Mountain climbers, we have a phrase: your attitude determines your altitude. You and only you can determine how high you go.”
Alpinist Karla Wheelock was born in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico on April 14, 1968. Her connection to the peaks around her became strikingly clear almost immediately afterwards; she was quick to join a Guías de México girl scouts group at the age of five, where her love of nature and mountains began to flourish in a vigorous and truly intoxicating way.
“The mountains taught me to appreciate the here and now,” Wheelock said in an interview with Forbes. “Normally you are concentrated on what you’re treading on. Sometimes, when it’s not a very difficult path, I sing. There are moments when I really enjoy it – taking photos, etc. – but in the key moments I am totally focused on my heart, on my feet, on my hands, on every step.”
It’s this focus that allowed Wheelock to embark on a serious career as an alpinist, starting at age 21 in her native Mexico, where she scaled Popocatépetl, Iztaccíhuatl, and Citlaltépetl.
Saying that her family thought she was crazy during these early stages of her career is perhaps putting it lightly. But who can really blame them? The prospect of pursuing mountain peaks is a daunting one to say the very least. Luckily for Wheelock, they supported her through and through regardless. “Even to this day they tell me, ‘You need to go to the mountain.’ They say it nourishes me.”
In 1993 – four years after reaching Mexico’s steepest summits – Wheelock began her quest to complete the mountaineering challenge Seven Summits, in which a climber attempts to reach the pinnacle of the highest mountain on each of the seven continents (a feat first accomplished by an American businessman only eight years prior). Her starting point: Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of Asia at 22,838 feet, located in the Andes mountain range in the Mendoza Province of Argentina.
By May 27, 1999, Wheelock made history as the first Mexican and Latina woman to make it to the top of Mount Everest, doing so by scaling the treacherous north slope. Upon reaching the summit, she waved her Mexican flag in all its glory.
When asked what she thought when she reached the peak, Wheelock explained: “Gratitude to God, to the people who believed in me, to the person who was waiting for me with a hug at the top. I felt God’s greatness and my littleness.”
You would imagine that climbing Everest would have been enough to fill and nourish the alpinist for at least a few years, but nope – those who have ever listened to one of her motivational conference talks know that she is always looking to take the next step and reach the next peak. Wheelock’s no. 1 priority upon reaching a summit – before celebrating or even cracking a smile – is finding the crest that extends even higher, the one she’s already desperate to climb to.
So in 2000, the following year, she reached the peak of Mount McKinley, the highest in North America. By 2005, she completed all Seven Summits. In 2010, she led the first expedition of Latino leaders to Antarctica. Wheelock is a phenomenal female figure to champion and celebrate this Women’s History Month.