Text by Andrew Tolve; Photograph courtesy of Santiago Quintero
In February 2002 Ecuadorian mountaineer Santiago Quintero reached the summit of Aconcagua, the western hemisphere’s highest peak. The ascent was brutal. Only four men had ever climbed the south face of Aconcagua alone. In becoming the fifth, Quintero had endured 36 hours without oxygen in the throes of a storm at 21,000-plus feet. At the summit he took a moment to enjoy the view, then started back down.
At lower altitudes a tingling sensation overcame his feet. The doctor at base camp diagnosed it as mild frostbite. Back in Ecuador, the condition worsened. Quintero saw one specialist after another. Finally he flew to the MAZ hospital in Zaragoza, Spain, where doctors delivered the sobering news: Half his right foot and the toes of his left would need to be amputated. He never would climb again.
After his amputation, Quintero spent six months in a wheelchair, three months on a walker, then four months on crutches. Come December 2004, less than two years after the amputation, he was back at the summit of a mountain—this time Cotopaxi, the second highest volcano in Ecuador. He had reached the top without prostheses, rather he used the empty spaces at the toes of his boots.
In the years since, Quintero has summited every major mountain in South America. He added Pakistan’s Broad Peak to his resume in 2007 and tacked on Nepal’s Makalu in 2008. Now the 34-year-old has selected his most ambitious project yet: K2. This week he sets off for the top of the world’s toughest mountain, a summit bid he’s labeled K2 Without Toes.
As training for the event, Quintero climbed all 35 of Ecuador’s 12,000-feet-plus peaks in 50 days. ADVENTURE caught up with him at a hosteria in the north of Ecuador the day after he’d bagged number 13.
ADVENTURE: Why are you so determined to get to the top of K2?
SANTIAGO QUINTERO: After I lost my toes, I thought I would never climb again. Maybe not even a hill. Especially not K2. It is the greatest mountain in the world. When I summit my first mountain after my surgery, I started to cry because I understood that I will have the solution to resolve the pain in my feet and that I will climb K2. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but at that summit I need to fight to get to K2.
A: Will you have prostheses to help you in July?
SQ: For many years I don’t have prostheses. My problem was a lot of pain. I saw many doctors and shamans, more than twenty different treatments to eliminate the pain. Finally I go to a man in Bogotá who studied prosthetics in Germany. And we talk and he designs a special shoe for me. The solution is to invent one special shoe that goes inside the Himalayan boot.
A: Do you still encounter pain while climbing?
SQ: No, now I don’t have pain. I use special socks and Boreal makes special extra-wide boots for me adapted for my prostheses.
A: Will you climb K2 with oxygen?
SQ: I never use oxygen. No no no, never use oxygen. It is not climbing on your own. Only few people have summited K2 without oxygen. I will summit without oxygen and without toes.
A: Many people would have lowered their expectations after an accident like yours. You’ve set yours higher. What motivates you?
SQ: The Ecuadorian people. I want to say to my country it is possible to do whatever you want to do. Many Ecuadorians think everything is negative and they can do nothing to change it. I want to show them to dream big. You have every part of your body. If you have all parts of your body, you can do everything. You have a perfect machine. I don’t have a part of my body like my foot, it’s very essential to climb a mountain. But I fight more than seven years to get this one impossible thing, that is to climb K2, and I will. Don’t put limits on your mind. Do whatever you dream of.
A: What’s next after K2?
SQ: I will climb all fourteen of the world’s 8000-meter-plus peaks. In 2010 Kangchenjunga, in 2011 Everest, in 2012 Lhotse. After that, we will see.