Carla Perez on Becoming the First Woman From the Americas to Climb Everest and K2 Without Supplemental Oxygen

Carla Perez and Pemba Gelje Sherpa
Carla Perez (right), climbing without supplemental oxygen, and Pemba Gelje Sherpa are seen on the summit of K2.Courtesy Eddie Bauer

On July 24, 2019, when Ecuadorian climber Carla Perez stood on K2’s 28,251-foot summit, she became the first woman from the Americas to climb both K2 and Everest without supplemental oxygen. Perez has achieved what only three other women in the world have done—Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, Italian Nives Meroi, and Brit Alison Hargreaves, who died on her way down from the summit of K2. A guide for Tahoe-based AlpenGlow Expeditions, Perez climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen in 2016 and summited on the same day as Melissa Arnot, from the United States, who also climbed without oxygen. Nearly 9,000 people have summited Everest, yet only seven have been women without supplemental oxygen.

This year was a difficult season on K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world. Ninety percent of the teams turned around due to record snowfall causing high avalanche danger. Perez, who was climbing with Adrian Ballinger and supported by her life partner Esteban “Topo” Mena, Palden Namgye, and Pemba Gelje Sherpa (all on oxygen), waited out the weather. The team got lucky when a wind event cleared the snow en route to the summit. “I felt like the mountain received us with open arms,” recalls Perez.

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Perez’s father introduced her to climbing when she was 4 years old. Today, she is at the top of her game and just getting started. “I have received messages from women who are grateful because they feel that my climbs broke a paradigm that marks success as being a bomb of Latin sensuality,” Perez says. “My climbs show that you can be good at something without trying to follow dogmas or social rules.”

We caught up with Perez after the climb to find out more about her achievement.

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You are the first woman from the Americas to climb both Everest and K2 with no Os. What has the response been?

It is a great honor and responsibility to be the first woman from the Americas to accomplish this. In Latin America, I have received only love and positivity from people. I feel that this kind of feat helps show others that discipline and dedication pay off and that our options are unlimited—especially for women who, in a lot of cases, were raised thinking that the only option is getting married really young and raising a family without exploring your abilities and dreams. I have received messages from women who are grateful because they feel that my climbs broke the paradigm that marks success as being a bomb of Latin sensuality. My climbs show that you can be good at something without trying to follow dogmas or social rules.

Who introduced you to mountaineering? 

My dad. When I was 4 years old, he brought me to climb an easy 14,000-foot volcano in Ecuador, and I just loved it. I fell in love with the experience and exploring this amazing playground with my sister.

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How would you compare climbing K2 with no Os to doing Everest with no Os?

Both mountains are the culmination of different aspects of mountaineering. K2 is the quintessential tough mountain in terms of hazards and technicality. Everest is simply the highest, and that means the physical aspect of climbing it without O2 defies what is possible for the human body. People who have climbed 8,000-meter peaks without O2 say that in the world there are 13 mountains of 8,000 meters and one “9,000-meter” peak—and they are right. To climb Everest without O2 was physically much harder than K2.

K2 has a higher death rate than Everest. All of the routes on K2 are much more exposed to objective hazards than Everest’s normal route on the North Side (which is the route I chose to climb in 2016). On K2 in the Karakoram, the terrain is more technical, and the weather and snow conditions are more variable than in the Himalaya. Also avalanche danger and risk is high.

Physically, the lack of oxygen, the tiredness, and the deterioration of skills was strongest on Everest. Undoubtedly, on K2 I was tired, especially because I was sick with stomach problems, but I was clear in my mind. I walked slowly, totally in control. In contrast, on the last steps before the summit of Everest, I almost couldn’t talk and felt drunk.

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What was your experience in K2’s infamous Bottleneck, the couloir at almost 27,000 feet where ice chunks fall from the serac, or ice wall, above?

Before the climb, I was horrified and doubtful if going there was a good idea. It took me some time to meditate before the trip to determine if I really wanted to assume so much risk. Once I decided to go and was committed to being under the serac, I stopped thinking about danger, death, or negative things. I just focused on the climb and enjoyed being there. Strangely, I trusted to being in the right place at the right time.

How did you train for K2?

For Everest and K2, I used the same training process that we prepared with my coach, Cesar Aulestia. This training process started with some exercises to stabilize my muscles, joints, and ligaments and with two sessions per week of strength in a gym (squats, deadlifts, abs, pull-ups, and push-ups). Also I did a lot of long, uphill hikes with a low heart rate and with a backpack that increased in weight every week. The last six weeks I started to work on building explosive power with jumps and short hill runs pulling a tire. Twice a week I ran intervals. Finally once per week, I would climb a big mountain, like 19,400-foot Cotopaxi or 21,000-foot Chimborazo, for acclimatization.

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Tell us about the Andes, the highest mountain range outside of Asia.

For me the Andes, especially in Ecuador, are the perfect place to start climbing big mountains. They’re great for glacier schools in the volcanoes with very easy access to the parks and huts. In a single week you can climb at least three volcanoes between 14,000 feet and 20,000 feet. Then you have Perú and Bolivia, countries that have dozens of beautiful 20,000-foot mountains, all of different difficulty levels. And finally you have the Chilean and Argentinean Andes with the highest mountains outside of Asia. They are the gateway to start climbing the biggest peaks in the planet.

What are your goals for your climbing career?

My next goals are to climb a difficult route and a new route on an 8,000-meter peak and to climb the five highest mountains on the planet without supplemental oxygen. Additionally I want to finish my certification as an international mountain guide. Beyond this, I also enjoy rock climbing and other climbing adventures.

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