On October 22nd, 2015, Masha Gordon’s record-breaking journey began. The first of her nine tasks was Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Just a few years prior, Masha wasn’t a climber. She was a business woman, working for various firms such as Goldman Sachs. She wasn’t physically active. Despite this, she had an urge to drop it all and start climbing. I was lucky enough to be able to speak with Masha about why she did it, how she did it, and how it felt to be the fastest woman to ever complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam; the highest peak on every continent, and a trip to the North and South poles.Masha stands tall on a snowy ridge.
What inspired you to try the Explorer’s Grand Slam so late in your life?
I was not athletic growing up, and in my mid 30s I tried climbing just as a fun thing. I actually fell very passionately for it. It’s an amazing activity that gives you a sense of adventure. The sense of adventure is the thing that really brought me out climbing. I remember falling in love with waking up very early, as early as 2 in the morning in a mountain refuge, you put on your headlamp, you start walking on a glacier, and by midday you’re on the summit or on top of the ridge. It gives you this extraordinary sense of achievement and for someone who was not athletic before, very early on in your journey, you can experience these incredibly highs from overcoming yourself and reaching the summit. That was some seven years ago. About two years ago, I switched my career and made more time for my passion, and by that time I’d become more proficient in ice climbing and rock climbing. Around that time I decided to try expeditions and altitude mountaineering. My dream was to climb Everest. But when you have something so big and unattainable, you kind of break it into pieces. So I broke it into one piece, which was high altitude so I tried an expedition to Acongcagua in early 2015, which was pretty straightforward. After that, I was prompted to try another peak, Denali. The first time I climbed the Denali was in June 2015, and there I learned about how to deal with the cold, pulling a heavy sled, and just being able to function in that kind of environment. So one challenge led to another challenge, and in the fall of last year, I put all the pieces together and I realized that I can break the world record. For someone who hasn’t been athletic and started climbing late on in life, realizing that I can break the world record in endurance for a female was a great challenge. Another inspiration was my kids; I always wanted to have kids that were active and open to the world. So doing this challenge and showing them that anyone can do that was one of the big inspirations for me.
What have you learned about yourself by doing the Grand Slam?
I learned how to be comfortable being just by myself, and in places like Denali I had to spend the days in the snow storm alone in my tent, and you have to be content with that. You have to learn how to entertain yourself. You also learn how not to expose yourself to the cold and the stress, you learn how to deal with stress without using much energy. I think the life changing thing for me in the past year was that point of being alone and uncomfortable. Once I got back to normal life, I learned how to deal with uncomfortable situations better; flights delayed, stuff like losing your luggage, it really put things into perspective for me. I also learned how important nutrition and rest are while doing this challenge. It’s just as important as the training.
Of the seven peaks you’ve climbed, which was your favorite and why?
Everest is incredible, and the journey to Everest and through the valley and seeing all the monuments and memorials was very moving. It feels like you’re becoming a part of history. The feeling of being in that place was tremendous. My last peak I did, Denali, which is incredibly well preserved by the National Parks Association, you have to be very self sufficient. You have to carry all your food in, you have to just learn how to be by yourself; if you need rescue, there’s a possibility that the rescue can come too late, so you have to learn to deal with the possibility of that happening. For my second time around on the Denali, I picked the route with the single biggest mountain wall. It was a difficult trip because you can’t take too much food. In fact, we took too little food because we ended up being held back by conditions. On the wall, you have to sleep on these extraordinary ledges, and the feeling of being on those ledges was amazing. The best thing about that climb, for me, was having my kids with me. Not literally, but my kids took Sharpie Extremes and wrote on my gear and it helped me feel at home and with them.
Of the nine challenges you undertook, which was the most difficult? Which was the easiest?
ell, it’s the highest peak on every continent. So if you take Kilimanjaro, which may be the hardest peak some ever climb. For me, I did Kilimanjaro in 24 hours. Was it easy? For me, it was easy because at the time I was training very hard for high altitudes. For others, however, it might not be as easy because it’s just a very difficult peak. North Pole was hard physically and emotionally, physically because you are walking on open ice with freezing weather, and it’s also very humid weather where nothing dries, so camping was difficult. You also have to deal with Carbon Monoxide poisoning in tents, and even polar bears. We had a couple experiences with polar bears coming up to our tent, which was also very scary.
Now that you’re done with the Grand Slam, what’s up next for you?
There are so many amazing mountains in the world, the next adventure I wanna take is the adventure with the kids. I have been away from them for the for the past 7 months, they’re very adventurous and they love skiing and snowboarding and I’m sure they’d love the adventure with me. Personally, there are a number of journeys I’d love to take, the northern Patagonia is one I’d love to take. You need to take everything with you by yourself, like the Denali. The unclimbed peaks in Nepal would be nice because it’s a puzzle, it’s never been done. It’s not like on Everest where there are fixed roads to take. Here, you have to rely on your experience and understanding of the landscape.
What can someone who isn’t a climber learn from your experience?
Well, anyone that isn’t a climber can tap into their mental endurance and do just about anything. I was not athletic and I became the fastest woman, and the third fastest person to do the Explorer’s Grand Slam. I couldn’t run a 5k, and then I climbed Everest. Why was I able to do it? Not because I was training like mad, or running marathons, but because I had the mental endurance. If you can put your mind to something and not get discouraged by people around you, then you can do just about anything.Masha labeling food with a fade resistant Sharpie Extreme.
What’s included in your pre-climb routine?
Nutrition is extremely important, for example if you go to Everest, you have to have a very good carb filled meal or the altitude will kill your appetite. Just having quick sugars in a climb is something that can help a lot on a climb. There are times when you are climbing and you feel like you can’t do it. It’s not that you can’t do it, it’s that you don’t have any energy. Being very diligent about eating is important. If you have a respirator on and you’re very cold, the last thing you wanna do is reach into your pocket and grab something to eat. In those conditions, you’re just not very hungry. Another important thing is staying hydrated throughout the entire climb. You have to be drinking water the entire time.
You’re an Arsenal fan; is there any inspiration you think the players should take from you for next season?
Of course! They came second the last season, so hopefully they can come first next season. I’m from North London, and I was bringing my home team’s flag with me on these climbs. I was actually meant to summit Everest on May 15th, the last day of the season when Arsenal clinched second place, and the whole time I was just thinking “I wish I was on the summit with the flag!” So next season, I think the motto for the team should be “Yes I can”, because that’s what I was thinking on my climbs.Masha’s fade resistant Sharpie Extreme-covered gear in the tent.
On a lot of your gear, you have messages from your family written in Sharpie Extreme. Did those messages help you through any tough segments of the Grand Slam?
Climbing is about reaching the high altitudes, and there are points where you can’t even put one foot in front of the other and you run out of the energy. Having messages like “I love you mommy” written from my children on my boots helped me put one foot in front of the other. It helped me realize that I can’t disappoint my kids; my son was telling all of his friends I was climbing all of these peaks. The sense that you can’t let your children down, and having their messages right in front of me like that was a big reason as to why I was able to complete the climbs that I did.
Check out Masha’s interview with Sharpie here.
As a mother of two, Masha’s children are her greatest inspiration. However, since she could not bring them with her on her journey, she had them write motivational messages on her gear using Sharpie Extreme permanent markers ensuring that their messages would not fade. Sharpie Extreme permanent markers have high-contrast ink that resists fading when exposed to even the most extreme weather conditions, including harsh UV rays, rain, snow and even mud. “I had moments when I was struggling during my final summit on Denali, but I was able to gather strength from the words that my children wrote on my gear,” said Masha. “Using Sharpie Extreme ensured that my children’s words of encouragement stayed with me and never faded, regardless of what challenge or harsh weather conditions I was facing.”