Carla Perez: ‘Altitude Stops the Moment You Switch on the O2’

The Ecuadorian admits that she only begins to struggle on no-O2 climbs above 8,300m — which is why she wants to do all five peaks above that altitude.

Last week, Carla Perez climbed a different Makalu from most people. Hers was 8,463m. That is the mountain’s actual altitude, only reachable without supplementary oxygen. As she knows from experience, the altitude counter stops the moment the bottled oxygen starts flowing. If you turn it on at 6,000m, that is the height of the mountain you climb.

Raised on the outskirts of the Andes, Carla Perez is currently one of the strongest female Himalayan climbers, according to guides and fellow alpinists. She spoke to ExplorersWeb about her climbs, projects, mountain ethics, and the power of love and friendship in the thin air.

“I’ll try to be objective, but I will probably get driven by feelings, as I always do,” she warned.

Makalu’s strength test

How hard was it to turn back during your first summit bid, then find the strength and motivation to try again?

It was hard, obviously. But several factors were clear, starting with the weather. The most difficult thing is to know when to take that decision, to avoid serious consequences. You only know that from experience. It wasn’t that I was already freezing or exhausted, which did happen to me on my first Everest attempt. It was that previous experience that helped me to decide to turn around.

Soul mates: Carla Perez with Pemba Sherpa and Topo Mena (in red).

 

It must have been frustrating to see so many climbers heading down with the summit under their belts while you stayed in BC hoping for another window to open.

These days, most mountaineers go with huge support: O2, fixed ropes (which I also used), help pitching and supplying camps. All this support makes things happen very fast. And if you go without O2, you need more time, you need to climb as people climbed 20 years ago. That means three things: patience, a good strategy, and enough physical strength. I can’t just show up in Base Camp and go up. Don’t let yourself be tempted to hurry or feel down because others are summiting and going home. This is not a criticism of others choosing to climb in different ways. It is just that this is not my way.

What was your strategy for the second summit push?

The strategy includes choosing the right moment to begin the push, who to climb with, and the conditions.

So I was strong, patient, and ready for a second try. In addition, my partner Topito [meaning little mole – he gained that nickname after the glasses he always wears because he’s so shortsighted] said he would return from Kathmandu to climb with me. Also Pemba, a very dear friend of mine, said that he would really like to try and climb an 8,000’er without O2 and that he would come if he had time after guiding on Everest. And so they came – it was awesome! Pemba’s support was important. He didn’t do it for work or money, just for friendship. He’s a brother to me. How could I not be motivated? [Note that Pemba finally decided to use oxygen beginning at Camp 4.]

Summit at last: Pemba Sherpa, Carla Perez, and Topo Mena.

The summit push

What was the weather like on the second attempt?

Well, the weather this season has been great for oxygen-supported climbers, but not ideal for no-O2 ascents. Winds were 30 to 50kph. That’s okay with gas but really hard without. To me, 25kph is the limit. Yet there were some windows through the season: May 5, April 12, April 15, April 21, and the short one on April 24. The game is to be ready, acclimatized, rested, and with your things packed when the window opens. My mistake on the first attempt was to go for April 12 instead of April 15, as meteorologist Vitor Baia had recommended. But thanks to that mistake, I was later able to climb with Topo and Pemba. I can only be grateful for that experience. As for the climb itself, we had 16 hours of good weather. The rest was strong winds and heavy snow, just as Baia had forecast.

Dealing with seracs and mist on Makalu.

Beyond the “wall”

Why are you focused on climbing the highest five 8,000’ers without O2? Why not the rest? After all, you’ve climbed Cho Oyu and Manaslu no-O2 as well.

True, I did those two, and attempted Broad Peak, but these were all preparation. They were a chance to learn about my body and get ready for Everest. After climbing Everest without O2, I noticed something interesting that happens to me. I can’t tell whether other people are the same but it works this way with me. Below 8,300m, I am fine, clear-minded, and good. But at 8,300m, there is like a wall, beyond which the going gets extremely hard. I can’t keep warm, lactic acid accumulates and doesn’t go away, and my mind blurs. I get so vulnerable, and being vulnerable makes you grow as a human being. So that’s it. I want to experience what really challenges me, and the challenge is on the five peaks that surpass 8,300m.

The final steps before the summit of Makalu.

 

Everest with and without O2

How different is it to climb above 8,300m with or without O2?

I can speak from experience since I climbed Everest both without oxygen and then with oxygen when guiding for Alpenglow last year. The difference is HUGE. It’s more than a difference in fact. I believe that when you start using O2, that is as high as you ever get. I mean, if you start with O2 at 6,500m, that is what you have climbed: a 6,500m mountain.

Oxygen is something INCREDIBLE. First, it warms you immediately. In my case, I was never cold when on O2. Second, you don’t feel lactic acid accumulating in your muscles. You push, and the muscles work, they are not overloaded. Third, your mind is clear, you are well-coordinated, you think properly. On Everest [North Side], I used O2 from Camp 1 at 7,100m. The most difficult part of the entire climb was just reaching that point.

Fourth, it boosts O2 saturation immediately. On Makalu this spring, Topo climbed without oxygen until 7,500m, and his blood oxygen level sat at 75-78%. When he put on the mask and switched the flow to 1L/minute, his oxygen saturation rose to 97%.

The sun goes down from high on Makalu.

 

Uphill on a bicycle vs a scooter

So climbing with supplementary O2 is not really climbing?

Climbing with O2 is something you do for fun: to enjoy the landscape, the surroundings, the atmosphere…But from a sporting point of view, an O2 climb is not valid. In my experience, switching to O2 is like entering a hyperbaric chamber. You get younger, stronger, more powerful. Without O2, you are literally dying. You don’t eliminate lactic acid, your blood thickens and cannot circulate properly, you’re cold and confused, you suffer from ataxia, you must be extremely careful when changing your jumar from one rope to another not to do something really dangerous…It’s like facing a tough uphill with a bicycle or with a scooter.

Using O2 is fine, but don’t ever say it is “almost the same”. One has nothing to do with the other. Some of the strongest climbers in history understood the difference. Ueli Steck needed three attempts to do Everest without oxygen. Kilian Jornet, one of the climbers I most admire, came down completely exhausted and confused. David Goettler, who is a machine… they all saw how different it is.

My advice is, to go and try. Not on a lower 8,000’er, which is relatively easy to climb without O2 if you are very fit. Try one of the bigger ones with oxygen and then without, to experience the difference.

Natural adaptation to altitude?

You were born in Quito, at 2,800m above sea level, and climb often in the Andes. Do you think that you might have a natural adaptation to altitude?

My house is at 2,600m above sea level and my parents live at 3,000m. I think that may indeed have a positive impact on how I adapt to altitude, but there is a point at which we all reach our limit of acclimatization, and the suffering is the same. Every time my mum, for instance, reaches 4,500m or above, she starts bleeding from the nose and her ears feel like they are about to burst. So I can’t really tell how these adaptation processes work.

The fact is, though, that no-O2 climbs are becoming less and less popular, especially with younger climbers. Do you think there should be some limit?

One of the most wonderful things about this sport is the freedom it provides to choose your own rules. I can choose to go without O2 or without using the fixed ropes, but everyone decides what the rules of their game are. Anything that makes you dream and enjoy. I accept all the options available. I don’t believe I should lecture others on how things should be, either on the mountain or in their personal lives. But I know which I prefer.

During Perez’s no-O2 climb of Makalu.

 

I was inspired by Ivan Vallejo’s [Ecuador’s first 14×8000’er summiter] documentaries, in which classic-style expeditions involved climbing without supplementary O2, using little support, and enjoying the wisdom that the mountain provides. That is what really called me.

Guiding on Everest

What was it like to guide on Everest?

It was an amazing experience because I was hired as an assistant guide. That meant doing part of the work of the Sherpas: fixing ropes, carrying loads. And that established deep bonds of friendship with the Alpenglow staff. It was revealing. I feel that society tends to separate Sherpas and Westerners. Segregated, separated, as if we could never establish equal bonds of friendship. But Pemba is my friend, my climbing partner, my bro. Why is it all about “the Nepalis did this”, “the Westerners did that”? Why can’t we just climb together?

Topo Mena’s atop Makalu. It was his second ascent of the season, and first without O2.

 

In addition to Pemba, you also climb with your life partner, Topo Mena. Does your relationship make the climbs easier or more difficult?

Before being partners in life, Topo and I were very good friends and climbed together. We climbed Aconcagua’s South Face. So our relationship has grown out of our respect and passion for the mountains, and for each others’ mountain dreams. When we start a climb, we do our best to leave behind our sometimes clashing emotions. That is essential. The mountain is a temple for both of us. We used to fight more when we started climbing, but we’ve grown together. We need to forget about “I” and become “we”, ready to give our best for the common goal. Same with our other mountain partners.

Not interested in speed

What’s next — Kangchenjunga or Lhotse? Maybe something else?

Yeah, I know Kangchenjunga and Lhotse are part of the project, but I can’t really tell when I will go. I am a bit tired of high altitude. Climbing without O2 is extremely hard and also time-consuming. I miss doing more rock climbing, paragliding, technical routes… and of course, I want to finish my training as IFGMA guide. I have only two exams left.

As for the lower 8,000’ers, time will tell. I’d like to try a different route than normal on some of them. A new route would be a dream, of course. One of the people I most admire is Elisabeth Revol and her attempt on Nanga Parbat. But I also have my limits and I have to accept them and stay within. There is no need to do something beyond your limits if it jeopardizes not only your life but also your partners’.

Otherwise, I am not interested in completing the 14×8,000’ers. And I am definitely not in a hurry.

Angela Benavides is a journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news working with ExplorersWeb.com.

Angela Benavides has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of national and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive, radio reporter and anchorwoman, etc. Experience in Education: Researcher at Spain’s National University for Distance Learning on the European Commission-funded ECO Learning Project; experience in teaching ELE (Spanish as a Second Language) and transcultural training for expats living in Spain.

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Praeriepanther
Praeriepanther
1 month ago

It is refreshing to read an interview with a real mountaineer after all those fame seeker guided clients. Thanks Angela.

daniel
daniel
1 month ago

“Climbing with O2 is something you do for fun… Without O2, you are literally dying”

She sounds fun at a party 😆

Alex
Alex
1 month ago
Reply to  daniel

Stop taking yourself so seriously folks. You climbed a big hill. A pretty hill which probably took you a lot of time, effort and money – But its still a big hill. Just chill and enjoy

Alex
Alex
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex

Two Alex’s now huh? Just to clarify not the same Alex as comments below 😉

Yeti
Yeti
1 month ago

May I? This is really, totally exaggerated. It is very “in”, “woke”, “politically correct” and mostly, not true. So many people die because they take O2? not because being in the Death Zone, even with O2, is still extremely hard? Come on…
Stop bashing AMATEUR climbers who give their best to achieve some goals even professionals sometimes fail at achieving. It is surely not a milestone for mankind anymore when someone steps on the Top of the World, but it is a giant PERSONAL achievement.
But, the world being far from perfect, there are people who shouldn’t be there, yes.

Last edited 1 month ago by Yeti
Maysnow
Maysnow
20 days ago
Reply to  Yeti

Man muss schauen, Frau Perez redet über professionelle Bergsteiger, Amateure sind in dem Artikel außen vor, nicht gemeint. Oder nur insofern, als dass sie ein neues Erlebnis-Bergsteigen über 8000m empfiehlt – hat nur noch kein Mensch vermarktet – einmal mit O2, einmal ohne O2 – beschreibe den Unterschied in social media und werde dort erfolgreich…!

Pan
Pan
1 month ago

Extremely self righteous.

eol
eol
1 month ago

As I recall Perez, Ballinger and Topo Mena all waited for Nims to set ropes on K2 in 2019. They climbed without O2 but everything else is nothing to write home about. Now this high moral ground about using O2. She does normal routes on 8000 peaks in spring, jumaring all the way to the top. To use Perez as a some kind of top of the crop mountaineer, I don’t know.

Pan
Pan
1 month ago
Reply to  eol

100%. They let Nims and co do all the work and then followed behind.

Maysnow
Maysnow
20 days ago
Reply to  Pan

Und was klettert sie in den Anden? Wer geht ohne Fixseile 8300er?

Praeriepanther
Praeriepanther
1 month ago
Reply to  eol

It looks like you were watching another movie. Adrian, Topo and Carla climbed the Cesen route, not the normal (although it joins the normal route at C4). It was Nims who sold the world that it was only him who made it possible to climb K2 that summer. That’s an outright lie. The route was ready until around 8000 metres (which Nims never mentioned, until that part he also used the fixed ropes that other climbers fixed). The only thing that made the ascent possible was that the snow consolidated because of a week of high winds and made progress… Read more »

eol
eol
1 month ago
Reply to  Praeriepanther

Man your arguments are really strong…yeah 8000 meters on K2 were prepared with ropes but last 611 meters are the easy one? I guess Bottleneck and serac traverse are minor obstacles? Fact of the matter is these elite no O2 climbers didn’t fixed the route on K2. In fact they didn’t even try to help. They waited for Nims team to make way and fix route to the summit so they can be well rested for their pure attempt. They are fine climbers but not in position to give lectures on purity. Urubko however can.

Praeriepanther
Praeriepanther
1 month ago
Reply to  eol

I think you read more information into my lines that I actually wrote. I did not say the last 611 metres are the easy one. I said the majority of the mountain was already fixed and Nims did not spare a word about it, which is a fact. Adrian’s team was climbing another route up to C4, the Cesen is harder than the normal route what Nims climbed. You might strongly believe that Nims was the holy saviour of those summiteers but the fact is he was not. 25 people summited a day after him, almost half of them sherpas/HAPs… Read more »

Alex
Alex
1 month ago

This is becoming a bit redundant at this point but in case you read this Angela, I used to love reading your articles when they were informative and kept us engaged with the mountains when we are at home otherwise unable.  It seems every article now is focused on you hammering home your personal judgement on how climbers should climb.   Let’s start by establishing we all get it!  We know that climbing without oxygen and/or Sherpa support is on another level.  We don’t need to keep going over this!  But unless someone on oxygen is trying to compare themselves or their achievements to someone… Read more »

Praeriepanther
Praeriepanther
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex

“Yes I have a problem with climbers who misrepresent themselves and that’s a different situation” All these articles that you feel are judging someone, are only judging exactly these “climbers” who misrepresent themselves. Because all the media is full of them. Kristin Harila, Adriana Brownlee, Shehroze Kashif, Lucy Westlake, Viridiana Alvarez, Nirmal Purja – the list goes on and on. The very fact that it is someone’s lifetime achievement does not make it an outstanding mountaineering performance from a sportive and objective point of view. For me, reaching Island Peak would be a lifetime achievement but who the hell would… Read more »

Alex
Alex
1 month ago
Reply to  Praeriepanther

Respectfully, you talk about how Island Peak would be a lifetime accomplishment for you (go for it!) – so how can you speak about how “an average person” can climb an 8000M? Just some perspective, I have climbed 8000M peaks – I am not an elite athlete or a professional climber and I used oxygen and was supported by an awesome guide and superhuman Sherpas. That being said, I am also not an average athlete. To train for Everest I spent years training in the mountains or my gym (or worse my stairwell, try spending 3-4 hours every saturday and… Read more »

Praeriepanther
Praeriepanther
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex

Congrats to your feats, good to see you have seriously prepared for them. I think we talk about different things. Let me stress out again, nobody is bashing individuals who climb for themselves. Critique is only upon those who lift their achievements into elite category while not climbing at elite level. And yes, there are many levels of assistance you can ask for. My bottom line is, it does not have to be that hard as you did it. It IS possible to make it a lot easier, with a lot less physical preparation (although I would not recommend it… Read more »

Alex
Alex
1 month ago
Reply to  Praeriepanther

I think I can respect/agree on most of what you said! Cheers,

-AP

damiengildea
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex

I just wanted to say what a great exchange between you two. You took time to articulate your arguments, presented facts and offered evidence and personal information to back up your arguments. Thank you. A robust exchange of ideas and opinions – even if they differ – is what I believe Forums and Comments should be about. The only things I would add for now: It’s easy to focus on the loud and most ‘terrible’ of the modern 8000m client. But really most are not like that, more than half are just quietly going about their business on their own… Read more »

skimtn50
skimtn50
29 days ago

I strongly recommend that all Explorers Web users, read the National Geographic article below “Trash and Overcrowding at the Top of the World”. The amount of garbage and human waste being left on the mountain is disgraceful. As climbers we have a responsibility to leave the areas we climb cleaner than we found them. More important than the continual bickering over whose climbing style is better is the responsibility to take care of this beautiful environment. In the end, it really only matters that we strive to keep the water source healthy and the land free of waste. After all,… Read more »