Shortly after six most mornings, Spanish mountaineer Carlos Soria starts his daily training routine for an attempt on the Himalayan giant Kanchenjunga. As he mounts a static bike in the garden of his home in the foothills of the Guadarrama range, 40km north of Madrid, the climber’s mind is always on bigger, higher peaks – those whose summits exceed 8,000m. There are 14 “eight-thousanders” in the world, and fewer than 30 people have climbed all of them. Soria has conquered 11, and later this month he will travel to Nepal, where the majority of the eight-thousanders lie, in the hope of making it 12. But what makes his achievement stand out in an already elite group of mountaineers is the fact that he is 74 years old.
Everest at 62, K2 at 65 and now Kanchenjunga, a relatively “straightforward” affair after Annapurna, which he was forced to abandon last year after being hit by three avalanches within 48 hours. “That’s one of the most dangerous of them all,” he says – although he insists his withdrawal was merely tactical and that he will try again.
Soria worked as an upholsterer in Madrid from the age of 14 until he retired at 65. “There were four of us in a little workshop,” he says. “Carrying furniture around certainly contributed to the lower back and knee problems I suffer from today. But I’ve learnt to live with this and, funnily enough, the pains seem to vanish when I’m in the Himalayas.”
One of his main training challenges is simply getting enough sleep at the right time – Spaniards are famous late-to-bedders, with restaurants often deserted until after 10pm.
“I need to make maximum use of my free morning hours,” he says. He starts off with 20 minutes on the bike to get his pulse up to 135; then it’s stretching, abdominal crunches, a session with weights and some work on hands and forearms. “My knees have put me off running, but I do a couple of quick marches with ski poles 350m up a hill near my house,” he says. He has just returned from Norway, where he trained on ice walls.
He tells me that he suffers from Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that has left him slightly hard of hearing. It can affect balance – not great for a climber – so he also does balance-strengthening exercises to combat this. Just then a whoop goes up in the next room, where his wife Cristina, with whom he has four daughters, has found a hearing aid – lost by her husband a year ago – in one of her ski boots.
Soria started climbing when he was in his teens, in the mountains around Madrid. He and a friend were out walking in the Guadarrama one day when they got talking to a climber – an Adventist preacher who ran a climbing club at his church in the capital. “He taught us knots and rope work. And it was there that I met some members of a vegetarian club that organised trips to the mountains, so I joined. But I always stashed some sausage in my rucksack when I went out with them.”
His first venture into high-altitude climbing was in 1960, when he and a friend travelled to the Alps on a Vespa to try out their skills on the Mont Blanc range. His first big ascent was in 1968, when he became the first Spaniard to climb Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. Three years later he stood on the summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska, the tallest mountain in North America.
It was not until 1990 that he conquered his first 8,000m peak: Nepal’s Manaslu, which he summited on his second attempt. Soria is now the only mountaineer to have climbed nine 8,000m peaks after the age of 60. He also holds the world age record for K2, Gasherbrum and Broad Peak (all on the China/Pakistan border), and Nepal’s Makalu.
Three Himalayan summits – Annapurna and Dhaulagiri (both in Nepal) and Kanchenjunga (on the Nepal/India border) – stand between Soria and full membership of the 8,000m club. “I suppose K2 was the trickiest, though I’m not put off by technical difficulties. But Annapurna is without doubt one of the really dangerous ones. If all goes well, I hope to complete all the 8,000m peaks no later than 2015.”
What drives Carlos Soria to risk his life at an age at which most mountaineers have retired from the sport? “It’s what I was born to do,” he says. The thrill comes when he sees the first rays of dawn lighting up Everest on the ascent, for instance, and the dramatic shadows of the valleys still cast in darkness below.
“The summit is not the ultimate reward. The moment I set foot on an 8,000m peak all I think about is getting out of there as quickly as possible. It’s not a place fit for humans. My mind is 100 per cent focused on the descent, which is always the most dangerous part of the climb. I find it almost impossible to sleep when I reach a safe camp, with thoughts of friends and family racing through my mind.”
He has always been a cautious climber, he says. “If bad weather is telling you it’s time to go down, I never hesitate. I’ve never needed a helicopter rescue,” he says. He holds up his hands, to show 10 sinewy fingers – not one lost to frostbite. “See what I mean?”
But caution cannot always save you. On Annapurna last year, he was in his tent with fellow climbers during one of the three avalanches his party suffered. “I felt the snow rushing over. The first thing I did was to get my boots on. Everyone else ran out half-dressed, which is extremely dangerous. They shouted at me to get out as quickly as I could, but there was no way I was going into the snow without my boots. That’s how you risk losing your feet.”
So once all the eight-thousanders are done and dusted, is Soria planning to spend his “declining years” at the village bar, sipping coffee and playing cards with fellow pensioners?
“Not if I can help it,” he says. “I hope to carry on climbing for as long as my body allows. There are lots of smaller peaks in Hunza [Pakistan], and tempting summits in remote parts of China. And if all this proves impossible, I’m quite happy to go traipsing about my Guadarrama mountains, at home.”