Spiderman is real. Actually, there are a surprising number of humans gifted with the otherworldly ability to scale impossible vertical terrain rapidly. One of them is named Juan Martin Peña.
He and other elite athletes compete in a sport called speed climbing. This activity, along with two other types of sport climbing, is making their Olympic debut this summer.
Craving a little adventure, my photographer, Andres Meneses, and I decided to give our interview with Peña some altitude. Peña lives in Quito, Ecuador, which has an altitude of 9,000 feet. A lack of oxygen and rugged terrain isn’t too hard to find in this colorful city tucked up against the Andes Mountains.
Nevertheless, Peña, a local, had his eyes set on something even higher. We made our way outside the city by car, climbing up winding mountain roads. After a few attempts at off-roading in a vehicle more suited for carefully planned suburban highways, we found a path to our desired destination.
The Laguna Mojanda is one of Ecuador’s many inactive volcanic sites. It’s a crater lake that rests at around 13,000 feet. In my mind, I pictured a casual stroll around its beautiful shoreline. I didn’t expect for us to arrive and then promptly begin trekking straight upwards toward the craggy untamed peaks that texture this robust landscape.
But this is Peña’s arena. Although speed climbing competitions take place indoors, Peña’s love for sport climbing began in places like Mojanda. Hiking with his father, he learned to love the challenges of a vertical ascent.
Hiking with Peña was not our first-time meeting. He’s my fiance’s cousin and by proximity, I've had the opportunity to witness his growth as an athlete from a distance. Our first encounter, two years ago, Peña had barely made his debut in the sport and wasn’t even on the radar of Ecuador’s national team. Young and eager, he took it upon himself to begin homeschooling so he could invest most of his time into training.
Now, two years later, Peña has won his division in the Pan American Games, has placed within the top five in world championships and is a member of Ecuador’s national speed climbing team. Despite his apparent success, he tells me this newness has given him some serious challenges.
“Unlike most people in this sport, I did not start when I was eight-years-old. I started at 15. My body and my mind did not develop adapting to the challenges of speed climbing,” Peña said.
Despite the disadvantages created by his inexperience, Peña says he’s not deterred. He credits his trainers for teaching him to grow through hardship and practice patience when waiting for the results of hard work to appear.
“I have been lucky to have good trainers, and people in this sport are very open and kind. They have taught me to trust the process,” Peña said.
Martin’s trainer, Cesar Aulestia, began working with Martin four years ago when Martin approached Aulestia and asked him to help him advance to the next level in his climbing. He described Martin as a hungry young kid ready to throw himself into training. The transformation over those four years has been nothing less than miraculous, according to Aulestia.
“His mental and physical transformation has been really noticeable as well as his emotional and spiritual growth from the moment he started. We are convinced that God has been guiding our path as a team and providing and taking care of us along the way,” Aulestia said.
I stayed behind Peña, carefully trying to match his footing as we ascended. He moved effortlessly. While I was utilizing all my mental energy to keep moving, he gingerly let the tall grass around us slide through his hands.
He tells me about a tattoo he recently got. It’s a line that stretches down the length of his forearm populated by geometric shapes. The tattoo represents his life thus far and his future.
Centered by his faith and family, he finds the strength to embrace the unknown and trust in the process that is every day.
Peña isn't sure if he will qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics. His specialty is speed climbing, but in order to compete, climbers need to be competitive in lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing.
Photographer: Andres Meneses, Instagram @shutterup__photos
By Jessica Lykins