If you sleep, you die. That's what Jaime Vi�als kept reminding himself on the night of May 23, 2001, as he and his guide, Andy Lapkass, huddled for warmth 500 feet from the top of Mount Everest and fought for their lives. Just hours earlier Vi�als, a Guatemalan, had been on top of the world, having reached Everest's peak, 29,028 feet above sea level. That, it turned out, had been the easy part.
On the descent Vi�als and Lapkass, who is from the U.S., ran out of bottled oxygen and suffered blurred vision, forcing them to stop. "We were totally alone, not moving," Vi�als says. "The key is to keep awake all night. If you sleep you get hypothermia, and that's it. In fact, you can find dead bodies up there from several years ago. We saw four bodies, which is not nice."
For every momentous occasion in the life of Vi�als, a 37-year-old biologist turned climber, a mountain has provided the setting. In 1987, as a biology student at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, he climbed his first mountain and fell hopelessly in love with the sport. In 1992 he met his future wife, Ligia Rodriguez, while going up Chingo, a volcano on Guatemala's border with El Salvador. They married atop another mountain in 1995. That same year Vi�als began his conquest of the highest peaks on each continent, leaving Everest for last. "I feel the full relationship between my soul and my body at the top of a mountain," he says. That relationship was tested that night atop Everest, but Vi�als and Lapkass returned safely to camp the next night, having been rescued by three Americans who aborted their own trip up Everest to save the nearly comatose climbers.
Vi�als was the first Central American to scale Everest and the fourth Latin American to complete the Seven Summits (after Chile's Maurico Purto, Brazil's Waldemar Niclevicz and Mexico's Ricardo Torres-Nava), and his feat provided a welcome distraction for Guatemalans, whose country is burdened by poverty and violence. When Vi�als returned to his homeland last June 10, 250,000 people welcomed him along a four-mile parade route through Guatemala City. In December the nation's largest newspaper named him Sportsman of the Year. "The people in this country are looking for some good things," Vi�als says, "and they think I'm one of those good things."