“Will I last long enough?” wondered Ilina Arsova.
The 30-year-old Macedonian was into her third week climbing Mount Everest, with “warm” days of minus 16 degrees Celsius, winds up to 48 kilometers per hour and air so thin that each breath contains 66 percent less oxygen than at sea level. Everything, even her teeth, ached. “All the medical problems from my childhood to growing up appeared to surface,” she said.
Few women have stood atop the world’s highest peak. By 1975, when the first woman, Junko Tabei of Japan, summited Everest, only 38 men had done so. And nearly 40 years later, no Macedonian woman had gotten so far.
Arsova — an artsy, outdoorsy type — felt she could attempt the feat when she made it to the top of a 7,000-meter mountain in Nepal and first set eyes on Everest, its gleaming, white point seeming to scrape the sky.
Being physically prepared was only half the battle. From the equipment to the Sherpas, the expedition would be expensive — the cost can run as high as $100,000. In her first efforts to raise money, Arsova was jilted by employers and institutions that wouldn’t return her calls.
Then Arsova was selected by the American embassy in Skopje for the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentorship Program. Created as part of the State Department’s Empowering Women and Girls through Sports initiative, the program pairs women from around the world with influential female executives in the U.S. sports sector.
Arsova spent a month with Donna Carpenter, an owner of Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vermont, and learned how the company made extreme sports into activities for everyone through their events. She learned about fundraising through Carpenter’s nonprofit, Chill Foundation, which brings snowboarding to vulnerable kids.
The experience helped build Arsova’s resume, put her in the media’s eye and gave her the courage to try again to raise money for an Everest expedition. Carpenter became one of her sponsors. Arsova used crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, and invented her own quirky tactics. (Her “Macedonian Artists on the Way to Mount Everest” had painters donating their works for Arsova to sell.)
She began her climb at the foot of Everest in March 2013, spending icy nights in a sleeping bag from 1989. It didn’t matter. “I felt so blessed to wake up, to see where I was,” she said, adding, “I had the whole country with me when I was climbing.”
In May, Arsova made it to the top, becoming the first Macedonian woman to summit Everest. She came down with a different perspective. She moved to the quiet shores of Ohrid, where she converted her grandfather’s old house into a low-budget, solar-paneled hostel, welcoming tourists to hike, kayak, ski and cherish the outdoors. She became the mayor of Lagadin, her small fishing village.
But she had one more goal, something that she and Carpenter had included in an action plan: Arsova founded TAKT, an organization that uses sports to bridge cultural and religious gaps and to address discrimination based on sex or social status.
Today, Arsova’s success inspires many Macedonian women to climb and to summit other challenges they face.