Originally from Camaguey, Cuba Eylene came to America in 2001 to explore her new found freedom and pursue a career in science. Today, she's a physicist and mountaineer embarking on a journey to make science literacy a lifestyle by creating an adventure travel series called Access Chile. The inspiration for this series came to her as she was reading an article about scientists retrieving mummies a top of the world's highest mountains.
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Full Interview with Eylene Pirez
Give us a bit of insight into who you are. Where are you from? Where is home now?
As you can imagine, growing up poor on a farm in communist Cuba was tough. Fortunately, I was born into an amazing, intelligent family who figured out how to feed us and eventually get us out. I'm currently an exile, so I can't go back “home.” California is home now.
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
The first book I ever read was “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and it forever made me curious about space. My travels in Africa were primarily driven by that book. And it was a dream come true to trek through the Sahara desert. As far as my education: I got my bachelor's degree in Astrophysics and recently completed UCLA’s Accelerator Physics graduate program.
How did you get into mountaineering?
I have been in academia for much of my life and the philosophy of academia seems to be that the less of a life you have, the better the scientist you are which never sat right with me.
What's the point of knowing so much about the world but never experiencing it? The culture is bizarre; it often feels as if everyone is surviving rather than living. I came to realize that enclosed gray spaces are among the most damaging environments to humans. I compensated for these kinds of settings by escaping to wide-open spaces filled with color (very obvious through my photography).
I started by hiking a lot. That progressed to: “How far can I go?” That turned into backpacking: "How high can I go?" Then I got into high altitude mountaineering. Figuring out those answers led me to develop a deep passion for outdoor sports. It is one of the only places where I feel like myself.
Throughout this process, I consistently pushed my limits as I got serious about training, figuring out gear and route planning. I've made plenty of mistakes in my travels that led me to moments of sheer terror but, over the years of bad judgment, I was able to gain enough experience to explore in relative safety. I fell in love with the joy of exercise, mountaineering challenges and the freedom of outdoor sports.
What do you love about it?
I love both the mental and physical challenges in mountaineering. Your body and mind have to work closely together. You could be at the height of physical fitness but if your mind isn’t as fit as your body then you will make mistakes with severe consequences. It's a sport where the brain always has to be aware of the body and the body always has to be mindful of the brain.
For example, cerebral edema is huge in high altitude climbs, so you have to be able to assess your mental state as you climb higher. This requires a high level of self-awareness and control. As you may have heard: when they find corpses on the big mountains they are often 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. It's all a physical response to altitude. On top of being able to understand terrain, weather, and snow conditions, 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. It is also what I love about physics. It's problem-solving at its best!
I also love the appreciation for life that it has given me. A lot of people of people think that those who play extreme sports or do dangerous treks don't value their lives, but I think I value it more than most. It's just that my definition of “living” is a little different. To me, living is being in nature and in complete awareness of your body, mind, and surroundings.
How do your love of mountaineering and your career as a physicist intersect?
They are both really difficult problem-solving careers. That's what I love. I enjoy analyzing a situation and spending months studying to figure out the solutions. Both physics and mountaineering offer that.
What inspires your expeditions? How do you choose a place or a particular mountain?
Expedition work is a beautiful process. I like long and engaging treks that require me to give it all I have. Many don't agree. For example, many a rock climber's dream is a car crag - an excellent, challenging route where they don't have to walk far from the car. I am precisely the opposite. I don't just climb the route. I engulf myself in the region. I like learning about the towns nearby. Meet the locals. I love to go into the backcountry. I want to find that special connection outside the route.
When traveling, I never treat myself as a visitor or tourist. I always aim to be seen as one of the locals. It has led me to some of the most incredible experiences in my travels.
What matters most is the universal value of the location. In order of importance, three aspects are essential to me: the beauty of the location, the intimacy of the trek, and the challenge level. For example, I chose to climb Ama Dablam rather than Everest.
What was your #1 favorite mountaineering experience to date?
China! I did a few climbs above 6,000m in the Tibetan Plateau. China was challenging on many levels. The big cultural difference, the language barrier, the logistical nightmare... It took me an hour reading the bus list to figure out how to get myself to this tiny town by the basecamp. To this day I cannot tell you with certainty the name of that city. I never figured it out. There were so many versions and pronunciations. So picture this: traveling in rural China to a place you don't know the name of.
What’s one ascent that was particularly challenging and brought you to your edge?
Iceland. I brought a friend who wasn't experienced. I thought I could carry her weight and that I could mentally coach her through it. The first day there a storm moved in, and it was as if we were trekking inside of a ping pong ball. I had to continually keep her hopes up as she cried and told me "we are going to die." It was a lot of pressure. We couldn't see where we were. We had to cross colossal ice fields while minding deadly crevasses in low visibility. We kept passing graves and memorials. It was a tough day for me but definitely the hardest day of her life. That day really tested my ability to take care of someone. I had never been in that situation.
How did the idea for Access Chile come about?
I read about an expedition to dig 3 mummies out of Llullaillaco, a 6,000m volcano. This place rarely gets climbed because it is in the Atacama desert which is the driest place on Earth. This is in Chile. I was sold! I became enchanted with the Atacama region. The dark skies, the science, the history, and the value of the region surpassed my expectations. Then I started obsessing about all of Chile, so I wanted to traverse it all. That was it. Once I pick a mission, I become obsessed until I get there.
I spent his entire year looking for one-of-a-kind experiences in Chile both in adventure and science. I realized that this was an excellent opportunity to create something unique and valuable to the public.
Science literacy has really dropped in the world, and this is due to inadequate teaching methods. The number of educators that really have an impact on your life are usually counted with one hand. Science literacy is essential, especially among non-scientists, because you can't really be a part of the solution if you don't understand the problem. An excellent example of this is climate change: how do we expect people to vote for the right environmental policies if they don't know what is going on?
So I wanted to teach how to travel in a way where you can learn and also do what you love. I decided to take it a step further: to go back to my academic roots and teach. Really teach! Access Chile is a series of episodes about bridging that gap between science, adventure and education on topics that matter NOW.
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 available from previous climbers. I called all the rangers for beta info on the routes. This is my favorite part: figuring out what gear what I need to have and what my body needs to be capable of withstanding. This is such a fun part for me! The beauty of being a female solo mountaineer is that you are responsible for everything - every little detail, execution, and outcome. I love it.
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 a very structured diet and exercise plan. During my preparatory period, I make sure I have time to 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 is about Chile. I breathe, sleep, and eat Chile.
What are some things involved in mountaineering that might surprise people?
It can really be a damaging process to your personal life because you're often gone or working towards the next challenge; there isn't a lot of time for other things.
I struggle, particularly with significant others. I have destroyed many friendships and relationships for this type of traveling. I still don't know how to keep a man in my life and have this lifestyle. I am single and for good reason. I really would love a partner, but my lifestyle brings on challenges to my love life. For weeks at a time, all I can do is send my GPS coordinates with a satellite phone. Also, when you do this type of expedition, your significant other has to have a level of understanding that is beyond what's typical. Relationship issues can really throw you off and you need a clear head on the mountain, so there is no room for that. They also have to be able to withstand the stress of taking on a challenge of that magnitude and be OK with the possible outcomes.
My mom doesn't want to see me struggling, bruised, sunburned, hungry, aching and cold on a mountain but she puts up with it because she sees how much happiness it brings me. One of the reasons I plan so hard is because I can't die before my mom. I promised her that.
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 accomplish the unimaginable if we really want it. Exploration is a primal drive that will brighten your life in ways you didn't even know were possible. I have learned that it is entirely possible to be head over heels in love with your planet.
What are you feeling emotional and processing as it relates to this upcoming climb?
I am stoked!!!! And also afraid. I still have moments where I get a sinking feeling when I realize I’ve tricked myself into doing something stupid, but doubt is a part of the process; doubt pushes me to find my weaknesses.
I ready myself to handle anything that the mountains throw at me: that means visualizing every disastrous event and possible outcome. It can feel like torture but having those get-out-of-trouble plans brings you peace of mind. It is getting easier and more comfortable every day. I have learned that the moment I set foot on the mountain, that self-doubt disappears. I go into a focused mode with no use for unnecessary fear.