Volvo Ocean Race & Team SCA sailor goes from the high seas to the highest mountain peaks to satisfy her adventurous spirit and challenge her body and mind
Sara Hastreiter competed in the 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA, as one of the least experienced sailors in the team; she was selected for her strength and determination to succeed. Sara put that free spirit and determination to the test when she donned climbing boots to tackle the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere.
Sara, 32, from Wyoming, recently returned from a successful ascent of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere at 6,961 metres, located in western Argentina near the Chile border, just two years after taking part in the Volvo Ocean Race with Team SCA; so what took her from the ocean to mountain climbing?
I don’t think that the Volvo Ocean Race and mountain climbing are that different
I have been looking for something as challenging as the Volvo Ocean Race as the chances started to look bleaker and bleaker for a women’s team to find sponsorship for the next addition of the race. I’m happy to continue sailing but few things are as extreme as the Volvo and I’m someone who is always looking for adventure and challenges. I may have found a challenge equal to the VOR in training and attempting to climb Mt. Everest.
I don’t think that the Volvo Ocean Race and mountain climbing are that different. There are many similarities – not showering, freeze-dried food, very few changes of underwear, exposure to the elements, extreme temperatures, a beautiful night sky…. and pushing yourself further than you thought possible.
Like most things though, getting out and doing that activity is the best way to train, and especially for me, as altitude is something that will always be a huge challenge.
How can you compare the physical training between preparing for a Round The World Yacht Race to climbing a very high mountain?
The commitment level is the same. During the Volvo we always felt like we could never be strong enough. I feel much the same with mountaineering because of the variety of challenges and particularly the difficulties at altitude. You can never be fit enough, and even then, you never know how altitude will affect you. It’s a different type of fitness though..instead of always trying to be stronger and build muscle, cardio is one of my biggest focuses. Instead of concentrating on muscles for pushing, pulling and lifting heavy objects like we did during the Volvo, I’m looking at carrying heavy loads on my back and building my legs to support me. There are small areas of which I’d never thought of concentrating on but when I go to climb something now, I write down where I feel I have a weakness or need to concentrate on and then I can apply that in a gym setting. Like most things though, getting out and doing that activity is the best way to train, and especially for me, as altitude is something that will always be a huge challenge. At 18,000 feet you have 1/2 the amount of oxygen you do at sea level. Aconcagua, the peak I climbed in February, was 22,841’ (6,962m). At the summit of Everest, 29,035’, you have 1/3 the oxygen.
Were the hardships and challenges similar to the Volvo Ocean Race?
One thing is for sure…the challenges will continue to get harder as I become more experienced and push to bigger and more technical mountains. It’s like going into the Southern Ocean for the first time. You’re 4 legs into the Volvo, so you know how hard this race can already be but you know the Southern Ocean is going to be an entirely different beast. So far, I’d describe the climbing at a similar challenge level to a good day in the Southern Ocean. It’s cold and uncomfortable but still enjoyable. Summit day on Aconcagua… that was a different story.
Initially, we had expected to be at the summit at noon but because of the back and forth, Seb and I stood on the summit at 4pm.
Can you describe the day/time you summited?
I’d describe summit day as the equivalent of a never ending Chinese Gybe. On Aconcagua, summit day is 3,583’ from high camp. You’re sleeping at more than 19,000’ so the affects of altitude are pretty extreme. I woke up on summit morning at 4am. I had a screaming headache—which is fairly typical)—and tried to soothe it away with a 600mg ibuprofen and drinking about 1L of hot tea. The pain was so intense it actually made me vomit and I lost all that vital hydration…So my morning did not start out ideally. I worried the guides wouldn’t even let me leave the tent. I was luckily able to get some medicine to ease the nausea and the headache from our guide and felt better enough to get ready. We left camp three around 5:15am.
Our summit day stood between two big storms and it was ridiculously cold. I’m luckily a human radiator when I’m moving so I was fine but by sunrise several people were feeling the effects of the altitude and cold—one losing feeling in their toes and fearing frostbite, another suffering from a form of snow blindness, and two others who just generally weren’t feeling well. Four people turned around in two separate groups, descending with two of our three guides. From this point at Independencia Hut we were one mile from the summit. This may not sound far, but at 21,000’; a mile may as well be 20. This left us with six climbers and one guide, which meant if one person needed to turn around, it was likely that we would all have to turn around. As we went along it was very evident that people were starting to feel worse and worse. One man completely collapsed after half a mile and we were not able to continue to climb toward the summit as a group. Myself and another guy, Rui, were still feeling quite strong and mentally sound and wished to carry on but not everyone in the group was pleased to be turning around and we found it safest to all turn back.
Nearly back at Independencia Hut, we knew one of the other guides was on his way back up from camp three after safely depositing other members so Rui and I turned back around and headed toward the summit with an expectation that the guide Sebastian, would catch up. Only minutes after turning around Rui told me he could no longer go on. I tried to convince him otherwise but settled for accepting his warm tea and sugary snacks as I set off alone toward the summit. I picked a spot and rested and waited for Sebastian to catch up to me, not knowing if he would even want to continue, but I was still very willing.
It’s also very empowering to be in another sport where the elements see no gender, and it’s down to you as an individual, your determination and skill.
Seb caught up and was as keen to reach the summit so we set off again. Initially, we had expected to be at the summit at noon but because of the back and forth, Seb and I stood on the summit at 4pm. My legs had definitely decided they had had enough multiple times over the last few hours but Seb kept pushing and I kept following. I had dedicated my climb to a friend’s six year old son who had been diagnosed with Very High Risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I was carrying his bear with me that he takes on hospital visits and thinking about that little man going through radiation that same week was a huge motivator for me to get that bear to the summit and share the story. In all it took us nine hours to ascend and less than two hours to descend as we hustled to get back to camp three before the next storm, which was just on the horizon.
What will you take away from this experience?
It’s really exciting for me to have a new goal and to figure the in’s and outs of a new extreme sport. I have a huge advantage coming from the Volvo Ocean Race and sailing as it’s given me a baseline confidence to push my boundaries and step outside my comfort zone. It’s also very empowering to be in another sport where the elements see no gender, and it’s down to you as an individual, your determination and skill. The biggest thing I take away from these adventures is the inspiration to never stop exploring. Never stop exploring the world nor my undetermined personal limits.
What’s next on the agenda?
I’m headed to the Caribbean for some sailing and my next race is the Feeder Race from Antigua to Bermuda in May. I’ve then planned some mountaineering courses in the summer and am then headed to Russia in August to climb Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in “Europe”—under the definition of the ‘7 Summits’. I’m currently working on sponsorship for climbing Everest and a few other adventurous endeavors I have in mind. Hopefully, as the plan stands now, I will continue on to Denali in Alaska next year and Broad Peak in Pakistan before heading to Everest in the spring of 2019.
Photos: Sara Hastreiter