Serious Sisu

Masha Gordon wasn’t sporty as a girl and has spent most of her adult life working behind a desk as a successful businesswoman. She only discovered her love of mountaineering on maternity leave in her thirties. But the mother-of-two is now on course to enter the world record books as the fastest woman in the world to complete the Explorers’ Grand Slam. The Explorers Grand Slam is an adventurers challenge to reach the North Pole, the South Pole and all of the Seven Summits. Why?  In line with the work of SisuGirls, she wants to inspire girls – like her eight-year-old daughter Freya – to take up mountaineering and outdoor activities, which are fantastic ways to develop leadership, perseverance and self-confidence and has established a UK registered charity – GRIT&ROCK – to encourage inner city teenage girls to challenge themselves, increase self-confidence and help those in deprived areas develop love for active lifestyle.

Please can you give us a brief introduction and a background to the challenge you are undertaking?

By June 2016, I seek to become the fastest woman ever to complete the Explorers Grand Slam by climbing the top summits on seven continents and skiing the last degree to the North and South Poles. Only 2 people have completed this challenge in under a year and 44 in total. The current title holder, Vanessa O’Brien, completed the record in 11 months and I intend to do in under 8 months. By the time I complete this challenge, I will have spent over a 100 days in a tent, done 3 weeks of skiing to the North and South Poles in -40C weather and exposed myself to the “death zone” above 8,000 metres. 

What inspired you to take on this challenge? Where does the motivation come from? 

At the beginning, it was a personal journey. I moved from working full time at desk job as a fund manager with PIMCO and Goldman Sachs to a portfolio career of board appointments. I had more time to cultivate my interests, alpinism being one of them. Some 18 months ago I went on my first high altitude expedition and have discovered to my surprise that a combination of 10,000 hours invested in technique combined with qualities that I have developed through my youth - perseverance, mental strength, and endurance - have made a strong expedition team member. It felt empowering given for most of my life I led a sedentary lifestyle, could not run 5k and failed PE at school.

This female world record challenge is a test of physical and mental endurance for me as an amateur climber. Now being two-thirds in with North Pole, Everest, and Denali ahead of me, I have a better idea what it takes and I am looking forward to accomplishing my goal, with respect of course for safety and weather.  I hope that my journey will inspire young women to take up mountaineering as a way to increase their self-confidence and mental resilience. 

How much training, and what preparation was involved? 

“How do you train?” – this question used to startle me on early expeditions. Unlike some of my fellow travellers, I did not drag a truck’s tire on a sandy beach, run half-marathons or, for that matter, climb staircases of skyscrapers dressed in a catsuit with a 90L backpack on my back.  In fact, I would have never got to a start line of high altitude mountaineering had I thought of my now  5,000+ hours on a hill as a daily grind of training. For me, it was poetry of adventure, twilight of the wee hours of a day and adrenalin of rock-climbing when the only thing you can think of is your next step.

What got me out and to the place where I am today – undertaking Explorers Grand Slam challenge or being able to ski 60 miles to the South Pole in -40C  in just 5 days – was the sense of adventure. Sleeping in a refuge perched on a rock in a smelly room full of 30 strangers, waking up at 2am, putting on a headlamp and heading to the hill to pull, push, grind teeth and experience exaltation at the top. The days were long, often 10 to 14  hours. I remember coming back from my first alpine summit – Mont Blanc via Trois Monts – not having the strength to speak to anyone. Or experiencing type 2 fun on my first backcountry ski tour – lost in a blizzard being shouted at for being too slow by a stern old French guy.

The beauty of mountaineering is that for beginners it does not require a high baseline of fitness. I don’t know what my VO2Max is, but I do know that I can walk for 12 hours straight in a blizzard and keep conversational pace. You build that endurance over time, hour by hour, pitch by pitch, while enjoying the same sense of achievement as Ueli Steck or Kilian Jornet by finishing your first multi-pitch climb or getting to your first summit. This asymmetry of skill vs enjoyment is rare in sport and is what makes alpinism a perfect one to adopt later in life.

 Masha gordon

Masha gordon

What does one eat to prepare for a challenge of this nature?

For the first time in my life, I am worried about not weighing enough. I am 5 feet 5 (167cm) and weigh 110 pounds (50kgs). That is a great advantage on the rock with a sound weight-to-strength ratio. I can move up fast not being burdened by the gravity. The Poles and Denali expeditions are a different story. I have to pull a 90 pound sled. I have to adapt to perform. I adapt by strength training and meticulously taking out every little bit of my kit that is not essential, and, well… by limiting the heaviest component – food that I take. With a 3 months long succession of high altitude climbs that I am about to undertake –North Pole, Everest and Cassin Ridge on Denali, I worry about losing too much weight and muscle. The nutrition math is fascinating. On an average day on high altitude (5,000m+) I would lose some 4,000 calories. On an average day pulling a sled in -30 degree weather, a person with my complexion would lose 5,000+ calories.


What can you possibly eat to replace those expanded calories?

  • 200grams of nuts (1000 calories)
  • 5-7 chocolate/power bars (1200 calories
  • 2-3 gels (300 calories)
  • A dinner of boil-in-the-bag (700 calories)
  • A breakfast of eggs, toast and bacon (500 calories)

Lunch, well, there is no lunch on the hill or while sledding… So adding it up, you could possibly get to 4,000 calories with a stretch. The truth is though, as you carry on climbing higher, your appetite vanishes and the body taps into the muscle and body fat.  To lose 1kg of weight you need to expand 9,000 calories. Well, that’s just a 3-4 days of not eating adequately.

Hydration is another story where the alpinists school themselves to limit water intake to a maximum 2 litres a day. That is nowhere near enough, yet we have to remain light to keep moving fast… so the body adapts until it stages a revenge. Every time I come down from the summit, my body swells retaining all the liquid, preparing for a siege and draught. It takes a few days to rock it back into a comfort zone whispering that I will treat it nicely in the coming weeks. 

How was the idea of the challenge received from family and friends? 

My family has been exceptionally supportive - my husband knew that this was once in a life time-limited project that was important for me. The strongest positive feedback has been from my female friends and the parents of girls. My story - one of an ordinary woman - has stricken a chord with women of my generation who are keen to try new things and seemed to have inspired parents to introduce their daughters to climbing and outdoors.

I am sure there may be less kind chatter questioning why as a mother I am engaged in activities considered by many as risky. There is nothing new in this and the more women engage in mountaineering the less stigma there will be around.

How have your experiences in the mountains impacted you as a person?

They have made me mentally and physically much stronger, expanded my social circle and enhanced my definition of ambition. I have much stronger immunity and by doing daily walking meditation, I feel more at peace with myself. 

From all the mountains you have attempted, which has been your favourite and why?

Every mountain to me represents that particular journey - a moment in time - the weather, your climbing partner and your state of mind. I love climbing Alpine style tied to a partner. So for me, one of the most beautiful and intricate climbs was Mittelegi ridge on Eiger. It is very exposed, long and committing. You are tied to your partner and there is no room for error or loose footwork. The rewards are an amazing feeling of satisfaction at the end of a 12 hour day and views of the Alps are incredibly stunning. 

Denali for me was a landmark expedition. It is remote with little support. You have to log a sled that weighed, in my case, 100% of my body weight. That is an expedition that gave me confidence that one endure extremes and with the right mental frame can adjust to anything. 

How are you dealing with the pressure of everyday life?

I have an astonishingly understanding husband and great long-term childcare. I had to learn to be less hands on and rely (with gratitude) on other people. While on expeditions, I call my kids daily on the satellite phone to tell them the story of my day
Late last year, in order to train I moved my kids to Chamonix in France. We enrolled them for a term in a French school. Instead of worrying about their immediate academic attainment, we focused on the fact that age 6 and 8 they will be able to soak up the French language. The result speaks for itself with the bonus being the fact that apart from skiing my kids learned to cross country ski, skate, snowboard and snowshoe. Not bad for a term!

What impact is this experience having on your children? 

I have been always a working mum. So my kids naturally treat this challenge as a job. They respect the hours I have been putting into training and preparation for the expeditions.  They - being strong skiers - love spending time with me outdoors and derive enormous pleasure from beating me in slalom. More than anything I hope I have had a positive impact on their imagination and on the notion of what is possible. My daughter says she would never forget being awoken in the middle of the night by my phone call from the South Pole. Her half-asleep question was: “Have you yet met the scientists?’ referencing many talks we had about this geographical landmark. My son who is younger loves playing ‘mountain rescue’, knows the names of obscure peaks and intricacies of belaying. He lives in this moment and not inside a video game. My challenge ahead is to teach both of them about fragility of human life and perils of body’s momentum. 

How do you overcome fear? 

I often get asked 'Aren't you scared?' Scared of thunderstorms? Avalanches? Exposure? This Tyrolean crossing over a 500m drop? I have learned to accept nature in a very romantic Goethian way - it is larger than us. Full stop. I learned to deal with fear by relaxing into the movement, by convincing myself to squeeze my eyes shut, by steadying my feet to make that leap of faith between exposed rocks. 

How do you overcome doubt?

Doubt is good. It represents a question and a dialogue when facts point to a distribution of outcomes. The most damning thing in a climb is a groupthink when the loudest voice overrides concerns about risk.  So I deal with doubts by isolating components of fear, by showing respect, by retreating and not taking chances on the weather glass half-empty.

What is your definition of Sisu?

Grit. Incidentally, the name of the charity - GRIT&ROCK - that I am setting up on the back of my record challenge. It aims to increase sisu of inner-city girls by exposing them to outdoors in team environments. I believe mountains are invaluable for honing impulse control, attention and mental resilience.

What would be your piece of advice to someone thinking of stepping outside their comfort zone?

Just get yourself to the start line - it is half of the battle won! Set intermediary goals - from my experience that works better for female athletes. And bin social stereotypes - they are a barrier between you, your happiness and your achievement.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?

Learn to rest. Less is more on high altitude. Counterintuitive but so true. Our bodies need recovery time and that’s the hardest thing to comprehend when you think of an athletic goal.

Who are your role models? 

Edurne Pasaban - a Spanish mountaineer who climbed 14 8,000 peaks. Her story is one of perseverance, endurance and grit with decade of her life spent on multiple summit attempts, lost toes, sacrifices and almost inhuman determination to make history. All of that packed in a small body. Another one is Freya Stark, a 20th British explorer, who ventured solo all over Middle East in 1920-1950s defying social conventions and exuding spirit of adventure. I admire that so much that my husband and I named our 8-year old daughter after her.

Who do you think has sisu?

Hazel Findlay, a great young British climber, and a North Face athlete, for being exceptional in what she does, very humble in demeanor and for overcoming difficulties stemming from a year of injury.

Follow Masha's journey to North Pole, Everest and Denali on Facebook and Twitter and Website

Chloe Chick