Mountaineering is healing. This is a secret climbers know—that despite the risks of injury, frostbite or even death, climbing high mountains is a peculiar balm for the soul. There’s something about being forced into the present moment, step by step, that helps ease the mind of its burdens.
Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, the first Peruvian woman to summit Mt. Everest, understands this truth. Her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage, is a brilliant assessment of the power of high altitudes to heal trauma. Beautifully structured in back-and-forth chapters, the memoir travels between Vasquez-Lavado’s childhood in the civil strife of 1970s Peru to her ultimately successful attempt to complete the Seven Summits, the Earth’s highest mountains.
Unlike mountaineering memoirs that celebrate the ego of the individual, usually male, climber, Vasquez-Lavado’s story is intimately collaborative and feminist. This is most true when she brings a group of young women from Nepal and America who have survived sex trafficking and other sexual violence to Everest’s base camp. Their travels as a group, and their individual stories, are the emotional heart of this memoir. When Vasquez-Lavado continues without them to Everest’s summit—Chomolungma, or the Great Mother—her triumph at the mountain’s peak is merely a bonus. The real journey is these women's path toward healing.
Vasquez-Lavado’s own journey from horrific childhood sexual abuse through immigration to the U.S. and professional success in San Francisco’s first (and second) dot-com booms mirrors her trip up the mountain. In both worlds, the body holds trauma and has the power to release it, but the process is arduous and filled with potential setbacks. But as Vasquez-Lavado learns, the reward for persistence is the unimaginable beauty of dawn lighting up the roof of the world, and the exhilaration of releasing shame.