Those who have been more than 8,000 meters above sea level — and have returned to tell the tale — have faced an ironic situation: while sitting at the top of the world, you are dying. Atmospheric pressure drops, breathing becomes agitated, fatigue takes over, cheeks and feet go numb and skin is on the verge of freezing. To be a mountaineer is to struggle between glory and survival, always with time running against you and with a dream to die for.
Silvia Vásquez-Lavado, 48, has spent the last 20 years taking those risks. Not for fame, she says, but to free herself from her demons. When she climbed Everest in 2016 and the feat made headlines in her native Peru — where she lived until she was 18 before leaving for the United States in 1992 to study on a university scholarship — because of her status as a gay woman, she had already learned as a mantra that the highest peak on Earth was not created to be conquered, but its majesty to be embraced with humility and respect.
“It is a spirit to be honored. I consider Everest as a mother,” says Vásquez-Lavado, sitting on Cerro San Cristóbal, a panoramic viewpoint over Lima. We are 400 meters above sea level and yet the city looks tiny, a jungle of ants and miniature cars on the move. In the Himalayas, it is more than indescribable. At that height, it is impossible to look down, because there is nothing below to see. Everything is covered by clouds. There is only sound: the slapping air and the crunching of avalanches.
For the past couple of weeks, Vásquez-Lavado has been in Peru promoting the Spanish edition of her book In the Shadow of the Mountain, which she wrote during the pandemic as a therapeutic exercise. She often describes it as three books in one: an approach to mountaineering, the community she joined to climb Everest, and her personal story, which is full of self-destruction. She says her tendency to alcoholism took hold of her because of three issues: realizing, and accepting, that she liked women; the aggressiveness with which she had been treated by her father; and remembering the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a family friend when she was a child.
“The problem with many survivors is that we are like a walking time bomb. The macabre coincidence is that at some point in my life, I ended up working for a vodka company,” says Vásquez-Lavado, who on several occasions woke up in hospital after drinking herself unconscious, who crashed a bus while driving under the influence and was imprisoned for it, and whose apartment almost caught fire because she had left the stove on. When she descended from Everest, she drank liquor for two days straight. It was her way of celebrating, even if she was hurting herself.
It was then that she looked at herself in the mirror and made a promise: “Silvia, if you’re going to write this book, you’re going to have to be sober for the rest of your life.” Although she chose not to follow the 12-step method recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous, she did attend therapy sessions, including one focused on self-compassion. She is winning the battle: in July, she will have been sober for five years. “Even if you brought me a pisco sour from Mars I wouldn’t drink it [laughs]. What’s the point? What shook me up me was understanding that if you only have yourself, you can also give yourself love, and forgive yourself,” she says.
A vital episode in this healing process was her first experience of ayahuasca, that millenary plant that reveals who you are, if you have consciously prepared yourself to receive it. It was thanks to an ayahuasca-based revelation that she felt the impulse to climb. She understood that she needed to be out of breath, ascending and descending summits, to learn life’s great lessons. In 2006, she climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The following year, Elbrus in Russia. In 2014, she ascended Aconcagua in Argentina. In 2015 there were three peaks: Kosciuzko in Australia, Jaya in Indonesia, and the Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica; and in 2016, Everest.
On many occasions, she has felt death haunt her. “This is as far as I go. This is the end,” she has repeated several times. In 2017, while climbing the Acatenango volcano in Guatemala, she survived a storm. Of the expedition, six members died and two were rescued. In 2021, a few months before the publication of her book, she reached the summit of snow-capped Coropuna, in the Peruvian Andes, when her blood pressure began to drop. “My first Peruvian mountain and I’m not going to make it. It was my fault: I had not studied it enough and it sent me packing. I was angry because I was going to miss the book launch. I’ll come back as Casper [laughs],” she said to herself. Fortunately, other female mountaineers kept her warm. At altitude, when freezing temperatures start to slowly shut down your body, what you need is sugar and hugs. Silvia ate chocolates, wrapped up warm, and eventually recovered.
In 2017, on the first anniversary of her Everest summit, a brain tumor was discovered at the base of her cerebellum, after she was involved in a bicycle accident in San Francisco, where she lives. The doctors have forbidden her to climb. But after going back to ayahuasca treatments last year, she feels that several expeditions still await her. Returning to Everest is one of them.
For several years now, Silvia Vásquez-Lavado’s life has attracted the attention of Hollywood. Selena Gomez has expressed interested in playing her and bringing her story to the screen. After a couple of draft versions of a script, the mountaineer says that the project will no longer be a feature film, but more likely a streaming series, a decision that is soon to be made. In the meantime, she is looking for allies. Last week, she met with the Peruvian Minister of Women’s Affairs, Nancy Tolentino, in her office. Her desire is to hold talks in the neighborhoods of Lima about shame and empowerment. She has been affected by the cases of violence against women that fill the news on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, another of her pending missions.
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