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Carla Perez Read by Karla Gallardo

Carla Perez climbs the tallest mountains on Earth without the help of bottled oxygen. Her passion and determination teach her to appreciate not just the views from the top, but the whole journey.

Get to Know Karla Gallardo

Get to know Karla Gallardo! Karla narrated the story of Ecuadorian mountaineer and mountain guide, Carla Perez. Karla is also the CEO and founder of the sustainably crafted apparel and accessories shop, Cuyana. Karla talks about growing up in Ecuador, her mission for Cuyana, and she also shares with us her talent for organizing!

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Deborah Goldstein with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Apryl Lee and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Karla Gallardo. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers are Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Deep in the Karakoram mountain range of Pakistan, Carla Perez and her climbing team were almost at the top of K2, the most formidable mountain in the world, with steep terrain and unpredictable weather.

The past three weeks had been a very challenging climb. The higher they got, the harder it was to breathe, and Carla was determined to get to the top without using bottled oxygen. She and her team spent many nights adjusting to the altitude with their tents anchored to tiny ledges on the mountainside. Even after a huge snowstorm blew in and almost every climber up ahead turned back, Carla and her team kept going.

Now that they were at the highest camp, just 650 meters from the peak, they were staring down their toughest challenge yet — K2’s infamous Bottleneck, a treacherous path right below a massive block of glacial ice. 

Carla and her team had worked towards this for months, years, really their whole lives. 

But would they make it?

I’m Karla Gallardo. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  

On this episode, Carla Perez, an Ecuadorian mountaineer who climbed to the top of the world and inspires others to do the same.

Carla was born in 1982 in Ecuador, South America. She grew up in a family of adventurers. Her father, Santiago, especially loved paragliding, hiking, and climbing in the mountains that surrounded their historic city of Quito.

When Carla was 4, her father brought her along on a hike to the top of Pasochoa, a dormant volcano near their home. The black rock of the volcano crunched underfoot as they followed a dazzling trail lined with golden grass. Carla fell in love with the bright yellow and orange walking flowers called chuquiragua that speckled the terrain. She sipped in the cool, misty air and imagined all kinds of magical creatures living up here. As they got to the top, she felt like the sky was stretching in a thousand directions.

“When can we climb again?” she asked her dad as soon as they returned. Carla’s spirit of adventure had been awakened. “I want to go even higher!”

At 14, Carla joined a mountaineering club and learned different techniques for climbing high peaks. She practiced using ropes, harnesses and crampons; measuring her steps carefully and planning out alternate routes. Then, she got to live in France and discovered a whole new way of climbing in the Alps — their steep vertical stretches daunting and energizing her. 

By the time she was 16, Carla scaled Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest point. That same year, after being inspired by the first Ecuadorian to summit Mt. Everest, the world’s highest mountain, Carla vowed that one day, she would, too.

Carla’s path to Everest was long though, and took a lot of turns. First, she went to a university near the French Alps to study geology and geochemistry. She wanted to know everything about how these craggy peaks formed and all the different ways the earth shifted and evolved. 

While she was fascinated by her courses and loved studying about the earth, she felt disconnected being inside. She needed to experience nature and all of its wonders. So, she set out again. 

For the next five years, Carla dedicated herself to climbing, tackling steeper and more challenging treks. She didn’t always make it to the top. Sometimes, she got sick because she didn’t hydrate or eat well during the climb. Sometimes, her equipment just wasn’t right for the task. But each time she set out, she was intentional and curious. Her goals were to keep daring herself to go further and to always learn from her mistakes. And soon, she stood out as one of few women in the world of extreme mountaineering — setting records for climbing some of the tallest peaks in the world and becoming the first Latin American woman to do so. 

In 2013, Carla felt like she was finally ready to take on Mount Everest. Not only did she plan to climb Everest’s five-and-a-half vertical miles, she was going to do it without the use of bottled oxygen.

Rebels, this is definitely a skill that takes many years to learn and is not for everybody. See, at extreme altitudes, the air gets frigid and thin making it hard for climbers to breathe. Most trekkers have to use a mask attached to a small oxygen canister to help them make it to the top. 

Carla knew climbing without that canister of oxygen was very risky, but to her, the challenge was worth it. She wanted to face Mt. Everest relying only on herself.  

Carla started her ascent, marveling at the stunning snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan mountains against the deep blue sky. She was calm and concentrated, treasuring each step. 

But once she got past 8,000 meters, her fingers started going numb. She couldn’t stop shivering. Her body felt exhausted and achy as she fought off this bone-deep chill. Carla knew if she continued on, she risked frostbite or worse. Even though she was just 250 meters from the summit, she felt like she had to turn around.

Once she got back down, she was devastated. She knew she’d made the right choice to stay safe, but she couldn’t help being disappointed. She wondered if maybe she wasn’t strong enough to climb Everest after all.

After taking some time to recover physically and refocus, Carla decided she had to try again. She went back to training — building her endurance and strength by hiking uphill with backpacks that sometimes weighed half her body weight. She planned some shorter, but still daunting treks — climbing Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain, and Broad Peak the twelfth highest, both without the aid of oxygen. 

Perhaps most importantly, she worked with a sports psychologist to strengthen the muscles of her mind. Climbing was more than just how physically strong she was. It was about honoring her body’s strengths and limitations; respecting nature and all of its amazing surprises; and listening to the voice inside her, guiding and protecting her.

​​In 2016, Carla felt ready to go back and try Mt. Everest again. She was excited to see how much she had grown and how the mountain would feel now. She scaled deep crevasses and navigated through a maze of icefall. She checked in with her breath and her body, knowing she might have to turn back at any moment. And yet, she pressed on. Rainbow colored prayer flags left behind by others fluttered in the wind, offering peace and good luck. 

And then, after 17 years of dreaming, training, and pushing herself to get here, Carla made it to the summit! She was one of eight women and the first South American woman to ever achieve this without supplemental oxygen. It was definitely the most difficult thing she had ever done. Standing tall, Carla realized she was literally on top of the world!

But of course, that’s not where the story ends.

Three years later, Carla embarked on K2 — the second highest, yet most challenging mountain to climb worldwide. Carla was in awe of this natural wonder, drizzled with snow, its peak higher than the clouds. Not even birds could fly as high as K2. 

As Carla and her team ascended, people kept telling them about snow and dangerous conditions up ahead. 

“We can do this,” Carla thought. But, as she and her team kept going, they saw an ominous blanket of snow blowing overhead, and fierce winds gusting at the peak. Carla decided she and her team would rest where they were for a week so the storm could pass. Then, they’d go for the summit.

And this is where we began, Rebels. The snowstorm was over. The entire mountain glowed, wrapping Carla and her team in brilliant light. And right ahead of them was the Bottleneck serac — a towering block of ice taller than a football field that could crack without warning, and crash down on them.

“We can do this.” Carla repeated. She focused on one step, one breath at a time — digging the spikes on her mountaineering boots firmly into the snow. She gripped the rope attached to her harness and pulled up, up, up. Sometimes the path was so steep, she was practically crawling.

It took six hours, but she and the team made it through the Bottleneck serac.

And now, the wild winds they had seen before had actually cleared the trail! They were 200 meters from the summit, and it felt like the mountain was receiving them with open arms!

 As Carla trekked those last meters up the narrow spine of the mountain to the top, she sensed a deep connection to the mountain and all the women mountaineers who had come before her. And as she stood at the top and took in a full breath, Carla Perez became the first woman from the Americas to summit K2 without supplemental oxygen and the first woman to summit both Mount Everest and K2 in the same year!

 Carla fell to her knees, full of joy and gratitude. In her red snow coat, she was a blazing, bright figure above the clouds. The snow glittered all around her, and she felt like she could almost touch the sun.

To this day, Carla inspires people all over the world. Even when she has to turn around and start over, she never compromises on her dreams. As a guide, she shares her love of the mountains with others and helps people reach new heights. She also works hard to ensure that people of all backgrounds and abilities can have access to outdoor adventures. She believes these incredible mountains can teach every human about the beauty and mystery of life.

Rebels, you don’t have to climb actual mountains to find this kind of thrill and wonder. When you’re faced with a challenge, remember Carla’s rebel spirit. Learn from your missteps, don’t be afraid to start over, and enjoy the journey. If you push just a little further and trust in yourself, you’ll be amazed at how high you can climb!