Cathy O'Dowd explorer and inspirational speaker

Cathy O’Dowd

Born explorer and two-time conqueror of Mount Everest.

A born explorer and two-time conqueror of the notorious Mount Everest, Cathy O'Dowd can instil a taste for adventure in any audience.

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Speaker Profile

About Cathy O’Dowd

  • The first woman to conquer Everest from both the North and South faces
  • An intrepid mountaineer and adventurer
  • Fellow of the Professional Speakers Association in the UK

Cathy O'Dowd speaks knowledgeably about mountain climbing due to her expedition experience and innate common sense, but is also able to vividly convey the tumultuous emotions that mountaineers go through. She can capture excitement and dread and as such can help listens to see new ways to inspire themselves, no matter what their 'personal Everest' happens to be. Her knowledge of team work was crucial for survival during expeditions and her understanding of groups can be used in countless situations. She is an experienced speaker and has addressed audiences for numerous high profile companies.

One of the most famous female mountain climbers of all time, Cathy O'Dowd has reached the summit of Everest not once, but twice.

Early Potential

Cathy O'Dowd was born and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. She obtained a Masters degree in Media Studies at Rhodes University in 1995, whilst working as a university lecturer. It was during this time that she became interested in serious climbing, having seen a newspaper advertisement offering places on the first South African Everest Expedition. Although she had enjoyed climbing previously and had been on an expedition to the Rwenzori mountains in central Africa, Cathy was keen to experience the majesty of the world's highest mountain. Despite the fact that 200 women applied to take part in the expedition, Cathy was chosen and began training in earnest.

The Southern Route

The South African expedition took place in May 1996, with the climbers following a route up the south side of the mountain (the path named for mountaineer Edmund Hillary.) Cathy reached the summit of Everest on the 25th May 1996, becoming one of the first South Africans in history to do so. The descent from the summit was challenging due to severe weather conditions and a member of the group, Bruce Herrod, lost his life. Cathy and the other climbers made it back to safety, only too aware of the danger that they had been in whilst on the mountain.

The Northern Route

The triumph and tragedy of the initial climb served to strengthen Cathy's resolve to conquer the notorious Mount Everest once again. In 1999, just three years after initially reaching the summit, she was back at the foot of the peak. This time, Cathy opted to climb from another position, choosing the challenging northern route. Unfortunately, this attempt ended in tragedy. When the group were just hours from reaching the summit, Cathy found an injured climber from the USA named Francys Arsentiev. Faced with the option of leaving her fellow climber or progressing to obtain her goal, Cathy chose to stay with Arsentiev, who was too ill to save despite the groups efforts. Cathy decided to abandon her quest for the summit and began the perilous descent.

A year later, Cathy was back at Everest, to attempt the north route to the summit once again. This time, she was successful. On reaching the summit, she became the first woman to have climbed the mountain using both the northern and the southern paths.

Other Climbs and Expeditions

The year 2000 saw Cathy become the fourth woman to climb Lhotse, a sister of Everest and the fourth highest mountain in the world.

In 2003, Cathy decided to approach Everest from another angle and attempted to reach the summit using the difficult eastern route up the mountain. Unfortunately, her attempt was unsuccessful on this occasion.

She has climbed some of the most perilous mountains in the world, as far afield as South America, the Alps, Africa and the Himalayas. She has also travelled the Norwegian Arctic on a 650-kilometre dog sled expedition with Rona Cant and Per-Thore-Hansen, another daunting and perilous journey from which she returned triumphantly.

Cathy is still an adventurer at heart and has her sights set on many more expeditions.

Personal Life

Cathy O'Dowd lives in Andorra in the eastern Pyrenees, a fitting place for one of the worlds most well-known mountaineers. She is married to Ian Woodall, who was the expedition leader of her initial Everest climb. The couple co-wrote Everest: Free to Decide in 1998, three years before they tied the knot.

Speaking Topics

  • Everest: in Search of Peak Performance
  • Leadership
  • The Power of Enjoying your Journey as a Tool
  • Personal Achievement
  • Overcoming the Greatest Challenge in Life
  • Anticipating Team Conflict and Making it Work
  • Understanding the Growth Cycle of your Team
  • Everest: the Teamwork Cycle
  • Dealing with Adversity


"Thank you not only for great delivery of a great story but more importantly for interpreting my brief so well and aligning your message to our conference theme." - Royal Bank of Scotland Group

"Although the adventures you experienced are of a total different nature than our business, you managed to turn it in such a way that every single person present was able to take out the points to his/her interest and could apply it to his/her job, attitude, way of thinking. And it fitted in the Kyphon spirit perfectly." - Kyphon Europe

"The content was perfect and exactly what I expected ... You had many symbols we were able to use afterwards in the workshop or even in the future." - IMG AG

"It was a real honour to listen to this amazing story. Just hearing her epic story and seeing those breathtaking slides will remain in my memory for a long, long time. I will continue to draw inspiration from your account of moving ever onward and upward." - Ernst & Young

"...thanks again for your marvellous speech. We asked the participants to complete a feedback form and .... you reached the highest scores of all." - Philips Medical Systems

" was excellent. The audience was in between delighted and enthusiastic." - Credit Suisse

"Cathy's speech on teamwork and determination was overwhelming. Her thrilling and motivating story, emotionally presented and backed up by an excellent slide-show, succeeded in creating a goose bumps atmosphere!" - Gauss Interprise AG

"Cathy was a sell-out! The whole audience was literally speechless and awestruck, and an indication how well it all went...a number of the senior MDs all quoted her speech throughout the rest of the evening. All in all, Cathy made a very common topic -teamwork- very real and vivid. Even those behind the control panel were enthralled." - Leading US Investment Bank

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