RIGHT now, Carlos Soria’s climbing ambitions have been reduced to the stairs of his home in Moralzarzal, Madrid, and then, only with the help of crutches.
He is in a lot of pain and it is hard to believe that only several weeks ago, he was just 117 meters from the top of Dhaulagiri In the Himalayas, one of the world’s highest mountains rising 8,167 meters into the heavens.
Even harder to grasp is that Carlos Soria is 79 years old, an age when an expedition usually entails a bus ride to a local beauty spot.
Carlos will be 80 in February, but far from preparing to hang up his spurs, he has just gone under the knife for a knee replacement to help him with his 10th attempt at conquering this stubborn behemoth next March.
If he makes it,he will be left with just one final summit, Xixabangma, to achieve his goal of becoming the oldest man ever to bag all 14 peaks over 8,000 meters – though he has in fact already summited one of Xixabangma’s lesser 8,000-plus peaks and is in any case the oldest climber to have conquered 10 of them.
“It should work like new,” he says, startling me with a video of the prosthesis being fitted.
The term mountaineer generally conjures up an image of a tall, strapping individual with an Alpine air, but Carlos Soria is small and neat, weighing around 57 kilos and measuring just 1,62 meters.
According to trainer Juan del Campo, he carries only 10% fat and boasts a resting heart rate of 40-45, rising to just 140 at maximum exertion.
But while Carlos has no trouble clambering up 8,000 meters and more, descents have always proved more challenging due to a ski accident that left his left knee damaged back in the 1970s.
The pain became particularly acute in 2016 when, at the age of 77, he successfully got to the top of Annapurna, an 8,091-meter peak, considered one of the trickiest of the 14.
“Coming down was agony,” he says. “All the weight was on my left knee. With the prosthesis, I hope to be back to training hard in two months.”
Few of these mountains are conquered on the first attempt. “We got to 8,050 meters,” says Carlos of his ninth attempt at Dhaulagiri.
“But there was a problem with fog and we tried an ascent that turned out to be the wrong one.
“It looks obvious from the bottom, but when you’re up there it’s complicated. I want to find a sponsor for the next attempt and take an expedition.”
Makalu, at 8,463 meters, meanwhile, proved a piece of cake. “That was the best climb I’ve done in my life.
“I was 69 and I did it without oxygen and very fast.”
Far from being a life-long ambition, the 14 peaks challenge is recent and anecdotal.
“I’ve always been deeply involved in sport,” says Carlos, “And always with a focus on mountaineering.
“I did my first eight-thousander when I was 50 – Nanga Parbat in Pakistan.
“When I got older, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve gone up Everest and K2 and some others and perhaps I could do them all.'”
So why did he wait until he was ‘past his prime’ to tackle the world’s most challenging mountains?
“I had a family to bring up and a job to do,” he says. “When I retired, I had more time.”
Carlos’s obsession with climbing began when he was 14 and struck out for the Sierra de Guadarrama with a friend from Madrid.
Born into a family of upholsterers who lived in the then marginalised district of Ventas in Madrid, Carlos left school at the age of 11 to become first a book binder, then an upholsterer.
“I didn’t like what was around me,” he says. “I liked nature. A love of nature has helped me a lot in life.
At home, we had no running water. Madrid was terribly poor in the post-war era and I was used to carrying buckets of water.
So when I got to Nepal I was familiar with the conditions. It was my life many years before.”
That first trip out to the Sierra in 1952 led to increasingly more adventurous excursions, a world away from the challenging circumstances of the poverty-stricken barrio.
Indifferent to the fact his neighbours, a colourful community that included a prostitute and pickpocket, considered him ‘weird’, he pulled on his baggy knee-length shorts fashioned from old velvet curtains and climbed his way out of the misery.
“Who would have thought that young lad from the barrio would explore the entire world through climbing mountains?” says Carlos.
“I’ve been on expeditions with one of the world’s greatest botanists, Salvador Rivas, and also with the geographer and writer Eduardo Martínez de Pison.
“I’ve made great friends with philosophers and it has changed my life.”
Despite having reached such lofty heights, Carlos never lost sight of his roots.
It was his own humble beginnings, he says, that prompted him to become involved in the remote village of Sama in Nepali back in the 1970s and also to set up Ayuda Directo Himalaya – www.ayudadirectahimalaya.org, a small NGO that has helped to rebuild and supply schools in five villages following the devastating 2015 earthquake.
Referring to the village of Sama, at the foot of the 8,163-meter beast Manaslu, Carlos says, “Because I didn’t have much schooling myself, I became obsessed with getting schooling for the children there.
“My first visit was in 1973 and every attempt at Manaslu I would come back.
“Over the years, we provided them with solar panels, school materials and mattresses. I managed to get to the top of Manaslu 37 years after my first attempt.”
He was 71 years old and it was his fifth time lucky.
A glance at Carlos’ sporting achievements over the years might leave you wondering if he had time for much else.
But, given his contagious energy, it comes as no surprise that he combined feats of derring-do with his role as a hands-on father, helping his wife Cristina, 77, to bring up their four daughters,while continuing his family’s upholstery business.
The couple met in La Pedriza in the Sierra de Guadarrama.
No stranger to shimmying up a rock face herself, Cristina has climbed Monte Cervino – the Matterhorn from the Italian side – and Mont Blanc, as well as accompanying Carlos on several expeditions to the Himalayas.
I ask if she is still active and she smiles and shakes her head. “I’m a normal person,” she says. “I don’t feel like doing those things anymore.”
The couple’s four daughters do, however, continue the tradition they were brought up in.
Cristina recalls one daughter asking if she could have a Sunday outfit, to which she replied, “Hija, you’ve got your Sunday outfit – your walking boots and your climbing trousers…”
Like Cristina, few of us will feel like braving arctic conditions, vertiginous gradients and avalanches as we pocket our pensions.
But superhuman or not, Carlos stands as a beacon of light to those approaching their senior years.
“When I give conferences, I tell people that retirement is fantastic. And you need to get there in the best possible condition because you will still have many years ahead of you and very good ones at that,” he tells me.
“I hear people say things like, ‘Oh well, I’m 70 now.’ And I tell them, ‘Great. That’s to be celebrated. You’ve got this far. Now don’t turn your back on things you can keep doing. You might not win the 100 meters, but there are many things to do in the world.'”
And you get the distinct feeling that Carlos is itching to get on with them.