In the summer of 2017, I decided to climb the highest peak in every European country – officially
49 mountains – in one year. Only a handful of people had done it before. Growing up in Sweden, my father encouraged me to be outdoors all the time, but I wasn’t a serious adventurer. I wanted to see if someone ordinary like me could climb mountains. I wanted to be a role model for girls and to tell a story that had never been told. All the stories you hear are so hardcore, of people lost on Everest or K2.
There is no universal definition of a mountain. In Holland, Belgium and Denmark, the highest peak is really just a small hill. You could park your car on the top. It felt a bit like cheating, but I decided I would climb them regardless. I didn’t do any preparation for the first mountain, which was Mount Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s highest at 5,642m. It was exhausting, but I thought I would get fit climbing the rest, and I did. I made an itinerary, starting in Switzerland, where I would climb Dufourspitze (4,634m), but a snowstorm made me cancel. So I went to Spain instead. After that, I planned around the weather. I did two big mountain tours in a car all over Europe and the rest I did on weekends.
Climbing mountains is an experience that is hard to put into words. You are in a beautiful environment and, when you reach the top, you feel incredible. But also you have to climb down, which is when most accidents happen – people are tired, it gets dark, it’s harder. I don’t climb mountains that I am not totally ready for. I wouldn’t climb K2 tomorrow, but each one I climb takes me to the next step.
I don’t have many friends who like to climb, and sometimes you want to have someone to share the experience with. I work as a fashion photographer and most of my friends won’t even come to the climbing gym in case they ruin their nails. So I’ve used Instagram to find people, and sometimes even Tinder; if they had a climbing photo in their profile, I would swipe right.
I had a few moments that were sketchy, but not super scary; I never feared for my life or got injured. I skied up and down Norway’s highest mountain, Galdhøpiggen (2,469m), and my boots were so uncomfortable. A few days later, I went to Iceland’s Hvannadalshnúkur (2,110m); my blisters became infected, so my guide cut them out with a knife. I had 14 plasters on each foot and got even more blisters.
I wanted to end the project at home, on Sweden’s Kebnekaise (2,097m). It has two peaks: the north is rocky and the south, which was always the higher one, is glacial. But with climate change, the south peak has been melting, and two days after I climbed it, the north became the higher summit. I climbed both with my camera assistant. I was wearing a superhero suit. Once I was at the top we did a shoot – it was like a day on the job; it didn’t feel as special as I’d hoped. But when I put it on Instagram and people started congratulating me, I felt proud.
I spent about €50,000, which is double what I had planned, and I eventually climbed 61 mountains in Europe. In the UK, I climbed the highest mountains in England, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Guernsey and Jersey. In Kosovo, there are two mountains and no one knows which is higher, so I climbed both. I also climbed four in Peru, and one in Argentina, just for fun.
You have to work on your weak sides while climbing. I don’t like not being in control, but you cannot control anything on a mountain – the weather, the circumstances. It’s made me a better person. If you’re on a mountain for hours, alone with your thoughts, it’s like meditation. It makes you so much stronger, physically and mentally.
My goal now is always to have a mountain in my calendar. I will climb
Everest one day, when I’m ready for it.
• As told to Hanna Hanra
Emma Svensson climbing the Arête des Cosmiques in Chamonix, France.
Photo credit: David Barton
This article first appeared on https://www.theguardian.com. The original can be read here.