Additional photos Courtesy of
They call it the death zone. At altitudes above 26,000 feet, your body starts to die. Deprived of oxygen, your brain functions are compromised, and you start acting like a drunk teenager, which is the last thing you want to be doing while balancing on a sheer cliff on the highest point on Earth. It’s possibly the most excruciating moment you’ll experience, and maybe your lungs are about to explode, or your feet or fingers feel like shattering, but that’s the price you pay for touching heaven.
Romi Garduce, the first Filipino to complete the Seven Summits, once said that climbers need to be masochists in order to finish: “It’s all just suffering.” I once hyperventilated and thought I was going to collapse on a day hike up Turtlehead Peak in Nevada, so I can’t even begin to imagine the difficulties and dangers one encounters on an expedition to the tallest mountains in the world. But people like Carina Dayondon must love it, or, as the joke goes, have short-term memories.
Dayondon grew up climbing trees in the highlands of Bukidnon, so the call of the wild was never a distant sound.
She certainly makes it look like a walk in the park. Dayondon—who stepped on the highest peak in Antarctica on December 16, 2018 and became the first Filipina to finish the Seven Summits—posted photographs of herself constructing an igloo with her teammates, and building a Christmas tree adorned with climbing rope. She knows, however, the many ways you can die in the mountains.
Her journey began with the quest for Everest, which is on every serious mountaineer’s bucket list. “It’s intimidating—the height, the terrain, the dead you will see along the way.”
Yes—the dead. Many have attempted but overestimated their capabilities. The recent spate of deaths near an overcrowded summit in Everest just goes to show that it is not the mountain that needs conquering, but human greed.
Dayondon grew up climbing trees in the highlands of Bukidnon, so the call of the wild was never a distant sound. She learned how to camp outdoors as a Girl Scout. In college, she joined the mountaineering club, where she set progressive goals for herself: to climb the highest mountain in Bukidnon, then the Philippines, then Southeast Asia. Soon she got into sport climbing, joining the national team from 1999 to 2001. After sport climbing, she turned to adventure racing, a multi-disciplinary sport that involves biking, land navigation, kayaking, paddling, swimming, running/hiking non-stop for up to four days, covering a total distance of 600 kilometers.
She wasn’t doing this all purely for fun, however. Whatever she earned from prize money, she gave back to her family. As the fourth-eldest among 15 kids, she was expected to take care of her younger siblings and send them to school.
As the top female adventure racer in the country, she was a natural choice for the organizers who were putting together a team for the Philippine Mount Everest project. Art Valdez, the Department of Transportation and Communication undersecretary from 1996 to 2004, decided to pursue a lifelong dream of ascending Mount Everest when he left government. A mountaineer in his younger days, Valdez chose to forgo the individual glory of reaching the summit, instead taking on the role of expedition leader of an all-Filipino team. At the time, no Filipino, male or female, had ever climbed the peak—it was the very definition of the impossible dream.
“It’s intimidating—the height, the terrain, the dead you will see along the way.” <callout-alt-author>CARINA DAYONDON<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
Joining the Everest team required three years of full-time commitment, where they would formally train at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, learn technical climbing in New Zealand, and practice by ascending different mountains around the world—Denali included, the highest peak in North America. But there was no promise of an allowance or financial support.
In fact, the team had barely enough funds to scrape together. Dayondon had just graduated from college and was faced with a difficult choice: her father’s business had gone bankrupt and he wanted her to come home and be the breadwinner. She was torn, and prayed for guidance. But in the end, she could not pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is a mountaineer’s credo to never give up.
Dayondon went to Manila, hoping she could find work while still being part of the team. It was her first time in the capital, and the proverbial country girl in the big city was dazzled by the tall buildings and visits to the network studios. But thoughts of her family were never far from her mind.
In the midst of training in 2005, she found out that her house was about to be foreclosed by the bank. Her father impressed upon her that the next time she came home, her siblings might be sleeping on the streets. Dayondon took a break from training to join the Island Paradise Adventure Race with her Everest teammate Erwin “Pastour” Emata. The prize money was a cool million pesos, definitely worth competing for. Her determination and desperation to win, if only for her family, led them to first place, and she sent her share of the money home.
She took this as a sign from God that following her passion was not a selfish endeavor, and she was recommitted to the Everest quest. Months later, Valdez helped her find employment at the Philippine Coast Guard. She immediately sent home her ATM card, a trade-off for the freedom to pursue her lofty goals.
“I like how she took care of her family. At the end of the day, if you don’t have peace with your family, you cannot sleep soundly,” says Dr. Ted Esguerra, the expedition doctor who was part of the final expedition team.
On the basis of the three Cs—capability, commitment, and compatibility—the initial group of around 30 Everest hopefuls whittled down to nine. The other team members were Voltaire Velazco, the weather specialist; Fred Jamili, the technical climb adviser; Art Valdez as team leader; and climbers Janet Belarminom, Carina Dayondon, Erwin Emata, Leo Oracion, and Noelle Wenceslao. Emata and Oracion would become the first and second Filipino men to summit Everest in May 2006, while the three women would accomplish the feat a year later and do one better, becoming not only the first Pinays to reach the top, but the first women in the world to traverse the mountain.
“After the traverse, we were the toast of the town,” recalled Valdez. “People were saying, why didn’t we think of crossing before?” Perhaps because the costs are prohibitive: the traverse requires two permits: $10,000 from Nepal, $8,000 from China-controlled Tibet, and an additional traverse fee of $3,000. Today, the record remains unbroken, largely because China has stopped issuing permits to cross.
More than just prove that Filipinos were capable of climbing Mt. Everest, they embodied the spirit of bayanihan, showing the world that nothing was impossible with teamwork and unity.
The team ascended upon Everest again the following year, joining the Everest Marathon in 2008. Valdez shares that Dayondon could have placed in the marathon, but he had advised her to let the Sherpanis battle it out for the top prizes. The marathons have been dominated by the Nepali, who remain the undisputed champs. She managed to rank as Fastest Foreign Woman, a title she held until 2016.
In the three years the Philippine team has been on Everest, they were the most popular camp. They offered free medical consultations and medicine, and their camp was always open to those who needed help or were hungry. More than just prove that Filipinos were capable of climbing Everest, they embodied the spirit of bayanihan, showing the world that nothing was impossible with teamwork and unity.
“We went to the highest point on Earth, but when we went down, we just went back to the simple lives we left behind, our feet firmly planted on the ground,” says Dayondon. She points out that no fortune waited for them; there was no pot of gold at the end of their climb. It wasn’t very long, however, until she unplanted her feet for a different kind of adventure.
Art Valdez wanted the team to keep exploring. Climbing mountains was not something particularly close to the heart of Filipinos, who were impressed with the achievements but couldn’t relate with it on a gut level. Seafaring, on the other hand, is in our DNA.
In 2009, the Balangay Voyage project was launched. The balangay, a type of sailboat used by Philippine forefathers to cross the bodies of water around Southeast Asia, would be constructed according to traditional techniques by Badjao master boat builders, and the expedition would retrace the ancient routes used for trading and migration.
Dayondon, who had faced down mountains in extreme weather conditions, was filled with trepidation at the thought of living on a boat. “I didn’t want to go [at] first. I thought it would be pushing too much of my luck. I was given the mountain, and now I’m trying to conquer the sea? Baka ma-disgrasya ako.” She went to Valdez and told him, “Sir, I’m only good for the land.” Of course, she joined the expedition, and ended up staying on the boat for 17 months straight. “She’s tough,” Valdez says. “Once she makes her decision, that’s it.”
In the end, she could not pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is a mountaineer’s credo to never give up.
After the voyage, Dayondon decided she wanted to go further with the Philippine Coast Guard. She trained to be an officer, and currently serves as Lieutenant Junior Grade. As a training officer, she works with the next generations of Coast Guards, and uses her story to inspire—if not intimidate—the young cadets into falling in line.
The thought of finishing the Seven Summits was always in the back of her head. After all, by this time, she had already done two of them. It took her younger sister getting cancer to reignite her dream. She wanted to use her bid for the Seven Summits as a platform for raising funds and awareness for breast cancer and women’s health. Dayondon was working full time and had to apply for a loan just to pay for her flight to Russia to climb Mount Elbrus. After some difficult weather aborting their initial attempt, Dayondon and a team of Filipinos reached the summit on July 20, 2013, six years after her Everest triumph. She started thinking about her next climb for the following year: Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. This trip was difficult for her, not because of the mountain which, at 2,236 meters, is shorter than our own Mount Apo, but because of the expenses she incurred. “It was just like a trek in the park,” she says. “But this time, I was on my own.”
She was alone again in 2015 for Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. A lack of logistical preparations meant she had to pay P40,000 for another ticket after being unable to board a flight, on top of being the only climber in the group. “I told my outfitter, make sure I’m in a group. I wasn’t comfortable being alone,” Dayondon recounts. But the team had rescheduled, and she ended up with a guide, porter, and cook—three big men who towered over her. “I prayed a lot!”
“We went to the highest point on earth, but when we went down, we just went back to the simple lives we left behind.” <callout-alt-author>CARINA DAYONDON<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
When she came down from the mountain, Dayondon received tragic news: her sister, Haidi, was given three months to live. Haidi had earlier asked for some money to buy vitamins, but she had actually relapsed and kept the news from her. “If I had known, I would have spent the money on her. But she wanted me to do my climb. She’s my biggest fan.” Haidi passed away in December that year.
“She’s not there on my other summits, but I know she’s with me, like an angel guiding me.”
Dayondon thought of taking a breather after Kilimanjaro, but Valdez found some money for her to scale Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America and, at 6,962 meters (22,841 feet), is the second highest of the Seven Summits. Because of the abysmal weather, she and her group—four burly men who could greatly outstride her—were locked out of the summit. The failed attempt was par for the course in a mountaineer’s life. “There will always be another time to go up,” she has said. The worst part of the trip, again, was getting there. Due to a combination of ill-preparedness and lack of funds, Dayondon had to travel by bus, lugging her many heavy backpacks all on her own.
“Minsan, nakakaiyak,” she says. “If I fall down, there’s nobody to tell me, ‘Carina, stand up! You can do it.’ But I survived.” She’s just talking about the bus station, mind you.
Her second attempt in January 2018, financially supported in part by BPI and former energy secretary Vince Perez, was a success, though it wasn’t one of her most comfortable climbs. “I got a light headache, but the worst part was that I had my period, so I was a bit weak on summit day,” she shares.
Bookending the year was Dayondon’s seventh summit. She would come to be the first Filipina to climb Mount Vinson in Antarctica, an undertaking that cost P3 million. She came home to accolades and a recognition by the Senate for a journey that started in 2004 and ended 14 years later—a woman of little means and a big family debt who, against all odds, took out loans to follow a dream, traveled around the world, climbed with the best of them, suffered through snowburn and exposure, helped people who were in trouble on the mountain even as others would leave them for dead, cooked adobo for a group of Russians, Germans, and Norwegians, carried her weight in gear, planted the flag and said a prayer of thanks at the top of each mountain, where each summit only strengthened and deepened her faith and trust in God.
The story of her incredible success has proven to be both an advantage and a disadvantage to Dayondon. “People think I can do everything,” she says. “I’m just human, and sometimes I get tired and depressed.” But because of all that she has gone through, she’s able to manage the down times.
“She ended up not as a painter but as an artist. Malalim na yung nakita niya,” says Dr. Esguerra. “Her only other sanity these days when there are no mountains to climb are her dogs.”
To paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, were the first persons to summit Everest, “If you cannot understand that there is something in a woman which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go.” Not many Filipina women will dream of climbing mountains. They may have less lofty goals, more grounded ambitions, but they have dreams nonetheless.
Dayondon took every upward step with honor and humility, and every struggle she countered with prayer and grace. Still, the lessons of Carina Dayondon’s story were never just about individual glory: it’s a story of teamwork and support, and how we, as partners and friends, but most importantly as a nation, need to lift women up by empowering them to reach their greatest heights.
This story was originially published as "No Man's Land" in GRID Volume 08.
GRID Volume 08 is made possible by Toyota Philippines.