Best of ExplorersWeb 2008 Awards: The 14th knight - Ivan Vallejo

Posted: Dec 25, 2008 07:32 pm EST

At times we stumble upon statements such as "200 people have been to space but only one circumnavigated Iowa with a tomato in his mouth."

This doesn't mean that going to space is easy while the tomato trek is hard. There's simply a difference in the number of participants.

We have covered close to a thousand expeditions in 2008. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2008.

Today number 7: The 14th knight: Ecuadorian Ivan Vallejo

The "Seven Summits" concept is just one example how adventure claims can be tailored in all kinds of ways to suit a "first." But when only 5 men in the world have accomplished something attempted by not too many others out of whom 5 lost their lives; there is an indication of serious difficulty and risk.

In 2005 Ed Viesturs became only the fifth man in the world to summit all 14, 8000ers without oxygen. Five of his closest competitors had perished, all on 8000 meter peaks. Ed and Christian Kuntner received a joint ExWeb award for the achievement - the latter post mortem: Christian died on his peak no 14, Annapurna.

Up to 2005, only twelve men had stood on all the summits of the world's tallest mountains, the 14, 8000ers. Last year, Silvio 'Gnaro' Mondinelli broke the haunted number 13 on the list and became also only the sixth mountaineer in the world to have scaled them without supplementary oxygen. Also his accomplishment led to an ExWeb award - poignantly only the second in this category in five years.

Gnaro's quest took 14 hard years, Ed's took 20. Done after only 11 years - Ivan Vallejo, 49 - is a lucky guy. Since Manaslu 1997 in an astonishing success ratio; one by one the tallest peaks on Earth quickly surrendered their summit to him.

Ivan Vallejo knew the risks well. I dont want to waste one single minute on her dangerous slopes, he said prior to his third attempt on his final 8000er. But May 1st this year Ivan summited Dhaulagiri at last, entering as climber number 14 on the unique list; and only the seventh mountaineer in the world to have done them all without supplementary oxygen.

The natural born climber

A great adventure holds equal parts of challenge, danger and heart. While great spirit and difficulty can be found elsewhere, nothing beats the 8000ers when it comes to risk. You can get away with it once, or twice - if weather and conditions are great. But to survive the death zone over and over again is only for the strongest and the boldest - and the lucky ones.

Yet luck was only part of Ivan's fast success. Much like the Sherpa people, he was born at altitude (residing at 2800m and training at 3000m) and is one among only seven people to have summited Everest from both sides w/o O2.

When Ivan quit his career as an electrical engineer to climb full-time in Himalaya something considered an eccentric hobby in his home country of Ecuador - he took a risk according to some; and a chance according to himself.

Facing the bull

"Youve got to try it all, right?" Ivan told ExWeb. "Thats how I am. It's like my old dream of becoming a bull-fighter. I had to experience how it felt So I went for it, and joined a bull-fighting school! It was a couple of years ago. There I was, in my forties, surrounded by all those kids dreaming of fame and fortune in the bull-fighting game. Well, I attended the classes, and finally got where I wanted: In the ring, right in front of a bull."

It was "scary as hell!" Ivan told us. "I was absolutely terrified, my legs trembling, waiting for the wooden door to open and the bull to charge. It was a young one, as it was my first attempt, but it didn't matter: The noise that beast made by banging on the walls of the corral with its horns has stuck in my ears for ever. But you know, my children and my friends where there looking, so I did my job as decently as I could, instead of just turning around and run!"

Himalaya: Pumori sans permit, the fame of Everest

The first time Ivan went to Himalaya, he was broke and intended to climb Pumori without a permit. "I was no naïve... The moment I got to BC I realized there was no way I could climb there without being caught. But that's when I decided to devote myself to Himalayan climbing."

"I quit my career as a chemical engineer, and started working odd jobs, whilst I trained and looked for money to return to Nepal." Ivan summited Ama Dablam, then Manaslu, and Broad Peak in short order.

"Then came Everest and my life changed," Ivan said, "because Everest brought me fame." Ivan became the first Ecuadorian Everest summiteer, and without supplementary O2 to boot. Back at the airport in Ecuador, Ivan found he had become a star and now sponsors came knocking.

Dhaula's slap

Ivan's early fortune didnt go un-noticed among climbers: many expedition leaders would invite him to join their teams, considering the Ecuadorian as a lucky charm to warrant the summit.

There was a drawback in the process though: The risk of believing too much in ones luck and Ivan fell. Tasting the glory of completing the 14, 8000ers prematurely, Ivan was surprised when Kangchenjunga resisted and then he got a major reality check on a peak where he least expected it: Dhaulagiri.

Ivan almost lost his spirit on Dhaulagiri in 2006. Trekking in the Andes, he took a hard look inside his heart - and returned to the Himalayas more humble and wise.

To the Pole!

The reward was waiting for him on the summit of Nanga Parbat. Then came Annapurna with Andrew Lock last year and now, 11 years after he started, Ivan is done.

So now what? "I am not afraid of the future," Ivan told us. "There are always challenges, things youve never done before and youd like to try. Polar expeditions are especially appealing: moving on a different terrain, solve other kinds of obstacles and difficulties."

"Youve got to try it all, right?"

Related story: Best of ExplorersWeb 2005 Awards: Ed Viesturs and Christian Kuntner

Best of ExplorersWeb 2007 Awards: 14 years, 14 summits - Silvio Mondinelli, Himalaya

Previous in the countdown:

8. Wintering the Big White - Tara's 2007-2008 Arctic Voyage

Special mention:

North Pole explorers Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin
B.A.S.E. jumper Valery Rozov
Everest seniors Yuichiro Miura and Min Bahadur Sherchan
James Burwick and the Anasazi girl

More about the 14, 8000ers:

The quest for the 14, 8000ers takes a lifetime, if not life itself. Until last year, out of the 32 aspiring climbers on the 10-13 summits list, 8 had died - all on a 8000er peak. Out of the 32 - 17 went without oxygen. Out of the 8 fatalities - 5 were among those. This is a summit to fatality risk of 25% for climbers involved in the quest overall, and close to 30% if you go without O2.

Most likely to enter the list next (with 13 summits each) are Ralf Dujmovits (GER), Denis Urubko (KAZ), Andrew Lock (AUS), Veikka Gustafsson (FIN), and Piotr Pustelnik (POL).

#Mountaineering #Polar #Space #Mountaineering #Oceans

Ivan almost lost his spirit on Dhaulagiri in 2006. Trekking in the Andes, he took a hard look inside his heart - and returned to the Himalayas. Image of Ivan training before attempting Dhaulagiri in spring this year (click to enlarge).
Scent of success...Ivan on upper reaches of Dhaula's slopes.
In a Pakistan BC once, Ivan taught Edurne to dance. Image of Ivan & "Al Filo de lo Imposible" Spanish team (LtR) Manolo Benito, Juanito Oiarzabal, Edurne Pasaban, Ivan Vallejo and Asier Izaguirre, on the approaching trek to Shisha Pangma in 2007. All images courtesy of Vallejo's website (click to enlarge).
"Youve got to try it all, right?"
Ecuadorian Ivan Vallejo on Dhaula's summit - his 14th and most feared 8000er. Image courtesy of Ivan Vallejo (click to enlarge).

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