Trailblazer: Buchanan has overcome negative voices to empower and inspire
Vail woman left for second Everest attempt on April 1
The two driving commonalities in Meghan Buchanan’s pivotal life moments have been the presence of a negative voice and the refusal to listen.
As a seven-year-old, doctors told her mother that her dyslexic daughter wouldn’t accomplish much academically. When the Woodland Park native graduated among the top-10 in her high school class, counselors cautioned her against pursuing her dream as an aerospace engineer. In 2011, shortly after a life-threatening accident in Vail’s back bowls left her with “one of the worst fractures” Dr. Rick Cunningham had seen in a decade, she was told she would “walk with a cane” and “limp the rest of her life.”
If you’ve found your way to this page, you probably know she overcame those pronunciations. That her story is continuing to unfold is only because she found victory over one more voice: her own.
Six weeks into an acclimation round 25,000 feet up Everest last year, a famished and decrepit Buchanan was alone in her tent. The mountain had exacted its ruthless toll on the climber, caring little about her prior accomplishments or tribulations. A voice in her head professed doubts. “I wonder if I can push on,” it said, an astonishing conviction considering past trials.
“I had to teach myself my own lessons,” Buchanan remembered of that critical juncture. With no friends or family, doctors or therapists — the support crew that had enabled her to redeem her life after the snowboarding accident — she was forced to speak up for herself.
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“Buchanan, what do you teach people about GGRIT?” she said aloud of her life message on the mountainside. “This is your moment right now. You need to define who you’re going to be right now.”
Much has been said about Buchanan’s gruesome injury, arduous recovery and extraordinary redemption — all three parts were soliloquized in a recent Fracture Friday column. Peeling back the layers of her motivation reveals where GGRIT — Gratitude, Growth, Resilience, Integrity and Tenacity — was forged, a journey against even greater odds than her current quest for the explorer’s grand slam.
It is Buchanan’s lifelong battle with dyslexia that has equipped her with the tools necessary for success in life: the ability to own her destiny by focusing on what she can control. She has learned that by putting one foot in front of the other, any mountain can be climbed.
It takes a Vail Village
Enjoying powder in Vail’s Sunup Bowl on Feb. 6, 2011, a 36-year-old Buchanan drilled a buried tree traveling approximately 35 mph on her snowboard. She broke the head off her left femur bone, tearing everything attached cleanly off. Bleeding out, ski patrols, guided by her screams, later reported they’d never heard such shrieks from a human before.
“That was one of the worst fractures I’ve seen in 10 years,” said Dr. Rick Cunningham, the Vail-Summit Orthopaedic who put her back together, said in a 2017 Vail Daily piece.
Unable to even live on her own, the Denver resident was forced to stay in the valley. She left her job as an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin and moved to Vail full-time. “I was in so much pain 24/7, it was horrendous. All I could focus on was trying to get my mobility back,” she said. “I truly fell in love with being here permanently.”
A team of surgeons, therapists, trainers, friends and family all carried her through a 19-month rehabilitation nightmare.
“I felt like it was really a team that put me back together,” she claimed. “My story is a story of the Vail Valley.
One important member of the squad was physical therapist Thomas Olson, who determined Buchanan was allergic to the titanium rod in her leg. Other specialists figured its removal would be inconsequential, and told the 36-year-old she ought to get used to the idea of being a cripple.
“I wouldn’t accept that,” Buchanan said.
It was an idea she had honed early on in life.
Buchanan was introduced to hiking as a toddler, when she would ride on her dad’s back during his mountain hikes. Soon, she was joining him for long treks, but those early experiences didn’t serve as the most vital preparation in eventually conquering Everest.
It all started when her dyslexia was confirmed as a seven-year-old. Her mom sat her down and told her, “Sweetheart, you can be anything you want to be, you’re just going to have to work harder than everybody else, and that starts today.”
“She just raised me with this attitude of, ‘OK, thanks for your opinion, I’m moving forward, I’m going through this,'” Buchanan said.
“That is where I kind of got all this drive from.”
It led her to come up with GGRIT, a message she preaches as a motivational speaker and a mantra she lives out on the mountains as a role model for female empowerment.
“Those were the things I learned as a little kid to get me through because that is what made me tough,” she said.
“I was constantly told I wouldn’t be good enough, I wouldn’t achieve, I can’t do this.”
In the mountains, she felt she was a natural.
“It was effortless, it was something I loved, and it was something I wasn’t made fun of, and it was something where I could just be me. That was definitely my therapy and my release in life — the outdoors.”
After ignoring her high school counselors, she went off to UC-Boulder to get her undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. It wasn’t smooth sailing there, either.
“I knew I was smart,” she said. “I’d fail, I’d get back up and do it again. Being a female in engineering had it’s own challenges, but I knew at this point you stand up for yourself, you keep going.”
She went on to get her M.S. in engineering management and is currently a senior principal systems engineer at Raytheon Intelligence and Space.
The principles forged battling dyslexia transferred mightily to her current quest of becoming just the fifth American woman and 13th in the world to complete the Last Degree Explorers Grand Slam, which she hopes to finish with an all-female North Pole expedition group in 2023 — probably another story in itself. Summiting the seven highest peaks on each continent and reaching the North and South Pole from starting from the 89th degree is “all” that is required for admission into the exclusive group.
Hours from leaving for her Everest summit bid in 2021, her entire sherpa climbing team came down with COVID, forcing the group to turn around. For someone who preaches ownership of one’s destiny, it was a perfect moment to walk the walk.
“Every day we have a choice. And that choice is not always easy, but we have a choice of who we’re going to show up as, who we’re going to be, and what we’re going to achieve,” she stated. “I’ve learned to let go of the things I can’t control.That’s a lifelong practice, and I am still human, but I’m able to mentally get through that faster; it might still sting, but you’re able to move past it quickly.”
Sitting in her tent, she shifted her mindset.
“What is the next thing to do towards my goal,” she remembered thinking. “So, always kind of purpose-driven.”
She went to Antarctica in December to complete her last degree ski to the South Pole and summited Mt. Vinson, the continent’s highest peak.
She left for Nepal at the beginning of April for her second shot at glory.
It is truly remarkable to consider the ambitious adventure-seeking Buchanan has embarked on post-injury. Knowing how she has ignored conventional wisdom, trailblazing for both women and dyslexic individuals, and understanding her need for the outdoors, one can clearly see how she ended up at this point.
“So, by the time I broke my leg, I swear to god, when they told me, ‘well, your days of hiking are over, you’re probably going to have a cane the rest of your life,’— even hopped on morphine in the hospital, my brain went to, ‘alright, I’ll have to figure out how to fix this one,'” she said of the post-snowboard crash hospital moments.
“I’m not believing what they’re saying one bit. Here we go. Let’s get this done.”
Eventually, she intends to attempt the full Adventurer’s Grand Slam, which requires her polar expeditions to begin from the outer coastline. She would become the first U.S. woman and just the 14th person in the world to do it.
Climbing your Everest
When asked what the hardest leg of her journey was, she replied “Denali,” the tallest North American peak. With its immense elevation gain and notoriously unpredictable weather, climbers routinely spend weeks on the Alaskan mountain without ever being afforded a summit bid. Buchanan was lucky, reaching the pinnacle on her first attempt.
“I’m really glad I’m not going back for Denali,” she said. “I’d rather go back for Everest!”
The climb gave her more than just another feather in her cap.
“I really broke through understanding how far your body will go past what your mind thinks it will do. That is where I really got to the point of ‘just take one more step, and then do it.'” she said of her time on Denali.
“There were times where I’m like, ‘man I don’t know how I’m going to get through this, but I need to take one more step.’ And that power of one step at a time truly made sense to me and it works.”
The moment was more of a tangible realization of a lesson she learned as a kid. “Thinking back to that original drive and grit — it did all start from being that little dyslexic kid that was so ashamed and embarrassed and wasn’t good enough and trying to prove herself,” she said. Through her climbs, she is raising money for the International Dyslexia Association.
Even though Buchanan knows her body will eventually start to decay, her desire to live with purposeful vigor is not likely to die.
“I do know there is a timeline to the effort level of what I’m going to be able to do, and I will adjust; taking it back a notch or whatever I need to do,” she said.
“But I’m still going to be exploring my passion; maybe that’s then moving that forward or teaching the lesson of GGRIT through books or speaker series to help others achieve their full potential.”
As incredible as her accomplishments are, she understands that a newspaper doesn’t need to track your journey for it to be meaningful.
“Everyone has a story,” she proclaimed emotionally.
“I always ask people: what is your Everest?”
For her, it is any challenge that forces you to believe in yourself. To conquer that most pivotal voice — the one on the inside. “I want to help people achieve that,” she said.