At the tender age of 78, legendary Spanish mountaineer Carlos Soria is off to Nepal for his second attempt this year on Dhaulagiri. If he succeeds, it will be his 13th 8,000er, with only Shishapangma left to bag before taking the title of the oldest climber to join the 8,000 Club. We got Jules Stewart to catch Carlos for an interview.
“I could in fact make a case for already have been above 8,000m on Shishapangma,” he says. “In 2005 I did the 8,008m central pillar, but I still need to reach the main summit at 8,027m to be able to say I climbed the mountain. I like to do things properly. If all goes well after Dhaulagiri, I’d like to attempt the British route on Shishapangma in the spring of next year, the one that Doug Scott and his team opened in 1982.”
Soria spent 16 days training at Spain’s Centro de Alto Rendimiento (High Performance Centre) in Sierra Nevada, the mountain range near Granada. “For me, it’s the best place in the world to acquire the fitness you need for an expedition,” he says. “My training included cycling up and down 2,300m on a mountain bike, trekking for eight hours between the summits of Veleta and Mulhacén, cold mountain baths, lots of stretching, working out with weights and spending the nights above 2,000m.” Soria confesses to having spent a total of some five years of his life sleeping at 5,000m.
Inspiration level: 8,000
Photo: Luis Miguel López Soriano
The inspiration to have a crack at the 14 8,000m peaks came to Soria while he was climbing K2 in 2004, his third attempt after being beaten back by bad weather in the two previous years. This time, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the first successful expedition in 1954 by an Italian team via the Abruzzi Spur, 65-year-old Soria set the world age record for the world’s second-highest mountain. He says the summit was a huge challenge, the most technical one he had faced in the Himalaya, though surpassed in avalanche danger by Annapurna, where he was hit by three avalanches in 48 hours. “Having summited on K2 at 65, I decided I’d like to get to know the rest of the big peaks,” he says. “Of course I was concerned that at my age, there might not be time to complete all 14, but I thought it would be worth making the effort.”
Soria has been climbing since his 'teens, combining his work as an upholsterer at a family shop in Madrid with excursions to the nearby Guadarrama range, and later travelling to Chamonix and the Alps, riding pillion on a friend’s Vespa. A working life of lifting furniture was a major contributor to ongoing severe lower back and knee pain, and he also suffers from Méniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that has left him hard of hearing.
This year’s expedition to Dhaulagiri ended in a dispirited and hasty retreat after coming to within 300 metres of the summit. Soria had been struck down by a tummy bug at base camp and spent weeks surviving on a diet of rice and little else. “That was fine, until I set off on the summit bid and soon realised I was too debilitated to put any faith in a safe descent,” he says. “My guiding principle is to descend from a summit in the same physical condition as on the ascent. I’ve always held fast to this rule and I’ve never needed to be rescued from a mountain.” Before turning around, Soria spotted the head torches of a group of climbers who had gone up the previous day. “They were obviously in trouble, several were badly frost-bitten and eight of them had to be evacuated by helicopter. That convinced me I had made the right decision.”
Experience level: 8,000
Photo: Luis Miguel López Soriano
In spite of the challenges of taking on Himalayan giants at an advanced age, Soria says he has found pleasure in every one of the 8,000m peaks he has climbed so far. “Manaslu was an exceptionally great satisfaction for me,” he says. “My first attempt was in 1973, when I was 34 years old. It wasn’t until 37 years later, after four failed expeditions, that I found myself on the summit. It was one of the few times I felt like crying. This mountain has also been close to my heart.”
Soria was 71 at the time and six years previous he had already climbed Everest, an expedition that was fraught with unforeseen problems. “My Sherpa told me he had set up a tent at Camp 4 but when we got up there we found that this was not the case. To make things worse, our team of four was late starting off for the summit. The Sherpa decided to remain in his tent, so I took an extra bottle of oxygen. The first one ran out as we approached the South Summit. There was a technical glitch and I struggled to open the second bottle. When I reached the South Summit, I was convinced that I was going to top out and so I decided to use up what I had and make the descent without oxygen. In retrospect, I think it would have saved a lot of trouble had I done the entire climb without oxygen, which is what I did on Makalu four years later.”
In the 60 years he’s been climbing, Soria says the changes that have taken place in the world of mountaineering are for the most part positive. “As far as equipment is concerned, I only need to point out that the boots I wore on McKinley in 1971 weighed one kilo more than the ones I currently use,” he says. “I remember the old tents held up by a central pole, which was a dangerous piece of kit when a Himalayan storm is brewing. There is a wealth of climbing information around now and I am no stranger to the internet. On the negative side, it has to be said that massification has put a certain amount of objectionable and egotistic people on the mountain.” Dhaulagiri is a case in point: this year some 50 climbers from four countries, supported by around 100 Sherpas and porters, were crowded into base camp. “The bad elements still make up a small minority of a community with a strong sense of camaraderie,” Soria says.
Soria says that if he manages to complete his two remaining 8,000ers, there is no way he is going to hang up his boots and spend his ‘declining’ years reading the paper at his Madrid home in the foothills of the Guadarrama range . “I have no intention of retiring,” he says. “If my body decides to throw in the towel, I’ll console myself with walks in the hills near my house. But if I’m still feeling fit, there are a number of 6,000 and 7,000m peaks in Pakistan just waiting to be climbed.”
Soria says his ‘secret’ plan after the 8,000ers is to ski to the South Pole. “I’ve already done the Seven Summits, which took me to Mount Vinson in Antarctica in 2008. I was 69 at the time and feeling very fit. But I think it would be a great adventure to reach the Pole on skis.”
Jules Stewart has spent most of his professional life in journalism as a reporter, and has published eight books to date. One of his main personal interests is mountaineering, having made a number of 6,000+m ascents in the Himalaya and the Andes.
BMC Travel insurance comes with £10 million emergency medical cover: Knock yourself out.
After Alpine & Ski insurance? We've got a great deal to keep you covered: 25% off all annual multi-trip policies in Europe, which works out at £141 for 12-months cover.
Years of experience
We've been insuring adventurers like you for over 30 years. That's why all of our policies come with:
24-hour emergency assistance helpline
£10 million emergency medical cover
£100,000 search, rescue and recovery cover
£10,000 personal accident cover
£5,000 cancellation cover
£2,500 baggage cover
No age loading until you're 70
WATCH: BMC Insurance: built for the mountains
*Policy details: £141.80 for annual European Alpine and Ski cover up to age 69. For policies purchased between 14 May and 31 July 2018.