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An Emotional Quest to Climb a New Route on Dhaulagiri

Climbing One of the Tallest Mountains in the World
03 Nov 2022

An Ecuadorian mountaineer balances friendship, love, and luck in his quest to climb a new route on one of the tallest and most dangerous mountains in the world, Dhaulagiri.

Esteban ‘Topo’ Mena is an Ecuadorian mountain guide and rising star in alpine climbing whose dream is to climb the first ascent of a new route on Mount Everest. He teams up with Cory Richards, a National Geographic photographer and the first American to climb an 8,000-meter peak in winter, and they attempt a never-before-tried climb on the north face of Everest. Though they fail on their first attempt, they vow to return the following season.

However, due to the global pandemic, the North side of Everest remains closed, so the ambitious duo turns their attention to a futuristic new route on Dhaulagiri, the seventh-highest mountain in the world. This route, however, looks far harder and more avalanche-prone than Everest, demanding that they team up with a third climber. They choose the Ecuadorian climber Carla Perez, the first woman ever to successfully summit Everest and K2 without supplemental oxygen in a single year. When the risk of death on Dhaulagiri stresses the team to a breaking point, the climbers are forced to confront the question of why they climb—and why it’s all worth it.

About the Team

Esteban, “Topo” Mena has spent most of his life in the mountains. He started the process to become a certified guide at the age of 18, receiving certifications from ASEGUIM (Ecaudorian Mountain Guides Association) in 2013 and IFMGA in 2016. Along the way, he’s proven to be a force of nature, combining his passion for elevation with a rare blend of strength, skill, an instinctive sense of mountaineering, unwavering commitment, and the ability to connect and communicate with his rope partners. His love of mountains has led him to explore everything from 8000ers to unclimbed big walls in the most remote corners of the Earth.

Carla Perez‘s father introduced her to the mountains at the age of 4, when he took her to the top of a 14,000-foot volcano near their home in Quito, Ecuador. That trip inspired a passion for high places and set the trajectory of her life. After she started seriously climbing as a teenager, Carla’s love of the mountains took her to the French Alps, where she studied geology and got a masters’ degree in geochemistry. With her big-mountain accomplishments, including summits of three 8000ers without supplemental oxygen, and the south face of Aconcagua, Carla has become a role model for women and girls throughout South America and around the world.

Tommy Joyce is a National Geographic filmmaker and award-winning documentary director. His films have earned a combined 19 selections from prestigious festivals including Banff Mountain Film and Ouray International Film Festival. His work primarily focuses on extreme sports, natural history, and character-driven stories that explore the depths of human emotion and push the boundaries of our capacity for achievement. Tommy is the co-founder of Triage Creative and has made films and produced commercial content on all seven continents for such varied clients as National Geographic, Dell, Nike, Adidas, Canon, Red Bull, Nikon, Honda, Eddie Bauer and more.

While on the mountain, the team sent out a series of video dispatches to share what life on the mountain was like. Get an up-close look at these pieces as the story unfolded in real-time.

The Dhaulagiri Dispatches


Alpine Climbing Guide (ASEGIUM/IFMGA)

Esteban “Topo” Mena began climbing at an early age in his home country, Ecuador. In 2013, his passion and experience brought him to the Himalayas, where, at the age of 23, he became the youngest non-Sherpa climber to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen.


Climbing Guide (AMGA/IFMGA)

After she started climbing as a teenager in her home country of Ecuador, Carla’s love of the mountains took her to the French Alps and around the world. Now a certified member of the Ecuadorian Association of Mountain Guides, she has big-mountain accomplishments, including summits of three 8000ers without supplemental oxygen.


Alpine Climbing Guide (AMGA/IFMGA)

In his two decades as a professional guide, Adrian has led more than a hundred clients to the summits of several 8000-meter peaks, including Everest, Lhotse, Manaslu, and Cho Oyu. He’s personally summited Everest eight times.

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