First woman to conquer Cho Oyu: I think this is how God felt when he looked down on the world he created

Dina Štěrbová, photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

Margita (Dina) Štěrbová is one of the recipients of the 2020 Gratias Agit Awards for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. A mathematician by profession, Dina has a lifelong passion for mountain climbing and has scaled dozens of peaks in Europe, Asia and America. She is the first woman to have surmounted the eight-thousand meter peaks of Cho Oyu in the Himalayas (together with Věra Komárková) and Gasherbrum II in the Karakoram Mountains. During her mountaineering trips to Pakistan Dina also became engaged in charity which became a big part of her life. I spoke to her about her life’s passion and first asked her to say how she became involved in mountain climbing.

Dina Štěrbová at Cho Oyu,  photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

“Of course. I started to think about mountains when I was 14 when I visited the High Tatras for the first time. It was love at first sight.”

You have climbed mountains in Europe, Asia, and America. How difficult was it for you to undertake such trips as a woman?

“It is always difficult, especially for women. Now the situation is better. But when women first started climbing in the Himalayas, everyone thought that was not a good place for women. That was one reason why it was difficult. The second reason was that my most active years were during the so-called normalization when we lived under Soviet occupation. So, it was really difficult.”

To even travel abroad...

“Even to travel out, yes. It was difficult to get an invitation. For instance, when I was climbing Cho Oyu, I was invited by an American alpine club to join a small expedition organized by Věra Komárková, a Czech woman living in the USA who had emigrated in 1968. It happened that we were only a two-member expedition, a two-women expedition. In that year, I think it was 1984, it was the smallest female expedition ever. Never before had women undertaken such an expedition. So, everything was very difficult. They didn’t take us seriously even in Nepal.”

Czech hospital in Arandu,  photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

So, it was difficult to find Sherpas to accompany you or find the money for such a project?

“We had very little money. The budget of that expedition was I think 10 thousand dollars, and we had two Sherpas. The Sherpas were OK, it is easy to hire them. But it was very difficult with the liaison officer, who did not even accompany us to basecamp. He did not take us seriously and thought, ‘they won’t climb anything’. He sat in a restaurant in Namche Bazaar for a month. It is the only case I know in which the liaison officer did not even go to basecamp, which is his duty and what he gets paid for. The same happened with our Sardar, the Sherpa guide, who was also sitting in Namche Bazaar. So, it was only four of us for two months. But it was something beautiful. It was something amazing because nowadays you cannot have such an experience. Maybe now yes, since the Nepal Himalayas are empty because of Covid, I think. But normally, it is impossible.  It is overcrowded with many commercial expeditions, and so on.”

What was it like just the two of you, two women, climbing that peak? Did you support each other? Were there times when you thought you wanted to give up and would not make it?

Photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

“It was beautiful. The whole expedition was fantastic because in such a small group the relations are much better than in a larger group.”

Even though you didn’t know each other?

“We knew each other a bit, we had met many years before. I actually met Věra Komárková in 1980 when I organized the first Czech female expedition to Nepal, and she was the leader of the US female expedition to Dhaulagiri. Both of these expeditions failed because of bad weather, and we met at the Ministry of Tourism in Kathmandu.”

What I meant was that you didn’t know each other well, you weren’t close friends, but this must have bound you together very strongly. The experience of needing to support each other on the way up.

“It is so, it creates a very strong bond.”

Were there very difficult moments when you wanted to give up?

“It was difficult, but we had a special philosophy. I would say it is the philosophy of the old man from Hemingway’s story. You have to do the best you can, and if you do not reach success, then it does not matter.”

Dina Štěrbová and Vít Dokoupil at Czech hospital in Arandu,  photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

And what was it like when you reached the peak?

“It is not a special feeling. The feeling of happiness comes later because the peak is actually only half the way. It is like having run the first twenty kilometres of a marathon; you still have another twenty.”

But you have the world below you.

“Yes, it was beautiful. I think the feeling is similar to what God felt when he looked at the world after the first seven days, according to the Book of Genesis.”

When he looked at the result…

“I hope it is not too strong a comparison.”

Can you just tell us which peaks you have climbed? What are your biggest achievements?

“I consider Cho Oyu my best achievement because of the beautiful atmosphere, my friendship with Věra, and my very nice relations with the Sherpas. One of our Sherpas, Ang Rita Sherpa, became very famous afterward. He was the first Sherpa to climb Mount Everest ten times without oxygen, always bringing other climbers to the top.”

How about Gasherbrum in the Karakoram mountain range?

Photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

“Yes, it was also very interesting. It is different because the Karakoram and the Himalayas are not the same.”

In what way is it different for a climber?

“The Karakoram is wilder and rougher. It is steeper, like the Alps.”

So, is it much harder? What was the hardest peak that you have climbed and conquered?

“Technically, I have climbed harder peaks before.”

So, what was the very hardest for you to get to the top?

“The hardest for me was the one that I did not reach: Mount Everest. I made two attempts and was not successful. It was very difficult for me at the time.”

During your mountaineering trips to Pakistan, you started helping the locals. How did that happen?

“So, this happened slowly, like a latent process in your heart or soul. When I was a child, I wanted to study medicine. That was not possible because of political reasons. And, after having studied mathematics, I was very happy and forgot about medicine. But when I went to the high mountains, I met very poor people. I started to be ashamed.”


Photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

“I didn’t do anything bad. I was ashamed simply because I am from the better part of the world. I am lucky, have everything, and can go to the hospital if I need to. And these people did not have any help. Many of them were losing small children because of banalities, like when new-borns get strong diarrhoea, and the parents can only watch as the child dies. One of my friends – his name is Hussein, and he is from Askole, which is the last village on the road to the K-2 basecamp – tried to save his sick, two-week-old daughter in the wintertime. He didn’t have any transport, he had to walk, and halfway to Skardu, the child died. He had to come back with the child, and the ground was so frozen that he had to wait until springtime just to bury the child. Such things are happening there maybe every day.”

So, you felt compelled to help.

“It is only natural that you think about helping them. I think it is a normal reaction.”

And what you did is that you eventually opened a clinic with your husband, a Czech hospital in Arandu. Is that right?

“Yes, I really did open a hospital in Arandu. But it was not with my husband, it was with my friend, another climber from Olomouc, Víťa Dokoupil. But without my husband’s support, it would never have happened.”

And how did you manage to do that, to open the hospital there?

“Actually, it was random. Many things in life are random. The first such mountain hospital was built by Edmund Hillary after he successfully reached the top of Mount Everest. And I admired him more for this than for climbing Everest. I visited this small hospital in Khunde when we came back from Cho Oyu with Věra. I never thought that I could do something like that since I had no way how to do it during communism. Then, in 2005, the Pakistani part of Kashmir was hit by a huge earthquake, which you will maybe remember. And it was very tragic. I think that 90 thousand people died, and most of the infrastructure was destroyed. I was in Pakistan at the time, so I could see it.”

Photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

“Two months after that, I was asked to bring a small hospital to Pakistan by one NGO. So, then it started. And we did it together with Víťa Dokoupil. Our task was actually to bring the hospital to the small village of Arandu, pitch it up, and give the keys to somebody. It happened in 2007 because it took two years to really found this hospital, it was also very difficult, because of the bureaucracy and the terribly corrupt system in Pakistan – everything is very difficult there. We were not very experienced, so it took two years. Finally, when the hospital was ready, we were sitting there with Víťa. And all the residents of Arandu were looking at us. Now, who will use this hospital? Who will run this hospital? Who will supply the medicine in the future? At that moment we knew that nobody would do it, but us. So, we founded a small NGO, started to collect money. And it has been running since then.”

I believe that you lowered the death rate in the region, for which you received a medal of merit from the Pakistani president in 2017, isn’t that right?

“Yes, it is true. I was very surprised because normally we had big troubles with the authorities. I am actually the second foreigner who has received this medal. The other one is the American who wrote the book Three Cups of Tea [Greg Mortenson]. You know him, I’m sure.”

I think it was very well deserved, because lowering the death rate in such a region is really an achievement.

Dina Štěrbová,  photo: Elena Horálková / Czech Radio

“I don’t know. It is an achievement, but is it very fragile, and I would say an unstable balance, very vulnerable.”

It is an uphill struggle every day, isn’t it?

“Every day. You don’t know whether you’ll be able to go there, buy medicines, make all the repairs to the building during the next year. It is still running, and our aim at the moment is to make it self-sustainable. You know the saying, ‘it is better to give rods than fish’. We are trying to give them the rods.”

Dina, how did your time there change you? Did you make many friends? How did it change you inside, as a person?

“Of course, I made many new friends and I have four young men who have said that they consider me to be their mother. So, it is as if I have four sons and many grandsons and granddaughters there.”

Did it change you inside?

“I think it is an achievement that has the most meaning for my life, nothing else has had so much meaning for me. I know that it is a drop in the sea, and it can end at any time. But anyway, it is something which I feel to be on the right side of.”

Dina Štěrbová,  photo: archive of Dina Štěrbová

What do you like to remember best? Is there any moment that sticks out from that time, a precious memory?

“Yes, it was in the beginning in 2007, when we were pitching up the hospital, making the roof, and we had all sorts of problems. One morning, a woman came with her ten-day-old son. The son was nearly dead, suffering from very strong diarrhoea. And her eyes were full of hope. Since neither I nor Víťa are doctors, we were trying to figure out what to do. She was insisting that we do something. So, in such a situation, you have no choice. You must do something. We were just thinking like a normal person who tries to help, and we thought the first thing we must do is to stop the diarrhoea. And the second thing was to rehydrate the child, because he was completely dehydrated, with wrinkles on his face. He was very dirty because they did not have pampers and used a special bag, which is as long as the child, and the child is inside of it. It is medieval, or like something from the Stone Age.”

“We then looked at what we had in the big supply of medicine that we brought from the Czech Republic. We found a drug that stopped peristalsis of the intestine, and we found Framykoin, which is a kind of antibiotic. Both of these were not recommended for children, especially not ten-day-old children. But we made a very small dose, disinfected a small bottle for the child, and then mixed the dose with some biological fluids. We told the mother to give this medicine to the child. The next day, the child was still alive, and after one week, he was completely healthy. So, this was a fantastic moment. The child’s name is Adam. At the time, he had no name, because they only name children when they survive the first six or eight months.”

That is amazing. You have documented your many climbing adventures in books, articles, there are documentary films, you have given lectures… Is there anything available for people to read in English?

“Well, my book Desire and Destiny is now being translated. But it is not about these humanitarian activities. It was published in Slovenian by a Slovenian publishing house called Didakta, and now they are translating it into English. Hopefully, they will publish it soon.”

Desire and Destiny. I am sure people will look out for it when it comes out in English.

“Hopefully, because you know Covid is changing everything.”