Dear Blog Readers- I am pleased and honored to introduce Carol Masheter as the second of my guest Bloggers. Readers of my Carstensz Pyramid Blog will recall Carol as being a member of that expedition and, in the course of summiting Carstensz Pyramid, becoming the oldest woman in history to stand atop the Seven Summits.
I asked Carol to write on the topic of self-doubt. Though she has enjoyed vast success as a Mountaineer, Carol has also known low moments and is willing to share candidly about them. She is an inspiration, a kind soul, and a member of The Ozone Brotherhood.
Dave Mauro, my friend and fellow climber on Carstensz Pyramid in July, 2012, has asked me to share some thoughts about self-doubt. I am well qualified. In my professional life, I have struggled with writer's block and fear of public speaking. I also am afraid of heights. These are all forms of self-doubt. Sixteen years ago, I lost a job that I loved, my relationship with a man I loved ended badly, and my mother died suddenly, all with 18 months. I was devastated. To heal from loss, grief, and anger, I ran away to the Bolivian Andes to learn high altitude mountaineering at age 50. The last thing I expected was to retire at age 65 from a new career I enjoyed to become a full time mountaineer, author, and motivational speaker.
I am a small, not very impressive looking woman, now 66 years of age. I work out regularly, usually win my age/gender division in half marathons, and often can keep pace with people half my age in the mountains. However, with each passing year I run a little slower and lose some agility and lung function. Before each major climb, I worry that I am not skilled enough, strong enough, or fast enough; that my fear of heights will overwhelm me, I will fall and splat like a bug. That said, I believe self-doubt among mountaineers is common, even among the best, though few speak or write about it. Yet self-doubt, if managed properly, can be a powerful tool.
Self-doubt drove me to prepare thoroughly before my Everest climb in 2008. I had hired a recommended professional trainer who had trained other Everest climbers and got in the best shape of my life. I had practiced walking on a ladder propped on cinder blocks in my backyard. I had climbed with a professional guide in the icefall on Mt. Baker in Washington. However, in the Khumbu Icefall above Everest Base Camp, each ladder bridge, especially a long, bouncy one, triggered my fear of heights big time. When I looked down to see where to place my feet, the crevasse drew my gaze into its seemingly bottomless depths, my breathing degenerated into frightened little gasps, my head swam, and my gut twisted.
To avoid being reduced to a quivering blob of jelly, I used several strategies. I commanded myself out loud, "Breathe in deeply, breathe out slowly." Sometimes this simple technique was enough to steady my breathing and reduce my fear to a manageable level. If that didn't work, I murmured s soothing Buddhist prayer, "Om mahnee pahdmee hoom," with each exhale. I resisted the morbid temptation to look into the crevasse. I forced myself to focus only on the ladder rungs, where I was about to place each foot, and not let my gaze slide down into those terrifying depths. If that didn't work, I firmly reminded myself aloud, "You have trained for this, you know what to do. Stop agonizing and just do it." When my careful pre-trip preparation was not enough, these tricks helped me manage my self-doubt and make about 400 ladder-bridge crossings in multiple trips through the Khumbu Icefall.
During our acclimatization cycles above Base Camp, self-doubt rose and fell like the tides. When I climbed well and did not lag behind the others, my confidence soared. "I'm gonna summit for sure, piece of cake," I would crow inwardly. During a slow, labored climb, I would despair, "I'm too old and slow, I was a fool to think I could climb Everest at age 61." As the time for our summit attempt neared, I was sure the guides would say, "Nice effort, but you are a bad risk for going to the summit." Instead, the guides said, "You have trained hard with a recommended trainer before the expedition. You have done more acclimatization walks than the other expedition members. Your resting heart rate, blood oxygen saturation, and blood pressure are comparable to those of the others and the climbing Sherpas. Do you want to try for the summit?" Of course, I wanted to try for the summit! The guides' experience with previous climbers enabled them to give an impartial evaluation of my abilities. The guides settled the question of whether I was strong enough but simply lacked confidence or I was an over-confident, unrealistic fool.
Being encouraged to go for the summit provided only temporary relief from self-doubt. For me, it is a sneaky demon that disappears for a while, only to resurface at another, less convenient time. During summit day I experienced my worst moments of self-doubt. Early in our ascent, on a particularly steep pitch below the Balcony I felt as though I were struggling against Jovian gravity. My bulky down parka and pants, my heavy, three-layer mountaineering boots, and supplemental oxygen mask felt as cumbersome as a space suit. Each cycle of movements took every ounce of will I had: look for a foot hold, bend my knee and lift my foot up onto the hold, test it, shift my weight onto it, straiten my knee and hoist my body up, slide my ascender up the fixed line, repeat this cycle again and again and again. At the top of this steep pitch, a narrow shelf of rock and ice, I paused on my hands and knees. My breath came in sharp, ragged gasps, as I fought to get enough air.
My inner critic hissed poisonously, "If you are having this much trouble now, before we have even reached the Balcony you should turn back now. If you collapse and cannot climb on your own, you will put your Sherpa climbing partners, Nima and Tendi, in added danger. You vowed before this climb not to endanger anyone else unnecessarily, even if turning back broke your heart." Slowly, I stood up and tried to steady my ragged breathing. Tendi asked, "Carol Didi (older sister), you OK?" I was too out of breath to answer. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead to mine, a gentle Sherpa gesture of affection and respect. We stood that way for what seemed like a very long time, but it was probably only for a few seconds. My jangled nerves and uneven breathing steadied. Tendi and I parted. "I'm OK, Tendi Bai (younger brother). Let's go," I heard myself say. The firmness and resolve in my voice surprised me. It was as though a stronger, more confident me were speaking, not the self-doubting me that considered turning back moments before. My best explanation of what happened is that Tendi's kind gesture gave me a moment to regroup physically and mentally to push down the demon of self-doubt, and let my inner strength take over. What followed was a difficult, yet intensely rewarding climb and magical summit experience. I will remember the joy I experienced while sitting on top of the world until the end of my days.
Mountaineering has been more than a series of fine adventures. It has helped me learn to manage fear of heights, fear of public speaking, and writer's bock. At 66 years of age I now have a new identity and purpose. I have learned to use self-doubt to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and expect the unexpected. If sharing lessons learned from mountaineering through writing and speaking inspires even a few people to learn to harness self-doubt, meet life's challenges, and experience the joy of overcoming them, I am happy.
Carol recounts her Everest climb and harrowing descent in "No Magic Helicopter, An Aging Amazon's Climb of Everest,"
(please see www.carolmasheter.com for more information). I enjoyed reading her book and encourage others to check it out. In between her many speaking engagements, Carol is working on another book about climbing the Seven Summits.