Professional careers can be as challenging as the journey to the top of a mountain. I learned that earlier this year when I decided to climb Mt. Aconcagua. With its peak at 22,841 feet, it is the tallest mountain in the Americas - North and South. I hoped to inspire my colleagues and friends to challenge themselves, and raised awareness and funds for the charity cause I believe in. Throughout my journey, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between the career journeys of women and the challenges I had to overcome to get to the top of one of the world's seven continental summits, and the highest in the Southern Hemisphere.
Before the trip, I told my friends and colleagues about my plan to conquer the tallest peak in the Americas. People would ask: "Why do you want to do this?" Having doubts that one can achieve the goal is a familiar scenario for many women.
The way to overcome this is by focusing on my accomplishments and abilities instead of shortcomings. So this time, I didn't let the doubts influence my decision, even though I had not previously been an athlete.
From the moment I arrived in Mendoza in Argentina, the starting point of the trip, the risks of climbing Aconcagua took a front seat in my mind. Hours into a day-long climb, exhaustion led to distraction as I followed into the footsteps of those who were ahead of me. Suddenly, I heard a member of our crew yelling at me to step aside. I looked up and saw mules being shepherded down the same mountain slope we were traversing. One of the animals knocked down a sizeable rock. A member of our crew noticed the rock falling towards me, caught it with both hands, and held it above me until the mules passed us by.
The trip came very close to having a tragic end that day, and after we reached the basecamp I reflected on whether it was even worth continuing. What convinced me to keep climbing was the thought of how much ground I had already covered so far. The risk of climbing the mountain seemed minimised compared to the thrill of reaching the top of the tallest mountain in the Americas.
There have been instances throughout my career where instead of focusing on the goal, I let myself be clouded by the catastrophic "what ifs". Risk-taking, without being completely reckless, may even help you reach new heights.
Alone at the top
The trip started with seven crew members, which included our guides and other people who were hoping, like me, to reach the top. As we kept climbing and gaining altitude, the crew became smaller. Of the seven crew members, four decided to descend almost halfway to the top. I can't say I wasn't a little discouraged by watching them go down to lower altitudes. It is always inspiring to have a group of people that are sharing the same highs, lows, and everything that came along with the experience. Towards the end of the journey, I alone reached the top of the mountain.
Similarly, in many industries, it's not usual to feel the strain of being the only woman in a meeting. The blows one deals with would be easier if shared with others who are on the same journey.
Reaching the Summit - Now what?
Keeping your eyes on the target can help you stay true to your path and reach your goals. But have you thought about what you'll do once you reach the top of that mountain?
After days of gruelling climbing, unforgiving weather, and a crew that didn't complete the mission, I reached the top of Aconcagua. The exhilaration I felt after I unvelied my flag and looked down to the path I had just taken was unforgettable. Now what? The descent, I found, would be just as difficult as the climb.
I saw a blizzard approaching. We started making our way down when heavy snow started falling. I could barely see through the heavy snow and strong wind that threatened to knock me down. Then, I took the wrong step. I felt a sharp pain having damaged my leg, as my gear was blown away by the wind. I could no longer stand on my own.
At those altitudes, no rescue is available and I had to figure out a way to go down. I slid on my hands and pushed against the ground covered in snow until I reached the basecamp where I was helicoptered to a hospital in Mendoza.
It's common to feel safe and comfortable once you have reached the position that you worked so hard to obtain.
New challenges and adversities will present themselves and force us to adapt. Life will expect us to keep growing.
My friends asked: "Knowing what you know now, would you still have climbed Aconcagua?"
Absolutely! Extreme altitudes require extreme risks.
And whoever doesn't risk - doesn't summit.
Elena Kvochko is a cybersecurity and technology executive, and has been on expeditions to Everest and Aconcagua to raise awareness for charity causes. Writing for CIO UK in a personal capacity about climbing mountains - real and metaphorical - she has also been a member of the CIO 100 for her work on security and privacy in the financial services industry