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Mountaineer-author Bonita Norris on brushes with death and living on the edge

British-born media student Bonita Norris took up mountaineering by chance, but the hills captivated her heart. With three 8000m peaks behind her, she now motivates others to push their boundaries.

By Megan Lupton

Bonita Norris is the youngest person in the world to have reached both the summit of Mt Everest and the North Pole. The media-studies graduate from Wokingham, Berkshire, UK, took up mountaineering in 2008 at the age of 20. Two years later, she became the youngest person to ever scale the Everest.

Now 34, Bonita has undertaken several Himalayan expeditions and has reached three of the world’s 8000m peaks besides attempting K2 and going on a ski expedition to the North Pole. She is a TV presenter, environmental activist, podcaster and a motivational speaker with The Female Motivational Speakers Agency.

In her memoir The Girl Who Climbed Everest, Bonita opened up about growing up as an anxious teenager with an eating disorder whose life changed after attending a chance lecture about mountaineering at her university.

In this interview, the London-based mountaineer, author and mother of a three-year-old reveals the most memorable mountain she has climbed; her brush with death at the bottom of a freezing crevasse; and her latest uphill challenge – writing a novel.

Of all the places you have visited, what has been the most memorable? 

In 2012, I climbed a mountain called Lhotse in Nepal, which is the fourth highest peak on the planet, and no one’s really ever heard of it unless you’re into mountaineering. But it was really special for so many reasons, mainly because we were absolutely destined to fail on this mountain!

Everything had gone wrong. The conditions were really bad, but we did manage to reach the top and it’s really special to me because it taught me such an important lesson about not giving up when you want to the most.

Just keep trying and you never know what can happen. It was a very special moment reaching the summit, and we never imagined we would ever get there.

Bonita Norris descending from the Ama Dablam peak in Nepal

As an explorer, can you describe a time where you experienced danger?

Yes, there are so many. When you’re a climber, there’s this inherent risk. I wish I did a sport sometimes where I could turn up and give my all and I wouldn’t have the question in the back of my mind – is this going to be my last climb? Is this is going to be the one that kills me?

Climbing is unique in that way. Sometimes, it’s rock climbing, and you know that if you slip off a cliff, you might break your legs. And in those moments, I say to myself, “Well, if you break your legs, it will be a good story”, which I know is a really stupid thing to say!

But the truth is that I know I’m unlikely to actually fall and break my legs, so I’ve just got to go for it. It’s a way of calming myself down and accepting that whatever happens, I’m going to commit to it.

Probably the most dangerous things in the mountains are the avalanches – we’ve been really up close to some of them. I remember launching myself to the other side of the tent because I heard this boom behind me, and an avalanche was coming down, but it passed us.

In terms of real danger, I fell down a crevasse once and I was completely on my own. This was on Mount Lhotse, and I managed to climb out by myself. Definitely, the closest I’ve ever come to falling to my death!

But by the time I got to camp and told my teammates, “Guys, I nearly died today,” they were like, “Oh, really? Sorry, we’re playing Monopoly… tell us later”! It just wasn’t a big deal and it put it in perspective.

Bonita with her husband, fellow climber Aid Baxter, and their three-year-old daughter Lily

How do you motivate yourself when faced with failure?

There are hundreds of different ways that I motivate myself, but I think the most important thing I try and remember is, “Do I need a big picture motivation right now, or do I need a small motivation?”

Sometimes the big picture, the dream, what the future might hold if I commit to this, is so exciting that it just gets you through.

But sometimes, that big picture can be so overwhelming you just think, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve been working so hard, there’s still so much to do.” And in those moments, just being able to focus on something really small and forget about the big picture is really important.

So often, I ask myself that question – what do I need to focus on right now?

As human beings, we are incredibly driven by our emotions. And one of the things that inspires me the most is playing the right song! It can instantly connect you to a feeling. It’s often feelings that motivate us more than anything else, so you need to work out what inspires motivation in you, and then have that bank of different things to go back to.

Bonita Norris is now a sought-after motivational speaker

What do you hope people take away from your story?

The most important message that I hope comes across [when I speak at events] is that I started climbing when I was 20.

I had never set foot on a mountain. I didn’t know anything about climbing, so if you have a vision and you make yourself a set of goals to achieve that vision, then anything is possible!

What’s next in your exciting career?

I have set myself an entirely new challenge. I’ve written a novel and it is the thing I’ve put the most work into in my whole life. In the mountains you have a team of people around you, so much support, but writing at your desk every day for a year has required such mental discipline.

I’m just trying to remind myself that it’s one step at a time, it’s one sentence at a time. The vision of getting it published is what keeps me going!

Photos: Bonita Norris / Instagram

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