The Journey to the Summit of Everest

By Meghan Buchanan – Rocket Scientist, Adventure Athlete, Motivational Speaker

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It is difficult to describe my Mt Everest summit so quickly after happening. The gravity of this achievement is just starting to hit me, and I will be absorbing it in layers over the next couple months. Climbing Everest doesn’t just happen. It is a lifetime of passion and pain to even get to the point of considering such a seemingly unattainable goal. But once it becomes plausible, then the real work begins. It’s said, “Don’t be in the BEST shape of your life… be in Everest shape.” Meaning when you think you’re emotionally/physically/mentally ready, you’re not. Do more. Be it just one of the milestones in the bigger picture of completing the Explorers/Adventurers Grand Slam for me, Everest is a large percentage of that journey and has consumed my life for the past 3 years.

Climbing my way through the Seven Summits (tallest peak on each continent), I summited Denali in the summer of 2019. I knew then I was ready to take on Everest and kept training right through for the 2020 season. I was eager, focused and fit. However, 2 weeks before I was to fly to Nepal, the entire mountain was shut down for this “crazy little flu” called Covid. Much like Napa Valley harvest, there is a small window, a perfect day or so, to harvest a grape. The same goes for summiting Everest. If you miss the window (typically within the last 2 weeks of May), you have to wait an entire year and start from the very beginning. So, I trained another year and made it to Nepal late March 2021. I was able to get vaccinated prior to leaving, but the majority of others, especially the Nepalese, were not. It was a challenge just to get into the country. It was a challenge to dodge pandemic and illness around every corner. It was a challenge to endure unprecedented weather, 2 cyclones, through the Khumbu. It was one thing after another telling us “This is not the year! Turn back”. But after 2 years training and sacrificing, we all just wanted it so badly, so we pushed to keep going. Living at 17,500+ ft. is extremely hard on your body and mind. I had been climbing and waiting for 7 weeks when a weather window finally opened. My team was packed and went to bed early, set to leave for the summit bid at 1 am from Base Camp. My nervous excitement kept me awake when there was a rattle on my tent. “Meghan, emergency team meeting in the dining tent at 10”. Camp 2 had radioed down. ALL our climbing sherpa were ill with Covid (and I mean “on oxygen” ill). Sherpa are elite athletes with a tolerance for discomfort like I’ve never seen. When a Sherpa says they “can’t”, you take them seriously). And, just like that, our expedition was canceled. My shot at the summit was gone. 

Through life’s experiences, I have learned to let go of what I cannot control and focus on what I can. Don’t get me wrong, it took a minute to swallow that Everest sized pill, but I refuse to waste energy on what cannot be changed. So, I quickly reset my mind to train for a 3rd year. Next, I had to figure out how I was going to pay for it AGAIN and get another 2 months off from work! Not an easy task, but there was no “thinking about” it for me. I knew in every fiber of my being I needed to return the following year. I returned home June 7th, gave myself 1 week’s rest, and went right back to “life as usual,” training for Everest another year.

I returned to the Khumbu Valley 10 months later to finish what I started. I wondered if I could claim Nepalese residency at this point (Ha). I applied lessons learned. I was stronger. I was calmer and knew what to expect. I was truly in “Everest Shape.” I also had a delightful travel buddy this time. I was accompanied by a very special 375 ml little bottle of Seven Apart Summit, knowing every ounce in the death zone is like a boulder to carry. I take a bottle of wine to each summit. I suppose it is to symbolize the work and reward that goes into a climb. This little bottle and I were about to embark on a great adventure to the top of the world.

I began my hike in Lukla (9,500 ft.). The energy was 180° from last year. Sagarmatha (Nepalese name for Everest meaning “The Head of the Earth touching the Heaven”) seemed to say “Yes girl! You got this and I grant you safe passage.” The weather was incredible (actually too warm through the Khumbu Icefall). I maintained my health and strength and had no issues with altitude. Incredibly, I was able to hit an extremely early summit window. Summit bid was a marathon of tough, and worth every single step to reach the top of the world. My amazing guides and I left the South Col around 9 pm. So did everyone else. It was a long night of waiting in line, but that little bottle of wine and I submitted at sunrise on May 12, 2022. The summit was surreal, chaotic and short lived. I wish I had a bit more room and time to marinate in 29,031 ft., but we had to stay focused and present. It was very crowded, and we still had a deadly ridge to descend. Back past the Hilary step and the balcony, we eventually took a quick rest at Camp 4. Then kept moving past Camp 3, eventually arriving at Camp 2. Braving the spectrum of extreme cold to heat, the wine and I made it down out of the “Death Zone”. I barely made it into my sleeping bag before a well-deserved pass out. I returned to Everest Base Camp the following day and Kathmandu the day after that. Several of us decided to enjoy a few luxurious days of bathing, eating, spa and celebration. And did I mention showering? What about showering? Ha! I think I took 3 showers in a row just for the water pressure. Glorious! But the biggest celebration and the moment I waited 2 months for, was to sip the BEST GLASS OF WINE of my life… the little bottle of Seven Apart Summit that had accompanied me through the entire journey. Oh, and believe me, it WAS that good!

I often compare my goals with that of starting a vineyard. I think about everything it takes to make just one bottle of world-renowned Cabernet Sauvignon. First, the terroir must be chosen. Then vines are planted, and it can take years to produce the desired quality of fruit. Once the grapes meet high standards, they must be picked at the perfect time. Once the wine is made, it must be cared for, maintained and protected, then aged for 18 months (+/-). The amount of time, money, energy, patience, and dedication put into something that may or may not come to fruition. Winemaking, much like Mountaineering, is risky. The right gear/equipment, years of skill/experience and deep commitment are vital to success. And both are also utterly dependent on EXTERNAL factors, of which we have no control. It is the deep passion for what we do that allows us to struggle, endure setbacks, and continue the journey… all for that one perfect moment. High risk with a higher reward.

So, how does it feel now that I have summited Everest? Well, I can answer with a similar question to our favorite vineyard. Consider this: Seven Apart receives the highest ratings for their 2022 Seven Apart Summit Cabernet Sauvignon (yes, I can see the future). Are Don, Andy and the SA team done? Can they retire now, completely satisfied knowing they made 1 perfect wine? “Good job team! Looks like we’re done. Final checks are in the mail”! OF COURSE NOT!

It always takes a little time for my heart and brain to absorb an expedition. It washes over you in waves. I was frustrated with myself the first couple weeks off the mountain. I thought I’d finally be relaxed and have a strong feeling of accomplishment. 

That didn’t happen. 

Then it finally clicked for me last week. I realized that is because I’m not just about the summit. I am about the journey. I want to work towards the “next goal.” I want to wake up striving for more and pushing myself further each step. It is in the struggle and the willingness to grow that we find ourselves. And just like a great wine, we change and get better over time. I thought I needed a break from the constant go-getting. However, I realize that is exactly who I am and why I will finish the Seven Summits this November and the Explorers Grand Slam in Spring 2023. 

Summiting Everest was like a sip of extraordinary wine. It was big and had a beautiful finish. But, like all milestone moments in time, the taste eventually fades from your palate. It is only when you embrace the journey as your measure of success that you exceed all boundaries and reach your full potential. There will always be more mountains to climb. There will always be more wine to explore. Seven Apart, like myself, are in this for the journey. And may that, my friends, never end.