Inside the Mind of Topo Mena
After a bold ascent of the Messner Route on the South Face of Aconcagua, more than 250 summits of Ecuadorian volcanoes, multiple Grade VI Himalayan first ascents, summits of K2, Makalu, Manaslu, Gasherbrum II, Cho Oyu, and being the youngest non-Sherpa (23) to summit Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen—not to mention IFMGA mountain guide certification—it’s hard to believe that if it weren’t for his poor behavior in the classroom, Esteban “Topo” Mena might have been an actor, or a chef.
Then again, success in any of these requires hard work, dedication to the craft, perseverance, and grit. Speaking with Topo, it becomes quickly apparent that he possesses them all, alongside honesty, integrity, and a tendency to undersell his achievements out of humility. Blend in physical and technical prowess as a climber and completion of the highest level of mountain guide training in the industry, and Topo Mena is, at 33, one of the most accomplished guides and athletes in the world.
Topo’s journey began in his native Ecuador two decades ago. At age 13, Topo was given a choice: get kicked out of school, or go on expedition with the school climbing club as punishment. He chose the latter, and soon found himself plodding up the sandy slopes of El Corazón, a stratovolcano that stands at 15,715’/4,790m.
Topo describes the experience as feeling like an odyssey: “I was vomiting left and right. There are parts of the climb that I don’t even remember. It might be hard to believe, but I was in better shape on the summit of Everest without oxygen than I was the first time I climbed El Corazón.” The trip was, as intended, punishment, but the transformation it created was wholly unanticipated.
Years earlier, a Spanish priest stationed in Ecuador named José Rivas started a climbing club as a way to teach unruly youth about discipline, motivation, responsibility, courage, and leadership. Forced into Father Rivas’ program, Topo soon started to see these traits emerge in himself. Soon, he was leading trips, discovering a natural predisposition to help others and be a team player. This is how he met Joshua Jarrin, who became his mentor and his first true climbing partner.
Topo recalls feeling connected to Joshua immediately. He was already studying to become a chef while Topo was still in high school, but their joint focus quickly turned to climbing.
“In the mountains, you see people’s deeper layers of personality and character,” Topo recalls. “With Joshua, I saw that if you train, if you prepare yourself, and have a little bit of luck, things become possible.”
In 2006, at age 16, Joshua invited Topo to join an expedition to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca to support a team climbing Pirámide de Garcilaso (19,308’/5,885m).
“I was there as a porter, essentially,” Topo recalls. “But when I saw them come back in the middle of the night, looking like zombies … it was like they had come back from the moon. Even though they failed to summit, to me they were heroes.”
The range of climbing disciplines employed by the team on Pirámide, in addition to the jaw dropping scenery of the Cordillera Blanca, opened Topo’s eyes to new possibilities. The idea that impossible-looking lines on big Andean walls could be climbed with the right training, experience and perseverance made a significant and irreversible impression on a young Topo:
“I saw a path that felt infinite,” he recalls humbly.
Three years later, that path led to the Messner Route on Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak at 22,837′/6,960.8m. The route is on Aconcagua’s South Face, a highly technical 3,000-meter wall of rock, snow, and ice. Topo was 19, and with partners Joshua Jarrin and Carla Perez, the team made the ascent, providing Topo the pivotal experience that persuaded him to dedicate himself fully to the mountains, and begin the more serious pursuit as a mountain athlete.
“At that moment, I was still debating a different career,” Topo remembers with a laugh. “I thought about being a chef, or studying philosophy, or photography direction. When I came back from Aconcagua, I was sure that this is what I would do for the rest of my days.”
The climb attracted the attention of Iván Vallejo, one of the few climbers in the world to summit all 14 8,000-meter peaks, and only the seventh to do so without supplemental oxygen. A fellow Ecuadorian based in Quito, Vallejo read about the ascent on Aconcagua in a climbing magazine and invited the team to his home. There, Vallejo revealed to them a number of projects he was scouting in Europe.
“What would you think about going to the Alps?” he asked. “If we connect and feel like this could work, we should start climbing together.”
Vallejo offered to cover gear and trip expenses so long as Topo and the others could pay for flights. Thus began Topo’s career as a guide, using money he made from leading trips in the Andes to cover airfares. For Topo, climbing with Iván Vallejo was like striking gold, and more. On top of his vast knowledge and experience, Ivan shared with Topo his deep passion for the mountains, and the idea of climbing as a spiritual practice.
With its wealth of easily-accessible peaks in the 5,000 to 6,000-meter range, Ecuador is a perfect place to become a mountaineer. Quito sits at more than 9,000’/2,850m, meaning that its inhabitants are naturally preconditioned for climbing at altitude. Topo notes that some of the naturally strongest people and climbers he’s ever met are from the Andes of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. But despite this natural phenomenon, there are many obstacles that bar the way to becoming a professional climber in South America.
“One of the main barriers we face is our own culture and attitudes,” Topo explains. “The doubts, the fears, the lack of references…this is a problem that runs very deep in our society. We’re very traditional, and one of the most difficult things that we as guides have to face is that we often have to go to different places and continents to find new opportunities.”
Other barriers, such as time and resources, are more simple in nature, but equally as complex in terms of finding solutions.
“When you live in a country where people struggle to buy a pair of shoes, thinking about buying a pair of crampons is insane,” Topo says. “This causes a lot of fear and doubts, and raises the idea that climbing isn’t worth it—that climbing is a luxury that others enjoy.”
Balancing optimism and reality, Topo is excited about creating more climbing and mountaineering opportunities for Ecuadorians.
“It takes generations to change a mindset, but at this point I think it’s just a matter of time. We have to focus on the ability of people to dream, to push through projects, to make the unimaginable become real. Climbing has the power to change our culture. We need more references and personalities—people like Carla, people like me, so that young Ecuadorians see someone they can relate to climbing in the Alps, in North America, in the Himalayas…they see someone, maybe like them, not born under the best circumstances, but making their dreams come true.”
Topo knows the dream can come true because it has for him. Hard work led to a daring ascent of a rarely-climbed route, which caught the attention of Iván Vallejo, and soon the barriers began to melt. Mastering the rigorous technical rock, ice, and mixed routes of the Alps under Vallejo’s expert guidance allowed Topo to dream even bigger: he soon set his sights on the 8,000 meter peaks, where he has excelled as a climber and mountain guide.
But as ready as he was, his first 8,000-meter peak had other plans. Climbing with Carla and one other mountaineer, with logistical support from Vallejo, the small team found themselves stuck in base camp on Manaslu in 2012. At 26,781’/8,163m, Manaslu is the 8th-tallest mountain in the world, and often serves as a precursor for those hoping to climb Mt. Everest. While not as technically demanding as some other 8,000ers, Manaslu is a difficult mountain to manage in terms of risk and objective hazard. Consistent, heavy snowfall means that avalanches present a constant threat to much of the normal climbing route, and Topo and the team found themselves idled for days due to unstable conditions on the mountain. Frustration increased as other teams pushed past, but then tragedy struck: a massive avalanche swept through Camp 3, taking the lives of 11 climbers, most of whom were asleep in their tents.
“Seeing so much pain from this tragedy taught me a lot about the consequences and the risks we face when we go climbing. It also showed us a lot about instinct and trusting in your choices,” Topo reflects.
Electing to stay patient as other climbers advanced higher on the mountain almost certainly saved their lives. And when a weather window appeared, the team reached the summit of Manaslu without supplemental oxygen. One year later, on his first attempt, Topo stood on the summit of Mt. Everest, becoming the youngest non-Sherpa to summit without oxygen.
As a guide obligated to mitigate this risk for his clients, Topo begins analyzing hazards weeks or even months before a climb, and continues to do so throughout every decision made during the climb. He believes in the importance of having a vision, a mission, and a mindset, but concedes that this is “only part of the puzzle.” When examining risk factors, Topo envisions a stoplight:
Sometimes, the lights are green: motivation, weather, terrain, the team…everything looks good. But that can be dangerous, because in my experience, it isn’t always real when everything looks good. In fact, that usually catches my attention, because most of the time you’ll find one or two yellow lights.
If something is red, it’s simple: I don’t go.
As a guide, I accept the responsibility to manage this risk for my clients. They want to come home to celebrate this experience, to enjoy their lives with their families. That is my goal: to bring them back home.
Topo welcomes luck, but finds greater joy and satisfaction in succeeding through proper preparation and technique. This is what has kept Topo alive through multiple ascents of 8,000-meter peaks, where few have been able to cut it at such an elite level, and even fewer in such a short time span. And while his success as a guide can be attributed to his training and sound decision-making, his tone shifts when talking about climbing on his own.
He speaks wistfully of times in the mountains when it feels as though the risk and the hazard fall away, finding himself in what he and many other athletes refer to as ‘the flow.’ Beneath his words, there is an subtle and mischievous undertone characteristic of a person who knows they’ve taken risks and gotten away with it.
“Sometimes,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “there are experiences that come from a deeper inspiration, and you forget about the risks. You forget about the potential for negative outcomes, and you just go for it. In that flow—and this is something that I’ve experienced only a handful of times in my life—you do amazing things.”
Topo makes a point to express that he explicitly avoids the flow while he’s in guide mode. In fact, he makes it very clear how important it is to keep his passion for the mountains separate from his career, however impossible it may seem for someone like Topo. Becoming an IFMGA-certified mountain guide demands mastery in every discipline: rock, ice, and mixed climbing, glacier travel, high-altitude experience, and emergency medical training are all requirements simply to qualify for guide training. Then, one must pass multiple stages of examination in each discipline, until proficiency at the highest level is attained in each and demonstrated before a certified examiner. He also exhibits the softer, more nuanced skills of guiding: “how to deliver a message, how to be a leader, how to be honest with your team in a difficult moment, and how to push others to deliver their best when the time comes.”
Thus, to guide at the level of Topo Mena requires years of training and certification, plus additional time spent in the mountains recreationally, to an extent that simply doesn’t allow room for an alternative career. From his first vomit-riddled trips dealt as punishment to multiple summits of 8000-meter peaks, Topo has dedicated his life and career to his passion for the mountains. Imagining the two as anything but inextricably linked feels impossible—until he explains it.
“It has been important to me to realize that I have a gift. To be a mountain guide is a gift. But this is, at times, subject to circumstances that are absolutely out of my control. If my passion was tied to these things that I thought I had control of, and then I lose control, I would be destroyed. I have to work hard in my heart, and in my spirit, to protect this passion. To be peaceful and keep things separate. To ask myself: why am I here?”
Hearing Topo talk about what keeps him coming back after collective years spent in the mountains makes it crystal clear that he is, at heart, still a climber’s climber. He is drawn by long, untouched lines and brutish-looking peaks, inspired by the beauty of nature, and fueled by the same intangible, magnetic allure of wild and inhospitable places known universally to all climbers. He shies away from objectively-dangerous routes in favor of ascents that are more technical, requiring him to push himself both physically and mentally.
Above all, and what sets him apart from other climbers, is the value he sets on the narrative of a place. Who has been there before him? What is the history of those who live there, and whose people have lived there for centuries? While the ascent itself might hinge on the most precise placement of a tool on a miniscule nub of rock, or how quickly he feels he can travel beneath a hanging serac, Topo is looking at a much larger, more complete picture of a climb, a mountain, and a place before he even decides to go.
He knows, like any climber, that his prime is finite and that he will, some day, have to hang up his ice axes. Years in advance, he’s already made peace with this future: “If I stop guiding and stop being a professional athlete…my passion to be in the mountains will be intact. I will still try to find answers to my toughest questions in high places. Of course it might be more difficult, but the passion will be intact.”
Still early in his career, someone as skilled, experienced, and sound in both mind and body as Topo could feasibly guide for anyone. On paper, Topo has the training to climb any mountain, anywhere, by any route. There are only a few hundred IFMGA-certified guides in the world, making Topo as valuable as possible in the guide industry.
With Alpenglow Expeditions, Topo feels that the way the company creates holistic and educational mountain experiences aligns with the way he wishes to be in the mountains, both as a guide and a recreational climber. The emphasis placed on environmental awareness, unique approaches, and the emotional and intellectual reward of making every person on the team feel valued has created a space where Topo feels he can continually treat climbing as a form of self-expression in a way that runs parallel to Alpenglow’s ethics and values. “From the porter, to the mule driver, to the guides, and the office staff…these are my friends, and this is what keeps clients climbing with us. We have become a team of friends and family,” he says.
All of this, whether it’s his technical proficiency as a climber, his passion for the protection and preservation of nature, his ability to manage anxiety and risk, or the sense of humility that permeates his personality, points to Topo’s prevailing philosophy and directive for those who might look up to him: focus on what you have instead of what you don’t.
Topo speaks plainly when he talks about his upbringing, noting that his family had no spare money and that his early opportunities were limited: “But I focused on this powerful dream, this powerful vision to go to the mountains and to develop myself as a climber. Once you start rolling this ball, you have to trust that if the energy is there, more good energy will come. If you focus on the things that you don’t have, you will only lose energy.”
Unfortunately, grandiose narratives of glory and domination often pervade industry marketing and the limited number of stories that manage to make it into the mainstream. As a result, mountaineering’s critics assert that the sport is an inherently selfish pursuit.
Everything about Topo Mena, however, pleads the opposite. At his core, Topo is a giver, and a living example of the capacity for powerful outdoor experiences to create positive change. As a mountain guide, Topo uses his abilities to cultivate and spread a contagious love for people, nestled in a hope that they, too, might discover their full potential both as climbers and as human beings.
“In South America,” Topo explains, “you can count on your fingers the people who have been able to go beyond culture and nationality and perform in the mountains. Beyond how strong or fast I am, this drive, this discipline, this passion I have…I hope it gives people an idea, an example, and inspiration. This is where the magic starts. I hope the things that I do will open these doors for people in Latin America.”