Sometimes following a dream requires youthful energy and optimism. Other times it takes the kind of strength and grit acquired only in life's toughest battles.
Carole Masheter was 50 when the comfortable place she'd made for herself began to crumble. Her career and personal life unraveled. Her health deteriorated.
In just 18 short months, she suffered disappointment, betrayal, loss and illness that burned her life as she loved it to the ground.
"I felt like I had been run over," she said. "Again and again."
And so, she said, she "rose like a phoenix" from the ashes of that former life. And what she found was not just that life goes on, but that it's never too late to follow a dream — a dream that culminated at the summit of Mount Everest when she was 61.
Her journey to Everest was long and filled with obstacles. Masheter navigates them with a practical approach and shares them in her book "No Magic Helicopter." The book gives a brief look at her life leading up to the climb, but most of the pages are dedicated to her decision to climb Mount Everest at age 61.
As a girl growing up in Southern California, Masheter felt like an outsider.
While most girls worried about refining their manners and snagging a suitable husband, she lusted for the mountains. She longed to climb — trees, hillsides, trails and especially those majestic-looking mountains.
"I didn't even know anybody who liked to hike as a young person," she said.
She enjoyed camping with her parents, who loved to search the desert for abandoned gold and uranium mines. While her parents hoped to happen upon an unclaimed treasure, she soaked up the "silence of the wilderness."
"I was very conscious of natural beauty," she said. "I feel very fortunate to end up here (in Utah)."
She didn't set out to be different, she just was.
"I didn't like being odd," said Masheter, whose natural shy nature was exacerbated by acne from age 9 to 30. "I just felt so whole, so centered when I was in a wilderness area."
So when she left home for school and a life in central Connecticut, she looked for opportunities to explore the wild.
"Once a year, I would take a National Sierra Club backpack trip," she said. "I always tried to the most challenging trips I could."
She climbed in the Sierras, the Rockies and even Africa.
In 1970, at age 23, she and a boyfriend planned a summer-long trip that would take them from Connecticut to California to Alaska. He backed out at the last minute.
"I felt very rejected," she said. "After about three days, I decided to go anyway. … That was seminal summer for me. … That trip convinced me I could do just about anything I wanted."
Masheter pursued her teaching career, which is what eventually led her to Utah. She taught at the University of Utah and in her spare time, enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities including hiking, skiing and horses. She joined the Wasatch Mountain Club and enjoyed an extensive network of people who helped her revel in Utah's wilderness.
"I was always exploring my boundaries," she said. "But it wasn't until those four major losses that I got involved in high altitude mountaineering."
In 1995, a colleague and friend discussed with Masheter his trip to summit Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest peak in the world. Cho Oyu is in the Himalayas, near the mountain that haunts every mountaineer's dreams — Everest. Knowing someone who'd done what she dreamed about began to fuel a fire that wouldn't ignite for another two years.
It was 1997 when Masheter's world would spin out of control. First, she failed to earn tenure from the University of Utah. Then she discovered her boyfriend of six years was involved with another person. Her sister became ill, and her mother passed away.
As she stumbled through these painful experiences, her own health declined. She struggled with a diagnosis and then treatment options, but slowly, she began to regain her health and her balance.
At 50, she was faced with finding a new career, a new life. And as she surveyed the possibilities, she looked at fulfilling that childhood dream with the sort of scientific pragmatism that made climbing the world's tallest mountains very possible.
She was afraid of heights and very shy, but it was never fear that kept her from climbing mountains when she was younger. "Ignorance," she said, "I didn't know it was possible for someone like me … I felt capable; I just didn't know how strong I was."
Navigating the kind of deeply personal pain she did during those two years only refined her desire to climb mountains. So at age 50, she signed up for climbing classes in the Bolivian Andes with the American Alpine Institute.
She climbed many mountains, gained confidence (and skills) and realized that she is most at home in the highest points of the world.
It isn't just the fact that she realized her most cherished dream after such devastating heartbreak that makes Masheter's story inspiring. It is the way she accomplishes her goal. At the age of 61, she scaled the unfriendly and unforgiving mountain because she took it on one step at a time.
The title of her book comes from a wish she had in a moment of fear and pain on Mount Everest. But it also a metaphor for life. Why wish for a magic helicopter to come pluck you from an agonizing situation when you can rescue yourself? What better way to find hope than to offer it to yourself?
She got through the painful part of life the same way she mad her way through the painful parts of scaling Everest, including losing her sight on the way down, a tremendous fear of heights and the sadness of seeing another climber lose his life in pursuit of the same goal.
"Baby steps," said Masheter. One moment at a time moved her through some of the worst life can hand a person. It also helped her get to the top of the world — literally.
"It feels wonderful," she said of summiting Everest, which stands at 29,029 feet. "It was the happiest day of my life. Time stood still. … It felt like heaven, like any moment some angel would fly by."
It thrills Masheter that her book has been so well received. Now 64, she is planning her next mountaineering adventure, while sharing her story with people from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of dreams.
"This is my giving back," she said of writing the book, which is available at www.carolmasheter.com, amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. "If I can help one prisoner, one kid in lockdown, one person struggling with addiction, that's what it's about," she said. "When one door shuts, another really does open."3 comments on this story
Her advice to those hoping to chase a dream is simple.
"It would be easy to say don't let age be a barrier," she said. "But it is a factor. My advice is try some things. Take a course or two see how it goes … I take a kind of pragmatic approach. Check it out, see how it goes for you (and) maybe be open to those possibilities. At least try to figure it out."