If you've seen the movie Everest, read the famous book Into Thin Air, or followed the recent Snapchat adventures of these two guys summitting the world's highest peak, you know that climbing the world's tallest mountain is no easy—or glamorous—feat. Climbing Mt. Everest alone is crazy dangerous and tough on you mentally and physically, but that wasn't enough for 42-year-old mother, mountaineer, and businesswoman Masha Gordon. She set out to crush the female record for completing the Explorers Grand Slam, which consists of climbing the Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each continent), as well as reaching both the North and South Poles.
And in just 7 months and 19 days, Masha finished her last expedition on Denali in Alaska to score the official Guinness World Record for the fastest female time to climb the Seven Summits including Carstensz (a mountain in Indonesia).
The most surprising part: Masha will admit she was never sporty, was awkward growing up, and didn't even start climbing until she was in her thirties. How'd she do it? Read on to find out how she got started, what got her through the toughest moments, and how she's going to inspire a new generation of adventurous women and girls. (More inspiration right this way: watch this woman scale Mt. Kilimanjaro on a mountain bike.)
SHAPE: You're the first to admit you've never been sporty or athletic. How'd you get into climbing?
Masha Gordon: Well I've always been up for an adventure, and I always enjoyed nature, but I was never athletic. I failed P.E. at school. But I skied throughout my 20s and I enjoyed the mountains. In my mid-30s when I had my second child, I spent my maternity leave in the French Alps. I was prompted by a friend to do a scramble, a mixed climb. And I was like, "Really, me?" I did it, and I loved it. I loved the incredible satisfaction you get from reaching a summit or a high point. I found that because it was not high speed, the pace was good for me, and I didn't faze out during the climb.
One thing led to another, I got really passionate about it, and like many things in life I approached it quite fiercely. So I dedicated more and more time, and the nice thing about mountaineering is you can do lots of different activities. You can do backcountry skiing (when you put on skis and you go up the mountains), you can do ice climbing, you can do rock climbing. Also, it builds up a very well-rounded set of skills. A couple of years ago, I moved to a portfolio career, so I sit on the boards of companies and nonprofits, and I've actually made more time for myself to go on expeditions.
In January of last year, I went on my first high-altitude expedition in preparation for climbing Mt. Everest. And on that expedition, I discovered that (a) I was the only person who summitted, and (b) I had a good set of skills. As someone who viewed herself as non-athletic, I was surprised. I was encouraged to go on and try a different set of skills that was important for Everest, which was the cold training of Denali. I summitted Denali for the first time in June of 2015, and again I'd never seen myself as someone that could drag a sled the weight of her body. But I was able to do it, and do it efficiently.
SHAPE: How did you decide to tackle the Explorers Grand Slam?
MG: Last year, as I was thinking through my Everest journey, I thought, "Wow, if I just add a few more bits to it and re-climb three mountains I already climbed, I can beat the female world record in an Explorers Grand Slam and I can enter the Guinness Book of World Records for Seven Summits." And for me, that was a fun challenge, because I'd never seen myself as an endurance athlete, but I ended up doing all that. So it was a gradual journey and a journey in something that I was very passionate about.
SHAPE: How do you train for the climbs?
MG: I remember arriving at my first expedition, and everyone was bragging that they'd run marathons, they climbed Mt. Washington and they said, "What do you do?" And I said, "I just ski." It was true. Skiing is great because it gets your heart rate up but not to the degree that interval training does. So I do very long days on skis, 10 to 12 hours up mostly, in good and bad weather. And that's the best training for this type of activity.
But I never would have done it if I considered it training. For me, it's a pastime rather than training. It's very, very peaceful, and when you go up to the places where there are no leaves, there are no people, you find yourself on top of this summit, completely and utterly alone. It's such a beautiful feeling; you're one with nature, it's very quiet, and you feel like you've achieved something.
SHAPE: You just finished the challenge by summiting Denali in June. How did it feel to reach the summit and think, "I did it?"
MG: Well, to make things even more complicated, I picked a very tough route up Denali. I did the normal route last year, which was very hard primarily because of the amount of food you need to bring for 20 days. This time around, I did a more technical route called the Cassin Ridge that's only done by a few people a year, if at all. It has probably been done by fewer than 100 people in history. And it was very hard, I found it to be a stretch for me—much, much harder than Everest because it's technical and it's objectively dangerous. But it's amazing because you're doing something that very few alpinists attempt and succeed. It took us a day longer than it was meant to because of the snow conditions, so we ran out of food. The last day we had two Clif bars and two gels for three of us and we had to climb for another eight hours.
When we got to the crest leading to the summit, and I realized that we were probably 10 to 15 minutes away from the summit, that felt like the summit for me. At that moment I realized that we'll be alive, we'll be ok, I'll go back to my kids, we've done it, and it's over. And I broke into tears way before the summit because those tears of joy dissipated all the tension from that day. Getting to the summit was a bonus; I've been to that summit before. It was a great feeling, but it didn't have that same emotional release. As we were coming down from the summit, it was midnight, but in Alaska, it was light outside. Seeing these incredible other peaks protruding through the clouds, I was thinking, "I'm done, but I'm so not done because these things are so beautiful, and I won't be able to resist coming back again."
SHAPE: What was the hardest part of that climb?
MG: The Denali climb was absolutely the hardest thing I had to do for the Grand Slam. And it was by choice. I could have just gone up the normal route. But I'd already summited Denali, and that park is protected and very pristine, where you're not allowed to air drop any food. It's like the way mountaineering used to be. And I wanted to do something special. I didn't admit to anyone that I was climbing that route, apart from my family, because I didn't know whether I could do it. And after day one it becomes committed, you can't turn back. But day one we did ok, and I knew I had to finish what I started.
SHAPE: Were there any other challenges over the course of the Seven Summits and two poles?
MG: There were three big challenges.
The first was that I broke my wrist on December 30, 2015. It was shortly after coming back from skiing to the South Pole, and way before the challenge was over. I was crushed because the projected recovery is 10 weeks. I remember lying in the hospital, thinking, what's my next peak? My next peak was Aconcagua. I had an ambitious climb in my mind (a glacial route) because I'd already climbed it in the past, but clearly, I couldn't do it with a broken wrist. But I thought that if I did a normal route, I can try to do it fast. I know I can do it because I've seen wounded warriors climb it, and if those guys can do it with their physical challenges, I can do it with a cast. But again, it was a big setback, and in January, it was hard to not be able to train. I couldn't ski because it would be dangerous to my arm, so I learned to snowshoe. I would take my kids snowshoeing on walks and they would curse me. But eventually they learned and we enjoyed it.
The second challenge was the weather. You are very much at the mercy of the weather during all these climbs. So there was a point on Everest where we were sitting at Camp 4, the night before the summit, and the forecast came in for 50 mph winds. You can't climb in that type of weather. And by the time you make it to Camp 4, if you come down, you're not going to summit during that season. I was thinking "my dream is crushed again." Luckily, I was with an amazing woman, Lydia Bradey, who was the first woman to summit Everest without oxygen in 1988. She looked at me and I looked at her and I said, "Look, Lydia, should we chance it? And if it becomes dangerous, we come back?" And she was like,"Yup, let's do it." We were lucky that the storm came 12 hours later.
The third challenge was that I was very homesick. There are points where I thought, "Why am I doing this?" I have kids, and when you're missing things like a Christmas play that your neighbor puts on, and you hear that your child was amazing, you think, "I wish I was there."
What helped me particularly in the last, Denali climb was having my kids "with" me; they put graffiti with Sharpie Extreme Markers all over my boots and gear. And having that in my tent, in a snow storm, on Denali, was tremendous. When it was tough, I read one of the messages written by my daughter that said, "I love you, mommy, because you're strong." I thought, "Well, I can't really disappoint her. I have to keep going."
SHAPE: What do you think that your example will do for young women who might think they want to do something adventurous or scary?
MG: What troubles me is that 40 percent of UK teenage girls don't see themselves as adventurous, and 25 percent think that they can't handle risk. If you think you can't take risks, you're not going to be successful in your career. If you think you can't face a challenge, again, are you ever going to try something that's a stretch? Probably not. For me, mountaineering worked. I tried, and I excelled. Just by getting to the start line and starting to walk, tapping on those endurance skills and mental skills.
SHAPE: Any tips for someone who wants to get into mountaineering?
MG: The U.S. has an amazing set of national parks, and every park has a peak, and every state has the highest point. You can find a beginner or intermediate mountain objective for yourself, and again, it doesn't need to be a technical climb. What you need to develop first, is mostly the endurance of walking for very long hours by yourself and finding that pleasurable. Because when you're in that first or second hour of walking, you have that release of happy hormones, and that's where you get this amazing feeling, that it pays off.
If people want to take on more challenging mountaineering, there are amazing courses on Mount Rainier, which is an amazing mountain in Washington. There are a number of schools in Washington, RMI, IMG that run great courses. So get into one of those courses to learn a set of skills, and to really know if you enjoy doing it or not. And most places have climbing gyms. Go to a climbing gym and try it out. You don't need to be athletic. I think what attracted me the first time, and because I didn't understand this, was that you don't need to be super thin or super in shape to climb the climbing wall. You can start anywhere, and it's about learning the technique and with time, you will start to enjoy that. It's actually incredibly peaceful and very fulfilling. All you need is a set of legs.