Keeping the adventures coming: 21678 Meagan McGrath
Life is an adventure
Article by: 27182 Officer Cadet (IV) Carmen Kiltz
Major McGrath, who is currently serving as an AERE officer in the CAF, has certainly taken this common expression to the next level. The 2000 RMC grad has been inducted into the CAF Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 for mountain climbing, and, among various incredible expeditions in the outdoors, she always finds her way back to the mountains.
The Sudbury Ontario native has climbed both versions of the Seven Summits, skied over 1095km solo to the South Pole, ran in the Marathon des Sables (the “toughest footrace on Earth”) and taken on countless other expeditions.
I was thrilled at having the opportunity to interact with Maj. McGrath, who answered my questions very thoroughly:
C: You graduated from RMC in 2000 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. How has this degree helped you throughout your career?
MM: A BSc(Chemistry) degree is unusual for an Aerospace Engineer, but we are out there! The most significant way that I have been able to apply my degree to my occupation is in the application of the Scientific Method. This fundamental approach to working through experiments has been very applicable in the day to day aspects of work I do as an Aerospace Engineering Officer in the RCAF. The process is analogous to project management, which is a major aspect of the Aerospace Engineer occupation. I approach most assignments, work or personal, using these structured processes and they have led to wonderful success in tackling challenging projects.
C: As an Aerospace Engineer, what have been some career highlights?
MM: As an AERE, some career highlights include my posting at the Air Force Experimentation Centre in Ottawa, and the opportunities to be deployed to Afghanistan and on OP NEVUS. In my career, without doubt, the highlight was being inducted into the CAF Sports Hall of Fame – this is such an honour, and I cherish it greatly. There are also other career highlights such as the training opportunities (Tactical Combat Casualty Care aka “TCCC” is a standout), and the unique opportunity to participate as a subject matter expert for a climbing course.
C: It is very evident that mountains are your passion. As an Ontario native, how did this passion begin?
MM: I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, where there is a lot of rock and hilly terrain. I spent a lot of time outside, exploring the bush that surrounded my home. We moved around a few times within the city, and there always seemed to be someplace new to discover. I was always curious about what lay over the next hill, and I would find myself going “the hard way”, that is to say, climbing over the obstacle rather than going around it. This seems to have bred an instinct to climb things and natural state of optimism that there will be something over the horizon. Even if there was just another hill, I would repeat the process! I think having access to books, films and magazines about expeditions and adventurers just fed the fire. The exciting part was when these were no longer adventures I read about, they were something I did!
C: How did your fascination with deserts (hot and cold) begin?
MM: I don’t know when it began – but it seems to have always been there. I’m drawn to places that challenge the human body. Hot and cold deserts can be very difficult to survive, and I find it fascinating that with specific knowledge, one can survive the environment. This is why I’m also drawn to high altitude climbing. The conditions are not amenable to the human body, and yet, when you’re there, you can survive with the correct knowledge and skills. My favorite aspect of these environments is that my decisions matter, and often times, there is no one to check over your shoulder to advise on the matter. In these environments, there is no room for making the wrong decision.
C: I see you also love cycling. How did your interest in this sport begin and what has been a personally memorable experience on the bike?
MM: I think I was born on a bicycle! I have cycled since I can remember. I don’t have a vehicle, as they are expensive and I put those funds to my expeditions, so I bike everywhere I go. It’s surprisingly easy to get to a lot of places by bike! I did own a vehicle when I was posted to Borden, as winters in Barrie come with a lot of snow and getting to work by bicycle would not be safe, but generally, I bike everywhere. I have many positive memories associated with cycling – I recall biking up a mountain pass in Ecuador and then coming down at the fastest speeds I’d ever ridden – that was exhilarating. But I also have happy memories of cycling in Gatineau Park, after work on a hot summer day. The hills, the scent of the vegetation, the humidity – I’ve loved every ride I’ve taken in Gatineau Park.
C: Do you enjoy running? Have you ever considered racing?
MM: Oh I run! I run all over! I was a sprinter in high school, and I continue to run to this day. I don’t enjoy racing though. The stress takes away from the enjoyment of the event. I participated in Marathon des Sables with the intention to experience the desert and to push myself with distances I had not attempted before. It was a great time! I did quite well considering I was not able to train as I would have liked. The months leading up to the event were quite rough weather-wise (an unexpectedly very snowy winter in Ottawa). I brought the right headspace though, and in the end, I completed each day with a descent result; I did particularly well with my first 75.5 km day!
C: Do you have an adventure that stands out the most to you/was the most enjoyable?
MM: Climbing Mount Everest in 2007 has been my most enjoyable adventure to date. This adventure combined all sorts of skills and experiences into one expedition, and it was amazing. It was a bit of a different mountain in 2007, on the cusp of what it is today. The fact is, Mount Everest is still a challenging mountain, and it deserves the respect of anyone who attempts to climb to the summit. There are a lot of politics and opinions surrounding the mountain, but I went there with an open heart, and I appreciated all the quirks that one might not encounter on another mountain. When I was there, I found it remarkable how so many different events can happen during one expedition – and this is what made it stand out. Climbing Mount Everest was just a surreal experience, and one that I found to be quite special.
C: Skiing solo to the South Pole and climbing both versions of the “seven summits” requires a great deal of skill and expertise. How did you prepare for such adventures (physical, mental, knowledge and skill)?
MM: I prepare by researching past expeditions. I watch films, read books, magazines, blogs, I read maps, I even contact people who have conducted the expeditions and ask questions. I then take the information I glean from these sources and determine what I need to do with it. I ask myself questions such as: Do I know this already? Do I need to learn more about this? Do I need to go out and practice this skill? And so on… Understanding what I need to develop in preparation for an expedition is key. Once these areas for improvement are identified, I can build a physical training program or embark on training sessions or expeditions in order to ensure that I am prepared for the goal I am working toward. As for physical training, I fit that in when I can. I try to live a healthy lifestyle and ensure that my physical fitness remains at a fairly high state, in readiness for expedition opportunities. The mental aspect of expeditions has not been a challenge for me, luckily. I crave these adventures, I really want to be there, I’ve studied them. When I’m on expedition – I’m ready!
C: Can you share with us how you manage to balance your career with your adventures? I.e. how did you manage to take a 7.5 month-long journey in the Himalayas? How do you take time to train and prepare for these expeditions?
MM: Without expectation, I submitted a request for Leave Without Pay (LWOP), and to my surprise, it was accepted! I will forever be grateful for the supporters of this request. Because I was so grateful, I worked extra hard at my job and put in a lot of late nights. The key is, I didn’t take the LWOP opportunity for granted. I wanted to show my chain of command I appreciated their support, and I worked hard to show that appreciation.
C: Do you have any friends, family, or partners that join or support you on your adventures or do you generally carry out all your adventures unsupported and solo?
MM: It’s difficult to find people with the same interest and availability, and thus the reason I tend to conduct expeditions solo. I quite enjoy expeditions with a partner; each of us can provide input into the decisions and it is nice to share the work of the expedition with someone (e.g. sorting out logistics, route planning, carrying loads, etc). In some cases, however, I specifically embark on solo expeditions because of the added challenge.
C: What does it mean to you to be in good health? (i.e. how is it important to you and why)
MM: In my mind, health is an overall state: body, mind and spirit. Physical training is important to me because it just feels good – I wish I could devote more time to it, but I fit it in whenever I am able. I generally eat healthy, as well. I do not have a specific diet, but I do try to make healthy choices: lots of fruit, vegetables, legumes, etc. I have a healthy headspace, especially when I have an adventure in the works – I look forward to each day and the advancements with respect to planning and preparations. I think having a goal outside of just existing is a great way to live. The goal can be anything – for me it is my expeditions! For others, it could be working toward a degree, saving for a car, purchasing a home, planning a family camping trip – whatever that goal, devote yourself to it, and it can be a great experience.
C: What is next on your list in terms of adventures?
MM: I have two adventures in the works. The next expedition I will be embarking on is an exciting jungle / mountain adventure in December 2016. I put together an expedition to climb a couple of mountains deep in the jungles of Papua, Indonesia. The other expedition that I am working on is the biggest adventure I have ever attempted! The most challenging hurdle is the cost of the expedition, but I am working to raise funds to bring it to fruition. One of the ways I am raising funds is through a Speaking Supporter sponsorship, in that, I will speak to an organization in return for a speaker’s fee but will also recognize the organization as a sponsor. The expedition concept is not unique, but it has never been completed. I am actively seeking sponsors, as this will determine feasibility before I announce the expedition formally (Hint: Shackleton), but if folks are interested in supporting then I welcome them to contact me at [email protected] for more information! I’ve entitled the expedition, “The Hard Way”; it’s a historical first, it’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to be incredible!