In the Shadow of the Mountain – A Memoir of Courage
The 25 years since Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air have seen whole shelves of books from the high altitude ‘death zone’ where there is little oxygen and a lot of peril. Sadly, there is a deep sameness to many Mount Everest stories: Wealthy white men take centre stage, Tibetan and Nepali Sherpas labour in the background to keep everyone alive, and women are often reduced to crackling voices on the base camp radio.
In the Shadow of the Mountain turns all that on its ear.
When we first meet Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, she is 90 per cent of the way up Everest, aka Chomolungma (literally “goddess mother of the world”). Frozen and terrified, she tries to concentrate on ropes and ladders, with thoughts of her recently deceased mum vying for her attention. A monster storm slams into her climbing party.
“Maybe Everest really is my glorified death wish. Maybe what I’ve been chasing is a way to go out on top. Literally. Why did I expect Chomolungma to save me? After all, she was not the first mother to let me down.”
Vasquez-Lavado flashes back to her Peruvian childhood, and oddly, considering the high drama in the Himalaya, that’s when the story becomes difficult to stop reading.
Born and raised in Lima in the 1980s, she grew up in terror that Shining Path guerillas would attack. In terror that her horrible dad would throw yet another violent tantrum. In terror that their family’s trusted servant would sexually abuse the young Vasquez-Lavado, as he did repeatedly for five years. In terror that she was doomed in the afterlife because she was a sinful participant in this abuse.
Vasquez-Lavado details the child’s perspective and the roots of her trauma with extraordinary clarity.
Seven summits history maker, but that’s almost beside the point
In the Shadow of the Mountain continues to jump back and forth between formative scenes from Vasquez-Lavado’s life, and the immediate lead-up to her predicament on Everest. One of the many surprises in this book is that in revisiting her life’s peaks and valleys, she barely mentions her mountaineering feats. Vasquez-Lavado is the world’s first openly lesbian climber to complete the seven summits, but that’s not the story she is choosing to tell.
The childhood trauma never truly heals. By the time the author is in her 20s, she is superficially living the dream. Scholarships got her to the Unites States, and hard work gets her established in the early tech days in San Francisco. But while she is finding herself in business and society, she is losing herself: becoming alcoholic, workaholic and sexaholic. She commits serious excesses within her otherwise supportive Latina LGBTQ+ circle. It’s not lurid, the details are never gratuitous, but a life out of control makes for uncomfortable reading.
So the tension in the story is not about her plummeting into a crevasse, so much as it is watching her thrash through unhealed trauma. Vasquez-Lavado runs in dangerous conflict with ordinary life, but finds peace in dicey alpine situations. With her history, it’s no wonder that she has deep anxiety in the company of men. That does not make her forays into the macho preserve of high-altitude climbing any easier to read.
She returns to Peru and has an ayahuasca (a plant-based psychedelic) experience in which her childhood self guides her to seek healing in the mountains. That takes her to Nepal, and that in turn leads her to get involved with a group of young women who were sold into brothels as girls.
“We are daughters, sisters, friends. We are Mexican, Peruvian, Indigenous, Colombian, Nepali, Indian, Hindi, Buddhist, Catholic, Atheist. Young, old, queer, straight, nonbinary.“
She guides these young women on a hike to Everest base camp. They tell their own stories during the trek. Her charitable group is called ‘Courageous Girls’, and if the ones we meet are typical, the name is an understatement.
Time with the young women energizes Vasquez-Lavado, but it also makes her late to join the climbing party. She rocks into Everest Base Camp well behind schedule: “Not only am I late and the only woman, but I’m the only vegetarian. A lesbian vegetarian allergic to gluten—the ultimate cliché pain in the ass. I almost can’t stand myself, but I’m too hungry to dwell on it.”
And so, at last, the final summit bid, in all its grim glory unfolds. As therapies for trauma go, mountaineering must be one of the more risky options. Vasquez-Lavado has survived to write the book, so no plot spoilers here. She is an outstanding climber, beyond question. But given the addictions and trauma that mark her story, sadly, it may be premature to declare a happy ending.
In the Shadow of the Mountain – A Memoir of Courage, Cloth $36.99, Henry Holt & Co. 320 pages.
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