At age 11 I was thrown out of my PE class at school after repeatedly freezing in stupor in front of a gym horse.
Aged 21 I managed to opt out of graded sports altogether by signing up for a group for the spatially challenged that had to perform the 1950 gymnastic moves designed for ageing Politburo members on the steps of the famed Moscow University building.
Aged 31 I could not run 5km without a rest.
Aged 41 I intend to complete the Explorers’ Grand Slam within 8 months and become the fastest woman to do it.
By the time I complete this challenge, I will have spent 100 days in a tent, done 3 weeks of skiing to the North and South Poles at -40C weather and exposed myself to the “death zone” above 8,000 metres. Having done a number of these summits recently, I intend to climb Aconcagua via a technical and rarely climbed Polish glacier, solo and ski Elbrus with my climbing partner, summit Denali via a challenging West Rib route and climb Everest within an unguided expedition.
Am I arrogant or mad? I came from a small town in Russia’s Caucasus but was lucky (and hard-working enough) to study abroad. After a fascinating stint in journalism with “The Washington Post”, I graduated in to the world of finance and spent my twenties and early thirties behind a trading desk at Goldman Sachs, traveled the world, became an MD and had two beautiful children. I stumbled on mountaineering whilst spending my maternity leave in Chamonix in the French Alps and being persuaded to fit some crampons by a friend. It was love from first site, no pun intended. A sport that was as much mental as physical. I relaxed on exposed pitches and thrived on 2am morning summit push starts. Mixed climbing helped me detox from the hubris of daily information by making me focus on the next move, not the trade that was going wrong. I was lucky to learn from the best – the French PGHM rescuers – who became my adopted fathers, inspired me and believed in me. I found interesting and true parallels between climbing and investing, both aimed at answering the same question: “What is the reasonable amount of risk to take for the pleasure/return you derive?”
Within the past year, following my move to a portfolio career of non-executive work on boards of companies and non-profit organisations, I carved out more time to focus on this passion: the pursuit of mountaineering. As I immersed myself in that world, I have applied the same discipline of hard work, focus and the value of mentors. I have put myself through the gruelling (and highly enjoyable) drill of climbing multiple summits: Aconcagua, Denali, Manaslu, Vinson, the famed and feared Eiger and Matterhorn to name a few; skiing Elbrus and Mont Blanc, skinning the Haute Route; getting to the South Pole via a 111km ski of the Last Degree.
I started out extremely unsure of my abilities – after all, I was a girl who failed PE at school – but then was given great advice by someone who trained women athletes: focus on intermediate objectives, not the BIG prize. With the right encouragement from my climbing mentors and applying the power of grit I have gradually upped my goals, focused on efficiency, worked on my technique and leveraged my inner competitiveness.
Within the past year I met a number of amazing women whose stories have inspired me to take on this challenge – from Hannah McKnead who has gone to become the fastest person to make the Coast to Pole journey in Antarctica having started as a marketing manager at a London’s theatre company to a 17 year old girl who has overcome bullying and intimidation at school and was a star expedition member at a recent Last Degree ski journey taking in stride subhuman temperatures and hardship.
With my journey, I hope to inspire women of my generation to dare use the power of their grit to push for new frontiers – be that adventuring, career or personal quests – and for the girls and younger women – much like my own daughter Freya – to use mountaineering as a venue of developing leadership, perseverance and the ability to meet a challenge. I will be partnering with an education charity and a mountaineering trust to help bring forward a program for young women to help build their confidence and self-belief via the art of mountaineering.
Having summited Kilimanjaro within 24 hours in late October, climbed Mount Vinson on December 5th and reached the South Pole on skis via the Last Degree on December 15th, I will now race against time to complete the rest of the challenge by June 2016. Follow my journey on GRIT&ROCK at http://www.gritandrock.net