On top of the world -- a climber's journey to reach the Seven Summits

Ilina Arsova climbs the upper section of Ama Dablam in the Himalayas, which has a peak of 22,349 feet. Arsova is the first Macedonian woman to reach the summits of Mount Everest and Ama Dablam. Chriss Goodwin

On Dec. 27, Ilina Arsova was high-stepping through untouched snow en route to the top of the bottom of the world.

She was part of the first team to make a summit push at Mount Vinson in Antarctica in weeks. The season's abnormally high snowfall had produced dangerous avalanche conditions that canceled numerous expeditions. But the team got a lucky weather break and embarked toward the peak.

Arsova was accustomed to leading the way. Her knees felt strong, and her fear of frostbite in the minus-31-degree air was unnecessary. Her conditioning and cold-water training paid off. The crew progressed steadily and unlabored; the winds were calm for Antarctica. At about 4 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, she stepped onto the 16,050-foot pinnacle.

At the top of Mount Vinson, Arsova looked out at a world divided. Everything below her feet was awash in a sea of white; above was blue sky lit by the 24-hour sun. She'd relished the midsummer polar days in the Southern Hemisphere, which consist of endless, dazzling light for weeks on end. The katabatic winds crashed into her expedition parka while on the ice-crusted mountain. And she tightened her grip on a journal-sized version of her country's red and yellow flag.

Arsova -- an artist, environmental activist and mountaineer -- is the first woman from North Macedonia to climb the Seven Summits. That is, reaching the highest mountain peak on each continent.

"It's an amazing feeling to achieve a dream of your life," Arsova said of the experience.

Along the way, Arsova achieved several other firsts as a North Macedonian woman: reaching the summits of Mount Everest and Ama Dablam in the Himalayas and the Matterhorn in the Alps; a solo ski descent of Mount Elbrus in southern Russia; and a summit of Mount Denali in Alaska.

Arsova returned to Skopje, the capital of her home country -- which sits halfway between Belgrade and Athens -- just days after reaching the top of the southernmost continent.

"It's even greater that you make your whole nation proud," she offered. For Arsova, dreams are as natural as the rambling hills in her hometown or the beryl waters of Lake Ohrid, where she spent her summers.

When Arsova was young, she would run into the bathroom and quietly lock the door. She'd clamber atop the washing machine, breathe in deep and jump.

"There were not many role models," Arsova said. "I dreamed of being Superwoman. I believed I could fly."

By the time she was 16, she was flying.

"I discovered extreme sports with skydiving," she said. "My parents helped sign me up at school [at age 15]. What they did not know was that I was supposed to be 16." She was found out, of course, and wasn't able to jump that first year.

When she did begin to jump, a friend of the family questioned how they could let their teenage daughter do such a "dangerous" activity.

"The character of my child is like this," said Goce Arsov, Ilina's father. "If you forbid it, she will do it." He said, "Better not to forbid but to say 'Be careful' and to support her. In that case, she will be more careful and do what she will have to do."

At the time, Arsova was seeking something, but she didn't know precisely what. Heights gave her a new perspective and separation from the concerns on the ground. She used to climb to the rooftops of buildings to see the city better, and when she discovered rock climbing, the sport helped her see a whole new world.

Natural beauty abounds in North Macedonia, one of the youngest countries in Europe -- from the rugged shale and limestone massif of Mount Korab to the fertile lands of the Vadar basin. The nation is one of the jigsaw pieces of the intertwining Balkan Peninsula, bordered by Kosovo and Serbia to the north, Bulgaria to the east, Greece to the south and Albania to the west.

More than anything, it is home for Arsova. And like any home, it's not without faults.

While many countries sponsor first ascents for climbers, it has been uncommon in North Macedonia, especially for women. Before 2019, Arsova reached four of the Seven Summits with no government sponsorship, and she received a nominal sum to pursue Mount Everest. Of the five mountaineers from the country to stand on the top of the world, she's the only woman to do so and the only one not to be given a national award.

To climb the world's highest peak, at 29,029 feet, Arsova had to raise over $32,000. The expedition is the most expensive of the Seven Summits, with costs that average $40,000 and can reach $100,000.

"For me, it's been harder to get funds than to climb the mountain itself," Arsova said.

She sold mountain-inspired paintings and her car and put in nearly full-time work to raise corporate sponsorship, on top of training. In the morning, she would be in the city pitching companies. In the afternoon, she would sneak in a training session with a quick up-and-down of Mount Vodno, then return to the city in the evening for an art showing or more sponsorship outreach.

Part of the challenge is that mountains are not part of the national strategy for sports in North Macedonia. The irony is in the terrain of the territory: With rocky turf covering 80% of the land, it is one of the craggiest countries in Europe. Soccer, team handball and water polo are the main attractions, all based on comparatively level playing surfaces.

"In Macedonia, mountaineering is not even categorized as a sport [officially]," Arsova said.

Arsova accepts these challenges as naturally as one expects subfreezing temperatures at 20,000 feet. She sees it as part of the landscape, another thing to overcome and another way that she can give back.

"I love this country, I love what we have," she said. "But it can be frustrating."

Last year, the government sponsored her climbs of Puncak Jaya, the highest peak of Oceania, and Mount Vinson partly as a result of the positive international media coverage her achievements bring to the country.

The journey to the top of the southernmost continent has been a nine-year labor of love for Arsova. She didn't set out to complete the Seven Summits. It was a progression from sport climbing to big mountains to even bigger mountains.

"I love altitude," Arsova declared.

By the time she had set her sights on Mount Everest, she had already summited Aconcagua in Argentina (the tallest mountain in South America) and Kilimanjaro (Africa), and had attempted a self-supported mission to Mount Denali in Alaska, widely considered the second-most difficult of the Seven Summits.

In 2012, she had to turn back from a summit push to Denali. She was part of a three-person team, including Ilija Ristovski and Nadir Murseli, that conceded its attempt after 16 days of waiting out bad weather. Nights would get down to about 12 degrees inside the tent, and over 3 feet of snow could fall in 24 hours. The same day that team Arsova was headed down the mountain, a group of Japanese mountaineers was hit by an avalanche, killing four of the five members. In 2016, Arsova returned to successfully summit the highest peak in North America with Filip Vasilevski but left with frostbite and deteriorating health.

Arsova had to revamp her training to deal with the extreme cold of Mount Vinson.

"My health has started betraying me," she said in one call. (She had just hobbled over to the desk where she was sitting, and you could almost hear the wincing as she spoke.) "I've spent an intensive 15 years in the mountains. I'm half-deaf, tinnitus in my ear, and the doctors say even though I'm 37, the age of my knees is 60."

To reduce the impact on her knees in preparation for Vinson, she swam through the winter.

"I know I had to play smart if I wanted to finish the summits and keep climbing," she said.

Arsova is one of about 70 women in the world to accomplish the feat and only the second from the Balkans to do so, after Mrika Nikçi completed the list this past August. Since 1985, roughly 500 climbers have achieved this objective, according to 7summits.com.

"For me, it's been harder to get funds than to climb the mountain itself." Ilina Arsova

Not all mountaineering expeditions are created equal. Most of Arsova's summits have been self-organized (she didn't use a guide service to handle logistics), self-supported (she carried everything herself, including kits up to 110 pounds) and self-funded. Besides Everest and Vinson, which require professional companies for all but the elite mountaineer, Arsova has climbed each mountain by being as lean as she can, such as staying in low-budget hostels and using borrowed equipment.

Her approach is increasingly rare in a sport in which it is common to pay tens of thousands of dollars to an expedition service to manage the planning, equipment and transport. The growing interest in high-altitude climbing and the proliferation of guide companies has led to events such as the 200-person backup at the top of Mount Everest last May that made the peak look more like an escalator at the mall on Black Friday than the top of the world.

But that's Arsova, she has always done things her way.

"She's like some kind of fire when it comes to adventure," said Ristovski, Arsova's long-term mountaineering partner.

Ristovski was Arsova's climbing instructor and a former sport climbing champion of the Balkans. Both in their 20s and itching to get out of the country, they sought the dream of climbing around the world.

"She brings ideas into climbing, alpinism and mountaineering," Ristovski said. "Before Ilina, no woman [in North Macedonia] was saying, 'Hey, let's go to Everest.'"

"I pictured this out-of-this-world mountain climber that always lived at a different altitude," begins Dr. Sarah Hillyer, the founder and director of the Center for Sport, Peace and Society (CSPS) at the University of Tennessee.

Hillyer first met Arsova in 2012 through the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP, which the CSPS administers as the cooperative partner for the U.S. Department of State and espnW). She discovered that her preconception of the high-elevation climber didn't match reality.

"Ilina is so grounded as a human, even though she's lived at altitudes that to us are unimaginable," Hillyer said. "She has this incredible ability to make everyone around her feel valued and loved."

Arsova participated in the inaugural GSMP cohort the year before she climbed Everest. She was one of just 17 women from around the world to be accepted to the program that year. During the five-week mentorship exchange, the global change-makers worked alongside industry leaders to develop plans for sport-based social change in their communities back home. Arsova was paired with Donna Carpenter, the co-founder of Burton Snowboards, and spent weeks in Burlington, Vermont, learning about the importance of nurturing the next generation of leaders, a Carpenter specialty.

The GSMP is built on the premise that "an empowered individual can create lasting and significant social change," Hillyer noted. It's a sentiment that Arsova took to heart.

"In my 20s, I was pursuing this [climbing, mountaineering] for myself, for personal growth," she said. "Since 2012, I've been doing this for others, for the country, to be a positive influence."

After the program, Arsova returned home with a commitment to give back.

She began a video production company, Her Story, to tell the tales of female athletes from countries where gender inequality is common, especially in athletic recognition.

"In my sports career [before 2019], I received almost no support from our institutions," Arsova said. "Having no video materials was not at all helpful for promotion. I decided to give this to other women whose story deserves to be heard."

This is her mission, and especially during March -- Women's History Month -- she declares that she has no plans to slow down on the progression of Her Story. "I am using this isolation time to work, read and paint," Arsova said of using non-travel time, due to the coronavirus, to build her skills and her brand further.

By sharing the accounts of women such as Uta Ibrahimi, a Kosovar mountaineer attempting to climb all of the world's 8,000-meter peaks, and Natasha Meshkovska, the pioneering Yugoslav champion in swimming, the Her Story team is hoping to encourage young girls across the region to pursue their athletic dreams.

Since launching in 2018, their movies have been shown in more than 10 international festivals and have won awards at the International Festival of Outdoor Films in the Czech Republic and the Palma Mountain and Nature Documentary Short Film Festival in Spain. Through film, Arsova can give a voice to those who don't typically have such an outlet, and through her voice, she's able to stand up for the environment, which can't speak for itself.

Arsova formed a circle of packed snow near base camp on the Branscomb Glacier in Antarctica and lay down inside of it, undressed. She curled into a fetal position, shaped like the letter "O." Her tentmate Roxanne Litynska, who is originally from Ukraine and was the only other female mountaineer on the expedition, stood shivering in her down suit, preparing to take a photograph. This was the final shot of Arsova's art project, Performance ZERO, a ritual she has observed after each of the Seven Summits. Ending here, there's a poetic circularity to it: She's completed it almost at point zero, the bottom of the planet.

Arsova has been climbing all her life, chasing heights in different domains. But every ascent requires a descent and a reconnection with life on the ground. Just as she approaches her ascents in the mountains, she'll take whatever comes next one step at a time, full steam ahead.

Of the moment and her accomplishments, she noted, "Nature teaches us not only how to survive but how to live."