The World According to Mountain Climbing Record Holder Viridiana Álvarez Chávez

Gabe Zaldivar

Oxygen is a luxury at 29,000 feet. There is nothing hospitable about the best view in the world. People die from accidents or by succumbing to edema. Getting to the top of Mount Everest means sleeping for weeks on snow and ice. Each and every step is a struggle.

Yet you can tell from Viridiana Álvarez Chávez’s voice in a video taken from the summit, with every labored word that comes from her mouth, this has all been worth it.

The 37-year-old climber is now a record holder, which is astounding in itself but comes bearing even more distinction when you discover that she is self-trained, doing so on the Mexican hills of Aguascalientes.

As Guinness World Records describes her feat, her accomplishment represents the fastest female ascent of the top three highest mountains with supplementary oxygen.

“Este es un mensaje para todas las mujeres del mundo, desde la cima del Everest,” Chávez begins her message to the women of the world.

For 40 days she pushed ahead, going through much turmoil. But she is there to scream from the top of the world. Whatever you set out to do, you can do it.

Discovering A Dream

Cima Everest 2017
Chávez at the top of Everest.Photo Credit: Viridiana Álvarez Chávez

Chávez set out on her own journey from an unexpected place. She lives in Aguascalientes, a verdant Mexican locale situated within a valley. “It's a real small city in the middle of Mexico with no mountains around,” Chávez tells En Fuego.

At 28, she decided to start exercising. That’s it. She didn’t have an end goal in mind, she just wanted to become more active and set out to first accomplish a 10k followed by training for a marathon and triathlons. By 30, she got her first taste of a real climb on Pico de Orizaba, the third-highest peak in North America.

“And that was it,” she said of the summit. “It changed my life I think that day.” Suddenly she went from wanting to get some exercise to having a true passion for the act of climbing mountains.

And when you discover a dream two things can happen. You can leave it tucked away in the mind, forever resting there due to self-doubt. Or you can rush out and conquer your mountains.

Chávez certainly seems as though she is making up for lost time, devouring one climb after another with a voracious pace that has her now in the world records.

And to think, it all started from Aguascalientes with her sitting in front of a computer, far from those terrifying and exhilarating summits.

“So, my best friend was the Internet and YouTube,” she says of her initial training. “That's how I learned how to do the technique.”

That first real climb to the top of Mexico’s most acclaimed mountain was a revelation for her.

“I was really, really tired at the top, but I was so happy to see all the clouds beneath; the feeling that I had at the top of Pico de Orizaba it was like a great accomplishment.”

That was a high she didn’t want to let go, so she pushed ahead, researching the next logical step in her development as a climber.

Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, was next and it came just 10 months later.

The Big Three

Manaslu 8
Chávez at Manaslu. 

Chávez spent 10 years in the automotive industry, working a desk job. It’s far removed from the open-air gig she has now, one that demands concentration, endurance and the kind of perseverance afforded the truly elite.

By the time she had her sights set on K2 she said goodbye to the notion of a full-time job. Climbing is her entire world at the moment.

“I thought when I was just about to quit my job, it was like we just have one life,” Chávez said. “There's no rehearsals. There's no second opportunities. If I don't do it now, I won't be able to do it later because I was 30 at that point.”

So she dove in and found something rewarding but difficult in so many ways, “It's really tough,” Chávez explained of the sport.

Chasing 8,000 meters or 29,000 feet becomes a game-changer. There are good days to be sure, but there are just as many bad days.

A climb like that is going to take about two months and you’re going to be sleeping in a tent over ice for long durations of that climb. There is no respite, and every day is a little bit harder than the next. And that’s before you consider you are taxing every resource you have, mentally and physically.

“You have to desire to be there really hard to overcome all the obstacles that you have,” Chávez said. “You really have to want to be there.”

Each climb presents its own challenges. Everest tests your mettle each and every second. There were nights that she had to deal with temperatures as low as -35 degrees Celcius for 18 hours at a time. “Step by step,” is all she could do. Concentrate on taking this mountain one very human step at a time.

K2 is extremely dangerous, and Chávez explains that it becomes a more technical climb, demanding all that you’ve learned in the sport.

“Everest you can see that dead bodies in the way,” Chávez explained. “But in K2, I saw someone dying, so it was like another level.”

She would rely on an internal mantra, concentrating on safety and strength, making sure every step was as conscious as it could be.

The most present danger is one that sneaks up on you, like the plummeting temperature of the night.

“Edema, that is the high-altitude sickness,” Chávez explained as to what you have to worry about at such heights. “When you get really tired and then you cannot go further and at some point, no one can help you.”

We often hear of packed routes and camps festooned with avid climbers. While it is certainly that, the very act of climbing is a personal struggle, often steeped in internal struggle.

Much of the issues, from Chávez’s perspective, is a lack of leadership. There are myriad expeditions but not one common entity to sort them out, leading to an inevitable traffic jam of climbers.

On May 15, 2019, Chávez reached the top of Kangchenjunga, just one day short of it being two years from her summit of Everest. Sandwiched between those climbs was her ascent of K2, taking place on July 21, 2018.

Of all the females who had climbed the three highest peaks with supplementary oxygen, Chávez is the fastest. “For me, I mean, this record in my hands is like the proof that dreams come true.”

Still Chasing the Dream

Photo Credit: Viridiana Álvarez Chávez

The thing with accomplishing your goals is that another presents itself immediately. It’s perhaps the greatest aspect of human resolve.

Chávez isn’t done. Not by a long shot. While the global pandemic has put a halt to her climbing the biggest mountains, she is still training, as much as someone might in Aguascalientes.

There is the nearby Cerro del Muerto, which is ominous in name but at 2,440 meters represents a nice stroll for someone like Chávez.

She refers to it as a small hill. But this is where she gets her training in, one time climbing the mountain seven times with a heavy backpack to keep her mind and legs fresh.

It’s where she first started to ponder what it would be like to climb greater obstacles, tackle the most extreme conditions.

“Here is where I dream of climbing the highest peaks in the world,” Chávez said. “Sometimes we think that what we have around is not enough, but everything that we need is inside of us. It doesn't matter where you are, you can dream as high as you want [just] where you are.”

Chávez has been able to summit every attempt that she has made, a rare occurrence in this sport. And she is going to push harder now. Once travel restrictions ease she has aims to tackle five to six 8,000-meter mountains, far more than she has ever done in that span.

The biggest hurdle isn’t fear or talent. “I just need money then I'm ready to go. I just need the money,” she said with a smile.

The most immediate dream is to become a fourteener, someone who has climbed mountains of 14,000 feet.

There is an acknowledgment that things may not work out and some ascents may not result in reaching the summit. But the accomplishment comes in the attempt for Chávez.

It’s not about reaching the top, she’s done that. It’s about continuing to push herself and striving, never giving up.

She is proof that it doesn’t matter what age you start your own journey or how ridiculous the goal might sound. Every single summit starts with one intrepid step.

“We can dream as high as we want, and if we believe it, we will be able to make it.”