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Pioneering Gay Climber Silvia Vasquez-Lavado on Hiking as Healing

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado

This piece first appeared in The Advocate magazine. Read it on Advocate.com here. 

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

But an ayahuasca-fueled trip to her fraught childhood with her mom and dad in the early aughts had her envisioning mountains. Soon after that and following an outing to Sports Basement for some climbing equipment 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 climb to the top of Denali in North America. It was there that Vasquez-Lavado claimed the honor of being the first out gay woman to complete the arduous challenge. But it was never about being a “first” for her.

Over the years, Vasquez-Lavado faced myriad obstacles summiting the world’s towering peaks. There are universal barriers like logistics, freezing temperatures, and altitude sickness. And then there’s being a woman in a male-dominated avocation — and a gay one at that.

A survivor of sexual abuse who was on a path 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 for survivors of sexual abuse. Now her reach is about to get wider. While in lockdown, Vasquez-Lavado, ever-persevering, has been penning her memoir, which is already slated to be made into a major motion picture starring Selena Gomez.

“I ran away from Peru to come to the States to start a better life. I got a scholarship. I was literally struggling in my 20s with the trauma [of abuse], with the memories. I became a really addictive alcoholic,” Vasquez-Lavado says.

At that point, she underwent the ayahuasca session, where she not only envisioned mountains but saw herself as a little girl at the time she had experienced the abuse, something she says occurred over years. It was the first time she’d connected with the little girl that she’d been since childhood.

The vision gave Vasquez-Lavado the inspiration to climb the world’s most renowned mountain — Everest.

“What is this thing with mountains?” she says was the thought she couldn’t shake when she arrived back home in her adopted city of San Francisco. “I put my Virgo brain [to work] and I’m like, Well, why don’t I go and take my girl to a little mountain, walk to a mountain?

But Vasquez-Lavado didn’t want to settle for a little mountain, instead she thought, “If I have to take this huge pain, let me walk to the tallest mountain in the world.” It was very logical, she insists. “I’m like, The base camp of Everest. Perfect. Let me do that! It was the start of that journey.”

Vasquez-Lavado describes her earlier life as a “struggling experience.” But then she climbed the mountain Kala Patthar at Everest’s base and saw the sunrise over the imposing vistas.

“I simply said, ‘Everest, you’ve given me my life back. You’re opening something that I’ve never felt before,’” Vasquez-Lavado says. Then she made a vow.

She began to take on the Seven Summits, beginning with Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in 2005. She ascended Russia’s Mount Elbrus in 2006 and attempted Denali in 2012 until extreme weather forced her to turn back. Throughout her travails, Vasquez-Lavado ran into sexism and homophobia, but Mother Nature sometimes intervened.

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

“Out of seven, there were a couple who were homophobes who had to be open and accepting and pretending. But they were the first ones who actually left. They got sick and, boom, the mountain was cleaning up a little bit in terms of their sin.”

But she’s also encountered climbers who’ve surprised her. Brian, an outwardly alpha-male rugby player from New Zealand, confided in her about his gay son. He cried, and remains one of her best friends to this day, she says.

Another turning point for Vasquez-Lavado occurred in 2013 when she’d completed Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua amid personal turmoil.

“I’d just lost my mom; I had just got a divorce. I was really struggling. I wanted to kick the shit out of a rock and instead, the mountain kicked the shit out of me.”

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

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado in Nepal
Vasquez-Lavado above at shrine to first Sherpa woman to summit Everest.

In the years between her 2013 decision to take survivors on a journey and her culminating climb up Denali in 2018, she summited Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, and Vinson Massif in Antarctica.

Since the world largely began sheltering in place, Vasquez-Lavado has continued to imbue her life with adventure. At home in San Francisco, she’s working toward “Everesting” on her bike, a challenge in which cyclists pick any hill and repeat climbing it until they reach 8,848 meters or around 29,032 feet — the height of Everest. But writing her memoir has also been a new adventure for the accomplished climber. She says she’s honored Gomez will be portraying her on-screen.

“The story, it’s a little bit deeper than just being gay…. It’s a deeper journey. It started with my own sense of belonging, my own sense of acceptance. [I questioned] even if am I worthy enough to live just because of having been a survivor. There were a lot of parallels [with Gomez],” Vasquez-Lavado says of the actress, who has lupus and underwent a life-saving kidney transplant in 2017.

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

Likewise, Gomez is thrilled to step into Vasquez-Lavado’s hiking boots.

“Silvia is a warrior. I’m in awe of her extraordinary strength and courage,” Gomez told The Advocate. “To share a very dark part of her life in order to empower and heal other women in such a beautiful way is the epitome of selflessness.”

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