Silvia Vasquez-Lavado: From Silicon Valley to Everest: “This is how I discovered how the mountain could save me” | Technology
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“I thought, like many people, why is it necessary to walk through nature, what is there to gain, what am I going to get out of it,” says Silvia Vasquez-Lavado (Lima, Peru, 1974). A few years later, however, she was dragging two or three tires tied with a chain and 45 kilos in her backpack along paths in some hills near San Francisco, where she lives: “That’s how I trained. Walking with weight did the equivalent of height, because you put pressure on it and you have to breathe,” she adds.
What changed for Vásquez-Lavado in the years that passed between both sentences? An ayahuasca session in her native Peru, shortly before starting to work as a manager at eBay, the buying and selling platform, in 2005. It was at dawn, with her parents, for whom it was not the first session. She took the “dense, bitter liquid” and lay down. “I had no need to open my eyes. Everything she saw she could see without them. There was a sinking rainbow, a confusing pool of watercolors and reds and greens and oranges,” she writes in her memoir. In the shadow of the mountain, recently published in English and which will be released in Peru in October and will arrive in Spain (Planeta) in 2023. Vásquez-Lavado is the executive producer of a film that will star Selena Gómez.
Ayahuasca and a trip to Everest Base Camp changed Vásquez-Lavado’s life. Ayahuasca led her to listen to the girl that she was and who had been abused by a domestic employee of her family for years. “It led me to connect with the most innocent of a person. For those of us who have been through trauma, it cuts off parts of you, right now what I love is having brought that experience, this part of me that I wanted to forget was the most essential. It was like the Lego piece that I needed to reconnect and it was that innocence that leads me down this wonderful path. It was my inner little girl that saved me,” she explains.
“He wanted to take me to a place where my body could expand and move and feel free,” he writes. That place was Everest, the mother of the world. Vásquez-Lavado began his journey with the so-called “seven peaks”, the highest on each continent, culminating in Everest. She was the first gay woman to do so. She was also the first Peruvian on top of the world. “When they told me, I thought ‘no shit, hasn’t there been a lesbian a little more hardcore than you who has climbed the mountain, a predecessor?'”, she says by videoconference to EL PAÍS from her home in San Francisco .
The book contains many personal stories, but basically it talks about mountaineering and the connection with nature or “how the mountain can save us”, he says. Not just her. On his ascent of Everest in 2016, Vasquez-Lavado walked to base camp with a group of young Americans and Nepalese men who had also been abused as children. He wanted to share her journey with them, under the umbrella of the organization he now runs, Courageous Girls, after leaving Paypal in 2018.
The work is also the story of a woman recently arrived in the US from her native Peru, who seeks to make her way in the wild west of the turn of the century, San Francisco, and who becomes “addicted to work, alcohol and sex” , with two unsuccessful couples and family relationships full of silence and ambiguity. These are some of the main episodes of the book.
1. Beverly Hills Country 90210
When Vásquez-Lavado left Peru to go to university in the US, he thought that “the whole country was going to be like the famous series Beverly Hills 90210 [Sensación de vivir, en España], but I ended up in the country of the Amish, in Pennsylvania”, he explains. “I always had an affinity for mathematics and computing, I wanted to study code but my father didn’t approve it, ‘I’ll come back if you want to do it’, he told me”, he adds. He ended up studying accounting, but after college, discovering his sexuality, he saw a gay parade in San Francisco. He decided to move there.
His life, he believes, would have been very different if he had ended up in New York or Washington. “When I moved to San Francisco in 1997, the bubble was about to burst. That world is my reference, a kind of wild west, which gave the city an identity. From that a nightmare has arisen, which may be a little bit what it is today, ”she explains. She started working at a vodka company, Skyy Vodka, on the fringes of technology, after sending out 200 resumes and fearing she would have to return to Peru if no one hired her.
2. Salvation was Excel
When he got to Skyy his boss told him to read an Excel manual. “It was incredible,” says Vásquez Lavado. She saw as a call. There was born a career dedicated to the implementation of financial systems in Silicon Valley.
Excel domain has also led to private life. One of the most emblematic moments of the book is a crisis where physical difficulties complicate the climb on foot with the young women towards the Everest base camp. Vásquez-Lavado explains how Excel calms her down and pulls her out of the well: “With the computer and water, I went to the table in the corner of the dining room and opened Excel. I began to move the entire itinerary two days, calculating the delays and imagining the worst possible results. What’s my plan A, plan B, plan C? Putting things in boxes relaxes me. Especially if I don’t drink. Microsoft Excel is my sanctuary. An ordered world where the boundaries are not only clear, but I can highlight them, delete them and put new columns between them. There is a formula for everything here,” he writes.
In 2005 she jumped to eBay, which took her to global offices and from where she began her mountain adventure, once her future job was almost settled: “I finally reached the top step, surrounded by alpha minds with pedigrees from the best universities and prestigious families and comforting. Securing a place for myself in the 2000s tech world was not easy,” she writes.
3. A walking catchphrase
On Everest, she recalls, it was a “walking slogan”: “Lesbian, vegetarian and celiac among macho climbers,” she says. The first dinner with her expedition at Everest Base Camp is one of the most extraordinary scenes. There is a woman alone, who has climbed on foot, surrounded by men focused on showing off her exploits. The most extraordinary case is Tom, a former member of Team Six of the US Navy Seals, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden. “He is also an ultramarathon runner, he did two ironmans in one day, while he counts his achievements, I am becoming small”, he writes. They are James Bond characters or chosen for an impossible mission: “A British millionaire, a 2-meter New Zealander, Tom. OMG. OMG. What the hell have I done,” he writes. “When I left there I went to my little store to cry,” he explains.
Then something incredible happened. Most of those supermen fell by the wayside: altitude sickness, uncomfortable injuries. Everest is only climbed one season a year, and in that year they did not arrive. “The rules do not apply here. Ego and brute force—everything that men have built their careers, lives, identities around and what I have sought to emulate in my macho ways—guarantee little here,” he writes.
Despite this story of overcoming, he also saw abuse to a colleague mountaineer in full ascent. “I have always said that mountains do not discriminate. That being gay or a woman or Peruvian doesn’t matter when the time comes because we are all at the mercy of the elements. I have always approached mountaineering as a level playing field. If you have what it takes, your gender, race, or belief doesn’t matter. The mountains were my escape”, he writes before recounting how a Japanese woman was harassed by a Sherpa and another expedition leader justified that something like this was not so rare, not even on the slopes of the highest mountain in the world.
Vásquez-Lavado compares her work now in mountaineering with how she helped break the glass ceiling for women in the corporate world, along with Meg Whitman, then CEO of eBay: “With stories like mine, I intend to show the power we get as women, that is, to what we can, the strength that we ourselves can develop. I am literally with the spikes breaking through ice shelves,” she says.
4. Peak tourism
Vásquez Lavado paid more than 40,000 euros to climb Everest. “Base camp is huge. I’ve never seen it during peak season when all the climbing expeditions and service tents are set up. It is the size of a small favela, like the settlements in the hills that surround Lima”, he writes.
He describes the extraordinary hardness of the ascent, where you have to advance towards successive fields one by one and go back down to acclimatise. The climb to Everest is not done all at once, but in a format of two steps forward and two steps back, until the last one is reached in a window of good weather that allows the final attack. That’s when queues are given to touch the top. “Even though I got traffic, it wasn’t the traffic you’ve seen in recent years,” he says. “Out of all the people you see, especially on Everest, half or a third are foreigners, the rest are locals,” he adds.
Vásquez-Lavado recounts the feat as normal, where a stomach squeeze or queuing as if it were the “red carpet” of Everest were common things. Also the fear of dying in a terrible storm.
He also compares that aspiration to his corporate career in Silicon Valley, where he sees above all a change in perspective: “In the professional part, we all have a dream, a goal, we are after something, but we don’t know it. At least on Everest and with the queue, the dream is very clear: we want to reach the top. You can’t have that ‘I hope you’ll turn around so you let me pass’ mentality. Respect is knowing the site that we have and understanding what kind of work I have to do to keep my dream alive”, she explains.
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