With several records and a Golden Piton Award she has been one of the most well-known climbers in the world. Today, she is working towards new targets in a never-ending search for life challenges and new mountain adventures. Meet the incredible Josune Bereziartu – a woman who has pushed the limits of what is feasible in climbing and who is still a great inspiration to both men and women world-wide.
Nowadays, she is rarely giving interviews and is hiding from the public scenery. But she has not stopped pushing herself. The 47-year-old life adventurer from the Basque country in Spain is more alive and powerful than ever. When I get a chat with her over the phone, she personalizes the term ‘girlpower’ – a term which means something special to her. But before I explain why, let us go back in time a little.
Josune grew up where the wild waves in the Bay of Biscay meet the rugged mountains of the western end of the Pyrenees, in a town called San Sebastian. Mountains and nature have always been an important part of her life. And like many of her fellow Basque citizens, freedom has always been important to Josune.
“When I first started, I climbed a lot multipitch climbing. But I progressed quickly and climbed harder and harder, so I switched to sport climbing and competed in the world cup during the nineties. Competing was never something I enjoyed fully though, so at the turn of the millennium I started climbing full-time instead and travelled abroad, experiencing different cultures” Josune explains.
Her climbing career is impressive, and for many years she pushed the limits for what was regarded feasible for women to climb. In 2003, she received the Golden Piton Award for the first female ascent of a 9a (5.14d) route. But her climbing records include many more red-point and onsight ascents, as well as well first free-climbing ascents of hard alpine routes. “Finally, I had climbed all routes that I wanted to climb. I have climbed so much that it equals to three lives” says Josune with a laugh.
“When I was young, I felt that I had a very plain life. Then I realized that I could make a bonus track in life. So today I have set new targets and am experiencing new sports. That is what life is for!”
Josune ponders a little and then continues. “It may sound very ambitious, but I live after the philosophy that the target itself is of minor importance in comparison with the process of getting there. It is much more important to be conscious about how you make progress – to work step by step and be honest to yourself. So currently, I enjoy my bonus life-track and experience new parts of life!”
Triathlon and cycling are some of the sports Josune are exploring now. She is still climbing, hiking and ski touring easy stuff with her friends and nephews, but she has stopped doing severe alpinism. Her job is also an important part of her life. “Nowadays, I channel all my knowledge and experience into risk prevention.” As a commercial agent for the climbing-gear brand Petzl® Josune supports firefighters, policemen and huge factories among others.
I ask Josune how she likes it in such a male-dominated business sector.
“Yes, there are almost only men in the sector I work in today, but Petzl® told me that I am a big inspiration for men too when they employed me. I am very well known among the people I work with, and when I speak to the guys they show me a lot of respect” Josune emphasises.
Josune describes to me that although Spain is a latin country, it is equal between men and women in the climbing community for sure. “Switzerland and France, we think have gender equality in climbing but no no no! After a while in these countries I realized that they are not as far ahead as we are in Spain or they are in the U.S.”
Some things were very important for Josune during her career as a professional climber. Like sponsorships, for example. “I could never have put all energy in my climbing without it. Sponsorships give you free time to focus on your climbing.” When I ask if it was harder for her to get sponsorships as a woman Josune replies: “No, the opposite! It did not happen to me. I was the best paid climbing athlete in the Beal® and Arcteryx® teams for example. I was very well treated. They wanted to push me and the reason for that was that I inspired both men and women. And I appreciated their support a lot.”
Do you have some tips for women athletes who wish to get sponsored?
“You must be very honest and not promise things that you cannot fulfil. Go step by step with your own achievements, be honest and responsible with the brand. Provide nice pictures and articles. It is so much more than just climbing hard grades. It is not only about competition, it is about your life philosophy – you must give them the image of a nice and honest lifestyle” Josune explains.
Josune’s tip for women climbers in general is: “You have to go step by step and gain confidence and self-esteem. It does not matter if you climb hard routes or not, forget about that. It is the process that is of importance.”
Another issue of great importance to Josune is the loving attitude from her husband Rikar Otegui. “We have been climbing together for more than 30 years now. Rikar is a top climber too, but he has always been in my back and has never wanted to interfere with my career. It is important to realize that there are lots of good men behind many women athletes, providing important push and support!” Josune emphasises.
“We trained together. My husband was an excellent climber but he was never my trainer. When people see a man and a famous woman climbing together, people often assume that the man is training the woman. It doesn’t have to be like that. Why do people assume that? We must avoid that!” Josune says. When I tell Josune that this is what is written about her at Wikipedia she answers “Wikipeda is wrong!”
What did the Golden Piton award mean to you?
“Rewards are very good. It confirmed what I already knew about myself, and it was beneficial for my sponsors and made my capacity more obvious to other people” she says. Josune thinks a little and continues “During my climbing career I knew very well where I wanted to go. Now I know where I am and where I have come from. But rewards like that are good for the sponsors too and useful in that sense.”
Josune uses the term ‘girlpower’ about herself still. What does it mean to you, I ask her, and what does it mean in Spain? “When Rikar and I was in the U.S. for the first time in 1994 he bought me this ‘girlpower’ sticker, gave it to me and said – this is you! So, I like this sign of girl power” Josune explains.
“Girls have inside girl-power. We are very passionate and have this inside power that nature has given to us. We can give life. Spanish girls are very powerful. We keep our surname when we get married.”
“My husband says that an angry girl is what he fears most in life. The Basque country was a matriarchy, although it is more similar to the rest of Spain now. But it is still my roots and the Basque children are very natural in their confidence” Josune concludes.
My own reflection after the lively and passionate chat with Josune, who was hard to find but so open and generous once I got a hold on her, is that many countries and climbing communities have lots to learn from the Basque and Spanish climbing community. ‘Girl power’ can appear in many different versions and Josune is certainly an inspiring woman with a hugh anount of inner power.