Silvia Vasquez-Lavado is an empathic, passionate, and driven global explorer and social justice leader dedicated to the betterment of cultures through innovation and connection. In addition, Vasquez-Lavado is a humanitarian and compassionate social entrepreneur driven to rouse vulnerable populations by providing alternative solutions and methods for empowerment, education, and advancement. As an accomplished mountaineer (First Peruvian woman to summit Mount Everest), in June 2018, she became the first openly gay woman to complete the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain on each continent from both the Messner and Bass lists. Vasquez-Lavado is a sought-out speaker inspiring audiences with her personal story of resilience and courage.
Rosa Hernandez of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington served on the panel that selected Vasquez-Lavado’s book for Indies Introduce. She said of the book, “It’s one thing to climb a mountain, it's another to share your story with the world. Silvia Vasquez-Lavado takes you on a journey of self-discovery in the face of tremendous trauma and pain that will leave you breathless. This memoir is very special. It will take you on an emotional journey that will inspire you to cultivate your own community because, in the end, that is what will truly heal us.”
Here, Hernandez and Vasquez-Lavado discuss writing a memoir.
Rosa Hernandez: When did you know you wanted to write this book? And what was the experience of putting this story together like?
Silvia Vasquez-Lavado: On the first anniversary of my summit of Mount Everest, I was involved in a severe bike accident, and I ended up in the ICU with a severe brain injury. The doctor told me they had found a brain tumor at the bottom of my brain stem and I’d have to wait a couple of days to determine if the tumor was benign or cancerous. So, I kindly asked all my loved ones to leave me alone in the room — and when I had the moment to myself, I gave gratitude for having experienced such a unique life and told myself the following:
Option A: If the tumor were cancerous, I’d quit my job the next day and spend the rest of what would be left of my life working with young women, experiencing as many mountains as feasible, and finding a way to share my journey. (At that time, I still had to complete Denali, my last summit of the Seven Summits.)
Option B: If the tumor were benign, then I told myself I’d reevaluate again.
Luckily, the tumor was benign. Yet, the healing of my brain injury took longer than expected. Once I was done with the recovery and had climbed the last of the Seven Summits — Denali — in June 2018, I realized I wasn’t going to wait to share my story, and my book project began.
Putting the story together was harder than I’d imagined — blending the critical backstory of my own childhood sexual abuse with the real-time events of taking the girls to Base Camp and summiting was a hard puzzle, but I think the alternating chapters work well. I also had to relive a lot of difficult times in my life, but I knew if I was going to share my story I had to be honest, vulnerable, and willing to share both my triumphs and my failures.
RH: What are your hopes for this book?
SVL: My deepest hope and intention for doing the book is to end sexual violence against children. No one book can do that, but I want to take abuse out of the shadows and contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way. I want readers to feel hope and be inspired to tackle their own emotional mountains — whatever they are.
My journey taught me that we heal most when we heal together. When we come together, share our stories, walk side by side in nature or wherever we are — we can end up in amazing and transformative places. Mostly though, I want readers to know they are not alone.
RH: Scariest moment while traveling/hiking?
SVL: Hiking with the girls to Everest Base Camp — there was a moment when so many of the young women were seriously affected by altitude sickness at the start of the journey, and I realized what a risk we were all taking. Luckily, a little ginger tea, tylenol, and TLC helped them find their footing and each was able to accomplish what they set out to do. They were able to take their biggest pain and lay it at the base of the biggest mountain.
Climbing Mount Everest — the scariest moment is the opening scene of the book (a scene that continues later on in the book as well) when a huge storm hit us during our push to the summit. It was bigger and scarier than anything I had ever experienced, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. After years of self-destruction, in that moment I realized just how much I wanted to live. And when the sun came out after the storm it reminded me of how things pass and of the light that is always waiting on the other side of darkness
RH: Do you still keep in touch with the other female survivors you took on that journey in Nepal?
SVL: I keep in touch with them all, and before the pandemic we were planning on launching a set of trekking trips to have some of the original courageous girls guiding foreigners to Everest Base Camp. Unfortunately, all those plans have been placed on hold due to the impact of the pandemic in Nepal, though hopefully we’ll be able to plan those journeys again soon.
RH: While writing this book, did you come across new revelations about yourself?
SVL: It’s hard to write an honest memoir and not learn new things about yourself. For me, I had memories that I had honestly just blocked from my mind. The trauma was stored in my body, and while writing the book I worked with a somatic therapist to help process all that I was reliving and to support me as I looked at things that I had done and that were done to me. I was able to look at the amount of self-harm and self-destruction I had done, and process it through the book. Make meaning out of it. Writing the book was hard, but ultimately it has truly been a healing gift.
RH: Bonus question: What is your favorite Peruvian dish?
SVL: Oh my God, this is the most challenging question of them all. It has changed throughout the years, but as of now, it is choros a la chalaca: steamed mussels with the most delicious topping of fresh salsa made of cilantro, onions, Peruvian choclo (corn), tomatoes, and lots of limones! Delicious!
In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage by Silvia Vasquez-Lavado (Henry Holt and Co., 9781250776747, Hardcover Memoir, $27.99) On Sale: 2/1/2022.
Find out more about the author at silviavasla.com.
ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.