“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 in the early aughts had her envisioning mountains. Soon after that, 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.
Over the years, Vasquez-Lavado faced myriad obstacles in reaching that goal. There are the logistics, freezing temperatures, altitude sickness — and being a queer woman in a male-dominated avocation.
A survivor of sexual abuse who was on a path to self-destruction (she’s now sober), Vasquez-Lavado turned to hiking for healing. Eventually, it became a channel for her to raise awareness and launch her nonprofit, Courageous Girls (courageousgirls.org), which brings younger sexual assault survivors on cathartic climbs like the ones that lifted Vasquez-Lavado out of her own misery.
“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.
Then she underwent an ayahuasca session, where she not only imagined mountains but saw herself as a little girl at the time she had experienced the abuse. The vision gave Vasquez-Lavado the inspiration to climb Everest.
“What is this thing with mountains?” That 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?” Vasquez-Lavado recalls. And then she made the kind of leap that sets her apart from most people: she decided, Why not walk to the tallest mountain in the world?
She describes her earlier life as a “struggling experience.” 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 remembers. 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.
“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. I’m like, Oh, God. Here it is, the pinnacle of my dream, and I’m now with very [heavy] testosterone.”
Vasquez-Lavado also met climbers who surprised her. One, her friend Brian, an alpha-male rugby player from New Zealand, confided in her about his gay son. He cried with her, and he’s one of her best friends to this day.
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.”
She recalls, “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.’”
Vasquez-Lavado now leads those treks through Courageous Girls (she also pays it forward by supporting the education of other survivors). And now her story is about to get the big screen treatment.
“It started with my own sense of belonging, my own sense of acceptance. [I questioned] even if am I worth 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 lifesaving kidney transplant in 2017.
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 says. “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.”
This article originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue of Out Traveler, which is available on the newsstand now. It was initially titled Boots, Start Walking, and was part of our special feature on outsider travelers.