DENVER – Sometimes the biggest accomplishments in life happen by chance.
For 45-year-old Wendy Gustin, of Golden, it was a bad break in her career that led to her standing atop the world, both figuratively and literally, and fulfilling a decade-long dream years before she ever planned to.
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— James Dougherty (@DoughertyKMGH) June 23, 2017
Gustin has been running and hiking for much of her life, but started climbing mountains 10 years ago after listening to one of the handful of Americans who conquered the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, discuss her climb.
“I just thought to myself, I want to do that,” Gustin said.
She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in September 2007, has topped several of Colorado’s 14ers, and summited Alaska’s Denali last year.
But with all of the training and feats along the way, she had one main goal in mind: to summit Everest.
“I just always knew that if I put my mind to it, I could do it as well,” she said.
She’d planned on making the trek through the Himalayas in a couple of years, but that all changed when she was laid off from her job.
“It was weird, because normally I would be really upset by that. I’ve put a lot of years into my career,” she said. “And as soon as it happened, I just knew that it was the universe telling me that I can’t wait two years. I need to go and do it now.”
So she continued training, prepped her gear, and headed to Nepal, arriving at Everest’s base camp with guide and fellow Coloradan Charley Mace, of Adventure Consultants, on April 12.
Gustin spent some time acclimating to the elevation and prepping for the climb as she and other climbers waited for good weather to attempt to summit the peak.
But she had some setbacks in the few weeks leading up to the attempt. She got sick at one point with a respiratory illness and had to go further down into a village to try and recuperate. And when notice reached camp that several people had died trying to summit, Gustin says she had some worries.
“While I was down there (in the village), I had to do a lot of boosting myself up and having the confidence that I was going to heal and get strong enough to be able to go back up to base camp to make the summit push,” she said. “I felt like the toughest days that I had on the mountain were the weeks leading up to the actual summit day. So definitely, I think the mental side of it was a lot harder than the physical side of it.”
The weather was uncooperative in mid-May, and she began wondering if a summit push would happen at all.
“Maybe the weather window wasn’t even—was it possible that I wasn’t even going to happen?” she said. “So in a way, I didn’t really let my mind go there.”
But when May 21 came along, the weather cleared, and she and her party headed out to make the final trek to the summit.
“I needed to focus on taking the next step that was right in front of me. I kind of tended to block out some of the things I was seeing along the way in order to stay focused,” she said. “You can’t control any of that. What you can control is making sure that I put one foot in front of the other, and every single step counts.”
Her anticipation grew in the early morning hours of May 22 as the party got closer to the summit. Carrying a flag from a friend’s daughter that said “Girl Power” and in communication with a cousin’s supportive elementary school class, she pushed ahead.
“It was really overwhelming as soon as it was in my sight,” she said, recalling the moment she saw the mountain’s summit. She grabbed Mace’s hand.
“It was an amazing moment just seeing it and knowing that I was almost there. And so I just kind of took his hand and squeezed it.”
The party pushed ahead.
“There were times that it did get tough up there, and there were times that it would be easier just to say, you know what, I don’t know that I can do this, and just thought of all the little kids back home,” she said. “It really makes you stronger. It makes you push through the hard times. There was as much mental toughness that was needed as physical toughness.”
Before long, she was 29,000 feet above sea level, atop the world’s highest mountain. Gustin says she wanted to soak in the moment.
“I waited until there was no one else standing up there, because I wanted, for at least that moment in time, to be the highest person in the world because there was nobody else up there,” she said.
“You know, I had planned 10 years. I don’t think that I ever had such a long-term goal that I worked toward before, and you know, I just soaked in every moment. It was wonderful.”
She was one of several Coloradans to summit Everest over that two-day period. Jim Davidson, of Fort Collins, also accomplished the feat.
And now, after some time to reflect, Gustin says the gravity of her feat is finally starting to sink in.
“It’s pretty exciting, and I didn’t stop and think about it at all before I did it,” she said. “It’s really only been since I’ve gotten back that it’s hit me—the significance of it.”
She says it’s been especially fulfilling for her as a woman, knowing that many young girls and women were looking up to her.
“It’s been very fulfilling to me to be inspiring to other women—especially to young girls in particular,” Gustin said. “That if they set their mind to do something, they can do anything, regardless of what their gender is.”
And she says she hopes other people decide to make challenges for themselves to conquer as well.
“I really feel like no matter what, everybody has their different Everest. You know, I would just always encourage people that if there is that one thing that you always wanted to do, even though it can be scary,” she said.
“It’s a scary thing to do, but the payoff is just so huge. If you can take that leap and don’t be afraid, and jump in and do it—whether it be climbing Mt. Everest or climbing one of the 14ers in Colorado—if there’s something that you always wanted to do, it’s worth every bit of effort.”