On occasion of the 60th anniversary of the first ascent Helga wishes Mount Everest, that „year by year it shall grow a little bit higher in the sky with the objective to give a good life to the local people. And to inspire the climbers to push their limits, for the benefit of all.” (You find Helga Hengge’s  full statements on the two Everest-60-pinboards on the right side of the blog.) 

Eureka moment in a library 

Helga Hengge

Meanwhile she is a mother of two children and is living in Bavaria again, in Grünwald near Munich. After she had climbed Everest she continued going on expeditions. Among other things she reached the central summit of Shishapangma (8008 metres). At that time Helga already had her next major goal in mind: She wanted to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains of all continents, as first German woman. She had found a book of Dick Bass in a New York library. The American had firstly completed the collection of the Seven Summits in 1985 – however with Mount Kosciuszko in Australia and not as mostly common today with the Carstensz Pyramid in Ozeania. „What a great idea! At that time I regarded it as being a fantastic dream far away from realization. But that didn’t minimize my enthusiasm to dream that dream”, Helga writes. „Today I’m happy that this treasure has become a part of my life.” On 23th May 2011 she reached the top of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain of North America. Helga Hengge had managed to climb the Seven Summits. As first German woman. 

P.S. Sometimes Maria Gisela Hoffmann is called the first German woman on the Seven Summits. She completed her climbs on 21th May 2011, two days ahead of Hengge. But Hoffman was born as a boy and climbed the first of her Seven Summits as a man.


17. April 2013 | 14:52