What’s Your Summit?

Zig Zigler once said “[p]eople do not wander around and then find themselves at the top of Mt. Everest. You hit what you aim at, and if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”

While he is absolutely right, I think most people do not aim at anything most of the time. I know I didn’t. Of course, I had hopes and dreams and envisioned myself enjoying them once I had attained them. But I had no idea what lie between the inception of the dream and its culmination.

I grew up in Seattle. A place famous for rain, grunge rock, serial killers and mountaineers. Hiking and mountain climbing were common place amongst the residents, and I loved hiking and backpacking. The state is full of wonderful places to lace up your boots and hit the trails. Early on, I became infatuated with the stories of the big mountain climbers.

photo of Gene Prater and Karen Whelan
Updated: Jim Whittaker (left) and Karen Whelan

When I went off to college in eastern Washington in 1979, I met a farmer by the name of Gene Prater. Just one of many world-class mountain climbers one could run into in the state. He was awe inspiring to me. He had been on Everest. Not only that, he had been there with the first American ever to summit – Jim Whittaker.

From then on I read anything and everything I could get my hands on about mountain climbers climbing, succeeding, not succeeding – and the many, many tragedies that befell those who dreamed to go to the top of big mountains. I didn’t have the money to be a climber. The cost of all the gear was way beyond me. So I stuck to the trails in the foothills of the Cascades, the Stuart Range and the Enchantments. But my mind often wandered to those high altitude mammoths I read about and day dreamed about.

As life has a way of doing, work and other responsibilities got in the way of hiking and outdoor adventures. Fast forward to 2010. I was laying on the couch watching a documentary called Keep the River to your Right. By now I was what doctors like to refer to as morbidly obese, sedentary, and some even call a ticking time bomb. I sort of found myself feeling sorry for myself that I was approaching 50 and couldn’t do anything 72-year-old Thomas Schneebaum was doing wandering around Machu Picchu.

Impulsively, I decided I was going to do something epic for my 50th birthday. If that old guy could go up all those steps, I could do something. Instantly I decided I was going to do the Mount Everest Base Camp Trek I had read about. I had no plan. Just a dream and a proclamation. I told my brother and sister.  I am sure they were shocked at my lack of rationality. They told me maybe I should plan on waiting an additional year. I couldn’t figure out why they would say that. But I have always been coachable!

So I set my sights on spring of 2012.

Now what?

When my marriage failed in 1996, I moved to Las Vegas to be by family and get on my feet. I had not finished college and was working in cell phone sales at the time I left Washington. But I struggled in Las Vegas finding a way to earn a living that would pay the bills. I bounced around trying to make something…anything….work. Household Finance loan officer, long distance sales, Starbucks barista, flower delivery. Nothing paid enough.

I had always wanted to be an attorney.

It was another one of those dreams I had but never realized because I never filled in the gap between dreaming and achieving. I thought I could send out a bunch of resumes and get a job as a paralegal. I must have sent out my resume, which revealed my total lack of qualifications, to 50 law firms and got not one call back.  I was afraid of what was going to happen to me. So I had to sit down and make an actual plan. I finally looked at what it would take to get from the dream to actually achieving the dream. I set goals.

I drew on my love of all things mountains. I took what the mountaineering world refers to as the seven summits and broke my goal of becoming an attorney into seven goals. Then I broke each of those goals into what steps were required to get to the “top”. I had a signature on every email I wrote that appeared after my name. It started out “Seven Summits – 0 down, 7 to go.”

At my desk I would have the picture of the mountain that represented my current goal to remind me of where I was. To focus on the target. To take aim. Once I achieved that goal, I moved to the next mountain, new focus. Each mountain was harder than the previous one.

Karen near the top of the world.

It took seven years.

At the end, I had:

  • gone to paralegal school,
  • gotten a paralegal job,
  • gotten back into undergrad at Washington State University,
  • graduated with a bachelor’s degree,
  • got into UNLV Law School,
  • graduated law school, and
  • passed the bar exam.

That is how I prepared for my Everest trek too. I broke it down into weekend hikes. I had a system of going to the indoor rock climbing gym. I started kayaking. I just had to move and I had to find ways to do it. And when I found myself standing at Everest Base Camp in April of 2012, it wasn’t because I had wandered around and just ended up there.

Karen and friends at Everett base camp.
Updated: Karen and friends at Everest base camp.

In 2016, I had knee replacement surgery. I am still trying to come back from that. I guess I don’t have to tell you that it is a systematic plan. I gained a lot of weight and am losing it – 38 pounds down and lots more to go. But if I take carefully planned aim and keep my eye on the target, I can do that. I can do that for anything I set my mind to.

And so can you.

karen whelan

By Karen A. Whelan, Esq.

“Seven Summits, 7 Down, Life to go!”

Guest blogger bio: Karen Whelan is an avid mountaineer, hiker, kayaker, Schipperke mom, and a full-time attorney in her spare time in Las Vegas, Nevada. Connect with her at www.WhelanTrek.com.