It is not often one meets an elite mountaineer in the steamy heat of a tropical summer, but Carina Dayondon is not a typical mountain climber. The fourth eldest in a poor family of 14 children, raised in the sleepy town of Don Carlos, in central Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, she was expected to help bring up her brothers and sisters, not scale the world’s highest peaks.
Dayondon was selected for the first Philippine team to ascend Mount Everest (which succeeded, in May 2006), she had never experienced alpine conditions. “I was like the fish out of water. I come from the tropics and I had never seen snow,” says the shy, softly spoken adventurer, sitting in the shade on a pier in Manila Bay, where she is a lieutenant with the Philippine Coast Guard.
On cloud nine: Filipino helper climbing 6,200m Everest neighbour peak after saving Hong Kong salary for 2 years
“As a child, I liked to stick my tongue to the ice in the freezer,” adds the woman who, though she didn’t summit Everest on that first attempt, succeeded in getting to the top of the world’s tallest mountain, which rises 8,848 metres, just a year later. Today, Dayondon is the most famous mountaineer in the Philippines and poised to become the first female from the country to scale the “Seven Summits”, the highest peaks on each of the world’s continents and considered the ultimate mountaineering accomplishment.
Only a few hundred mountaineers have conquered the seven and, of those, women number only in the dozens. Many climbers have lost their lives in the attempt.
Equipped with old kit, organising her own travel and logistics, and with next to nothing in the way of backup or corporate sponsorship, Dayondon has already conquered six of the peaks. Next month, she will attempt the seventh and final summit: snow-covered Mount Vinson, which, standing 4,892 metres tall, is the highest peak in Antarctica, and just 1,200km from the South Pole. If successful, Dayondon will have completed her life’s mission at the age of 40.
“She is from a small, sleepy town but she is goal driven; you can see that deep inside. She is very tough,” says Art Valdez, leader of the 2006 Philippine Everest team.
Dayondon was introduced to camping and hiking in the Girl Scouts, and she took up sport climbing at school, in 1987. At the age of 19, she was selected to represent the Philippines in an international competition in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province. Although she failed to win any medals, the experience gave her the confidence to apply for a place on the first Philippine Everest expedition.
“We looked for the three Cs – capability, commitment and compatibility,” says Valdez, who selected her for that trip, as well as for the 2007 attempt by a three-person female team to traverse Everest (to climb up one face and descend on the other side). “It was the first traverse of Everest by women; not bad for a country without snow,” says Valdez.
“We went up the north side and down the south side,” says Dayondon, who, with Noelle Wenceslao and Janet Belarmino, made it to the summit on May 16 that year. “It was four days to the summit and three days to descend […] On Everest, I just felt triumphant. It was pure joy.” Dayondon breaks into a beaming smile. “Everything about that trip was hard, even the preparation, but we would not give up.”
The trio became instant celebrities in the Philippines.
Before that, in 2005, while at a training camp for the first ascent, Dayondon came close to quitting. Her father had invested his life savings in a business venture that failed, and the bank was threatening to foreclose on the family home. Dayondon says she felt guilty about being away climbing when her loved ones needed her most.
In December of that year, in a desperate attempt to raise money, she broke from training and entered the high-profile Island Paradise Adventure Race with a friend, Erwin “Pastour” Emata (one of the Filipinos to summit Everest in 2006). The 2,000km, multidisciplinary (including trail running, swimming and the use of motor vehicles), inter-island endurance competition, which started in Manila and finished in Cebu, attracted thousands of competitors from across the globe, but Dayondon and Emata were victorious, and she gave her half of the prize money of 1 million pesos (about HK$150,000) to her parents to save the family home.
“Carina has the spirit of the underdog,” says Ted Esguerra, who was expedition doctor for both the 2006 and 2007 Everest expeditions. Esguerra adds that the “patronising attitude” of some people to the simple rural communities of Mindanao spurs Dayondon on.
Such determination was apparent in 2006, after the first Everest climb, when Dayondon journeyed to Alaska, in the United States, to climb Denali (also known as Mount McKinley, and the highest peak in North America) as part of training for the 2007 expedition. The team did not have the funds to employ a trekking agency or professional guide, so Dayondon and three fellow climbers made their attack on the mountain independently. Standing 6,190 metres tall, Denali is the world’s third most isolated peak, with extreme weather that can prove deadly.
It took six attempts for the team to complete their ascent. They were expected to be on the mountain for 18 days but ended up staying for 32, with supplies running perilously low. “We were not going home until we had completed it or the ranger ordered us off the mountain,” Dayondon says, explaining how they befriended other climbers. When better-equipped parties surrendered to storm-force winds and freezing temperatures, those climbers left supplies with the Philippine group rather than carry them back down the mountain. “That allowed us to survive,” she says.
And to make things even more testing, Wenceslao was prone to altitude sickness, as had been discovered during the 2006 Everest climb. “Noelle had a pulmonary oedema and was coughing up blood [on the earlier climb], so could not even get to base camp,” Dayondon says. “That’s why, in Alaska, I was carrying some of her pack, so she would not get sick.”
Getting to the top of Denali was, therefore, a massive achievement for Dayondon. “I was crying when we eventually reached the summit,” she says. “It was the hardest climb and my backpack was very heavy.”
Things would get even more gruelling in 2008, when Dayondon entered the Everest Marathon. “That starts at 18,000 feet [about 5,500 metres], so even getting to the start line is tough,” she says. “Many don’t make it to the start.”
“I tell you, that marathon is beyond tough,” agrees Valdez. “It took me 10 hours, five minutes and 46 seconds.”
More than 200 runners entered the 42km marathon in 2008, and Dayondon finished first in the overseas female category, with a time of six hours and 38 minutes. She was more than 40 minutes ahead of her nearest rival, Keena Hilsberg, from the US.
“Climbing mountains was to inspire my siblings, and it was vital to them growing up,” says Dayondon, of one of her motivations. “We were bullied because we were poor. We were from a big family of 14 kids. People would tease us, ‘How can you all afford to eat?’”
In 2012, another motivation materialised when a younger sister, Heidi, a nurse in Don Carlos, was told she had breast cancer. Heidi was 27. “It made me more inspired,” Dayondon says. “I realised I was not as brave as her, but I could raise funds and awareness for breast-cancer treatment.”
When the time came for Dayondon to attack the third of the Seven Summits – Mount Elbrus (5,642 metres), in the Caucasus mountain range, in southern Russia – in 2013, she had begun working with the coastguard. Taking an unpaid leave of absence and a salary loan from her employer to pay for the trip, she was determined to succeed for Heidi’s sake.
Dayondon did so, and the conquering of Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 metres), in Australia, followed in 2014.
In August 2015, while making her bid for summit No 5 – Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 metres), in Tanzania – Dayondon received an unexpected text message from Heidi, asking to borrow money for vitamin pills. Dayondon agreed, and thought little more of it, going on to top the celebrated African mountain. Then came tragic news.
“I thought all was normal, but when I got back from the trip, Heidi was back in hospital,” Dayondon says, unable to hold back tears. “The doctor told us she had three months to live.”
That year, the family celebrated Christmas Day in hospital, and Heidi passed away on December 28. “Heidi was my biggest fan, and when she died I was determined to complete the seven summits,” Dayondon says.
Conquering summit six – Aconcagua (6,962 metres), in the Argentinian Andes, and the highest point in the Southern Hemisphere – took two attempts. The first, in February 2017, was thwarted by poor weather. “Sometimes we just have to be humble and respect the mountains,” Dayondon says. “We just have to wait.”
The second, successful attempt on Aconcagua was made in January this year.
Such expeditions are not cheap. of course; Hong Kong mountaineer Benjamin Chan Ka-hei, who, at 19, hopes to be the youngest climber of the Seven Summits (rounding out with Mount Vinson, at about the same time as Dayondon) says his recent Everest expedition cost about US$42,000, while the well-heeled can lay down US$120,000 by adding the services of a guide and a small army of Sherpas.
Climbers such as Dayondon must meet the costs of air fares, climbing permits, guide fees, accommodation and essential equipment. Her second attempt on Aconcagua cost 480,000 pesos (US$9,100), of which 180,000 pesos was her own money, so sponsorship is an essential part of the equation.
Having delivered a free talk about her mountaineering achievement to an audience in Manila in August this year, she was approached by the president of BPI bank.
“When I went to meet the president at his office, the security guard did not believe I had an appointment because I arrived on my bike,” Dayondon says. The banker must have been more impressed, though: he committed 1 million pesos in sponsorship.
Mount Vinson will be an especially expensive undertaking, however. In addition to long-haul air fares, the 30-day project will involve a 17-day round trip from the city of Punta Arenas, in the Patagonian region of Chile, requiring special flights to and from Antarctica.
However much she will have been able to raise by then, though, it seems unlikely she’ll have enough to buy new gear to replace her 12-year-old kit, which looks decidedly worn.
“If someone could donate some goggles or a climbing suit, that would be very helpful,” she says. “Trekking poles are very expensive, too.”
As usual, as she heads for summit No 7, there will be no corporate team at base camp, no medical support, no PR consultants and no television production company following her; just cheap hostel accommodation in Chile followed by a huge, imposing mountain in a barren, frigid and inhospitable landscape. Dayondon will rely on memories of Heidi, her Christian faith and sheer will power to drive her onwards and upwards, and she confesses that reaching the summit will be an “emotional moment after all the hard work, the waiting, the patience”.
English mountaineer George Mallory, who led the first three attempts to scale Everest, failing each time, and died on the mountain in June 1924, once said, “The first question which you will ask, and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ And my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever.’”
And while there will have been little obvious gain for Dayondon in climbing Mount Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits, she argues there is a value that extends beyond the material.
“We all have our own Everest in our lives,” she says. “I want to show we can all achieve it.” ■