Tanja Grmovsek looked up the final pitch of Eternal Flame on Trango Tower in Pakistan and couldn’t believe her eyes. Her climbing partner Tina Di Batista stood on the summit shining her headlamp down and shouting to Tanja and to Aleksandra Volgar. They had finally made it. After three bitterly cold days with barely a bar to eat each day, at 9 p.m. on September 9 the three Slovenians became the first all-female team to climb Trango.
All three had spent each day silently questioning the decision to climb the coveted Eternal Flame (5.11a A2 [or 5.13a AO] M5) on Trango, aka Nameless, unsure if they’d make it. All suffered from major dehydration and (fortunately minor) frostbite on their extremities.
“We had just small goals in our mind – that we would at least make it to the next ledge, a few more pitches,” said Grmovsek (pronounced Grr-mo’-shek). “It was a big mental game, but we had enough experience and willpower to keep on going.”
Grmovsek and her cohorts can be hard-nosed when needed. In 2005, Tanja and another Slovenian woman, Monika Kambic-Mali, tried the Compressor Route (VI 5.10a A1) on Cerro Torre in Patagonia only to retreat due to wet route conditions and extreme weather. On the women’s second attempt, a British team knocked down an ice block, that slammed Monika’s shoulder and broke three ribs.
“With the help of painkillers, Monika decided to continue,” said Tanja. “She jumared with one hand on one of our half ropes that was fixed from the English climbers and I climbed simultaneously with her on the other half.” On February 8, 2005, Grmovsek and Kambic-Mali became the first all-female team to summit Cerro Torre.
Before becoming one of Slovenia’s top women alpine climbers, Tanja, now 30, trained for 10 years in ballet and jazz. “I was the little chicken and my ski-racer siblings would take me to clubs because I loved to dance,” she says with a wide smile. “But like Cinderella, I had to be home at midnight.”
Learning the ways of the mountains from her father – the chief of the local Mountain Rescue team – she hung up her pointe shoes for the last time at age 17. Grmovsek since has completed 10 first ascents, in China, Peru and the Slovenian Alps. In 2002, she and her husband, Andrej, repeated the German route La Conjura del los Necios (5.11a AO [or 5.12]) on El Gigante, in Mexico. In an interview conducted in her hometown of Maribor, Slovenia, she describes married life with a fellow climber, her job as an arborist, and why Slovenian climbers are tougher than most.
Describe the most challenging point on Nameless.
Having just one try on this route was hard, knowing that if we didn’t succeed we would go home and maybe not come back. But at the top, when we couldn’t go any higher, and it was full moonlight and we could see shadows of Gasherbrum, Broad Peak and K2 in the far distance, it was worth it.
Why do you compete in ice-climbing events versus concentrating solely on climbing expeditions?
I climb the best under pressure. In our Slovenia Ice Cup, I was winning every event and it wasn’t challenging anymore. So, last year I went to my first World Cup, in Saas Fee, and made it to the semifinal, where I saw what my weaknesses are and what I have to train for. The old proverb is right: “In the village you can be always the best rooster.”
When you are not climbing, what fills your days in Maribor?
I take care of the trees in towns and urban areas, and old protected trees. I’m an arborist. People are surprised to see a girl climbing trees so high off the ground.
What’s your favorite Slovenian tradition?
Drinking. Andrej and I have a tradition of serving really good wine at our slideshows, so now people come just to drink our wine.
What’s your strangest skill?
I can hold my pee all day long, which is really nice on long routes. Andrej goes at every belay station.
Who’s your current hero?
Francek Knez. He put up a first ascent on Trango, the Slovenian Route, in 1987. And he also put up more new first ascents around the world and in Slovenia than almost any other Slovenian climber. And he did it quietly and in good style.
How has your marriage to Andrej changed your life?
My last name (formerly Rojs) got a lot harder to pronounce. No, really, life got a lot sweeter. And now on weekends when we’re home, one day is Andrej’s wish of what to climb and one day is mine. So, if he wants to do an 8b on a 1,000-foot wall, I have to go. Andrej also taught me not to judge others, which is funny because he’s a lawyer.
Why are Slovenians known to put up some of the world’s most difficult routes?
When we were socialist (Slovenia became independent during the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991), to get out of the country, you had to be a really good sportsman or alpinist. There were only a few spots for those people that the government sponsored, so you did everything you could to attain that goal. Slovenians would sit through the worst storm ever to earn enough points to get sponsored. So, I think determination is a part of us.
By Lindsay Yaw