Victim of childhood sexual assault makes history by becoming the first openly gay and Peruvian woman to have climbed the Seven Summits
CW: This article discusses sexual abuse
When life brings on its challenges, most people tend to relax or find their calm through common activities. For 46-year-old Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, she receives her sense of calm through mountain climbing. She has already achieved such incredible accomplishments, but her drive to summit mountains was propelled by heartbreak and pain.
The Peruvian native grew up in Lima during the reign of the Peruvian terrorist organization The Shining Path. At five-years-old, she experienced trauma that no child should ever have to endure; she was a victim of childhood sexual abuse by someone who was working in her family’s home. When Vasquez-Lavado became a little older, she had to confront her past traumas to move forward with her future, and came forward about her sexual abuse to her mother. Her mother was frightened for her daughter and didn’t want her to stay in Peru any longer, so she encouraged Vasquez-Lavado to leave Peru and move to the United States. It was not long after that a young and hopeful Vasquez-Lavado went to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, where she attended Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Although she tried leaving her past behind, her trauma followed wherever she went and, in her twenties, Vasquez-Lavado struggled with depression. She realized that she had to confront her past instead of trying to forget about it. Therefore, in October 2005, Vasquez-Lavado returned to Peru for the first time since she had left, and attended a meditation retreat.
She recalled how, during this retreat, she had a vision of her adult self reconnecting to her inner child, as both versions of herself walked through a valley surrounded by mountains.
“I need to find a way to free myself of this huge pain that has paralyzed me for so long, and the only way I know how to do so is to walk to the tallest mountain in the whole world,” she recalled saying to herself as her epiphany came to her. “Might as well walk up to the base of Mount Everest,” she recalled saying to herself with a chuckle.
With a goal set in mind, she did just that. Vasquez-Lavado had seven days off of work and she devoted those seven days to climbing to the base camp of Mount Everest. The climb has been estimated to take people two weeks; however, Vasquez-Lavado was able to accomplish it in only four days.
“When I first [saw] Mount Everest, I recall feeling a sense of security and safety that I had never really felt ever in my life,” she said. “For someone who has ever experienced trauma like I had, personally I felt detached from my own body and it got to the point where I barely even recognized myself. So, being on top of these mountains, it’s an unexplainable, breathtaking experience that truly rekindled the spark that I needed in my life.” It was this first trekking experience that completely changed her perspective on life and made her fall in love with mountain climbing.
The following year, in December 2006, Vasquez-Lavado faced another great loss as her partner Lori had passed away. She didn’t want to let the pain and heartbreak of losing her partner shatter her life like her past traumas had.
Therefore, she made a promise to herself and Lori to climb each of the Seven Summits in honour of her partner. Keeping her promise, that year she climbed Kilimanjaro, and the next year she climbed Mount Elbrus. At the top of every peak, she left a picture of Lori.
Remembering her experience, with a smile on her face, she said, “I don’t know why exactly I felt the way I felt walking through these incredible mountains that are a true gift of nature, but for some reason I felt safe, seen, and like someone was holding me for the first time ever in my life.”
She regained her passion for trekking and even got remarried before her life took a turn yet again. In April 2013, Vasquez-Lavado lost her mother to cancer, and three months later her and her partner filed for divorce. Vasquez-Lavado was experiencing grief, heartbreak, and pain all at the same time, and the only way she knew how to keep going and eventually heal was to keep her promise and finish climbing the Seven Summits. She followed up on her promise, and that year she settled on summiting Aconcagua in Argentina.
On top of being a mountaineer, Vasquez-Lavado is also a philanthropist. In 2014, she founded Courageous Girls, which is based in California and aims to help young women who are survivors of sexual violence by bringing them along on adventurous travels. With her non-profit group, she is dedicated to helping victims find their peace and closure through mountain climbing.
“I wanted to empower these incredible women who are survivors by helping them find their inner strength,” she said about why she founded Courageous Girls.
In November 2015, she and a group of girls from Nepal who had all been trafficked in India, hiked to the base of Mount Everest.
“With this experience I hope to provide them with, I want them to be able to accomplish something on their own that no one else is going to take it away from them,” Vasquez-Lavado said of these women’s journeys.
After completing six of the Seven Summits, Vasquez-Lavado still had one more climb to do to keep her promise to Lori: reaching the top of Denali, which she had previously attempted to summit twice. As she was about to go back to Alaska to try to make her third attempt at climbing the mountain, she found herself in a cycling accident. While in the hospital, her doctors had discovered that she had a small tumor at the base of her brain stem, and she was immediately brought into emergency surgery. The doctors gave her two years before she would be fully recovered and regain her physical strength.
However, Vasquez-Lavado was more determined than ever to regain her strength so that she could get back to the one activity that brings her the most fulfillment of all: climbing. She was able to regain her strength back in half the time the doctors told her, and, with her strength back, she headed for Denali and completed her summit, all while enduring a storm. In the summer of 2018, she officially completed her promise, leaving a picture of herself, her mom, and Lori at the top of the mountain.
“I felt I gave everything to the mountain,” she said. “I emptied myself out.”
Vasquez-Lavado’s story is incredible and inspiring, so much so that it was recently announced that her life will be turned into a biopic titled In the Shadow of the Mountain. Actress, Selena Gomez will star and play Vasquez-Lavado, and the movie will be produced and directed by Oscar winner Donna Gigliotti. The movie is set to be released in 2022.
Feature graphic by Chloë Lalonde @ihooqstudio