At five feet tall and 115 pounds, Gineth Soto may not look an imposing figure, but appearances are deceiving.
The 34-year-old Tica is now setting out on the toughest of challenges and something no Costa Rican has ever achieved: climbing the world’s highest peak,Mount Everest.
Soto, who will leave for the Himalayan expedition April 10, cannot wait to begin.
“I have spent four years waiting for this moment,” she said, “and I feel ready and prepared, both physically and mentally.”
Born into an active family, Soto grew up in San José and as a teenager moved to the central Pacific coast town of Jacó, where she became an avid surfer and competed in several tournaments.
However, it was as a young girl on her grandfather’s farm at Ojochal de Miramar, in the Pacific Puntarenas province, that her love of the outdoors really flourished. At more than 500 acres,with rolling hills and plenty of trails, the land made a strong and lasting impression on the budding adventurer.
“Since the land was so big for a little girl, I always had the feeling of freedom,” Soto told The Tico Times. “I have the most beautiful memories there.”
Her passion grew when, in 1995, she moved to California and fell in love with the U.S. state.
“Being in the snow was like a dream come true,” she said.
She met U.S. citizen Michael Buturla in 1997 and married him shortly after. The couple continues to live in northern California with their two dogs: Denali, a Siberian husky, and Maximus, a collie.
The stunning landscapes of her surroundings inspired Soto to want to try “something more serious and harder than just a hike.” In June 2002, she climbed Mount Whitney (4,420 meters/14,501 feet) in California. The following summer, she summited Mount Rainier (4,392 m/14,409 ft) in Washington state. And she was hooked.
“It was after climbing Mount Rainier that I realized this is what I’m supposed to do,” Soto said. “I love it so much, probably because it makes me feel the way I felt when I was a little girl hiking on my grandpa’s land.”
Climbing Her Way to the Top
Having watched numerous documentaries about Mount Everest – and having initially thought, “These people are crazy and must have lost their minds to do something like that” – she realized it would be a dream to reach the summit.
However, at 8,848 m (29,028 ft), Everest can certainly not be done on a whim. Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the top of the world in 1953, a mere 2,500 people – only about 150 of whom are women – have managed the feat.On average, there is one death for every 10 people who reach the summit. Only one Central American, Guatemalan Jaime Viñals, has ever conquered the peak.
Clearly, Soto had to gain more experience to attempt Everest. However, she had a plan.
“I started to prepare myself for Everest and decided that climbing the other mountains that are part of the Seven Summits would be a great preparation,” she said.
A legendary mountaineering challenge, the Seven Summits is the pursuit of the highest peak on every continent. Because of a dispute over which is the highest peak in Australasia/ Oceania, the challenge is actually generally considered to involve eight summits.
Soto has already conquered Aconcagua (6,962 m/22,841 ft) in South America, Elbrus (5,642 m/18,510 ft) in Europe, Africa’s Kilimanjaro (5,895 m/19,341 ft), Denali or MountMcKinley (6,194 m/20,322 ft) in North America and Australia’s Kosciuszko (2,228 m/7,310 ft). If she achieves her goal, Everest will be her sixth summit.
The expedition presents an enormous challenge. Everest is 1,886 m (6,188 ft) higher than Aconcagua, Soto’s highest peak so far. The low atmospheric pressure at that altitude means that oxygen levels on the mountain are only a third of normal levels, and climbers generally need bottled oxygen.
Temperatures on the mountain can drop as low as -40 degrees Celsius (-40 F), and Soto can expect to burn 5,000 calories on an average day. However, the lack of oxygen means that digestion of food on the mountain is extremely difficult, and the average female climber can expect to lose at least 20 pounds as the body is forced to metabolize muscle tissue for energy.
To ensure she has the best possible chance of reaching the summit, Soto has been following a grueling training schedule six days a week. As well as cardiovascular workouts and weightlifting sessions, she is regularly climbing Mount Shasta (4,322 m/ 14,180 ft) near her home. She also enjoys running and completed the San Francisco Marathon in July.
Soto is not a professional climber and has had to make many sacrifices to finance her passion, fitting her training around her work as a cleaner. However, after years of paying for her climbing out of her own pocket, she is now sponsored by Costa Rica’s Banco Nacional – a huge relief given the cost of the Everest expedition.
The expedition is organized by Project Himalaya and headed by Jamie McGuinness, a highly respected guide who has led four expeditions on the mountain and has reached the summit of Everest three times.
He has also climbed several other peaks in the region and written two books about trekking in High Asia.
“Gineth is a gutsy woman,” McGuinness told The Tico Times. “She is obviously determined and accomplished and has the drive to succeed, but the age to judge well without pushing too dangerously. Certainly her accomplishments are impressive.”
Soto will be climbing as part of a 10-person expedition tackling the northeast ridge of the mountain. More than 10 Sherpas will support the climbers, helping to transport the estimated eight tons of equipment the group will have at base camp.
Though Soto has never met any of the expedition members and will be the only woman in the party, she said she has no apprehensions.
“I have been on several expeditions and I know how things work,” she said. “I have the experience, so I am not afraid. Although we will not meet until we arrive, we are a team, we are all mountaineers – you become like brothers.”
The expedition will begin April 13 in Kathmandu, Nepal, from where the group will begin the drive to base camp at 5,150 m (16,896 ft), a journey that will take four or five days; the group will take its time throughout the journey to ensure everyone is properly acclimatized and to guard against altitude sickness. From there, the climbers will move on to advanced base camp at 6,400 m (20,997 ft), where the expedition Sherpas will lead the “puja,” a traditional ceremony in which the group asks the gods for permission to climb and to bless the expedition.
Four more camps are stationed at 7,050 m (23,130 ft), 7,600 m (24,934 ft), 7,900 m (25,919 ft) and 8,250 m (27,067 ft) on the way to the summit, which the group hopes to reach around the end of May. That, however, is very dependent on the weather, and McGuinness will not be taking chances. He emphasized that while it is important that the climbers summit, it is more important that they make it back down.
“The summit is only halfway,” he stressed.
Certainly the final push will be grueling. The mountaineers will start out from Camp 4 in the middle of the night, and hope to reach the summit around mid-morning or lunchtime. If all is well, they will then immediately descend to Camp 2, having spent almost 18 hours climbing in the day.
While becoming the first Costa Rican to climb Mount Everest will be a towering achievement, reaching the top of the world will not be the end for Soto. She will still have two more mountains to climb to complete all of the Seven Summits.
“If I manage Everest in May or June, I will do Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia (4,884 m/16,024 ft) in September.And if everything works out, I will do MountVinson (4,897 m/16,066 ft) on Antarctica in December,” Soto said.
To complete the Seven Summits would be a massive achievement, but there may inevitably be more to the story. It is a common phenomenon for climbers to experience withdrawal symptoms from the sport, and Soto acknowledges that this is a possibility.
“It is such a challenge and takes so much effort, and it is such an achievement that when you do manage it and it is over, depending on the person, depression can hit. People get a feeling of ‘So, what now? What do I do next?’” she said.
Soto, however, plans to continue mountaineering. “I would like to go on and do more 8,000-meter peaks,” she said. “I would like to climb more mountains in the Andes – the mountains are my babies.”
Despite the immense challenge she faces, Soto is relaxed and looking forward to the trip. She will pack just one little luxury item for luck.
“My lucky charm, sincerely, has always been the Costa Rican flag,” she said. “The same one I have taken to all the summits I have reached.”
For more information about Soto and her upcoming expedition, visit her Web site at www.ginethsoto.com.