• Sara McGahan
  • The Westminster Schools, junior
Sara McGahan, front, and her dad on Mount Everest

How many 16-year-old girls can say they’ve climbed Mount Everest? Sara McGahan is one of the few.

She has actually climbed most of the “seven summits,” the tallest mountains on each continent, and has reached the peaks of several.

The Westminster student got her start as a mountain climber in seventh grade. A trip to Africa over Christmas vacation in 2007 led to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with her father.

“It was sort of a spur-of-the-moment decision to climb Kilimanjaro, but I really started liking mountain climbing from climbing that mountain,” Sara said.

Sara explains that the summits are “set up sort of in a ladder; they get increasingly harder.” Kilimanjaro is the easiest, where the majority of the climb consists of hiking.

Sara and her dad then took on Mount Elbrus, located in Russia, the highest peak in Europe. They didn’t make it to the top, but they didn’t give up on climbing. They went on to climb Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, then Denali in Alaska, checking two more summits off their list, They went back to conquer Elbrus and succeeded and climbed then Carstensz in Indonesia.

“I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into, when I went from Kilimanjaro to Elbrus. I think a combination of a busy summer, my first time climbing on ice, climbing with new equipment, and getting stuck in a bad storm was why we didn’t summit Elbrus the first time. But it was weird how easy it seemed when we went back! When we went back we made it with ease and it was really cool to see the difference,” Sara said.

In the spring, Sara and her dad took on Everest. They spent two and a half months in Tibet training, acclimating, and climbing.

It takes a significant amount of time to acclimate one’s body to the air density in high-altitude regions and even longer for climbers because of the physical activity required at such heights. Sara and her dad completed two rotations, or trips partially up the mountain and then back down, when her father got sick. Sara made another rotation without her father, but turned back an hour into her fourth rotation to be with her dad.

Sara plans on returning to Everest with her dad, though the next summit on her list is Mount Vinson in Antarctica, which she hopes to complete before she graduates in the spring of 2013.

Sara and her dad trained for countless hours between climbs. Training to climb mountains is tough. Sara learned ice climbing techniques in Ouray, Colo. Before a climb, she runs around Atlanta and builds endurance by hiking Stone Mountain three or four times in one day.

Sara did most of her climbing on winter and summer breaks from school, but missed two and half months of school climbing Everest.

“Everest season is really specific. It’s the time that it’s the safest and warmest,” Sara said.

Sara has learned more than just mountain climbing technique on the journey to climb the seven summits.

“One thing that is really cool, especially on Everest, is that there are people all over the world there. You had the British camp next to the Chinese camp next to the American camp, and every single night everyone would come together in one tent and everyone would just be getting along. There were wars happening at the moment between some of these countries, but their people would just be sitting together and laughing and having a good time.

“Learning from people all over the world, and how similar they all are, has been one of my favorite parts of climbing,” Sara said.

Sara’s father says he is inspired by his daughter and her “toughness.”

“She is a great student, great athlete, great musician, and great sister and daughter. She is incredibly mentally tough – she can climb the Khumbu Icefall at Mount Everest, one of the most dangerous climbs in the world. She is self-motivated, accomplished and responsible. I am proud that she is my daughter, and I can’t wait to see what she does with her life,” he said.

What’s Next:

Two more mountains, two more years of high school, and applying to college are all in Sara’s near future. She is considering a degree in math, but hasn’t started looking at colleges yet.