In 1992, Augusto Ortega Pacheco from Huaraz became the first ever Peruvian to reach the summit of Mount Everest – a feat that was repeated by Silvia Vásquez-Lavado in 2016, making her the first ever Peruvian woman to reach the highest point on earth. However, Peru´s most famous mountaineer at the moment is Richard Hidalgo from Lima. Richard has also tried to summit Everest on a couple of occasions but so far has been unsuccessful, with bad weather and Nepal´s earthquake ending his hopes in 2015. According to an article in National Geographic, more than 4000 people have reached the top, but only 200 have done it without the use of bottled oxygen. In 1978 Reinhold Messner, an Italian mountaineer, and Peter Habeler from Austria were the first people to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen, an achievement thought to be scientifically impossible, according to doctors at the time.
After four years of trying, we finally got to interview Richard Hidalgo for the first time in 2012, in our first year of The Huaraz Telegraph. We also met him a couple of times in 2013; however, because of bad timing we never managed to sit down for another chat. This year we bumped into Richard in the California Café in Huaraz and went straight to business. We found out about his career, his future, what he thought of Huaraz and what he thought of his chances of summiting Everest without supplemental oxygen in the near future. But first we asked Richard why he was in Huaraz.
Well, it´s been three years since I was last in Huaraz, which is weird really because since I became a professional mountaineer, I used to come to Huaraz every year for at least a couple of weeks. The longest I have been in Huaraz has been around eight months as I also do guiding work. I had actually planned to go to Pakistan in June and July but because of visa issues, my trip got cancelled. Instead of doing nothing, I decided to come to Huaraz and do some climbing. I was twelve weeks ago in Huaraz too, I was asked to join the Discovery Channel team to do some filming on Yanapacha Mountain. I met the crew in Nepal when I tried to conquer Everest and I joined them in Peru. So what I am doing at the moment is a bit of guiding.
It´s been more than 25 years since I came to Huaraz for the first time, at the beginning of my mountaineering career. Huaraz has changed a lot, it is a pity. The group I am guiding at the moment is a group from Washington University in the United States; they´re doing some glacier and water studies in the area. Looking at the glaciers, it´s really sad. The glaciers have receded so much, I don’t believe that it is normal. Over time the mountains and glaciers will become far more dangerous for us mountaineers. The glacial retreat is generating huge gaps in the mountains and some parts are like Swiss cheese, which is very dangerous. This is the reason that avalanches can occur at any time. I believe that, let´s say five years ago, the norm was not to climb after 11 a.m. because that´s when the sun is strong enough to melt the ice and snow, thus generating avalanches. Nowadays, avalanches even occur at night, for example at three o´clock in the morning. Some mountaineers still think that during these hours nothing will happen but this is not the case anymore. I have seen the same trends in Pakistan and Nepal, and it´s even more visible on photographs. When I look at pictures that I took ten years ago, the glaciers were enormous. Global warming is affecting all Cordilleras and this is bad news for mountaineers. I believe that the most affected mountain range is the Cordillera Blanca in Peru because of the fact that this is a tropical mountain.
After the Himalayas, the highest Cordillera is the Andes. And when you take the entire Andes range, the Cordillera Blanca is the most famous one. Mainly because of it easy access routes and because there are some really easy mountains that even inexperienced people can climb. I believe what mountaineers like the most about the Cordillera Blanca, is that you can go on an expedition for, let´s say, seven or eight days, and your back in the civilised world. In Huaraz you can find decent food, a hot shower and a couple of nice places for a beer. And after a couple of days, you can go off on another expedition. This is fantastic and very attractive for mountaineers. Understand that in Nepal or Pakistan, for example, an expedition takes at least 40 or 50 days, so at the end of the expedition, it´s game over and you go back to your home country.
I believe that Huaraz has grown a lot, but I don’t have the impression that it was because of tourism. I think the mines have influenced Huaraz´s growth. Another thing that is calling my attention is the huge number of pharmacies on the main street Luzuriaga. I wouldn´t be surprised if Huaraz is the city with most number of pharmacies in Peru. Logically, there must be a demand, otherwise these pharmacies wouldn’t be there. Same for the casinos, I don’t know how many there are. Having not visited Huaraz for the past three years, I believe in terms of tourism Huaraz is reasonably poor. Although I do see some changes, but these are mostly businesses that do not exist any longer and their establishments have been taken by other owners. If I just look at the Parque del Periodista, it really looks pathetic. This should be an attractive place for tourists but it seems that the municipality or the entrepreneurs in that area don’t care. I don’t know! I can´t deny that there are some good hotels and a few decent restaurants, Huaraz should have a lot more on offer, and more variety too.
Currently, you are the only Peruvian that has summited five of the 14 highest mountains in the world without the use of supplemental oxygen. When will you succeed in conquering Everest?
Well, not so long ago in 2006 I started my project of climbing the world’s 14 independent mountains that are more than 8000 metres above sea level. The first mountain I conquered was the Shishapangma, also called Gosainthān, which is the fourteenth highest mountain in the world. It took about two years to find enough sponsors to finance the expedition, which was a complete Peruvian expedition including Jorge ¨Coqui¨ Gálvez and Ernesto Málaga. There were three of us but only Coqui and I managed to reach the top of Shishapangma. After having done one ultra-prominent peak, I decided to go on my own the next year to the Cho Oyu, which is the sixth highest mountain in the world at 8201 metres. I did an easy and fast summit and the expedition only took eleven days. Since 2006 I also have managed to summit Annapurna (tenth highest at 8091m), Manaslu (eighth highest at 8156m) and Gasherbrum II (also known as K4, and thirteenth highest mountain in the world at 8035m).
Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous mountains in the world,with almost a 40% fatality rate. This was a very stressful climb but luckily I made it back alive. Luck is a very important factor in mountaineering. As was the case in 2012 when I went to Annapruna. I was one of a group of 30 people, counting the mountaineers and Sherpas. Between camp two and three, which is the most dangerous part of the climb, a massive avalanche happened. All of us returned to camp two and most of the group decided to give up the expedition. Eleven of us decide to wait until the next day and see what would happen. Fortunately, the next day we had perfect weather and our small group continued. In the end only five of us made it to the summit, three of whom ascended with frozen hands and feet. In 2012, Carlos Soria Fontán, (a Spanish mountain climber who, at 75 years of age, has taken up the challenge of becoming the oldest person in the world to reach of summit of the 14 highest mountains in the world) was one of the people that decided to abandon Annapurna. He returned in 2013, 2014 and 2015 but never made it to the summit. In 2016 he made another attempt staying almost 12 months in the area, and thanks to good weather he finally made it to the top. He has now completed 12 out of 14. So this shows you have to be lucky sometimes and have the capacity to wait and take the right decisions at the correct moment.
I have now tried to summit Everest four times, twice trying from the Tibet side and twice from the Nepal side, but I haven’t been able to get to the top. I got stuck at 8400 metres and that´s a pity. As you know, I try to summit these peaks without supplemental oxygen and without Sherpas. Let me tell you that this season [at the time of recording the interview] almost 550 people have climbed Everest. And this is not many people because in that area they are still suffering the aftermath of the earthquake, and the incident in which 16 Sherpas died in 2014. Normally, the average is around 650 people making it to the summit. Almost all of those people, maybe with the exception of one, use Sherpas and supplemental oxygen. I am convinced that I would have conquered Everest at least twice with the use of supplemental oxygen, but this is not my project. It involves a completely different strategy because you can´t make any mistakes. Understand that the less oxygen that enters your brain, the harder it gets to think and make decisions. There are numbers of mountaineers that have died making the summit, but dying afterwards in the descent. And don´t think that people who use supplemental oxygen won´t die. There are a number of climbers that got killed because of other factors other than lack of oxygen to the brain. These people are not really mountaineers but more mountain tourists. The have the money and can pay up to US$60,000 for their Everest expedition, but they simply lack the experience. I have seen people at the base camp being given explanations on how to use of crampons. This is really incredible, but shows that there are two type of climbers, tourists and mountaineers. But, as your readers will understand, ascending and descending without oxygen or Sherpas is very much more complicated. I hope to become the first Peruvian to complete the 14 eight-thousanders without supplemental oxygen.
In the end, you could have had the best training, have the best mountain equipment such as clothes, sleeping bag and tent, but, ultimately, the mountain will decide if you make it or not. The expeditions are very expensive and that´s why I am always looking for businesses to sponsor me. If I am 300 metres away from the top, and it´s not possible to get there, than it´s not possible. I don’t feel pressured by sponsors or followers because like I said, it is sometimes simply not possible to make it. Believe me, I am the most interested to complete my expedition. Then there is no other option than to turn around and come back another day. This happened on my first expedition to Everest. I was only 500 metres from the top and I could see it, and the weather was good too. However, I was over 36 hours at an altitude of 8300 metres above sea level, and I would have been wrong to continue. That would have been very risky for my health. On my last expedition to Everest it was raining and snowing a lot, and I was hoping that the weather would change. But, sadly it didn’t, so I had to turn around again. Luckily this was understood by my sponsors and they admit that the most important thing is to return home safe and healthy. The mountain is still there, so I can return any time.
When was it that you decided to become a mountaineer?
When I was young I didn’t even know that mountaineering existed. The first time I came to Huaraz was with my college on a trip. I remember seeing the mountains but there was still nothing inside of me that said, hey I want to become a mountaineer. I wanted to join Peru´s military forces because I have a couple of uncles that are in the military. I decided to study civil engineering because I thought that this would be my future career and I wasn’t wrong. I studied industrial engineering and after two years I guess I lost my motivation. During this time I saw an advertisement in a local Lima-based newspaper looking for people to join a mountaineering course. This course was run by the Club Andino Peruano, which is the oldest club in Peru, if I am not mistaken. I got interested and from that moment I have continued practising mountaineering. Mountaineering is horrible in the beginning because you suffer cold, wind, altitude sickness etcetera. But if you really like climbing, it´s a fantastic sport! Starting out is really difficult because you will need a job to fund you as it´s an expensive hobby. The first peak I summited was one in the Cordillera Central. I didn’t enjoy it at all, I looked like a green alien because I was about to throw up, and I suffered from terrible headache. Despite all this, when I got home, I had great memories and felt happy that I made it. I have always like to camp and go fishing, so maybe I was happy that I found something in me that I didn’t know at the time.
I read that you have a son, if he says to Dad one day he wants to be a mountaineer, what would you say?
Absolutely not! It´s very dangerous [laughing out loud]. He lives with his mother, and I have never liked the idea of a son or daughter having the same occupation as their parents. He should decide this for himself. And concerning mountaineering, this is something that you´re born with. It would be really bad to take my son up the mountain in a forced manner because if he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t like it. I would be surprised if he would want to become a mountaineer, but it will be his decision in the end. I believe he has visited Huaraz with his mother.
When do you think that you will be able to say that you have completed all 14 eight-thousanders?
This is very hard to say. It was just after my second mountain, which I paid with my own money, when I decided to go for all 14. I set a deadline a couple of years ago and 2021 would be nice because that´s the year that Peru will celebrate 200 years of independence. I still hope to become the first Peruvian to complete the 14 eight thousanders and this would be a nice birthday gift for Peru. I notice this on my social networks as well, the expeditions are no longer my expeditions, they´re everyone´s. It´s like a swimmer at the Olympics, this person is representing Peru, and this is also the case with my project. I think it´s strange that we have so few mountaineers. Peru is a country with the best and most beautiful mountains, there should be a lot more of us. In the Himalayas, I am often the only Peruvian.
Are you religious Richard, or do you believe in God and does this play any part in your expeditions?
I wouldn’t consider myself religious, but I do believe in God. You´re an absolute nobody when your climbing a huge mountain, and you´re very fragile as well. And when you´re in danger you start to think that there must be some higher power that can help you. This is something that shouldn’t happen only when danger occurs but… Well, I don’t consider myself catholic, but think I am a believer.
Who was your idol when you started climbing? Was there someone who inspired you?
The Club Andino Peruano taught me many things and they had a huge library with some fantastic books. I started to read many stories on mountaineering because practising is one thing, it´s also very important to understand how other mountaineers experienced their adventures. The French mountaineer Lionel Terray was inspiring. He managed to conquer the most difficult mountains in the world and made many first ascents, including Makalu in the Himalayas. He has also visited Peru and climbed Tocllaraju, Charcraraju and the Huatsán. This must have been somewhere between the 50s and 60s. I also liked to read about another French mountaineer called Gaston Rébuffat, and the Polish alpine and high-altitude climber Jerzy Kukuczka.
Who would you name as being Peru´s best mountaineer at the moment?
This is very complicated. There is no record of people opening new routes, which makes it hard to talk about a top ten or even top five. I know that Víctor Rimac Trejo is doing very well at the moment. It´s strange and, like I mentioned before, we have so many great mountains, but so few mountaineers in our country. Last year there were three Ecuadorian expeditions in Pakistan. And also two expeditions from Chile, which had their own materials and plans. And Peru? If you would like to get people playing tennis, for example, a government will have to build tennis courts. But for climbing and mountaineering, the mountains are already here so I can´t explain why Peru doesn’t have more mountaineers.
I have been following you on social media, and I have always wondered how you got some of Peru´s big brands to sponsor your expeditions, was this an easy task?
It was not, it was very complicated. Like I stated previously, the second expedition in 2007 I paid for completely myself. This is where the ball started rolling, but still, when you knock the doors, people will ask straight away whether you´re going to Everest or not. Some will ask you what is mountaineering about! You have to explain that there are another 13 mountains in the world that belong to the same group. This was very hard in the beginning. But it has been important to always believe in my own abilities and, luckily, I have been able to visit the Himalayan area every year. Sometimes you have to be a bit lucky too. One day I was invited to give a speech at a nationwide bank, and they liked my story a lot and asked me to make a commercial for them. The commercial helped me a lot because other businesses heard about my expeditions too. Other businesses are just conjunctural sponsors that step in when I go to Everest. At the moment Herbal Life is one of my prime sponsors, Turismo Civa is another big one, North Face and Petzl, probably. Nowadays, with so many social networks, it´s important to inform your followers and fans. But it´s not just about informing people about my achievements, there are so many people that are not aware of the huge number of mountains our country has to offer, so it´s a way of promoting Peru as well. As you know, the Cordillera Blanca is not the only mountain range where you can climb; there is also the Cordillera Huayhuash, for example.
What is funny is that the people in Lima think that you will need to go to Huaraz to climb, but not far from Lima is the Cordillera Yauyos and the Pariacaca mountain range, and in Cusco and Arequipa you can climb too. I think that many people in Peru don´t know (yet) what their country has to offer. My intension is, like I said, not only to report on my happenings but also show what places are great to visit. I have to admit that mountaineering is getting more popular, let me give you an example. Five years back, if I would go to the area of Ticlio, which belongs to the central sierra of Lima, in February or March to train, I would find myself completely alone. Nowadays, on an average weekend there are at least 20 people, and in an extreme case sometimes even up to 100. This is a good thing!
Mountaineering is a fairly solitary sport, do you ever get lonely?
Being on your own is a process that you have to adapt to. Mentally, this requires a lot of preparation. I guess, once you get used to it, time passes by without you noticing. And although mountaineering is a solitary sport, when you´re at a basecamp there´s always fellow climbers to have a chat with. An 8000-metre expedition can´t be managed on your own. You will need to contact an agency first. Here you will find fellow climbers that will be on the expedition, obviously everyone has their own strategy and climbing style. This is where friendships are made in the mountains. I have been on my own many times when there was, for example, no-one between two camps and it´s just a matter of not talking. Because there is no one to talk to! So what you mainly do normally is listen to music.
Have you thought what you will do when you quit climbing?
No I haven’t because I am not planning to quit yet. Look at Carlos Soria, he is almost 80 and still climbing! Understandably, your pace and flexibility will not be the same as you get older, but I think I will still be able to enjoy climbing for a long time to come.
What do you think of Victor Rimac?
I know Víctor because we´re both guides and have been colleagues for many years now. I was a bit surprised when a couple of years back out of nowhere he decided to go to the Himalayas. And I was really pleased to find a fellow countryman climbing in Asia last year. I knew he was there in 2014 as well but we didn’t meet. Like I said earlier, it´s excellent, the more Peruvian mountaineers the better. Every time I have been to the Himalayas, fellow climbers I speak to will name the Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz, Peru. I am certain that if I would say that I am from Uruguay or Paraguay, they would say no more than ahhh. But when I say Peru, people immediately say Cordillera Blanca, Huayhuash and Huaraz. I think it´s great for Víctor. Not everyone understands this but let me use a tennis example. Nadal wouldn’t be where he is now, if there hadn´t been Đoković. And Đoković wouldn’t be there if there hadn’t been a Federer. Sports need competition because this is what it makes it interesting for different brands to sponsor different athletes. I wouldn’t say that there is a rivalry between mountaineers from Lima and the Andes either.
Rounding up the interview, what will be your next expedition?
Well, this is funny, I haven’t decided yet, I will see next year. I have to do some calculations and see what budget I will need and then I shall have to start knocking on doors. I have some sponsors at the moment, but I would like to add another two or three to the list. It´s important nowadays to have a clear concept and publish often on social networks, that´s how it works. On the other hand, I have been contacted by many people in the past that weren’t mountaineers. These were people that identified with what I do. I am referring to the sacrifices, endurance, constancy and following an ideal. It´s really interesting when people who aren´t mountaineers contact me to say that I inspire them. One way or another, it´s fascinating to be a source of inspiration. But, the main objective is to promote my sport, and hopefully there will be more of us in the near future.