Eylene Pirez

1. Give me a bit of insight into who you are. Where you’re from (initially), what you do, where you call home to now (if different from where you’re from), that sort of stuff.

I am originally from Camaguey, Cuba. I got to the states in 2001. I was an illegal immigrant but got my citizenship in 5 years. I grew up on a farm and quite poor. Communism was hard, but I had a fantastic large and intelligent family that figured out how to feed us and get us out of there.  I'm an exile, so I can't really go back home. Home is now Los Angeles. Most of my mom's family is here in the US. They now live in Texas.  I came here to get an education and a better life. I grew up without the freedom to leave the island, so that was a big incentive to travel and explore other cultures and sports. 

2.  I know that you’re a Doctor - of what exactly? (My memory tells me you’re a physicist, correct me if I’m wrong!)

My bachelor degree is in Astrophysics. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with space. The first book I ever read was The Little Prince, and it forever made me curious about space. My trip to Africa was primarily driven by that book. It was always a dream come true to be in the Sahara desert. My graduate degree is in Particle Accelerator Physics. I switched because I wanted to make a bit more of an impact in many applications. We worked on technologies for medical physics, energy manipulation, and particle discovery. 

3. How’d you get into mountaineering? What do you love about it?

I have been in academia my whole life. Academia has many grand challenges but also a terrible lifestyle. Academia tends to exploit and restrict. The lesser the life you have, the better the scientist you are considered. That didn't sit right with me. What's the point on knowing so much about the world and never experience it? I hate that we are wage slaves and mainly survive rather than live. I sincerely believe that enclosed, gray spaces are among the most damaging environments to humans. I compensated for this kind of situation by escaping to wide-open spaces filled with color (very obvious from my photography). I came from a place where we didn't have much, but we had a community. In the US, the community is weak, and everyone is out on their own. I started solo traveling and relying on the joy of exercise, outdoor challenges and the freedom of outdoor sports. I started hiking a lot. That progressed to 'How far can I go?'. I started pushing my limits and got serious about training and figuring out gear. I've made a lot of mistakes in my expeditions that led me to sheer terror but the years of bad judgment led me to gain enough experience to do these things alone. It is still terrifying at times, but that's what makes it an adventure.

I really love the mental/physical challenge. In mountaineering, they work together.  You can be the fittest, but if your mind is not at the same level of fitness, you will die. It's the only sport where the brain has to be aware of the body and body has to be mindful of the mind. Cerebral edema is vast at high altitude. You may have heard of this, but whenever they find corpses on the big mountains they are always naked! This is due to people losing their judgment because of the effects of high altitude. They think they'll do better without all the layers of clothing and eventually freeze to death. People on the big mountains become a little insane, and it's all a physical response to altitude. So on top of being able to read terrain, weather, avalanche chances, you have to understand all the science involved in what your body is experiencing. To me figuring out how to safely go around all of these challenges is really gratifying. It's a huge puzzle that requires years of dedication and commitment.  

I also think it gives me more appreciation for life.  A lot of people of people think extreme sports means you don't value human life. I think I appreciate it more than most. But to me, living is being there in nature in complete awareness of your body and mind and surroundings.  

4. Tell me about the first mountain you climbed

Oh god. Mt. Rainier. That was a disaster! I summit, and I'm not even sure how. I had never traveled much in snow and ice, and I was a massive liability to the group. 

5. How do your love of mountaineering and your career as a physicist intersect?

Well, they are both complicated problem-solving careers. That's what I am good at. I am good at analyzing a situation and spending months studying to figure out solutions. Both physics and mountaineering, offer that. I'm not the top athlete, but that to me comes second. I always find the challenge, the puzzle, the solution and then get my mind and body ready for what is to come. 

6. What inspires your expeditions? How do you choose a place or a particular mountain?

Expedition work is the most beautiful part of mountain sports. Many don't agree. For example, a rock climber's dream is a car crag where they don't have to walk and just climb a fun route right outside of their car. I am precisely the opposite. I like soaking in everything about a place. I love learning the towns nearby. Meet the locals. I want to go into the backcountry and find a route where I have a real connection with not just the course but the mountain. Finding the right location that can give me all of that is number 1. in all honesty, I fall in love with the trek long before I step foot on the mountain. 

3 aspects are essential to me: universal value of the location, beauty, and intimacy of a trek, and challenge level (this is last). I would rather climb Ama Dablam than Everest. 

7. What was your #1 favorite mountaineering experience to date?

It's almost your last one because you are still "in love." So China. I did a beautiful climb above 6,000m in the Tibetan Plateau. Challenging in many levels. Culturally, physically bizarre. Logistically? A fucking nightmare. It took me an hour reading buses list to even figure out how to get myself to the base of the mountain which to this day I'm not sure what the real name of it is as I heard so many versions. Just picture that. Asking people in rural China how to get to a place you don't know the name of. lol

8. What’s one that was particularly challenging and really tested your edge?

Iceland. I brought a friend who wasn't experienced. I was thinking I could carry her weight ( I had the heaviest bag I've ever carried). I thought I could mentally coach her through it. The first day there, a storm moved in, and it was as if we were trekking inside a ping pong ball. I had to continually keep the hopes up as she cried and told me " we were going to die." It was really hard. We couldn't see where we were at. Visibility was zero feet. We had to cross large ice fields hoping we wouldn't fall into crevasses because we had to get off that mountain or we were going to die. We kept passing burials and memorials. One of the hardest days of my life. Definitely the hardest day of her life.

9. Tell me about how the idea for this Chile climb came about

I got done with China and was high on 6,000m peaks. So I started studying 6,000m peaks. I arrived at Aconcagua, and it didn't really call my name at first, but it turned my attention to Chile. I read about the expedition to dig out the 3 mummies out of Llullaillaco. I was sold. I became obsessed with the Atacama region. The dark skies, the science, history, and value of the region surpassed my expectations. That was it! Once I pick a mission, I become obsessive till I get there. This entire year has been spending looking for valuable experiences in chile and enjoyable adventure. I got really into, and now I'm spending 3 months doing everything I wanted to do there. I can't wait to share the fantastic science and adventure opportunities this country holds. 

10. How do you plan a route on a mountain you’ve never climbed before?

Like a psychopath. My room is a mess of maps, pictures, and summit report print outs! I've read every report in the land of previous climbers. I called all the rangers for beta( info) on the routes. This is my favorite part. Figuring out what gear and what I need to have and what my body needs to be capable of withstanding. SOOO FUN. The beauty of being a female solo mountaineer is that you are responsible for every little detail and execution. It is a whole new game. 

11. Besides planning the route, how do you prepare yourself for something like this?

Every expedition is different. I build my physical training plan based on the peak. I usually give myself months with very structured diet and exercise. I give myself months to figure out and practice all the necessary skills( Crevasse self-extraction, ice travel, etc..). Let's just say that every day of my life in the last few months depends on Chile. I breathe, sleep and eat Chile. 

12. What are some things involved the process of planning/prepping for a climb like this that might surprise people?

Planning expeditions can really be a damaging process to your personal life. For a long time, I struggled to share this with significant others. I have destroyed many friendships and relationships for this. I still don't know how to keep a man in life and have this life. I am single and for a good reason. Even though I really would love a partner, the one that will be happy with only receiving satellite phone coordinates for extended periods of time has not arrived. When you do this type of expedition, your significant other has to have a level of understanding that is beyond what's normal. I wouldn't even date me! I become fixated and this is everything to me. The last thing you want to hear when you're infatuated with a mountain is about relationship issues.  It throws you off.  Arguments and friction leading up to a climb can be challenging. I have a terrible habit of sweeping personal issues them under a rug till I come back. Your family also becomes concerned. One of the reasons I plan so hard is because I can't die before my mom. I promised her that. 

13. Through all of your previous experiences and up until today, what have you learned about what is possible for a human being who sets out to do something?

We are more than just our bodies. We can do the unthinkable if we really want it. Exploration is a primal drive, and you just have to dig deep and hard to find it. 

I also have learned that is entirely possible to be head over heels in love with your planet. 

14. What are you feeling emotional and processing mentally as it relates to this upcoming climb?

I am stoked and afraid. I still have moments where I have a sinking feeling I get when I realize I trick myself into doing something stupid. But doubt is part of the process and pushes me to find my weaknesses and work on those. I prepare myself to be able to handle anything that the mountains throw at me which requires days of putting myself through practical torture. Those days are hard, but it gets more relaxed and more comfortable every day. What I have learned is that the second I step foot on the mountain, that doubt goes away. It always does. The fear will still be there but in a different form. It's no longer self-doubt. The stoke of being there will take over. 

ManifestNICHOLAS MOHNACKY