Trudging through waist-deep snow on the 24,688-foot Annapurna IV mountain, Tonya George Riggs (Bus’86) couldn’t get one thought out of her mind: they were alone. It was just her and husband Brad Clement, two little specks climbing up the enormous peak in Nepal with the thundering sound of avalanches crashing down the slopes around them. Fear and exhaustion overwhelmed her.
“One day we went 800 steps — I counted,” she says. “It was Outward Bound on steroids.”
Riggs’ story about her summit attempt of one of the world’s highest peaks last year is just one of many in the life of the corporate-executive-turned-climber. Whipping through stories about treks up Mount Rainier, Mount Kenya, Everest and Annapurna IV, it’s hard to guess Riggs, 45, first climbed a mountain at age 35. Before that she had never hiked, much less slept in a tent. As she describes her stories over coffee in Boulder, she exudes an unwavering confidence and energy that come from the perfect alignment of her skills, passion and life path.
A love affair with climbing
These elements haven’t always fit together so well for her. During her thirties, Riggs worked in sales for Quaker Oats and Pillsbury on the fast track to corporate success. But with each promotion, Riggs found herself moving farther away from Boulder. A turning point came unexpectedly 13 years ago when she decided to climb Longs Peak and suffered fear, frustration and tears during the entire 13-hour hike.
Waking up the next morning, though, Riggs found herself in a state of blissful, proud exhaustion.
“I lit up like a light bulb on the rock. I thought, ‘This is awesome’ and it’s been uphill ever since,” she says.
After that, she immediately started rock climbing classes.
By 2000 her passion had turned into addiction. She switched jobs to move to Denver and adopted an early bird schedule, waking before the sun to be climbing in Eldorado Canyon by 5 a.m. and to work by 9 a.m. She checked off climbing staples like Mount Rainier and Mount Kenya but still felt something was lacking in life.
“I felt like life was passing by pretty quickly,” Riggs says. “There was an advertisement I saw that read, ‘There is a difference between being alive and living’ and I felt like I was just going through the motions.”
Soon after, she quit her job and plunged head-on into her passion for climbing.
Fortunately, her active lifestyle also spilled over into a new career working for climbing gear manufacturer Trango as director of business development. Not only is the company in her area of interest, but its owner, Malcolm Daly, has a philosophy that lines up perfectly with Riggs’ lifestyle: “When in doubt, always take the vacation.”
Into thin air
Following this advice, Riggs jetted overseas, climbing in Italy, France and the Himalayas. After catching a glimpse of Everest while climbing 22,494-foot Ama Dablam in Nepal, she set her sights on the iconic peak.
Her opportunity came sooner than expected in January 2006 when Everest Peace Project founder Lance Trumball asked Riggs to be the group’s sole female climber. After two sleepless nights, Riggs accepted. Two months later she was en route to the Everest base camp.
In addition to summiting the world’s tallest peak, Riggs recalls the Everest trip as special because it was in a cramped orange tent on the side of the mountain that she started falling for Brad Clement, the group’s videographer. In a quirkily romantic story, Clement offered to empty Riggs’ full pee bottle so that she wouldn’t have to venture out into the blowing snow.
“He was so sensitive and I could tell he was paying attention to me,” she says of the encounter.
The rest is history, as the couple married in June 2008.
While Everest may be the final goal for many, nearby Annapurna I at 26,545 feet represented an even higher culmination of meaning and challenge for Riggs and Clement. Only 153 people had reached the summit, compared to around 4,000 on Everest. The death rate was an estimated 40 percent, making it one of the world’s most dangerous climbs. For Riggs, Annapurna I also represented a rite of passage into mountaineering because, in the absence of a clearly defined path, the couple would be breaking trail the whole way to the summit.
And there was something else.
“Annapurna I represented a special mountain,” Riggs says. “In 1978 American Arlene Blum took an all-woman expedition up the mountain and put two women on top when women weren’t encouraged to climb mountains.”
One of the women, Irene Miller, became the first American — female or male — to ascend and summit the peak. Two other team members died attempting it. Riggs and her husband planned to summit on the 30th anniversary of Blum’s expedition.
They also tied the climb to the cause of ovarian cancer awareness in recognition of Sean Patrick, a friend who was living with the disease at the time and died two months after the expedition. Before they left for Annapurna, the couple partnered with the HERA Women’s Cancer Foundation, highlighting the disease during interviews, speeches, articles and presentations they gave about previous expeditions.
“Mountaineering is a fairly selfish activity, yet it tends to attract a lot of interest and media, especially expeditions to the bigger, riskier peaks of the world,” Clement explains. “So, our goal with Annapurna was to make it about more than ourselves.”
The journey, not the destination
To acclimate for the world’s 10th highest peak, the couple decided to climb sister peak Annapurna IV.
And that’s when they ran into trouble.
Two thousand feet below the summit, the couple huddled in their tent as avalanches swept past them, making conditions too dangerous to continue.
Spending 13 days climbing the peak was the hardest thing Riggs had ever done, but she and her husband got down safely and headed to Annapurna I on foot. They spent 10 days trekking up to base camp, spending much of their time bushwhacking through 60-foot-tall bamboo forests.
But at camp they were met with some disheartening news: a landslide had occurred and huge boulders now blocked their route to the peak.
After spending 15 days at base camp trying to find a way through, Clement and Riggs accepted that after two years of hard work and planning they would return home without summiting any of the Annapurna peaks.
“Not to even get out of base camp on Annapurna I . . . it was heart wrenching,” Riggs says.
But the experience of not reaching the top also taught her some valuable lessons.
“It causes you to reflect,” she says. “They always say it’s the journey, not the destination, and there’s truth in that. I think in not summiting you linger more in the here and now and you stop and smell the roses a little more.”
That’s not to say Riggs doesn’t have any more peak aspirations. Her next adventure? The technical mixed rock-ice Diamond Couloir route on Mount Kenya in October.
Emery Cowan is a Coloradan student staffer majoring in journalism.