Geologist Myra de Rooy is a Dutch mountaineer as well as a writer and photographer. Fascinated by the mountain world and its inhabitants, she has made many solo trips in remote areas in Tibet, Ladakh, Nepal and Norway.
“Only those who are well prepared can improvise”
The best gift a parent can give a child is love for nature. I was born to travel-loving parents who went off the beaten path. I learned that a sense of freedom can come from simple things, like getting purple fingers from picking blueberries or enjoying the view from a mountain top. Wealth is camping in the wild, drinking river water without having to purify it or burning a campfire with one match and birch bark.
When someone asks me why I started climbing, I catch myself smiling. That question feels like “why am I breathing?” And “why did I run?”. The answer I usually give is the easiest. “As a toddler I came into contact with the mountains. I was even there before I was born. My mother Isolde was pregnant with me when she and my father Jan climbed the Wildspitze, the second highest mountain in Austria. Mountain love infused with the spoon”.
My dreams for the future originated in my growing collection of stones, minerals and fossils. In elementary school I decided to become a geologist later on. What better way to learn how mountains are shaped as well as nurturing my childhood fascination with Earth’s origins, than by studying geology? For me there are two experiences that have contributed significantly to the way I now live life and approach people. I did geological fieldwork in Lapland and joined a student alpine club.
Passion for mountains does not only arise from breathtaking beauty or a desire for space and views. It can also lead to insights. Climbing takes strength, but provides energy. Climbing mountains – and not conquering them, because I am only a temporary guest on a mountain top – is only possible together. That is precisely the point: Climbers literally hold each other’s lives in their hands and that requires trust. And I could only experience that by opening the door to others during climbing weekends in the Ardennes or during rougher Alpine tours. There I learned, step by step, to talk about emotions. I also enjoyed the confrontation with gravity and the direct contact of my fingers with limestone or rough granite. The world was at my feet and I had heaven for a roof over my head. Mountain climbing is not a game with death or being a daredevil, it’s above all a lively dance with freedom. And yet, I have experienced it several times, defying gravity is not without danger. Friends of mine have died in the mountains.
For a number of summers I did not attack snowfields and ice walls with an ice ax and pickel, but chopped stones with my geologist’s hammer. I did my graduation field work in Norway, sixty-five square kilometers of uninhabited wilderness under the name of Krutfjell. Did I want to prove that for two summers I could find my way alone in an inhospitable mountain area without paths? Looking back, I realize that that fieldwork period created room for development. In the landscape sculpted by geological forces, I could wander for days on my own and feel comfortable and even at home. I learned that silence is not scary and that spending time without others is not the same as being lonely. More important, however, was that at the Krutfjell the realization grew that in order to really live human contact is essential and nourishing, no human being can do without others. The fieldwork was a learning experience for everyday life and for trips to remote mountain areas. Unlocking that gateway opened the way to bond with local mountain people.
After completing my geology studies, I was asked to be the second driver to drive a van with tourists from the Netherlands to Nepal. There I first came face to face with Himalayan giants and it was love at first sight. It was the beginning of a persistent “Himalayan and Tibet addiction”. For example, I took part in the first Dutch women’s expedition and we climbed the 7.290 meter high eastern peak of the Chamlang in Nepal. Many times I returned to that region. As a climber, tour guide, with friends and with Hans my beloved. After his death mainly during solo trips.
Scandinavia also continued to pull. I traveled solo through the mountains from the southernmost tip of Norway, Lindesnes lighthouse, to the northernmost point, the North Cape – a journey of 3,000 kilometers. In winter with sledges and skis, camping at minus 34 degrees, stuck in remote mountain huts during storms for days, not seeing a person for weeks. In the summer I hiked with my backpack through breathtaking mountain regions, past glaciers, roaring rivers and quiet lakes, I climbed sacred mountains, but also soaked through arctic tundra swamps with reindeer and dancing mosquitoes for company. Sometimes it was tough and dangerous, but it was mainly enjoying the wide and rugged mountain landscape.
During “Norway in length”, but also on the way through all those other mountain areas, my luggage was essential. Not having the right things at hand can be life-threatening. Material choice is always personal. It depends on the duration of a trip, the conditions I expect to encounter, summer or winter period. Am I going out solo or with others? That saves weight because, for example, I can share a burner. Not unimportant is how much money can be spent and how comfortable do I want to be it on a trip? Suffering is fun, but can sometimes get in the way of enjoying it.
Some tips from my “climbing and hiking career”.
Don’t stop at just dreaming. Be inspired by others. Look around the internet, read books and articles. Then take the plunge and go out, because there is no better adventure than your own adventure. And only those who are well prepared can improvise.
- Make a packing list in advance. There is nothing more annoying than to notice in the middle of nowhere that an important part of your outdoor equipment is missing. I went climbing with friends in the French Calanques. We arrived at a campsite after a long drive and found that we had forgotten the tent pegs. In the middle of the night we secretly removed one herring from several tents. Not as it should be, but it was a solution. You don’t have to make up that packing list yourself. Use existing lists, supplement them with your own wishes if necessary.
- If possible, go for lightweight. When you have to drag everything behind you in a sled or carry on your back in a backpack, every gram counts. But also choose safety. In winter, my Hilleberg tent Nammatj withstood gale-force winds. I didn’t spend the night at more than 6700 meters, as in the last camp on the Chamlang, in my summer sleeping bag.
- Choose for quality if possible. I bought my down jacket in 1984 when I went climbing with a climbing buddy in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. I used the jacket many years later when walking with locals on the frozen Zanskar and sleeping in caves. He also came along again during my trip through Norway. The fact that it lasts so long is an exception, because during all those kilometers on foot in the mountains I have already worn a lot of shoes.
- Take care of your equipment when you’re not using it. Don’t leave a wet tent or climbing rope at the bottom of a closet. Check immediately after a trip whether you need to repair something, do not notice this until the next trip. Your material is sometimes your “lifeline”. I even bond with it. That’s how my sleigh got a name: Kees. Where there was not enough snow and I had to drag Kees over stones, he got scratches – that sound went through my bones.
- When I first traveled solo through Tibet in 1986, there was no internet and no cell phones. Nowadays it seems as if people choose their travel destination as the backdrop for a selfie. Of course I take pictures and use them in books, articles and lectures. But remember that you mainly make the journey for yourself. When you go out into the mountains for longer during winter in the cold, make sure you carry batteries on your body and in the sleeping bag at night. Batteries are depleted faster than you can run and without electricity nearby, all your beautiful equipment is of no use and you have to carry it all with you.
- As a geologist I have developed a love for maps and using a compass. Yet I also upgraded my gear and bought a GPS. Great for crossing a frozen lake in dense fog or when there is neither path nor mark. However, I use the GPS sparingly, because a map remains number 1 for me. It gives a better overview of where I am. I have to keep thinking for myself and if the technology falters, I can still find my way. Deviating from a planned route – with my heart as a compass – has also brought me to many beautiful places.
- In the mountains I always have rain gear with me, which also helps against the wind. Even when blue bird skies are predicted, the hat and gloves are in my backpack. Hypothermia is an assassin. Since a few years I have discovered another item: the bothy bag. Named for the Scottish shelters. An ideal “emergency shelter” for climbers and hikers to be sheltered during severe weather.
- No backpack is 100% waterproof. I use dry bags in different colors so that I know what is in what. As for wetness: walking with wet feet through swamps for days is no fun. One solution is plastic bags around your socks. Your feet get a little sweaty, but stay warm. At night, take off your damp socks and lay them in the sleeping bag to make them dry again.
- Especially for solo travelers: take a diary with you to write down experiences. During my geological fieldwork, my diary became a companion in which I could write off frustrations (bad weather, a buzzing bloodthirsty mosquito army) and, above all, share top experiences. On my subsequent hikes I always took a diary with me. When you write books about your (mountain) tours like I do, it is indispensable. And don’t just write that the view is so beautiful, because nobody can imagine it. Describe what you see, feel and smell and what it does to you. For example, how I felt in Jotunheimen standing in the solitude in warm morning light next to a granite boulder: in and in happy.
- I can give a long list of tips and tricks, but end with an unnecessary item, which I have a lot of fun with in the Himalayas and Tibet. Finger puppets. Always in contact with old and young. Finally, and that continues to apply everywhere, it costs and weighs nothing: laughter is an international language that everyone speaks.
Myra de Rooy has written five books, Vrouwen in Boeddha’s Bergen (2004), Het Windpaardhuis (2007), Dochters van de bergen (2015), Chamlang (2017) en In de lengte (2020). Social, political and human stories play an important role in her books. Always with the mountains as a backdrop and she herself who travels through them. Windhorse House, Life stories in the shadow of Tibet (2021) is published in English.