Posted on July 06 2016
Masha Gordon is this weeks Wednesday Woman. An accomplished explorer and leading British businesswoman, Masha founded GRIT&ROCK, a new charity which aims to help teenage girls from deprived, inner city, backgrounds develop greater grit, determination and self-confidence through year-long mountaineering training programs.
On June 11, 2016, this mother-of-two entered the world record books as the fastest woman in the world to complete the Explorers’ Grand Slam in just 7 months and 19 days. Read her story here:
Bardega: Can you tell us a bit about your background, what were you like growing up? what career path did you take ?
Masha Gordon: I grew up in Russia in a small republic called North Ossetia in mountainous Caucasus. I had a brief stint in journalism working for The Washington Post, went to grad school and fell in love with finance. I joined Goldman Sachs in 1998 as a fund manager looking after emerging markets equities and had a very fulfilling 12 year career there. I then moved to PIMCO, another successful money management firm, in 2010 and spent 4 more years managing clients' money.
In 2014, the year I turned 40, I took a decision to move to a portfolio career of non-executive board appointments in the private and non-for-profit sectors.
Bardega: What first sparked your passion for climbing and what made you decide to the enter the Explorers Grand Slam?
Gordon: I wasn’t athletic growing up. In fact, I failed PE at school and could not run a mile in my early thirties. That said, I was a recreational skier and enjoyed walking outdoors. In my mid thirties, after I had my second child, I chose to spend my maternity leave in the Alps, relocating my family for 6 months to Chamonix. There, a friend took me along for a scramble up a rugged ridge. I fell in love with adventure the came with that, being outdoors, feeling the wind on your cheeks and the exhilaration of reaching the summit.
As with other things in my life, once it became a passion, I dedicated a serious amount of time to getting better by learning new skills: ice climbing, ski touring and rock climbing. That was 7 years ago, and that journey took me to the 4000m peaks around Europe and gave me an incredible satisfaction of attainment in a physical world. Two years ago, I transitioned to a portfolio career of board appointments and freed up more time to spend with my kids and to try high-altitude mountaineering.
One expedition led to another and in late 2015 I plucked up the courage to set out on a journey to break the women’s world record in an endurance challenge called the Explorers Grand Slam by climbing the highest peaks on each of the 7 continents and skiing the Last Degree to the North and the South Poles in a record-breaking 8 months. On June 11, 2016 I summited Denali and set the record at 7 months and 19 days, beating the previous record by 3 months.
Bardega: You must have faced some difficult times whilst completing your challenge; what were they, and how did you motivate yourself to keep going?
Gordon: Two months into the challenge I broke my wrist ice climbing in Europe. As I wept in an Italian hospital from pain and frustration, I forced myself to think rationally about the next summit - Aconcagua - a 7000m peak I have done previously. I have seen wounded warriers summit successfully a year before…. surely, I can cope going up the mountain with a cast. I summited that peak 30 days later. I faced plenty of weather related delays and disruptions - a cracked ice field in the North Pole that has severely delayed my departure for that expedition and was eating into my Everest acclimatisation time; bad weather outlook for the Everest summit day… but I have remained optimistic and somehow that helped.
Bardega: What have been the biggest lessons you have learnt during this challenge and how do you think they apply to our everyday lives?
Gordon: In our thirties and forties, we develop and possess an incredible endowment of resilience and mental endurance. We can tap into it to learn new skills, make satisfying career transitions and transform the way we think about ourselves and the way others see us. Surround yourself with positive people who reinforce success of early wins and inspire you to carry on.
- Break down what may seem like an insurmountable goal - such as climbing Mount Everest - into smaller intermediate objectives. Focus on acquiring skills and don’t worry about the big scary goal. The success will come, and so will the skills.
- We can’t change things outside of our control - bad weather, logistics - but we can change our attitude to them. Conserve your energy and try to remain positive.
- Don’t allow social conventions dictate your path in life… I could have been stopped so many times on my track by notions that I am ‘a woman in my 40s..’ ‘a mother’, etc… Focus on things that make you happy and you will achieve your happy medium while working out practical issues.
- You can gain enormous strength from giving and empathising with others. I remember feeling weak and fragile on my second rotation on the Everest. I had a bad trip up to Camp 2 to 6500m and was in doubt whether I will be able to summit. On day two I took a walk up to the base of Lhotse face and ran into a young American who was stumbling back. I asked whether he has summited - he replied ‘I am walking the walk of shame. I did not have in me’ … I gave him a big hug, told him about my misery and that he should be proud that he got to 7000m. Somehow, that act of giving strength to someone else and not focusing on my own fragility gave me an enormous energy boost. Seven days later I stood on the summit of Everest...
Bardega: What’s next for you?
Gordon: I am a mum to 6 and an 8 year old so my big adventure this summer will be traveling to Cuba and Costa Rica with them. They are very outdoorsy and I am looking forward to canyoning, kayaking and climbing with them. In autumn, I plan to do a first ascent of a peak in Nepal where the government has recently opened up some 100 mountains for climbers. This is the ultimate alpinist dream - to find a route up a mountain that no one has climbed before.
Bardega: You did this challenge to inspire young girls but who inspires you and why?
Gordon: I am very much inspired by women pioneers, those who have paved the way for us to do adventuring without facing prejudice. Freya Stark stands out as a woman who traveled solo in the Middle East in the 1930s. We named our daughter after her. I was fortunate enough to be able to team up on a summit day on Everest with Lydia Bradey, the first woman to summit Everest without oxygen in 1988. She had a tough journey then; being 26, alone and facing frankly misogynistic attitudes from her climbing partners who all but abandoned her. She went on to climb Everest three more times, and did a number of other 8000m peaks but still remains incredibly humble and giving.
Bardega: Finally what advice would you give a younger Masha?
Gordon: Come on, just get yourself to the start line. Don’t lean on ‘learned helplessness’ (I can’t do it…). Everyone can be athletic. Just stick with it and you will get to love it!