No room for a mountain climber’s dream

Grace McDonald was planning a short break from the pressure cooker of corporate and securities law when she signed up to climb a 6,000-metre Nepalese mountain in 2010, a trip that would let her tick Everest Base Camp off her bucket list and help her recover from the burnout triggered by multiple 100-hour work weeks. But the mountaineering bug bit hard, and each big peak led to a bigger or harder one. Toronto-based McDonald, 38, says she’d go back to law if conditions were right, but traditional, conservative law firms don’t seem able to accommodate a team member who wants a couple of months off each year to indulge her exhilarating, high-altitude passion.

“I’m a mountaineer that used to be a lawyer,” says McDonald, who is just weeks away from her second attempt to climb Mount Everest, which at 8,848 metres is the biggest mountain of them all. She says it should be possible for a law firm to accommodate a request for unpaid mountaineering leave for a securities lawyer, who could work one transaction at a time, and that it should perhaps be easier than accommodating a mother who is seeking a four-day work week. But nobody was interested.

“Because I did transactional work, I never really understood why it wasn’t possible to do some transactions, and then just not take on the next deal. I wasn’t asking to be paid for when I was away. But once a year you would let me go away for the six to eight weeks that it takes to climb a mountain,” she says. “But there’s just no appetite for that. . . . Most lawyers are still fighting for their weekend, let alone their six-week vacation.”

McDonald is all too familiar with the super-intense workload at big law firms and in in-house jobs. She graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 2003 and had stints as a securities lawyer with now-defunct Goodman and Carr LLP, Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, and what was then Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto and Vancouver, working right through the mining sector merger boom. She moved to an in-house job at Nortel Networks in 2008, just months before the one-time telecom star filed for bankruptcy protection. “Fortunately and unfortunately, I went into securities law at a time when things were really busy and then I moved out west at a time when mining was exploding in Canada. I was presented with the deep end of securities law and I just dove in, time and time again. The deals never stopped, which on the one hand was exciting, but on the other hand was exhausting,” she says.

In-house work initially seemed to be a less intense option, but Nortel turned out to be just as much of a pressure cooker as the law firms, as the company paid retention bonuses to key employees even as it laid off staff and wound its operations down. “I did enjoy it. I found the in-house world to be a little bit more team oriented. It felt we were all in it together,” says McDonald. “Financially, this was really good, but work-wise, it was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever been through. . . . The work and the hours ended up getting as overwhelming as private practice. One day I just realized it doesn’t matter how much you offer me in a retention bonus, I don’t want to come back to this.”

That led McDonald to her first expedition in Nepal, tackling Lobuche East with a Polish-Finnish woman who has since become her climbing partner. The peak gave McDonald a taste for the mountains that she found impossible to let go. “I hyperventilated on that first climb, the effort was so overwhelming. I was amazed how hard it was. But then I summited, and my first thought was: ‘I can’t wait to do that again,’” she says. “There’s something about getting out into nature that just empties your brain out to basic necessities and gives you a clarity that I was certainly never able to get when I was in the midst of a demanding corporate finance practice. I never gave my brain a break, and when you don’t do that, you burn it out.”

Since that first climb, McDonald keeps returning to the Himalayas for taller and taller mountains — she has stood atop four of the world’s 14 8,000-metre peaks and has attempted three of the others. That includes her first attempt on Everest last April, when Nepal’s deadly earthquake ended the climbing season on both sides of the mountain.

Her 2015 attempt started from the Tibetan side of Everest, a route that’s easier at lower altitudes but tougher at the top, and she was heading from one high-level camp to another when the earthquake struck, a wave of seismic movement that seemed to last for minutes. Nobody died on the Tibet side of the mountain, but an avalanche swept through Base Camp on the Nepalese side, killing more than 20 people.

This year, McDonald and her climbing partner will attempt the climb from the Nepalese side, a route that includes the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, which she tackled when she climbed nearby Lhotse (8,516 metres) in 2012. “We’re a little reluctant about entering the icefall again, but we both agreed that Nepal was hit so heavily that the operators in Nepal really need a good year,” she says. “Our money is best put into Nepal this year.”

Her goal is to summit Everest some time in May, during one of the spring fair-weather windows for which the mountain is known, and return to Toronto in June. But that assumes everything goes well. “If the weather is good, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t be on the summit if I’ve managed to keep myself healthy, especially using oxygen, because I know I have the endurance and I know I have the experience,” she says.

But the other key requirement for a successful mountaineer is to know when it’s right to go on, and to know when it’s time to go back, even if it means throwing away the chance of a summit. “As much as I love this, I don’t want to die doing this,” she says. “My job is to come home, and I’m also supposed to keep all my digits; that is what my friends and family want. They are really happy if I have a summit, but they would really much rather see my fingers and toes, and the pictures are great regardless.”

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