Carina Dayondon doesn’t merely move mountains, she conquers them.
But her inclination to do so is not discerned in an instant. Away from the alpines, denuded of mountain gear, her visage looks every bit an ordinary Filipina. This, however, proves that stereotyping is futile. Seeing her in the flesh is one thing, hearing her story is another.
The meeting took place on a Friday in Manila Bulletin’s lobby, which, on that day, was set up for its weekly evening show: musical instruments on the stage; technical equipment and crew on the side; and rows of divans in the foyer. But amidst the noise and haste, the presence of one Carina Dayondon demands attention. This woman—composedly standing among a sea of people—is the same woman and the first Filipina who stood at the top of the world’s highest peaks.
Later, she sits atop a high wooden chair by the corner café, her hands around a cup of hot espresso on the table. The afternoon tête-à-tête begins upon a winsome remark on her neat, creaseless uniform. Sprightly, she talks about being a First Lieutenant in the Philippine Coast Guard, the country’s maritime task force she has been with since 2006—the same year when her journey to the Seven Summits began.
As if on cue, she starts leading the way down memory lane, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Carina—the fourth eldest among 15 siblings—reminisces her life back in the sleepy town of Don Carlos, in Bukidnon, Mindanao. “Masaya ‘yong childhood ko,” she begins, almost in a trance-like state. Seemingly waking up from a dream, she adds, “Marami akong gustong gawin no’ng bata ako, pero dahil malaki kaming pamilya at may mga nakababata akong kapatid, medyo na-limit ako ng responsibilities.”
Dayondon family wasn’t affluent, but Carina’s parents were both earning for a living substantial enough to make ends meet. His father eventually resigned from his local bank post and ventured into business, but the investments didn’t flourish, and everything went downhill.
“Na-bankrupt negosyo ng papa ko kaya huminto ako sa college,” she recalls. At this point in the conversation, Carina catches herself in a whirlwind of emotions. Out of the classroom, circa 1998, she wore many hats, among which were that of a sweepstakes attendant and a babysitter.
She also started joining adventure races where groups of athletes would have to perform multi-discipline sports to cover long distances within several days. With Carina’s innate sense of adventure—backed by her Girl Scout wisdom, softball athlete experience, and National Sportclimbing Team membership—she was a force to reckon with. The cash prize she consolidated was her wherewithal to return to school.
Finally, in 2004, Carina graduated with a degree on Bachelor of Science Major in Business Management from Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan.
“Kinailangan kong makatapos ng college, kasi iyon ‘yong magiging example ko sa mga kapatid ko,” she says, still teary-eyed.
The Journey Begins
Carina’s accomplishments did not go unappreciated. Former undersecretary of the Department of Transportation and Communication Arturo Valdez was impressed with her adventure racing finishes. In the same month of her graduation, Carina received an invitation from Valdez to train for the team’s ambitious outdoor endeavours.
The years that followed were a series of local and international training to have her equipped with theoretical knowledge and practical skills about the wonders of nature.
In 2006, as preparation for their Everest expedition, Carina journeyed to Alaska to climb North America’s highest peak, Mt. Denali (6,190m). Only a year after, Carina and two other Filipina mountaineers Noelle Wenceslao and Janet Belermino braved the Mt. Everest (8,850m), and their names had since been written in history as the first women who traversed the highest peak in the world.
Only at that time when she became cognizant of the Seven Summit challenge—one that is more daunting than conquering Mt. Everest, in relation to our country’s tropical climate.
“I heard about Seven Summits after our successful summit on Mt. Everest,” Carina recalls, “and ginusto ko na rin siyang kumpletuhin kasi alam kong meron na akong dalawa.”
But fate must have had stored something else for Carina. After Everest, from 2009 to 2011, her path on the land had taken a different course toward the sea. She embarked on another journey called ‘The Voyage of Balangay,’ in which she sailed around South East Asian waters to reconnect people with their maritime historic past.
“Kaso around April in 2012, nalaman kong may stage two cancer ‘yong kapatid ko, si Heidi. Pero sobrang tapang niya. Na-inspire ako sa kanya,” says Carina, her voice shaking.
Motivated by her sister’s own battle, and impelled to finish what she started, Carina recommenced her journey to the highlands. And despite the countless struggles that came along with the elusive funding and sponsorships, she conquered nonetheless.
In 2013, Carina braved Europe’s Mt. Elbrus (5,642m), then Australia’s Mt. Kosciuzko (2,228m) in 2014. 2015 was a particularly commemorative year, not only because she summitted Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro (2,895m) in October, but also because of her sister Heidi’s unfortunate demise in December.
“I remember pa no’ng bumalik ako from Africa, sobrang tuwa niya no’ng nakita ako, at sa story ko about Kilimanjaro,” says Carina, in between sobs, looking back at the remaining days of the person she considers her biggest fan. With Heidi’s passing, and her financial instability, Carina decided to rest.
It didn’t take long before she received a message from a familiar friend. In December 2016, Valdez offered assistance for Carina’s sixth summit expedition. Just a month after, in January 2017, she found herself in South America’s Mt. Aconcagua (6,962m). However, due to extreme weather conditions, it resulted to a failed attempt.
But life had its way to turn Carina’s non-fulfillment into victory. It only took a chance encounter for her to put the mountain gear back on. As an invited guest speaker in an event of the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature, president of the Bank of the Philippine Islands also present at the gathering paid heed to her captivating story. A pledge was later made in support of her comeback quest. In January 2018, Carina’s return to Mt. Aconcagua was triumphant.
Months after—with the risk of her left eye going blind for complications of her retina, and despite her voluntary decision to be left behind by her team due to her slower pace—Carina Dayondon waved the Philippine flag at the top of Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson (4,892m). On December 16, 2018, at around the same day when our pageant-obsessed nation was celebrating Catriona Gray’s Miss Universe win, she became the first Filipina who completed the world’s seven summits.
“No’ng itinaas ko ‘yong flag, naiyak talaga ako. Napatunayan nito na walang summit ng buhay mo ang hindi mo kayang abutin,” she says, humbled by the experience.
No matter how high her feet lead her to, Carina promises to stay on the ground, while remaining audacious to empower other women.
“Mountain climbing is a male-dominated sport. But women should not be intimidated. Maaaring physically, mas malakas ang mga lalaki. Pero hindi lang naman ito puro lakas ng katawan. Kailangan din ng tibay ng loob, determinasyon, at tiwala sa sarili. Kaya I believe kaya rin ng kababaihan,” Carina says.
And so the journey continues.
A version of this story was originally published on the Manila Bulletin March 3, 2019 broadsheet.
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