When Carlos Soria leaves his house to train in the mountains outside Madrid, wearing a facemask brings back memories of the Himalayas.
“It’s difficult to breathe, so it reminds me of when I’m at high altitude,” he says with a smile.
The 81-year-old expects to experience the thin air of the Himalayas once again this spring, when he plans to climb Dhaulagiri mountain in Nepal.
Then, in the autumn, he hopes to summit Shishapangma in Tibet. If he manages both, he will become the oldest person to have reached the summit of the world’s 14 highest peaks – all of which surpass 8,000m (26,247ft).
Carlos, a retired upholsterer born in Ávila to the north-west of Madrid, has climbed throughout his life. But in the past two decades or so, his feats in breaking a flurry of age-related mountaineering records have made him unique.
He has scaled 11 of the 14 highest peaks in the world since turning 60. He briefly became the oldest person to summit Mount Everest at the age of 62. By 70 he had completed ascents of the highest peaks on all seven continents.
‘On my own two feet’
His most treasured achievement is the way he has gone about his climbs.
“The record I am proudest of is that I have never suffered serious frostbite and I’ve never had to be rescued,” he says. “I have always gone up and come down each peak on my own two feet.”
He had been hoping to complete his climbs of the 14 highest peaks last year, but Covid-19 thwarted his plans. When he does go, he says he will remember victims of the pandemic at the two summits.
“I want to pay tribute to the people of my age around the world who have died from this virus – the people who are having a bad time in care homes and who are very scared,” he says.
“I’m going to take a little bunch of flowers and leave it on the summit as a tribute to all the people who have died due to this terrible situation,” he adds.
He is now training hard in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range near Madrid. He also has an improvised gym in a room at the back of his house which contains an exercise bike, weights and even a small climbing wall that allows him to practise using ice picks.
“Nobody in the world has done anything like this,” says Sito Carcavilla, a geologist who has climbed with Carlos.
“Carlos is not an old man who got bored when he retired and then decided to start climbing mountains,” he explains. “He’s a veteran mountaineer who’s still active and there’s no other sportsman… of any kind who has been active at the highest level for six decades.”
Carlos is now securing the funding he needs for the spring and autumn expeditions, and hopes they will not be further disrupted by the pandemic. Two years ago, he underwent knee replacement surgery but the veteran climber insists his physical fitness is not an issue.
“I’ve lost some stability in my legs, a bit of strength, a bit of mental sharpness,” he says. “But when I’ve been to the Himalayas I’ve never felt like the old guy who is just going to see if he can manage.”
“Elderly people have this idea that it’s game over for them,” he adds. “There are lots of people who say ‘well, I’m already 70’, but so what? That’s a wonderful age!”