A woman with a proven track record of overcoming adversity. She is Carina Dayondon, the first Filipina to complete the Seven Summits challenge. It was a goal she set for herself.
She achieved that on Dec. 18, when she reached the top of the tallest mountain in Antartica, Mt. Vinsons Massif. It wasn’t an easy task. It took her nearly a decade and a half to climb the tallest mountain in each of the seven continents.
SPORTS AND ADVENTURE
She grew up in the province of Bukidnon, where she described life as “full of adventure.” She was always fascinated with heights. She recalled climbing fruit trees as a child, calling it “fun.”
Then she became a mountaineer in college.
“I took a basic mountaineering course then joined minor climbs,” she said during an interview at Deretsuhan sa Graphic, the radio program of the Philippines Graphic magazine. “Afterwards, I joined a mountaineering club and went on major climbs. I aimed to climb the highest mountain in an island, then the highest mountain the Philippines, then the highest in Southeast Asia. I had an advantage of sorts because the highest mountain in the country was in my backyard, Mindanao.”
This opened up the opportunity for her to become a sports climber.
“I became a member of the national team for sports climbing from 1999 to 2001. I competed outside the country,” she recalled. “After that, I joined adventure racing. It’s a multi-discipline sport where we do kayaking, land navigation, swimming, running and paddling.”
For Carina, she was indulging her passion and at the same time, earning money from her winnings.
This was an important point. Because she believed that adventure must have a purpose.
And her purpose was to use part of her winnings in adventure racing to pay for part of her college education. And help save the family home from foreclosure. Those were clear goals.
“My parents developed financial difficulties when my father’s business when bankrupt,” she recalled. “Yet they still did their best. We didn’t complain. We looked for solutions. Competing in adventure racing was part of that solution.”
CHOICE AND COMMITMENT
After getting her diploma, Carina was invited to try out for the Mt. Everest team in 2004. But she didn’t immediately accept. She had a choice to make. Try out for Mt. Everest or go look for a steady job.
In the end, Mt. Everest won.
“Mountaineering is our passion,” Carina said.
But agreeing to join the tryouts didn’t mean she had a sure slot in the Mt. Everest team. Those who wanted to join the team must be committed, qualified and, a critical factor, compatible with each other.
“Compatibility was important,” she explained. “We had to rely on each other for our lives. Teamwork was essential.”
At the end of the tryouts, the team was formed. Joining Carina were Noelle Wenceslao and Janet Belarmino.
“We all had to be committed,” Carina told the Graphic. “The training took three years to complete.Mountaineering is our passion. You must respect the mountain.”
In the course of their training, they climbed Mt. Denali in Alaska. At 20,310 feet, the mountain was the highest peak in North America. The climb up Mt. Denali was their preparatory climb to Mt. Everest.
Mt. Denali, highest peak in North America 2006. (20,310 feet) Preparatory climb prior for Mt. Everest, which stands at 29,029 feet.
Carina had already reached one of the Seven Summits. There were six more to go.
The next year, the team reached the top of Mt. Everest.
Noelle was the first to reach the summit of Everest, making her the first Filipina to reach that mountain’s summit. Carina reached the top 10 minutes later. Janet completed her ascent to the top of Mt. Everest about two hours later.
But they didn’t just settle for being the first Filipinas to reach the Mt. Everest’s summit. They made an even important mark when they became the first women from an ASEAN nation to climb not just up but across Mt. Everest. Carina has completed two of the Seven Summits.
They climbed the north side of Mt. Everest and went down the south side. Only a few of the elite mountaineers in the world have done that.
“Only a handful have done that,” Carina told the Graphic.
After completing the Everest expedition, she was tapped to join the Voyage of the Balangay. (See related story)
“That was from 2009 to 2011,” she recalled. “Then I underwent the officer training course in the Coast Guard.”
On 2013, she decided to complete the Seven Summits Challenge. She had already completed two of the seven challenges and only five more remained. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make.
“By then, I realized I needed to focus,” she explained. “Competitive sports entail an expense and I can only afford so much. I had to choose. And that was when I decided to go for the Seven Summits. I cannot do both.”
Fortunately, I was able to use the physical conditioning I gained from adventure racing and apply it to my mountaineering. I use the discipline and focus I learned in competing in triathlons in sports climbing.
Carina revealed that her sister Haidi had a strong influence in the decision to complete the Seven Summits.
“In 2012, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. “That was the moment I realized that we should be thankful for our health. She taught me that we have to enjoy our lives while we’re able.”
“My sister was braver than I am,” she added. “Haidi was able to face her illness courageously. She inspired me to be an inspiration for others. Her courage inspired me to go for the Seven Summits.”
In 2013, she traveled to Russia to climb Mount Elbrus. The mountain, which at 15,554 feet, was the tallest in Europe.
The next year, she reached the top of Mt. Kosciuszko. At 7,310 feet, it was the tallest mountain in the Australian continent.
She had reached four of the famed Seven Summits. She was halfway through her goal.
In 2015, on her trip to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, which at 19,308 feet was the tallest mountain in the African continent, her sister’s cancer recurred.
“Haidi asked for vitamins,” she recalled. “So, I told her that I will send her some. She wanted me to focus on my climb so she didn’t tell me that her cancer had returned.”
Only after she completed the Kilimajaro climb in October of 2015 did she learn of her sister’s grave condition. Haidi was to pass away on Dec. 28 of that year.
Aside from her sister’s fatal illness, the climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro had its own share of daunting challenges.
“I wanted to cry, but I had to find a solution,” Carina said. “That was the important thing. I was alone. I belatedly learned that my team had backed out. So, I was alone with a support staff of three people. They were tall Africans that I haven’t met before. For a moment, I thought of backing out but I was already there.”
The mountain beckoned. And she pushed through. And ten days later, she achieved her goal. She had climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Though Carina was not aware of Haidi’s actual condition at the time of her Kilimanjaro trip, Haidi was always in Carina’s mind.
“Haidi was a rural health nurse,” Carina said. “She inspired me with her courage and support. And that’s why I decided to complete the Seven Summits. She might not be here but I know that she’s still with me in my journey.”
She had reached the five of the Seven Summits.
A LESSON LEARNED
It would take Carina two attempts to reach the summit of Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina. Standing at 22,383 feet, it was the tallest mountain in South America.
Her first attempt in 2016 failed. Carina explained matter-of-factly that she hadn’t prepared enough.
“Respect the mountain,” she said. “The mountain will still be there despite whatever I do.”
It was a lesson learned. She explained that her first attempt ran out of funds.
In the interim, she returned to the Balangay project. She joined the voyage to China to commemorate the 600th anniversary of a Sultan’s trip to that country.
“It’s a story from the past about the ties between China and the Philippines,” she said.
“Then a friend invited me for a talk in the WWF Philippines,” Carina said. “So, I went. And shared my story about one Filipina’s quest to complete the Seven Summits.”
During that talk, Aurelio Montinola III, the head of WWF Philippines, was in the audience. Carina impressed him with her tale of “grit and determination of achieving one’s dream.”
He offered to help Carina. And because of his assistance, Carina’s second attempt to climb Mt. Aconcagua in 2017 was successful.
“You can’t take Mt. Aconcagua for granted,” she told the Graphic. “At more than 22,000 feet, it was not an easy climb. In fact, two climbers died on the mountain that year.”
There was one summit left. It was Mt. Vinson Massif. At 16,050 feet, it was the tallest mountain in Antartica.
The most difficult part was getting to Antartica. But with Montinola’s assistance, she overcame the travel hurdle. According to Carina, he helped her reach out to the Bank of the Philippine Islands, which sponsored part of her trip.
“Forty-five thousand dollars. The amount didn’t include airfare, food and accommodations,” she said. “Former Energy Sec. Vince Perez also helped. They pooled their resources together to come up with the needed logistical requirements. And with their help, I succeeded.”
That December, she achieved what her sister Haidi inspired her to do. Carina completed the Seven Summits Challenge.
Will Carina be taking on a new challenge?
She paused to think about it. Then gave an answer.
“Given the chance, I think it would be the North Pole,” she replied. “There’s the Three Poles Challenge. One of the Poles is Mt. Everest. I’ve done that. The others are the North and South Pole.”
If she does decide to do it, she’s already done a third of that challenge already. One down, two to go. G