Gay hiking

Pioneering gay mountaineer Silvia Vasquez-Lavado talks about hiking as healing

“I’m from the Andes, I’ve never been a hiker,” says Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, the first gay woman to conquer the famous Seven Summits.

But an ayahuasca-fueled journey in his difficult childhood with his mother and father in the early 2000s had him contemplating mountains. Shortly after that and after an outing to Sports Basement for climbing gear in 2005, she began the journey that would take her to the highest peak on each of the seven continents – an adventure that culminated in 2018 with her glorious ascent at the top of Denali in North America. It was there that Vasquez-Lavado claimed the honor of being the first gay woman to take on the arduous challenge. But it was never meant to be a “first” for her.

Over the years, Vasquez-Lavado has faced myriad obstacles atop some of the world’s most towering peaks. There are universal obstacles like logistics, freezing temperatures and altitude sickness. And then there’s being a woman in a male-dominated vocation – and a gay vocation to boot.

A survivor of sexual abuse who was on the road to self-destruction (she’s been sober for more than two years), Vasquez-Lavado turned to hiking for healing. Eventually, it became a channel for her to raise awareness among survivors of sexual abuse. Now its reach is about to expand. While in lockdown, the ever-persevering Vasquez-Lavado wrote her memoir, which should already be turned into a big movie starring Selena Gomez.

“I fled Peru to come to the United States to start a better life. I got a scholarship. I was literally struggling in my twenties with the trauma [of abuse], with memories. I became a really addictive alcoholic, says Vasquez-Lavado.

At that time, she underwent the ayahuasca session, where not only did she imagine mountains, but she saw herself as a little girl at the time she had suffered the abuse, which she says was s has been produced over the years. It was the first time she had connected with the little girl she had been since childhood.

The vision gave Vasquez-Lavado the inspiration to climb the most renowned mountain in the world – Everest.

“What’s that thing with the mountains?” she says it was the thought she couldn’t shake when she returned home to her adopted hometown of San Francisco. “I put my brain Virgin [to work] and I’m like, Well, why don’t I take my girlfriend up a little mountain, walk up a mountain?

But Vasquez-Lavado did not want to settle for a Small mountain, instead she thought: “If I have to endure this enormous pain, let me walk to the highest mountain in the world.“It was very logical,” she insists. “I’m like, Everest base camp. Perfect. Let me do that! This was the start of this journey.

Vasquez-Lavado describes his previous life as a “difficult experience”. But then she climbed the Kala Patthar mountain at the foot of Everest and saw the sunrise over the towering vistas.

“I just said, ‘Everest, you gave me my life back. You’re opening up something I’ve never felt before,'” Vasquez-Lavado says. Then she made a wish.

She began tackling all seven summits, starting with Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2005. She climbed Mount Elbrus in Russia in 2006 and attempted Denali in 2012 until extreme weather forced her to turn back path. Throughout her troubles, Vasquez-Lavado has come up against sexism and homophobia, but sometimes Mother Nature intervened.

“I’ve been with expedition buddies who haven’t been very forthcoming. Even when I got to Everest, I was the only woman on an expedition with seven men. To me, I’m like, Oh my God. Here it is, the climax of my dream, and I am now with very [heavy] testosterone.

“In seven there was a homophobic couple that had to be open and accepting and pretending. But they were the first to go. They got sick and, boom, the mountain got a little cleansed of their sin.

But she also met climbers who surprised her. Brian, a seemingly alpha-male rugby player from New Zealand, opened up to her about his gay son. He cried and remains one of her best friends to this day, she said.

Another turning point for Vasquez-Lavado came in 2013 when she completed Mount Aconcagua in Argentina amid personal turmoil.

“I had just lost my mother; I had just divorced. I was really struggling. I wanted to kick a rock’s ass and instead the mountain kicked my ass.

“I had that voice again that said, ‘You have to keep going…You’re going to bring survivors of sexual violence from Nepal and San Francisco to the foot of Everest,'” she said. It was the inspiration for her organization Courageous Girls. Its mission is to “heal, honor and empower girls and young women,” its website states.

In the years between her decision in 2013 to take survivors on a trip and her culminating ascent on Denali in 2018, she climbed Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica.

Ever since the world largely began sheltering in place, Vasquez-Lavado has continued to imbue his life with adventure. At her home in San Francisco, she works out “Everesting” on her bike, a challenge in which riders choose any hill and repeat it until they reach 8,848 meters or around 29,032 feet – the height of Everest. But writing his memoirs was also a new adventure for the accomplished mountaineer. She says she’s honored to have Gomez portray her onscreen.

“History is a little deeper than just being gay…. It is a deeper journey. It started with my own sense of belonging, my own sense of acceptance. [I questioned] even though I’m worthy enough to live just because I was a survivor. There were many parallels [with Gomez]says Vasquez-Lavado of the actress, who suffers from lupus and underwent a life-saving kidney transplant in 2017.

“What I really appreciated about her was her own vulnerability, her own openness,” says Vasquez-Lavado.

Likewise, Gomez is excited to don Vasquez-Lavado’s hiking boots.

“Silvia is a warrior. I am in awe of her extraordinary strength and courage,” Gomez said the lawyer. “Sharing a very dark part of one’s life in order to empower and heal other women in such a beautiful way is the epitome of selflessness.”