In May 2016, Irina Galay, a native of Mukacheve in western Ukrainian Transcarpathia, became the first woman to fly the Ukrainian flag on Everest. After the highest peak in the world, the climber set herself a new goal - the most difficult peak - K2. Almost a quarter of ascents turn out fatal. However, Irina did conquer Mount K2, and also became the first Ukrainian woman there. She even managed to climb to a height of almost 8,000 meters without an oxygen mask.
We meet with Irina at her home in Kyiv, where she just returned after ascending the K2. She already has plans for new travels. However, training is currently on hold: she needs to restore strength and cure the leg that was injured during the last climb.
Everything in the apartment speaks of Irina’s vocation: the pictures of the mountains, a diploma on the record of Ukraine (for the ascension of Everest), souvenirs from countries, where the routes began, and a whole room full of climbing equipment. "I climbed K2 with this pick, and the other, from Everest, I keep in the kitchen - for self-defense, just in case," smiles Irina.
We are almost certain that after reading this interview, you will also want to try climbing. But be aware that this is a truly dangerous adventure that requires very careful and responsible training.
Irina Galay at home in Kyiv, August 11, 2021. Everything around her is about mountains. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
Usually, this is asked at the end, but I shall enquire right away: what's next after conquering the highest and most difficult mountain?
I do not know if this is so for everyone, but as soon as I’ve descended the mountain, I already have a new idea. Now I want to get the "Snow Leopard" title. To do this, you need to climb five 7,000 m+ peaks of the former Soviet Union, and all of them are quite hard and harsh. Besides, this is probably the only remaining mountain range, where I have not been yet.
What and how long does it take to get ready for such a climb?
Workouts should be carefully planned and regular. I was preparing for two years for K2. I spent six months going to the gym 4-5 times a week, until in March 2020, the President announced a lockdown. I realized that K2 "went down the drain", and it was very difficult to accept.
I spent the whole lockdown in Transcarpathia - it was clear the chances of anything in the summer, besides the native Carpathians, were slim, and save me they did. And then serious preparation resumed.
To climb 8,000 meters, you must keep visiting the mountains. The body can not just reach such a height once a year - acclimatization is required. A month before the climb, I was in Nepal, I ascended Ama Dablam - one of the most beautiful peaks in the world, which is also very similar to K2 in terms of climbing style.
Room with climbing equipment at Irina Galay’s home. August 11, 2021. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske
Compared to Everest, how is K2 harder?
Everest compared to K2 is like a walk in the park. The climbing technique is quite different: on Everest, you predominantly walk, while K2 from the very base camp is almost vertical. It is complicated by its weather conditions, although we were very lucky this year. Even Pakistans (route to K2 begins in Pakistan - ed.) said they hadn’t seen such a favorable "weather window" lasting so many days in nine years.
The view of K2. Photo: Nazariy Kryvosheev, provided to hromadske
Although I did feel K2 testing us: at an altitude of 7,000 meters, the wind was over 50 km/h, and we just had all our tents blown away. For two days my partner and I could not go out of the tent - only to relieve ourselves, but even that was a challenge.
The base camp at an altitude of 5,000 meters is still warm: at night the temperature doesn’t fall below minus 10-12 degrees Celsius. [Once you get] higher, things get serious.
A typical night in a base camp with good weather, July 10, 2021. Photo: Nazariy Kryvosheev, provided to hromadske
However, the outfit solves about 70% of the problems: for every change in weather, you have a special jacket. I even bought heated gloves: you charge them, press on the button - and they warm your hands up. There are also special soles for shoes that keep feet warm.
Not everyone whom we encountered on the way to K2, go to the very top: there are trekking groups that go to foot only. It is also beautiful, because in Pakistan generally, mountains are stunning - sharp, like needles.
We constantly recalled the film "Lord of the Rings": the imagery is like from there. Many stone towers don’t even have names. And our trekking guide kept telling me: "Once you climb on top - you can call it Irina." I said: "Thanks anyway, but I'm here for another reason."
How long was the journey and how have you planned it amid quarantine constraints?
Getting to Pakistan this year was very difficult. First, the quarantine: Ukraine was in the "list C", that is, dangerous countries from the point of view of the epidemic situation there. To get to Pakistan - they required a vaccination passport. I flew with my second half to Germany, where he is a citizen: there we got jabbed and received the relevant document.
Then we had to wait for a special climbing permit. It took one month. I received it only a week before departure, and started packing up swiftly. Kyiv to Islamabad is 5,000 kilometers. We flew with a transfer in Dubai, it was the very last flight that was allowed from there to Pakistan. Then the airspace closed because of coronavirus.
Then from Islamabad another two-hour flight to Skardu. This is a foothill area from where there’s another day’s worth of driving by car. The car drops you off in a desert among the mountains. You camp there one night and then set off for the base camp - 85 kilometers in four days.
In the base camp, we only rested for two days. Due to the nuances with the visa, we didn’t fly out until July 1, so we were running out of time. We understood that somewhere at the end of the month there will be a weather window, and hence we urgently need to start the acclimatization.
My partner and I headed to the second camp at once. Under the mountain there is a kind of a preparatory camp: nobody lives there, for the most part, people just drop their outfits. You get changed, get everything you need: body harness, jumars, carbines, ice pick - and you start the ascent.
Irina Galay and her partner in the second camp. Photo: Nazariy Kryvosheev, provided to hromadske
Tell us about the team you climbed with.
Only me, Dmytro Semenenko (the first Dnipro resident on Everest - ed.) and our cameraman Nazariy Krivosheev. We also had a few Nepalians who assist with organizational issues. Oksana (Litynska - Lviv resident, who climbed K2 a few days after Irina - ed.) went with an American team and a very famous guide. They had a super-comfortable journey: each another European guide and 10 porters.
There you have to take Pakistani Porters. They walk through all the rocks wearing slippers or sandals. Their guide told us that if it starts snowing - they will stop and will not move any further. And at any moment, they can strike, say that they are, for example, underpaid - and abandon the entire camp they are carrying.
Pakistani porters. Photo: Nazariy Kryvosheev, provided to hromadske
But we befriended them. They love to dance very much. Once 52 such porters from all camps were dancing, and I, when I heard music, I also came, and was the only woman at the festival. I came to dance, did not even think that it may be surprising for them - it is a Muslim country in the end. But the next day I saw that they all greeted me, smiled at me, and they respect me, as I was going to the mountains.
Do you need a climbing permit, like for Everest?
Yes, but it is much cheaper - only $800, while Everest is $15,000. And the total cost of traveling is halved: K2 is about $30,000.
How did it feel on top?
The weather was wonderful. When I climbed, I treasured the last few steps. I dreamed about this peak. I walked, looked at it and understood that I do not want to rush, I do not want to compete.
When I was already there - I just wanted to scream to the entire world: these are so many stereotypes, but with adequate preparation an ordinary person can climb this mount! And almost everybody assured me that it is ultra-hard, verging on impossible.
But it is still dangerous? Statistics of the deaths of climbers on K2 is rather sad. And on Everest, you also saw dead climbers, whom nobody can pick up from such a height.
We came across some here. This winter, five professional climbers were killed, and on our route stumbled upon two of them,. It was terrible, because I followed their climb day by day. I knew who John Snorri was, and when I saw him, immediately recognized. Frost has such an effect on the body that it seemed like he was just taking a nap.
There is also a memorial [for those who died on K2]. It is considered a bad sign to go there before climbing, but we, without prior agreement, decided to visit it anyway. It’s a huge rock covered with metal boards where names are written. There are so many! More than a hundred! And that's not all.
Memorial and tomb for those who have died while climbing K2. Photo: Nazariy Kryvosheev, provided to hromadske
We approach closer - there is a plastic box, with shoes in it. And bones are sticking out.
Of course, it's very scary. I tried to get those thoughts out of my head immediately that I can become one of them, Because I was intent on where I was going, what peak it is. But you always believe that it won’t happen to you, it's not about you. I was super-careful because I understood: every step can become the last.
A rock fell on Oksana in the second camp, injuring her back. She recalled: if it weren’t for the backpack - she would not have been with us already. Or we were climbing up, and someone screamed: "Rocks!". And you see the rocks are flying towards you. You instantly lay down, cover your head with hands, try somehow to hide behind a backpack and you realize: if you get hit - nothing will [save] you.
And considering the climbing technique - here, of course, training matters. If you practically live by a climbing walk, as I do, then no problems arise at all.
We decided to go without oxygen masks. We reached the fourth camp (this is 8,000 meters where the charge begins) without any problems. Others used oxygen already from the second camp, because many were afraid that they will lose energy, to climb to the top. At the fourth camp, my body refused to accept meltwater. I was offered a macaroni soup and dirty water. I had two spoonfuls and began to vomit - this can be either a stomach upset, or a height reaction. I realized that I did not really want to risk [not making it to] the top, and took oxygen.
And never looked back. Oxygen gives you cool-headedness. Dmytro went without oxygen to the very top - he does not remember anything. And I would not want to climb K2 in this condition.
Irina Galay and her porter on top of K2. Photo: Irina Galay / Facebook
What is your preparation? What do you do to develop body endurance?
In my 33 years, I haven’t encountered a sport harder than mountaineering. There is such a collection of factors on top of the discomfort. All other sports I am doing are preparation for mountaineering.
Boxing is just one of the means to build up stamina. But it is not enough in the mountains - you need to do crossfit too. Running is no good: it becomes much more efficient when I raise a treadmill up or attach some kind of load to the legs - depending on which summit I am preparing for. Well, and of course, the climbing wall. I compare this sport to chess, because it is necessary to think your moves through in your head - however, unlike chess, there is also physical load.
But the mountains always serve a shock for the body. You are constantly cranked up to 11.
A rock hit my leg as I was climbing K2. It brought me down, tearing my pants, cut my leg. And the first thought was: "Oh God, I broke my leg, now I will not be able to walk." I was in so much pain, I was crying hysterically. But 20 minutes later I was fine. When I realized that there was no fracture - I just carried on. I remembered about the leg when we descended from the top. Only then did I realize that it was swollen, and I need to do something.
How does the value of human life change in the mountains? Is it a place of mutual assistance, or every man for himself above all?
Depends on the person and the situation. [Dmytro] and I, for example, agreed: If one of us dies during the expedition, then the other will carry on. No one is going home. We even recorded this on video.
But if something happened to him, and I could help - of course, I would help. And he, I think, also. The summit will be here next year. We'll get back here together.
Although if he fell, broke his leg and said, "I stay in the camp, and you go." I would not sit over him, but go to the top. And then I would return and help him descend. But if he smashes his head, and loses consciousness - I will immediately pick him up, call others and help him descend.
Was there ever a time, when for some reason you did not manage to conquer a mountain? Is this perceived as a defeat for the climber?
No, it becomes even more interesting - you appreciate that this is some sort of a challenge. I failed to summit Ushba in Georgia twice. I will try again once - I promised myself that I will try it three times.
There's a weather peculiarity: Ushba has stormy clouds over it. When we were on the mountain, lightning began to strike two meters away from me - for 2.5 hours. It struck me in the hand: the hand went dark the hair under the helmet stood on end. I was hystericcal. Lightning hit exactly in that hand in which the ice pick was. My partner said: "You now have to turn into Thor". I say: "Great, but I need to go down." And we, of course, immediately began the descent.
Once I had this: after a month of acclimatization, I did not summit Lhotse. Literally, I was 200 meters short - it's hilarious. I got to 8,300 without oxygen, and those 200 meters I couldn’t due to an ordinary error in the expedition organization. For when we came to the fourth camp, where they should have our tents - there weren’t any. And no one could assume responsibility.
Tell us about "Special Hikes" - a project you launched last year. It provides an opportunity for children with an autistic spectrum disorder to visit the Carpathians.
Once I was at a climbing wall and saw autistic kids training. Their coach explained that in this way they learn to work on themselves. First, their parents bring them. Then it [starts growing on them].
I asked if I could take such children to the mountains, if it is safe. She said we could give it a go. We gathered 60 people - children with parents, although we hoped for half that number.
These children are almost never accepted and not perceived. Even their parents do not believe that it's at all possible - to go with them to the mountains. And we took on this mission. And when they descended - parents approached me, and they said that for the first time they saw their child offer a hand to another child.
Even their eyes were different - they were slightly shocked. But the end result was incredible. And I was very pleased. I want to develop this idea. We even considered children's camps for such kids.