INTERVIEW: Mimi Zieman, Author of Tap Dancing on Everest : A Young Doctor’s Unlikely Adventure

Interview by Michèle Dawson Haber

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Book Cover: Tap Dancing on Everest by mimi ziemanIn 1988 at the age of 25, Mimi Zieman, a third-year medical student, joins an expedition team of four male climbers attempting a new route on the East Face of Mt. Everest, considered the most remote and dangerous side of the mountain and only successfully climbed once before. As the team’s doctor, she is responsible for the climbers’ nutritional preparation, physical training, preventing altitude sickness, and treating any medical emergency on the mountain. She is a New York City-raised daughter of a Holocaust survivor, a former dancer, and she is full of self-doubt.

She hopes nothing will go terribly wrong, but of course it does. When three of the climbers disappear during their summit attempt, Mimi must tap deep into her reserves of strength and resilience to stay focused on the welfare of her teammates. Tap Dancing on Everest : A Young Doctor’s Unlikely Adventure (Falcon, April 2024) is a riveting, profoundly wise coming-of-age memoir written in stunning, breathtaking detail that kept me up well past my bedtime.

I am not an athlete or a risk taker. My idea of a winter adventure is leaving the house without ice grips strapped to my boots. Mimi’s extraordinary Tap Dancing on Everest has plenty of treacherous, cinematic scenes that are light years beyond my experience, and yet, I found much to relate to. It is as much a story about family, identity, and pushing through the boundaries of what scares us as it is about a perilous mountain adventure.

Mimi is an author, playwright, physician, and speaker who writes about medical topics to empower people with information and writes creatively to explore the meaning behind experiences we share. Her play, The Post-Roe Monologues, uses storytelling to promote empathy, and her medical guide, Managing Contraception, is in its 16th edition with over one million books circulated to health care providers. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, The Sun Magazine, Ms. Magazine, The Forward, NBC News THINK, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and other publications.

Last month, we got together for a delightful and engaging Zoom conversation about the universal themes in her story, the craft challenges she faced while writing it, and her path to publication.

Michèle Dawson Haber: Congratulations, Mimi, on the publication of this incredible memoir. As I’ve steeped myself in your story, I found so many pathways in (pun intended!). You could have just written a straight up account of your adventure and that would have been gripping enough. But instead, you’ve done so much more, and these are the parts I’d like to explore further with you.

Let’s begin at the starting point: your family, what you call your map of origin. You come from people who have surmounted very difficult challenges to survive and thrive. At what point did you realize that your origins might have something to do with how you ended up on a Mt. Everest expedition fighting for survival, of yourself and others?

Mimi Zieman: Honestly, it wasn’t until writing the book. I always wanted to tell this incredible adventure story that I was a part of, but I never intended to write about my family. When I started to write, stories about my family poured onto the page. It was only then that I realized the story I wanted to tell wasn’t just about the adventure, but how and why I ended up on Everest as a twenty-five-year-old medical school student from the Bronx, raised as a New York City girl.

MDH: Can you talk a little bit about how your father’s story of survival was the backdrop of your own story?

MZ: I have a scene in the book when I hear my father’s story for the first time at six years old. I remember feeling shock and helplessness, and sort of losing trust in the world. It impacted me enormously. His story is very tragic. He was born in Latvia. In 1941, while he was fighting with local anti-German resistance forces, Nazi collaborators took his parents and siblings along with the other Jewish occupants of their small Jewish shtetl and shot them in the forest. He didn’t learn about their fate until after the war. My father had a harrowing journey of survival that included being a slave laborer in Siberia and later impersonating a Polish citizen to join their resistance. After moving to America with my mother, he became a psychotherapist and used his experiences to help others overcome their traumatic pasts. I wanted my book to be part of the literature of children of Holocaust survivors.

I grew up in a family of immigrants—my grandmother, who I write a lot about, fled Germany in 1933. She and my parents had all been displaced and learned how to adapt and survive. Their experiences made me feel like whatever I was facing was insignificant. I didn’t feel like I could ask them for help since they were busy building new lives. I felt on my own from a young age and I think that forced me to find my own path and be independent. What I learned as a child of immigrants is to think of opportunities that came my way as real possibilities. I heard this described recently by another child of immigrants as a mindset of saying “yes.”

My father and his family were persecuted, had no choice in their lot, and he survived. Because of my family, I had choices. My father’s story was haunting but in no way a parallel. It influenced me to want to live fully.

MDH: At every turn in your story, the reader is aware of the unlikeliness of what they’re reading. First there is the premise of a New York-raised Jewish woman with no family legacy of athleticism headed toward a comfortable and fulfilling life as an OB/GYN volunteering  to be the supporting doctor on an Everest team in Tibet while still a medical student. Then there is the attempt itself: a new route on the most dangerous side of the mountain with no supplemental oxygen, porter support, or chance of rescue. And there are more examples, such as why someone would pack their tap shoes for an expedition on the tallest mountain in the world. To me the essence of your story is about stepping off the path of expectation and convention. Can you explain how you came to embrace this life of uncertainty and nonconformity and what it’s given you?

MZ: Thank you for totally getting my story! Yes, I started stepping off the path and thinking about what I wanted in life at an early age. One of the early titles of my book was “Unguided,” because I felt unguided in my family, and we were unguided on the mountain. All I thought about during my teen years was not conforming. I was a very curious person, so if something attracted me and really touched my heart, I just dove in. For example, I saw the play, A Chorus Line and decided I wanted to be a Broadway dancer. I worked really hard for several years thinking I might achieve that dream, but then gave it up. I think that made me not give up things as quickly afterwards. Once I found the mountains, that became my passion.

Author Photo of Mimi Zieman

One of the metaphors I use in the book is thinking about my path to Everest as a dashed line on a hiking trail map. Another way to think about it is veering off the solid line of life onto a dashed line. I describe the spaces between the lines in a dash as moments where I paused to figure out which way to go, like suspended breaths full of uncertainty, but also of hope.

MDH: Before reading your book, I would never have guessed that any connection could be made between Judaism and mountaineering. There are two instances where you find yourself in remote and difficult environments at the start of the Passover holiday. What discoveries did you make on the mountain about these two facets of your identity?

MZ: That’s part of why I wanted to write the book—I’m not aware of other Jewish mountaineering stories or many adventure stories. I was raised in a modern Orthodox community and was steeped in Jewish learning, although at home my family was not observant. There are connections made in Judaism between spirituality and nature, a concept Rabbi Nachman called hitbodedut, where isolation in nature brings one closer to God. When I first went to the Himalayas to trek on my own at twenty-two, I looked up one night and saw the full moon and realized it was Passover. I felt connected to my ancestors who were wanderers in the desert and steeped in my origins, but also hopeful and curious about the part of my life that wasn’t following a Jewish path—one that was open to the whole world.

The second Passover in the book—when I spontaneously led a Seder for my Everest team—I was in the mountains feeling unlikely, and connecting to my Judaism in that moment gave me strength and grounded me. At that point I realized that Judaism wasn’t putting me in a box, which is how I’d thought of it previously, rather it was helping me connect to myself as a whole person, which is exactly the feeling that being in the mountains provides me. Another connection I found on the mountain was practicing medicine as a part of the Jewish concept of Tikun Olam or healing the world.

“One of the metaphors I use in the book is thinking about my path to Everest as a dashed line on a hiking trail map.” — Mimi Zieman

MDH: I loved this quote from the book about that moment: “Once again, in Basecamp, I was immersed in freedom within nature, but also a fear of the unknown. Perhaps part of my birthright was to wander. Was I always to feel the most freedom or most like myself in places that tested my limits and abilities in ways that were rarely tested in my regular life?”

MZ: Yes, and I think what I realized writing this book was that when we put ourselves in situations of vulnerability like that, we connect with those deepest truest parts of ourselves, which is what I think we all want to do. And so that was part of why I wrote the story—to talk about the fears that hold us back.

MDH: That reminds me of another quote that I love. You wrote, “It would be a long time before I’d understand everything we’d been through on that glacier, that I’d experienced the greatest emptiness and the greatest strength there. Now I realize that living and loving while knowing all could be lost is the essence of the greatest aliveness.” Do you hope that your book will resonate for those who have more ordinarily derived fears? What can your extraordinary story of personal challenge provide to the average reader living a safe and predictable life?

MZ: I purposely refer to myself as an ordinary person given an extraordinary opportunity. So those are the people I hope can relate to my character and know that although they may not be interested in doing what I did, they have fears in their everyday life that they can take on. For example, fear about quitting a job or leaving a relationship. We have choices in our lives that involve risk and fear, and often they involve feelings of not being good enough. I write about these fears throughout most of my journey, but the act of battling those fears helped me grow. I think that we all share that potential.

MDH: Dance is another one of your pathways and you’ve put dance into your title and cover. For me dance conjures up feelings of freedom, abandon, creativity, and expression. I’d love to hear more about the ways in which dance was a literal and symbolic touchpoint in your story.

MZ: Yes, that’s exactly what dance represents. When I discovered dance as a young teen,  I wanted to revel in, and hold on to, the freedom and abandon. That’s why I thread dance through the entire story since it aligns with the freedom I’m searching for throughout the book. The climbers were expressing themselves through climbing, and the cover photo captures a moment when I expressed myself by dancing.

MDH: Do you still hike and dance?

MZ: Yes. I still tap dance and mountains are still my favorite place in the world.

MDH: I’m interested in your path to publication. Is it a given that someone who accomplishes a feat such as you did will have no trouble finding an agent and publisher?

MZ: Not at all. I sent out query letters for about six months with little traction. I landed my agent, Erin Clyburn from Howland Literary, after a live pitch at the Atlanta Writers Conference. She submitted to the big five publishers with no offers and submitted to Falcon because she had a client who’d published with them before. Falcon accepted the book right away.

MDH: You state in your epilogue that you always intended to write about your experience, but it took you thirty-one years to get to it. Can you talk about the pros and cons of letting one’s story simmer for this length of time?

MZ: I think the story I wrote is very different from what I would have written at 25—it wouldn’t have included all the things we’ve just talked about. It’s valuable to give oneself patience for the story to emerge. Until I studied the craft of writing, I didn’t realize how much the process of writing itself is important to discovering the elements of the story.

MDH: I found the detail and description riveting and evocative. I was amazed that more than thirty years after the fact you could provide the reader with such an immersive experience. Can you tell us how you accomplished this and whether it was difficult?

MZ: Thank you for saying that. I had also dreamed of being a writer when young, so I kept detailed journals, and relied on them plus letters that I wrote, some that I didn’t mail, and ones I received.

MDH: What about the connection between journaling and memory? Were the journals enough to bring you back into the moments you write about, or did you have to supplement some of those memories with research and invention?

MZ: That’s such a good question. Memoir is part of creative nonfiction. When you’re writing a scene, you’re recreating a moment, and it must be true but may not be 100% accurate. You’re embellishing it in some way through your imagination and imperfect memory. That’s unavoidable—none of us goes through life with a tape recorder. Staring at my journal entries connected me to the person I was in that moment. There were details like addresses of people I’d met and tangible things like pressed flowers and receipts hidden in pages, which helped.

MDH: I’m interested in whether you wrestled with structure at all in writing this book, particularly the challenge of backstory. Although much of the memoir takes place during your early twenties, you often bring the reader to much earlier periods. You did it so seamlessly most of the time I didn’t notice what you were doing until the moment had passed and I was back in the narrative present. Did you always know what the structure would be, or did it evolve as you wrote?

MZ: That is so heartening to hear! The structure was incredibly challenging. I probably changed it a thousand different ways. I worried so much about backstory and that people would not be interested in my family. I got a lot of conflicting advice, for example, I was warned to not go chronological and then by someone else to not do anything wonky with the timeline—keep it chronological. A lot of sweat and tears went into structure.

MDH: Are there any adventure memoirs that have inspired you?

MZ: Before I went hiking alone in Nepal, I was swept away by expedition stories. I had no idea then that I would end up on an expedition myself. One book, Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna is a best seller to this day. It’s the story of the first successful climb of a mountain above 8000 feet. What stayed with me from that story was his account of the severe frostbite and the need for the doctor to do amputations in the field. That haunted me on Everest when I had to care for severe frostbite.

The other book was Arlene Blum’s Annapurna: A Woman’s Place about an all-female ascent of the same mountain in 1978. It was such a feminist story, and I was so inspired by these women who wanted to prove that they could do what the men did. And then to have Arlene Blum endorse my book was just such a wonderful, full-circle sort of moment. It was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild that inspired me to consider writing my story after such a long time.

MDH: Much of your life is dedicated to the health and empowerment of women. How did your Everest experience prepare the ground for what you do today? Were you aware at twenty-five that what you were doing might inspire future women to take risks, to lean into their strengths, and to forge paths normally reserved for men?

MZ: I wasn’t aware of that at all, but being the only woman on the mountain, I was committed to represent my gender well. I was motivated to not look weak and to try to keep up. I knew I wanted to go to medical school and become an OB/GYN after a bad experience I had as a teenager with a gynecologist. I could never predict I’d end up in a state like Georgia that does not respect women’s health care. I began doing things like lobbying in the legislature and speaking at community events.

Today my advocacy work for reproductive rights, the rights of patients—especially women—motivates me every day. After I handed in my manuscript I thought, what’s next? Maybe I’ll never write another thing. But a month later, the Supreme Court Dobbs decision came out, and a week after that I had the idea to write a play. I called it the Post-Roe Monologues and it elevates women’s stories to promote compassion for women going through abortion, miscarriage, adoption, and other big life and parenting choices.

MDH: It’s all such good work, I’m grateful to you for it. I know many are.

MZ: Thank you, Michèle. I’m very aware of my family’s influence on my advocacy work. My father, in addition to being a psychotherapist, worked actively for civil rights and peace in Israel, with rights and security for all involved. And the fact that I’m so passionate about the rights of women relates to my strong mother and grandmother, both single mothers and both models of independence and persistence.

 MDH: It all comes full circle to our origins, doesn’t it? Thank you, Mimi, for writing this book about your adventures on Everest and how you cleared your own path from unlikely and uncertain to confidence and determination. I look forward to reading about your next adventure! 

Meet the Contributor

Headshot of writer Michele Dawson HuberMichèle Dawson Haber is a Canadian writer, potter, and union advocate. She lives in Toronto and is working on a memoir about family secrets, identity, and step-adoption. Her writing has appeared in Oldster Magazine, The Brevity Blog,, and in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. You can find her at


Share a Comment