We were supposed to meet a month ago but it didn’t work out. Tamara Lunger was leaving for an expedition, as she often does. This time she was on her way to India “for training purposes, though the mountain is not that high.” I think back to my highest mountain tour - the Sciliar-Catinaccio at 2,600 m - and the feeling of freedom I felt as I stood at the cross. Tamara, however, is referring to 5,000-m peaks as if climbing them were routine. From our last conversation, I seemed to glean that she was looking forward to being off the grid without any mobile phone signal. Today, just one day after her return, we meet in her home village of Gummer in the Eggental valley amidst Dolomite peaks. Soon she is telling me about her experiences and I am struck by the role that mountains, past and present, play in her life.
This one dream
In the background as we speak, the Latemar mountain range is visible in all its glory. To the left I recognise the peak of the Rosengarten massif. These are the mountains where Tamara grew up, at 1,100 m. And yet this wasn’t nearly high enough for her. ‘Tami,’ as her friends call her, loves a challenge. “It’s always been that way,” she tells me. When she first learned to ride a bike, for instance, she refused to use training wheels. Ski touring was no different. She was never one to ascend in the tracks of others – she preferred her own way at her own pace. “The tour has to be hard so that I’m exhausted by the end of the day,” she tells me in reference to the daily forces that drive her. At the age of 14, she made a decision that would shape the rest of her life: She wanted to climb an eight-thousand-metre peak. Just how exactly was another matter.
Born in 1986 in Bolzano/Bozen, Tamara grew up with her parents and two younger brothers in Gummer. She inherited her passion for mountains from her father Hansjörg, who loved mountain biking and mountaineering. After graduating from a sports academy in Vipiteno/Sterzing, she studied sports sciences at Innsbruck University. She has been a member of the Italian National ski-mountaineering team since 2002 and became World Champion in the under 23 division.
Always looking up
Tamara’s dream grew over the course of many years. Then, at a school dance, she had a chance encounter that would change her life. Mountaineer Simone Moro promised to take her on an expedition to the Himalayas. He made good on this promise soon after in 2009. In a whirlwind of travel and exertion, she and Simone stood at the peak of a 6,189-m mountain in Nepal. It was the first step in Tamara’s journey to becoming an extreme mountaineer. For the first time, actually climbing an 8,000 m peak didn’t seem so unrealistic after all.
“This is the life that I want and no other.” Tamara Lunger
Her love for the mountains has done much to shape Tamara’s life. So much so that loving the mountains is like being in a real relationship. “I notice right away if it’s going to work out or not.” To truly feel the mountain, she consciously avoids using or carrying a supply of oxygen. “Either I manage to get to the top under my own power or not,” she says simply. Her plain manner almost makes me forget how exceptional her accomplishments really are.
“When you’re standing at the top, surrounded by people who have only made it thanks to an oxygen supply, and you haven’t used one, well that’s something truly crazy.” While she tells me this I become lost in thought. Perhaps I should also break free from my comfort zone and have more confidence? Quickly I force myself to return to the here and now. “I used oxygen only once,” she admits. “It was for my first 8,000 m peak. After that I said to myself, you weakling! You can do it.” In this she sounds blunt, almost merciless.
# 2015: Manaslu - 8,163m: Along with Simone Moro, the team has to forgo the peak due to unrelenting snowfall
# 2014: K2 - 8,611m: Tamara becomes only the second Italian woman to reach the peak
# 2013: Peak Lenin - 7,153 m: Tamara’s first expedition as a ski mountaineer in Central Asia
# 2011: Khan Tengri - 7,010m: Tamara manages to climb the highest mountain in Kazakhstan
# 2010: Lhotse - 8,516m: Tamara climbs her first peak in the Himalayas and becomes the youngest woman to have ever completed this feat
# 2009: Island Peak - 6189m: Tamara completes her first expedition and gains key experienceTamara’s expeditions
Why does Tamara put herself in such extreme conditions? Weeks without a warm shower, the claustrophobia of a small tent, eating canned food. Here she corrects me: “I take speck, Schüttelbrot crispbread, Parmesan cheese and smoked sausages with me on every expedition.” Personally, I imagine luxury somewhat differently and yet I am not surprised by the simplicity of her response: “I want to have my freedom and I get this freedom when I am high up a mountain, far from the daily pressures and masses of people.” When I am reminded of how she went without phone signal for more than a month, I begin to understand. Yet for me this all sounds strange and uncomfortable.
The final 70 metres
Tamara’s life is characterised by highs and lows, peaks and valleys. Recently, nagging knee pain has forced her to take breaks in her training. “I haven’t managed to do much in the last few years,” she admits with honesty in looking back at the situation. In 2016, she was well on her way to the top of another peak. In fact, a mere 70 m separated her from the peak of the Nanga Parbat. But she turned back. “I knew then that I would die if I continued onward,” she tells me and although she is still young, she exudes maturity. As she speaks I observe her closely, perhaps it’s no coincidence after all that she always seems to be looking into the distance, to the next mountain. Perhaps, however, it’s just my imagination.
The sun sets slowly behind the mountains and I bid Tamara farewell. During the return journey, I let her words sink in: “I knew that I would die if I continued the ascent.” A mere 70 m sounds like such a short distance. And yet when I think about it, 70 metres are often all that separates a meaningful accomplishment from obscurity.
If there is one thing I am sure of after our meeting, it’s that she will try to summit an eight-thousand-metre peak again. As the saying goes: ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way.’ And Tamara is all about willpower.
Text: Katja Schroffenegger
Transcreation: Covi, Wurzer & Partner - Die Sprachdienstleister
Photos: Ivo Corrà / Archive from Tamara Lunger
Video: Miramonte Film and Andreas Pichler
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