No Everest, not this spring. Carla Pérez’s 2020 season has just changed 180 degrees, as have all of ours.
A mountain guide from Ecuador, Carla Pérez Ruales, 37, who last summer climbed K2 and has done Everest without supplemental oxygen, had planned to take a client on Everest. Then the coronavirus pandemic shut the trip down.
She has climbed Everest twice, the first time in 2016. Pérez and Melissa Arnot Reid summited May 23, both without oxygen. Before that day, only six women had climbed it in that mode.
“We summit the same day,” Pérez says. “We start together and it was amazing, so nice, a crazy thing that we summit the same day. It was magical.”
At the time, Arnot Reid, who had been preparing for seven years, told Rock and Ice, “I’m typically not a very emotional person, but I cried on the summit and at Base Camp. I couldn’t believe I actually did it.”
Today Pérez is trying to be constructive amid the global pause. The Everest closure means she is resting some overuse injuries, such as to her knees. The pace she maintained in 2019 was almost unimaginable.
“I did a lot last year,” she acknowledges.
Her calendar in 2019 included (get ready):
Two times guiding Aconcagua, in January and February; guiding Everest during April-May, then spending June into early August on K2, with an Eddie Bauer group that waited out weather and caught a window. She and Adrian Ballinger summited without oxygen, with Esteban Mena as filmmaker, and two friends from Nepal, Gelje Pemba Sherpa and Palden Namgye Sherpa. (All were sponsored, none guiding: “We were all guides, but climbing as friends for fun,” she says.)
She guided on Kilimanjaro in September-October, and in November took guides’ courses in Ecuador: climbing Ilinizas, Chimborazo, Carihuairazo, Pichinchas and Cayambe.
The Kilimanjaro trip was with a friend who was injured and had dreamed of climbing Kilimanjaro using a handbike. Sebastian Carrasco, an international mountain guide who broke his spine in a fall four years ago and now uses a wheelchair, had wanted to climb, via handbike.
She says: “It was an amazing team effort. He wanted to demonstrate that he can do a lot by himself. Finally we realized that he couldn’t do all of that, and we helped him. Everyone was very motivated to help him. It was a really nice thing to see all the people working together.” The team was about a dozen people. Her job was to fix the ropes he would use on the steepest sections.
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She has now completed all her aspirant courses and exams. If she completes all her guide exams, she can finish in two years, an accelerated process from before. For the past 10 years she has wanted to take the courses but was hindered by expenses, and only began the process in 2017 upon receiving help. “They are really expensive. Now I am supported by Eddie Bauer, and they are paying my courses for me. Now is much better. I can go.”
Only one other woman in all of Latin America is a guide. That is her friend Juliana Garcia, who like her is from Quito.
Carla started climbing at age 14, through a mountaineering club, and the two climbed together starting when she was 16 and Juliana was 15. Pérez says that Garcia as a woman in the South American mountaineering world was not given a fair opportunity to become a guide until Ecuador became part of the IFMGA and European course leaders visited and conducted the exams.
Pérez says, “Now we are guiding together … We are trying to do some expeditions of just guiding by us. People in Ecuador sometimes prefer to go with men, because sometimes they feel we cannot do everything, but we are sure we can.”
Pérez guides for Alpenglow, Garcia for Mountain Madness.
Melissa Arnot Reid of Winthrop, Washington, emails this note on her experience of Pérez: “Carla is a special person—she has a calm and optimistic drive. She is pragmatic but positive and seems to lack that brooding side that so many high-altitude climbers possess. She knows the formula—one tiny step forward is better than standing still.” Those steps, she says, will lead to “incredible places.”
Ballinger emails from his own shut-down status in Tahoe City, California: “Carla has this wild quiet strength, built I think on determination. When she has a goal she pours everything into it. On K2 Carla ended up getting the same parasitic bug I’d had early on the trip, but she got taken down during our final acclimatization rotation. An approaching storm forced us to go for the summit with no rest and Carla still sick…[S]he pushed through nausea, vomiting and more to stand on top.
“One more thing—she is the incredibly rare mix of talented technical climber-alpinist (leads hard mixed, rock and ice terrain) and high altitude ability (suffers as good as anyone up high). This means she is one of a tiny group able to attempt things like unclimbed routes on 8K peaks. I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
Rock and Ice talked to Pérez in her home in Quito. She spoke in fluent English, in cheerful, lilting tones.
Q&A with Carla Pérez
What other issues may have occurred for you in becoming a guide?
Here when one woman makes her dream real, then you become a little bit, let’s say, famous, and then it’s like most of the women [here], they just want to be the only one. … The thing with Juliana is we can be good mountain guides and not the only mountain guides. We want to work together.
Would these be women’s expeditions?
For women and men. For everyone. But no men guiding. No men taking decisions. Just us. Not because we don’t like men or something like that. I guide a lot with my boyfriend [Esteban Mena] and friends but a step that we need to do in South America is to show that we [women] can take together all our skills and our knowledge, and we don’t need always to be afraid of trying something new and wait for the man to be a leader. Because in South America when we grow up, all people—your parents and the school, everyone—teaches you that you always need a man to lead things, or if you have to do adventure things or things that take a lot of care, you need a strong man. I think it’s a big step for us to try to have a lot of responsibility and not need men always there making decisions.
Do you see other young women coming up in the ranks?
One thing that is amazing here in Ecuador, actually, in the year 2020 the school ESGUIM [Ecuadorian School of Mountain Guides, an arm of the IFMGA] opened a new program to prepare mountain guides. … Last 30 years there were zero women or one. Then Juliana, then me, then one other. This year we have seven: from Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Poland [the person lives in Ecuador], to start the formation as mountain guides ….
Now there are a lot of young women, especially Sofia Sarmiento, Daniela Calapina and Milena Luna, that want to try Everest or another 8000-meter peak, and it starts to change a lot here in Ecuador. It’s like we open a trail now for other young women to try to do. Climbing and mountaineering. Rock climbing, we always had women, but mountaineering not much. Now we start to have more and more.
How are you feeling now that your season’s plans have changed?
At the end of the year I was very tired but I took time to rest. Now I feel much, much better. I have my energy again. I think sometimes when you do a lot of things, like climbing, guiding, one thing and another, then you forget that you need to rest and enjoy resting, stay at home with the family, not stressed, not training. After a big year like that I think it’s important to rest a little bit.
Of course I am sorry and I wanted to go guide. I was supposed to go in April with a woman from Saudi Arabia .… Hopefully next year.
So now I because I’m not going to Everest I will try to pass other [guide] courses. I have three more exams. One of these is here in Ecuador in May [but] … now they are closing everything because of the virus.
What factors have helped make you successful at high altitude?
When I was 26 years old I climbed the South Face of Aconcagua. It was very hard. I almost died. I didn’t eat for seven days. I made a big mistake bringing energy gels. I didn’t try them before, and when I tried on the wall I started to have diarrhea. I lost a lot of liquids so I stopped eating them, and on the six days that we climbed I was really weak and lost almost 25 pounds. I was super weak but I finished the climbing.
Iván Vallejo [leader and mentor, from Ecuador] climbed the 14 8,000-meter peaks, [then] he did a project with a team of Ecuadorians [Perez, Mena, Joshua Jarrin and Rafael Caceres]. He started to bring us to different mountains: 7,000-meter, then 7,500, then 8,000. I summited all the mountains. I was not the strongest one. But I was learning you must be patient, be humble, slow down even if you feel that you can run. I started to understand a lot of things that can help me in the mountains.
I don’t know if I am really super strong at altitude. I think I have a high capacity to suffer. I can stay a lot of time with pain or sensation that is hard. Mentally I can deal with suffering rather than [being] strong in my body.
Personal goals, dream climbs?
Kanchenjunga. This is our personal goal for this year. I don’t know if everything will change or not.
Most people climb it in the spring. Now most of the 8,000-meter peaks have started to be really crowded. In the fall not too many people are there. For sure [going then] makes it much harder. You don’t have all the people to work together and fix ropes and all the things that you do. But we really want to enjoy the mountain, bring not much rope, fix the really steep or dangerous parts but otherwise [it will be] just ourselves. More by our means. …I’m not criticizing but I think now it is too crowded when you go to Everest or K2. It’s really hard to find a more wild mountain. We really want to enjoy the mountain, more wild and without people.
Esteban [Mena] and Cory Richards [USA]. If more friends join us, it will be amazing. We ask Adrian and Emily [Harrington] if they could join us but they say no, they want to focus on rock climbing. Two Ecuadorian friends will join us if it happens.
Anything else you would like to express?
I am really grateful to Adrian, [founder of] Alpenglow, and Eddie Bauer …. Here in South America when I ask for support, they want more … they say they want you to be bomba sexy.
Beautiful with a big butt, like an object and all that. They give more importance to that … not just in sports but in everything.
They want really nice and sexy more than a woman who really does something more than [have] the beauty. Here [there] is a long way to go for people to understand that your value is what you do and who you are and what you can bring. I think that the people support sexy Latinas [and] don’t give value for other women that are also beautiful, probably not in the way that they want but can do big things.