This essay contains mention of sexual assault.

I was clutching an oxygen tank in a devastating blizzard, cut off from my team. Death was a real possibility. I had been in danger before, but this time was different. I have climbed the tallest mountain on every continent. I have learned to climb to places so extreme, there is barely enough oxygen to sustain life. By definition, I am a badass. A conqueror. An extreme athlete. A survivor.

I always thought surviving meant never being vulnerable again. Never being small or weak. Weakness was the enemy—the gateway drug to being abused. And so, I constructed an armor around my heart, my body, and my soul and kept a vigilant watch to make sure no person and no thing ever got close enough to hurt me. When experience has muddied the difference between friends and foes, it’s safest to assume everyone as foe.

More From
preview for Oprah Daily US - Your Best Life Playlist

When I was six years old, a family friend told me that the things he did to me when no one was watching were things my parents wanted to happen. I lost so much more than my innocence and trust in the adults around me—I lost trust in myself. I lost the ability to say no, to understand my own boundaries, and to discern what and who was safe.

In my experience, trauma survivors are often the most extreme risk-takers because it’s not hard to live on the edge of safety if nothing looks safe.

I didn’t have a language for trauma, but I had a word for vulnerability. I called it weakness.

When I left Peru to go to the United States on a partial scholarship for college, I thought I could outrun, outwork, and outdrink the trauma I carried with me.

I didn’t have a language for trauma, but I had a word for vulnerability. I called it weakness.

I was on a trip back home to Peru, trying to recover from unsuccessfully out-drinking my trauma, when I had a vision about mountains during an Amazonian ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca was my very Catholic mother’s idea, via the only doctor in the family who had done his medical residency in the Amazon, in the small city of Tarapoto. I participated in the ayahuasca ceremony with my parents, and I trusted the vision in a way I had never trusted any decision prior. At that moment, I vowed to become a mountain climber. And I did, summiting peak after peak, with Everest always ahead of me.

It’s tough to climb at extreme altitudes, but I learned that mountains don’t ask for grit and grind—they ask for humility and respect, and honesty. You can’t lie to a mountain. You can’t hide weakness or inexperience—they are life-threatening.

Halfway through my mountaineering journey, after a bitter night on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, I realized I needed to get others with me so they could also lay their biggest pain at the feet of the biggest mountain. Just summiting wasn’t my calling. Sharing the wisdom of the mountains with other sexual assault survivors was. I started Courageous Girls, a nonprofit that helps the victims of sexual assault recover through climbing.

I became someone who brought my biggest pain to the biggest mountain, and when I first looked up from the base and saw Mount Everest, or Chomolungma, as the Tibetans call it, I experienced awe. I had never been in the presence of something bigger than my own pain. Yet Everest broke my heart open, and I knew that the Mother of the World, as the Nepalese and Tibetans call her, wasn’t made for conquering. She was made for surrender. And I couldn’t have made it to the top of Mount Everest without acknowledging what I had spent a lifetime denying: I am strongest when I am most vulnerable. It was the opposite of the lessons I had learned from my sexual abuse as a child. On Mount Everest, after decades of self-destructive behavior and in the face of potential death, I learned I wanted to live— really wanted to live.

I felt fear, and in that jolt of feeling, I knew that this was what I had been running from—the fragility of self. The fragility of body. The fragility of strength. The fragility of me. After a decade of climbing, I was close to Everest’s summit when I came out of that blizzard on the edge of defeat, clutching my oxygen tank and still feeling alone. It was then that a veteran climber told me that it was okay to be scared, that she got scared, that admitting fear doesn’t make you a bad climber. But more importantly, I gave myself that permission. I was vulnerable, and that was okay.

I realized that some risks were worth taking—the risk to love others, to help others. The risk to love and help myself.

I realized that some risks were worth taking—the risk to love others, to help others.

Not everyone needs to go where the air is thin and they are gasping to breathe to learn this, but some of us do. For those of us who never learned who and what was safe, those of us who had to leave our bodies to survive and then had no way to find our way back home to ourselves, sometimes we need to go to the extremes, to the edge of the edge, and peer over into the drop to realize that we don’t want to fall.

In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage
In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage
$26 at Bookshop

I have stood on that edge many times, teetering and choosing between survival and self-destruction.

As survivors, we work to learn the difference.

Today I am strong enough to climb the tallest mountains in the world and smart enough to know I am even stronger when I climb with others.

I am vulnerable because I am human.

I am human because I am a survivor.

I am a survivor because I am strong.

I am strong because I am vulnerable.

And how you survive a mountain is how you survive anything.

One brave, sure step at a time.

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado is a humanitarian, mountaineer, explorer, social entrepreneur, and technologist living in San Francisco. In 2014, she launched Courageous Girls, a nonprofit that helps survivors of sexual abuse and trafficking. Her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain, was published this year.

This content is imported from OpenWeb. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.