On June 23, 2018 Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, age 43, stood on the summit of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. She was the first openly gay woman to complete the Seven Summits, a challenge to climb the highest mountain on each continent. Her first words atop the peak, captured via video, were “Nature doesn’t discriminate. Love is love.”
Vasquez-Lavado’s journey had begun 13 years prior, in August of 2005, on a healing meditation retreat with her mother in Peru. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself embracing her younger self and walking among mountains. As a child she had been sexually abused and bullied, and she wanted to heal her past self. She could have taken the vision metaphorically, but she took it literally.
“If I need to take this massive pain that has paralyzed my life to a mountain, then why don’t I walk to the tallest mountain in the world?” She said to herself. “Why don’t I go up to the base of Mount Everest in Nepal?”
Two months later, Vasquez-Lavado found herself with seven days off of work on the other side of the world. The trek to Mount Everest basecamp (17,600 feet) usually takes two weeks. She made it in four days. “Here I was, this tiny little speck, walking among these gigantic and majestic gifts of nature, and for the first time in my life, I felt seen, I felt held, I felt safe,” she said. “It was as if the mountains were telling me: ‘No one is going to hurt you again.’”
After reaching basecamp with her guides, Vasquez-Lavado climbed a nearby mountain, Kala Patthar (18,514 feet), hoping to see a shooting star. There, she broke down in tears, feeling courage and strength. In that moment, she told Mount Everest (29,029 feet) she’d come back and attempt to climb to the summit under two conditions. First, she’d come back as a mountaineer so as to not put anyone in danger. Second, she’d come back with a social cause. “I remember so vividly seeing the sun coming between [me and] Everest, the energy was so powerful,” she said. “As I looked at it, I don’t think my adult self was the one making the realization, it was my inner child.”
But her promises didn’t end there. She decided that if she was going to become a mountaineer to climb Mount Everest, she might as well try to climb all of the Seven Summits. “As a survivor, you kind of like to live in this fantasy world,” she said. “You carry so much pain, you find safety in dream worlds. You dream big because that’s the way also to stay alive.”
The next year, on December 9, 2006, Vasquez-Lavado’s partner Lori passed away. She was heartbroken. She told herself, “If you can’t tolerate this burden for yourself, at least make sure you can keep doing things to help others.” So she made yet another promise: to summit each of the seven mountains in honor of Lori, leaving her photo at the top of each peak. The same year, she climbed Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) in Tanzania and the next year she summited Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet) in Russia.
Vasquez-Lavado remarried and it wasn't until 2013 that she began thinking about climbing again. There were two catalysts. In April of that year, her mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. Three months later, she got a divorce, leaving her life in chaos. She took some time in the aftermath of the losses to do some inner healing and a message came to her clearly again: She needed to continue fulfilling her promise to climb the Seven Summits.
Next, Vasquez-Lavado picked Aconcagua (22,841 feet) in Argentina, heading to the mountain in January 2014. The night before her summit bid, a headache came on and she was overwhelmed by fear and doubt. She got scared, thinking she might not make it. Years ago, she had tried Denali and failed to make the summit. She thought, “Maybe I’m not meant to do this thing. Maybe it’s too much for me." She sobbed in her tent at 19,000 feet. Luckily, her tentmate was asleep, snoring loudly.
The next day, she summited and placed a picture of Lori at the top of the mountain. After the climb, tired and happy in her tent, she started to fall asleep when she heard a voice: “Silvia, you have to keep on this journey. You also made a social promise. You’re going to bring survivors of sexual violence from San Francisco [where she was living] and Nepal to the base of Everest so they can find the courage and strength, the same way you did.” She said she woke up shaken, worrying that she had altitude sickness. But that didn’t stop her from listening to the voice.
Vasquez-Lavado returned to San Francisco and began putting the pieces in place to launch a nonprofit to help survivors of violence heal through adventures in nature. In 2015, her high-alpine dream became a reality with the launch of Courageous Girls, whose stated mission is to heal, honor and empower young girls and women.
In the very same year, Vasquez-Lavado summited Mount Kosciuszko (7,310 feet) in Australia, Carstensz Pyramid (16,024 feet) in Indonesia and Vinson Massif (16,050 feet) in Antarctica. Through her nonprofit, she worked toward taking a group of Nepalese girls, also survivors of sexual violence, to the basecamp of Mount Everest. In order to make the trip possible, she invited a group of six American women who funded the young girls' travel in addition to paying for their own. “It was so beautiful to have these older women, most from the Bay Area, and these young women from Nepal connecting,” she said.
The next year, she arranged for the previous group of Nepalese girls to mentor a group of girls from San Francisco, and they all trekked to Everest basecamp together. The girls ended their journey there, while she continued onward, her sights set on her mission to climb all of the Seven Summits with only two peaks left on her tick list. “The second trip was even more chaotic than the first,” she said. “Not only was I bringing the young women, I also had to be ready to climb Everest.”
“I didn’t think I was going to summit that first time,” Vasquez-Lavado said. “I remember not trusting myself so much that I got this special insurance that if I didn’t make my first time, it would cover 80 percent of the expedition.” She was terrified, but pushed through her fear.
Finally, on the day of her summit bid, there was a large human traffic jam near the top. The weather started getting colder, and the guides almost turned her around. Fear flooded her again. But Vasquez-Lavado relaxed as the dawn turned to day, realizing it didn’t matter if she got turned around, she’d just come back next year.
Even with the traffic jam, she made it to the summit on May 19, 2015 at 7:12am, becoming the first Peruvian woman to do so. She cried because she’d finally been able to achieve the promise she’d made to herself. On the summit, she left photos of herself, her mom and Lori.
When she got down, she was an instant celebrity in Peru. Reporters kept asking her about her conquest of Everest, but the language didn’t resonate with Vasquez-Lavado. “I correct people when they say ‘conquer,’” she said. “Who are we to conquer? Mountains actually allow us to climb. I am so privileged to have reached heights such as these.”
Her second promise, to complete the Seven Summits for Lori, required a climb of Denali (20,310 feet), which she’d already attempted to summit twice. Before heading to Alaska a third time, on the anniversary of her Mount Everest summit, Vasquez-Lavado was cycling to work and got into a serious accident. While in the emergency room, doctors discovered a small tumor at the base of her brain stem, forcing her to undergo surgery in October of 2017. The doctors said she’d need two years to recover her physical strength.
She regained her strength in half the time the doctors told her it would, working through headaches and rebuilding her physical strength by pulling truck tires behind her. She headed to Denali in the summer of 2018. After weathering a two-week-long storm, she completed her promise to Lori. “I felt I gave everything to the mountain,” she said. “I emptied myself out.”
Standing atop her seventh summit, she spoke out: “As a gay woman, there’s never been a sense that I’m not going to make the summit because the mountain doesn’t like me as the person that I am. Mountains have been so welcoming. Who are we to judge people? Why not be more inclusive and welcoming?”
Next, Vasquez-Lavado plans on skiing to the North and South Poles with the intention of becoming the first openly gay explorer in those far-flung regions and spreading the word of inclusion. “If anything, I feel like I’m a preacher of mountains,” she said. “I’ve been so lucky to have touched so many amazing places, that it’s almost like the mountains are saying, ‘Okay, Silvia, go preach about us.’”