The Sami Speedster

On 27 July 2023, Kristin Harila and Tenjin Sherpa stood atop K2, the world’s second-highest peak. By itself, this summit represents a world-class achievement; significantly fewer than 1,000 people have ever occupied this location.

For Harila and Tenjin, however, success on the Savage Mountain represented something even more stunning.

In 2019, Nirmal Purja became a climbing superstar, as he reached the top of all 14 of Earth’s 8,000-meter mountains in a record time of six months and six days. This accomplishment included visiting the tops of Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu – the highest, fourth-highest, and fifth-highest peaks – in just 48 hours. His journey became a gorgeous documentary, called 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible. To display just how extraordinary this feat was, look at the previous record: seven years and ten months! Many thought this new record might never fall.

Just four years later, when Harila and Tenjin reached K2’s apex, they became the new holders of this insane speed record. Not only did they surpass the previous mark, they halved it. The pair finished in an astounding three months and one day!

Kristin Harila and Tenjin Sherpa - photo by Prabin Ranabhat

No stranger to harsh climates, Harila was born in Vadsø, a town in the upper reaches of Norway. She comes from a Sami family (sometimes rendered as Sámi or Saami). The Sami inhabit a region called Sápmi, which spans Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

Her love for the mountains began relatively later in life. Growing up, she excelled in cross-country skiing, eventually becoming a professional. In 2015, at age 29, she climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest point. Though Norway is filled with some gnarly terrain, its highest mountain, Galdhøpiggen, rises only 8,100 feet. This elevation is less than half Kilimajaro’s 19,341 feet and a far cry from Everest’s total of 29,029. On Kili, Harila experienced altitude sickness, a common ailment at those heights. Instead of deterring her, the famous volcano spurred her into climbing more. By 2020, she summited Aconcagua, the High Point of South America.

Just six years after completing her first high peak, Harila stood on the roof of the world in 2021. In addition to Everest, she also ascended nearby Lhotse, completing the duo in just 12 hours, a world record for women. This accomplishment marked a stunning rise into the upper echelon of mountaineering.

The distribution of the Sami people - graphic by Rogper
Harila on Everest in 2021 - photo from official Instagram account

As astonishing as the speed record for the 8,000-meter peaks is, it’s more incredible to realize that Harila almost achieved the stunt twice.

In 2022, she set out to break the record of Nirmal Purja. Between April and September, she reached the top of 12 on the list, including Everest and K2. Her team was well on the way to breaking the record when they were unable to secure permits to climb Shishapangma and Cho Oyu from Tibet. China had not yet allowed foreigners to enter the nation after the Covid pandemic. The endeavor fizzled.

By early 2023, the permits from China arrived. Harila reached the final two peaks in April and May. She had become the 47th person to climb all the mountains over 8,000 meters, but not the fastest to do so. Instead of dwelling on the bureaucratic delay, she simply decided to try again!

Tenjin Sherpa on Annapurna I - photo by Kristin Harila

She teamed with Tenjin Sherpa to have another go at this most lofty circuit.

Along the way, she thrashed her own record at the combination of Everest and Lhotse. This time, she bagged both mountains in just eight hours.

Mountain after mountain fell until she and Tenjin completed the task on K2 at the end of July, just over three months after the start of the cycle.

Everest - photo by Kristin Harila

Of course, because we live in a wonderful world, the detractors began to emerge in regard to this record.

Many mere mortals spend upwards of two months to tackle a single mountain on the list of 14. Harila and Tenjin managed their speed thanks to the use of helicopters. Gone were the treks into remote base camps, which would obviously add significant time to a record attempt. Many believe this sort of transportation cheapens the overall achievement. Has a record of this scale moved into the realm of those who possess the monetary means to make them happen? Would they have thought the same thing if Nirmal Purja had utilized helicopters instead of Kristin Harila?

One criticism that does merit some scrutiny is the media’s focus on Harila. Historically, the achievements of women have languished behind those of men. We’re making progress. But most of the spotlight has fallen on Harila, not on her teammate Tenjin Sherpa. Despite being the best climbers in the world who do the majority of the hard work on the world’s highest peaks, the Sherpa people are often consigned to background positions in articles and accolades (including, ironically, this one). In her defense, Harila goes to great lengths to extol Tenjin and the rest of her team.

One thing is certain: Kristin Harila (and squad) earned the world’s toughest vertical elevations and they did it faster than anyone ever has. For this reason, she easily climbs onto a perch inside the hallowed halls of the Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame here at The Mountains Are Calling.

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