Native Women’s Wilderness trek to Everest Base Camp! A Conversation with Explore Austin Mentor, Rocío Villalobos.

2023 Girls “Turtle Squad” Mentor, Rocío Villalobos recently completed an incredible trek to Everest Base Camp alongside a powerful group of women from Native Women’s Wilderness. 

We were fortunate to connect with Rocío and dive into her experience in the Himalayas. 



You recently got back from an expedition to Mt. Everest. How did the trip come about?

I was approached by Jaylyn Gough, who is the founder of Native Women’s Wilderness. She contacted me back in April of 2022 and said, “You know, I’m working on this project, I have this lifelong dream to go to Everest Base Camp and have that experience of trekking in Nepal. Are you interested?”. I had never imagined or dreamed about doing that trek or even getting to see Mt. Everest in person. I immediately knew that I had to say yes. It’s not an opportunity that I wanted to pass up. 

She pitched the idea back in April and had been working on getting a small group of women together that included some of the current ambassadors for Native Women’s Wilderness. I’m also one of the ambassadors for the organization. We didn’t hear a whole lot of updates, and I wasn’t sure if the trip will still happening as of August. So, I sent her a follow up message and at that point, and she said, “Yes, we’re going to go” and took it from there.

Confirming in August for a trip in November? 

November. Yes.

That’s incredible. What did the prep for the trip look like? 

The work that Jaylyn did and the relationships she’s built through Native Women’s Wilderness were meaningful. We were privileged that there were a lot of gear sponsorships that came in for the women participating in the trip. There were certainly some things that we had to purchase out of pocket, but a lot of the bigger gear to make the trip safe and more comfortable was donated by different companies. 

Physically, I was at a good starting point in that I run regularly, I do strength training regularly, and I do hike regularly. In terms of the physical aspect, I had a good foundation. The challenge of doing a trip like the Everest Base Camp trek, being from a place that is relatively flat or at a lower elevation, is that I didn’t really have the ability to train my lungs in the way that some of the other participants did. A few of the women who live in Colorado and New Mexico were able to get some of that higher altitude training. I think for me that was really the biggest challenge, it’s where I struggled the most, but physically the hiking of it, the day-to-day trekking was manageable. It was the altitude that really made me suffer in the end.

Was arriving in Nepal the first time that you all met each other?

In person? Yes. I have been on a few Zoom calls with some of the other women before I connected with Jaylyn through Instagram a number of years ago. So we already had that online, social media relationship. The same was true with a couple of the other women. For me personally, it was the first time getting to meet everybody in person.

After looking at all of your content on Instagram about your trip, the spiritual aspect of the trek really came through. Can you talk about that? 

Going into this trip, I had a specific purpose in mind that was multifold. I was there to build relationships with the other indigenous women that were a part of this trip and to learn more about the areas we were visiting including the country of Nepal.

I also used this as an opportunity to honor my father and his memory since he passed away almost a year ago at the end of February 2022. All of us were showing up with some shared purposes and this bigger recognition or goal of being grateful for all of the people in our lives who have played a role in shaping who we are, supporting us along our different journeys, and the importance of remembering our connectedness to the land as well as our connectedness to this broader vision and work that’s happening around representation and racial equity in these outdoor spaces. 



We each have different stories, but there is definitely a unifying thread for all of us. We all also really recognized the value of this trek and spending time in this space with each other as another vehicle for healing for our own mental health and wellness, but also the ways in which that ultimately also affects our ability to show up for our communities and the relationships that we have with the folks in our communities. Even though we were there as individuals, our collective impact and our goals were really much more far-reaching than just our individual experience.

Can you take us through the trip from arriving to Kathmandu? Did you unexpectedly go whitewater rafting?

Yeah! Everybody arrived at different times. A small group of us arrived about a week before, and others stayed about a week after the trek finished to explore and see more of Nepal. I didn’t expect for my first whitewater rafting experience to happen in Nepal, but some of the other women who arrived early happened to be rafting guides, so I felt like if I’m going to go whitewater rafting, why not go with two experienced guides that do this for a living, are super knowledgeable, and can help reassure me about doing something that is pretty scary for me since I’m not a strong swimmer.



My first full day in Nepal was spent whitewater rafting, which was a beautiful experience. It ended up being a lot of fun and a little scary. The following day, we visited with some of the family members of the owners of the trekking company that we worked with, Trekking Planner Nepal and Adventure Tripper, and they showed us around Kathmandu. They welcomed us into their homes and showed us how they prepare a traditional Nepali meal, Dal Bhat. We were able to get this kind of very personal, intimate cooking lesson and just an opportunity to build relationships with some of the people of Nepal.

The day after that, everybody finally arrived from their different destinations, and we had our first dinner together and got an overview of what to expect for the next few days as we started the trek. The next day, we had to go through the process that those of us who are in Explore go through where you just have to try and weed out all of the unnecessary baggage. You know, the little extra things that you brought just in case. You decide what you’re going to take and what you’re going to leave so that you’re not weighing yourself down.

We did have porters who helped us with carrying some of our equipment. We were able to separate some of our gear into items that we were personally carrying in our daypacks and then items that our porters would carry, so that was a tremendous help. I don’t think we would have been able to do the trek without the help of the porters. They were immensely valuable in our ability to do the trek and not have to worry about carrying some of the heavier items. 

We took it day by day. The entire trek itself is a total of 11 days. The first eight are working toward Everest Base Camp. It’s eight days to get to Everest Base Camp with a few days that are included to help acclimatize if you’re going up higher in elevation. We had two of those days where we stayed in the same location overnight and just did day hikes to go a little bit further up in elevation but still have a little bit extra time to just rest after we did the day hike. This is a little bit easier on the body, and it gave our lungs the chance to adapt. But as I shared, I really struggled a lot with the altitude, so I made the decision the day after we arrived at the Everest Base Camp that I was going to be helicoptered back instead of completing the final three days of the trek.

It sounds really dramatic. I was definitely struggling, and I don’t think I could have made it back down safely because of how I was feeling and the symptoms I was experiencing. The helicopter sounds, again, really dramatic, but it’s really the only way to get people down the mountain and back to the city so that they can get access to medical care. So I ended up having to do that after reaching the base camp, and some of the other women ultimately had to do the same. We started with ten, and of the ten, six completed the entire trek, including the return. All of us made it to base camp, but after base camp a lot of us were struggling and had to make the call to get medical attention.

What was it like coming off the mountain? 

It definitely felt like an adjustment being back in the city of Kathmandu. After we were helicoptered out, we arrived to Kathmandu to get checked into the hospital for an initial observation. That first evening and then the following day, our group missed each other because even though it had been a relatively short amount of time, just those eight days, in some ways it felt like a lot longer than that.

When you’re going through a really difficult time together, again, not uncommon to what some of our Explore Austin teams experience with their Summer Wilderness Trips, you develop a closer bond. You connect with each other in a different way because you get to see each other at your highest highs and your lowest lows. When many of us were struggling at different points along the trek, we showed up for each other in different ways. Because of that, all of us were able to reach the base camp. That’s not the case for many groups that start on this trek in particular.



There are a lot of people who have to turn back because of the altitude or because they’ve developed some other kind of ailment that prevents them from being able to get to the base camp itself, let alone complete the entirety of the trek. We were invested in supporting each other so that we were all able to reach the base camp together. That played a huge role in all of us being able to reach it.

The other women who were helicoptered and I all shared the same thing: we felt alone. We knew that we weren’t of course, the folks from the trekking company and medics were there when we got to the hospital, so we knew that we had others who were checking on us there in Kathmandu, but we were also missing being on the mountain with the other women. 

What were some of the biggest takeaways from the trip?

There were a lot of things that stood out to us from our experiences. One was just commonalities, even in terms of customs and traditions that women in our group carry compared with those we witnessed with the local Nepali people. These were simple things like dress and types of ceremonies. Every morning before setting out, local people would light juniper as a way to offer a blessing to the gods. That was similar to how we would start our treks with sage as a way to ground us and get us to a good mental space to begin the trek. It was a beautiful reminder of the similarities that exist across people. Connections exist between communities that are in very different parts of the country, or of the world, but have many things in common.

Another big piece for me had to do with nourishment. It’s easy to take for granted being able to get drinking water and not having to worry about possible consequences related to water. That’s not to say that it’s not a problem in the US, because we know what happens in the colonias and the US-Mexico border. We know what happened in Flint, Michigan. It was another reminder that we have a lot of privileges living in the US when we were going up the mountain and would see porters that had baskets strapped around their heads and were carrying food to communities that are at a higher altitude who needed food brought in from other parts of the mountain.

Food is something that is labor intensive, and it’s very easy for people to forget that it takes a lot to consume you know, an apple, let alone enjoy meat for a meal. So those are some of the things that really stood out to all of us. We felt really grateful for what we do have and acknowledged that it’s not the same for communities in other parts of the world, let alone other parts of the US.

Any other lessons learned?

I’m constantly being reminded that nothing is impossible. It feels kind of trite or cheesy, but if you had asked me a year ago, before Jaylyn reached out, if I thought I would ever see Mt. Everest or reach Everest base camp, I would have laughed and told you “No,” because it’s not something that I had ever dreamed of for myself. The things I imagine have been shaped by my environment and the people around me. I don’t have other people in my family or close friends who are doing these types of trips.

I’m really grateful for being reminded of how important it is to be able to dream about things that can feel impossible. We need to share these experiences and create opportunities so that people are able to have what feel like impossible dreams come true for them. The more we can share with young people in particular (I’m thinking about the youth who Explore serves), the better because if you’re able to start having these dreams at an early age, who’s to say what else you’re going to be able to dream up for yourself.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

The next big challenge for me related to the outdoors is a lottery I’ve entered for my first 50-mile race. I’m hoping to be able to compete this year. It’s been on my bucket list for a couple of years, but I’ve been struggling on and off with some running related injuries.

I’m starting the year feeling really committed to staying injury free. I think being in Nepal actually helped me to remind myself to go slow and to listen to what my body is telling me so that I am as healthy as I can be and well mentally and emotionally. So that’s really my big goal for this year and hopefully a trip to Mexico with my mom to visit family because it’s been about 15 years since we went.

That’s another piece for me on a more personal level to which I’m really trying to commit. Strengthening and reconnecting with some of our family in Mexico is important because those relationships are really important. I feel myself turning toward this a lot more. I don’t want to lose sight of how important and how crucial it is to hold on to some of those familial and cultural connections. All of that really shapes who we are and the way that we move through the world. So those are the big things for 2023 for me.

Amazing. Thank you for taking the time to visit with us, Rocío!


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New Staff Member alert! Meet our new Business Operations Coordinator, Matt Williams.

We are thrilled to announce that Matt Williams is Explore Austin’s new Business Operations Coordinator! 

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with him for an interview. 

Get to know Matt below! 


We are thrilled that you are Explore Austin’s new Business Operations Coordinator! Can you share what drew you to Explore Austin?

The organization’s mission was the main draw that compelled me to apply. It is super aligned with my values. For some background, I’ve been a climber around Austin for the last 10 years. During that time, I’ve had so many amazing experiences connecting me with the outdoors and with others who’ve gone on trips with me. It’s something that has created a strong sense of belonging for me and has guided me on my career path. 

My early understanding of Explore Austin was seeing huge groups of kids show up at the climbing crag. Initially, I thought that EA only took kids climbing. Once this this job opened up, I looked into the organization and realized that EA does so much more than that. It’s a six-year program that provides amazing opportunities for young people, especially those who probably wouldn’t have access to such opportunities otherwise. It is a super worthy cause, and that got me excited about working here.

Amazing! What kind of role were you in prior to joining EA?

Before joining EA, my last major role was as an Operations Manager at Austin Bouldering Project, which is a climbing gym on the east side of Austin. I was responsible for the facility’s operation and leading a team. It was a really cool experience as I was a part of so many different things with that company, including construction of the gym and working at the front desk. I met many of my friends there and ultimately managed the team for three years. After three years in that role, I was ready for a change.

I left the ABP in 2021 and explored some areas I was interested in like data analytics and web development. I took a couple of boot camps and just learned some new things. When this job at Explore Austin opened, I thought it might be a great fit, and I connected with the team.

What are you most looking forward to in your new role?

There are a lot of things I’m excited about, but to pick one thing… I’m really curious about how I fit in with the whole team here. It’s really exciting coming into a new place and getting to see everyone’s superpowers, the things that they do really well, and I’m really excited to see how my background and the things that I’m interested in work within the team and how I can support the organization. 

What are you passionate about outside of work? It sounds like rock climbing into your main interest.

Yes, it’s my main hobby and has been with me for 10 years or so now. Climbing is the medium, but the big passion behind it all is really having a connection with something bigger. It’s important to get outside of ourselves and connect with something larger. Being outside is a literal way to do that. You’re connecting with the planet and things outside of yourself. There are so many things you can learn from it if you’re open. So being outdoors is a huge passion of mine, especially being outdoors with other people.

Anything else you would like to share?

I’m just really excited to be here and meet everybody!


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Meet Our New Mentors!

Explore Austin’s Mentors play a crucial role in supporting our mission both on and off the trail.

Mentoring with Explore Austin means committing to our Explorers for six years and growing together. It means passing down life experience and supporting youth when things get tough. It means creating lifelong bonds that matter so much as our Explorers go out and navigate the world. 

We are thrilled to introduce our newest EA Mentors! Get to know these superstars below.


Rebeca Llamas 

“Hey y’all! My name is Beca* and I’m super excited to be an Explore Austin mentor!

A little bit about me: I am a Hispanic woman, grew up in Brownsville, Texas, and have lived in Austin for the past 6 years. I graduated from UT Austin in 2020 with an architectural engineering degree and now work for a construction company. I love to do most anything that involves the outdoors: rock-climbing, hiking, cycling, running, swimming, you name it. My latest outdoor obsession is bikepacking: biking to far-away campsites with a bike loaded with my camping gear.

When I’m not outside, one of my favorite weekend activities is sitting at a coffee shop and working on my weekly Austin Chronicle crossword puzzle with a hot coffee. I can’t wait to meet everyone. 🙂 ”

*Beca speaks Spanish fluently.


Craig Hubbard

“Helping others succeed has always been a passion of mine. I have worked in small business for the last 36 years and totally relate to the underdog mentality that goes along with running a small business! I started mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and had a paper route before I was able to drive. I guess you could say that I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit.

My personal values: be authentic, dependable, the spoken word is as powerful as the written word, and do the right thing for all the people in your life whether they are family, friends, clients, or strangers. I look at life as an adventure every day.

I have been married to my beautiful wife Jennifer for 24 years and have 3 grown children: Abby, Ally and Andrew who are all in their early 20’s.

When I’m not working, I enjoy learning new skills, especially in the psychology, business, and self-help categories. I also like closing my rings and just going on an afternoon hike. Additionally, I love to socialize and engage in deep conversations with friends and family. Food also makes me happy… I moved to Texas in 2012 and have loved it ever since. What a great place to live!”


Jenny Hubbard

“Growing up in California gave me various adventures within a day’s drive–I could be at the beach, on a mountain hike, or camping in the desert. Shortly after my husband and I married 24 years ago, we began our parenting adventure with three kids in four years. We moved our family to central Oregon for ten years before coming to Texas. Now that the kids are grown and off on their life adventures, it is time for us to find a new passion. I have always strived to help others in any way possible. When I heard of Explore Austin, I knew it would be a perfect fit. I am excited to work with my peers while helping to shape and support youth.”


Kelsey Meisenhelder

“Hi! I’m Kelsey (she/they). I grew up internationally (in six countries), but I’m happy to have settled in Austin and call it home. I currently work as a researcher for an environmental non-profit where I study air quality and public health. I love arts and crafts, reading, board games, and spending as much time outside as I can. I’ve previously worked as an elementary school teacher, a wildlife biology technician, and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vanuatu from 2014-2016. I’m very excited to be a part of Explore Austin, and I look forward to sharing the joys and challenges of the natural world (and to point out cool birds!) with the Explorers and the Explore Austin team.”


Steph R. Thomas

“Hi, my name is Steph. I was born and raised in Mexico City, and I’ve been living in Austin for the past twelve years. Living in Austin, I enjoy hiking, paddleboarding, and climbing in gyms, at nearby ranches, and on the greenbelt, right in the heart of the city.

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Advertising and Austin Community College with an associate degree in Graphic Design.

In 2015, after graduating from college, I embarked on a 4,500-mile journey from Austin to Alaska to raise money for cancer research with 71 other UT college students. This journey taught me the value and power of connecting around adventures and challenging experiences to generate change. I stayed with people and communities of all kinds of faith and backgrounds, who all supported us on our journey. The ride and people I rode with and stayed with taught me the value of fun, friendship, collaboration, resilience, patience, hard work, and how to be a good leader and team member.

On my return, I started building my career as an Art Director/Designer. I made advertisements for Dell for a few years, and then last year for REI. I really enjoy being a mentor to young designers. However, during the global pandemic, I realized that I wanted to pursue a more fulfilling career that aligned closer to my values, beliefs and passions. In January of 2022, I decided to make a change and transition out of the advertising industry.

Since then, I’ve acquired an AMGA Climbing Wall Instructor certification, and I am currently working towards a Single Pitch Instructor certification as well as training for climbing. In addition to climbing on my own and with friends, I am passionate about mentoring and empowering youth to reach their full potential. I am excited to be a part of such a great organization.”

*Steph speaks Spanish fluently.


Wilfredo Pérez Espino

“I am Wilfredo Pérez Espino. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. In the summer of 2016, I moved to Austin looking for new professional experiences in architecture and fine arts.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to outdoor adventures such as camping on different beaches around Puerto Rico and its mountains in the center of the island. Activities like surfing and sailing nurtured my love for the ocean and nature. Living in Austin and looking to replace my old outdoor habits of integrating with nature, I do more hiking and camping around the many parks in Texas, paddle boarding, and enjoying the city’s music culture.”

*Wilfredo speaks Spanish fluently.


Will Haase

Will Haase is a native Texan born and raised in the Houston area. Throughout his youth, he was a part of the Boy Scouts organization where he developed a love for the outdoors and learned the importance of community service. Will attended the University of Houston and, after graduation, moved to Austin to start his career.


Charlise Washington

Charlise Washington is an ivy-league educated business woman with expertise in the fields of programming, information technology and data analytics. She has over 10 years of experience working at all levels in several Fortune 500 companies and has led computer desktop applications and database management related workshops for over 100 employees. Her knowledge has led her to oversee focus groups and presentations for management and C-level executives.

As a vocal advocate in her community, she’s led political education classes and moderated forums to discuss problems and solutions for current events. Charlise has lent her organizational and logistical acumen to local food drives and demonstrations.

Additionally, Charlise has been a Complete Girlz Inc. teacher and mentor for the past 5 years. Complete Girlz is a NYC based non-profit that builds self-esteem and leadership skills in young women aged 12-21. While there, Charlise led over 40 workshops, built strong relationships amongst her students, and served as a resource for recommendations and references for several students. Charlise also emcees and moderates several events within and associated with multiple non-profits in New York and Georgia that support the arts and life skills.

In her spare time, Charlise enjoys spending time with her Yorkshire Terrier and her nieces at local parks and farmers markets. She enjoys yoga retreats and plays local flag football. She is an avid reader, writer, traveler and skier. Her most ambitious goal is to ski every mountain range within the next 10 years!


Mario Navarrete

Mario was born in Mexico City, Mexico, moved all over as a child, then began traveling on his own when he was 20 years old. Spending time in SE Asia, West Africa, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, and the West Coast of the US. He currently enjoys life in Austin where he is a freelance medical interpreter and jack of all trades. In his spare time, he likes to go paddle boarding, camping, hiking, biking, swimming and dancing. As the youngest of five siblings, he had the opportunity to tag along with his older brothers and learned a lot from them and their friends. He hopes Explore Austin will be an opportunity to pass on some of these teachings to the next generation, especially self-confidence, resilience, leadership, resourcefulness and sociability.

*Mario speaks Spanish fluently.


Eric Brown

“Hey, I’m Eric! I grew up in Houston and spent 8 years living out of the US, but I love living in Austin now where I get to enjoy some beautiful trails and delicious food trucks. I have worked in education and youth programs for over 15 years, and now I work with findhelp supporting nonprofits. I love learning about and experiencing this amazing world we live in, and I am really excited about sharing that enthusiasm with young Explorers as a Mentor with Explore Austin!”


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