Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Aerospace engineer’s career and personal life is far from peaking

She didn’t give up when she was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and her teacher told her mom she’d never excel academically.

She didn’t give up in college, where the demands of heavy, dense reading “swallowed me up” and forced her to retake classes.

She didn’t give up when a snowboarding accident severely shattered her femur and left her in excruciating pain far longer than her doctors expected.

And Buchanan, a systems engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business, isn’t giving up now in her latest quest: to climb the highest seven summits on Earth and ski to the center of the North and South poles.

When she was in the second grade, she was a diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs the ability to read and spell. Teachers told Buchanan’s mother that she’d never excel academically or professionally.

“My mom didn’t buy into that,” Buchanan said. “She sat me down and said, ‘Sweetheart, you can be anything you want to be, you’ll just have to work harder than everyone else. And that starts today.’ And that’s where I get my tenacity. The embarrassment, shame, insecurities, discrimination and repeatedly being told ‘You can’t...can’t...can’t...’ forced me to develop resilience early. I had to accept failing repeatedly, and then choosing to get up for more.”

Buchanan’s mom was right. Meghan Buchanan did well in high school, graduating in the top 10 in her class by paying close attention and learning verbally, which came easy for the articulate teenager. It was in college, with its demand for heavier, denser reading, where learning became a real struggle.

“It swallowed me up, but I kept fighting,” she said. “I had to take Calc 2 three times, but I wanted it so badly. I kept going and earned my degrees. Having endured the struggle, I quickly learned I had skills other engineers didn’t have. Because I've had to be fast on my feet, and never give up, I'd actually make a really great manager. I did that by just sticking in there, gritting it out and figuring out a career path that suits my strengths.”

Now in her 40s, Buchanan is the systems engineering Integrated Project Team Lead for the Future Aircraft Systems Technology, or FAST, radar systems.

Not only was Buchanan’s career ascending, so was her favorite pastime – climbing. She said that she found solace in hiking the peaks of Colorado with her father as a little girl, and in 2005, she and her dad climbed the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.

Buchanan takes in the view above the clouds of the 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, Russia, as she prepares for a 2 a.m. summit day start in August 2018.

Buchanan takes in the view above the clouds of the 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, Russia, as she prepares for a 2 a.m. summit day start in August 2018.

“Hiking was my refuge because it was something I was good at...I wasn't made fun of,” she said. “I was just naturally gifted, and it was my release and my therapy from having to deal with the dyslexia.”

Then, in 2011, she shattered her femur severely while snowboarding the back bowls in Vail, Colorado. Doctors and physical therapists told her she should anticipate to either use a wheelchair or cane for the rest of her life.

“Here were more people telling me ‘You can’t,’ ‘You won’t,’” Buchanan said.

“I honestly glazed right over the diagnosis and went straight into solution mode,” she said. “The thought of not being able to climb again was just not acceptable. Before I could even get out of the hospital I was like, ‘All right. Here we go. Next challenge. I will overcome this and rise to climb again.’”

Buchanan took a medical leave of absence. But after returning, the pain was so severe she took a year off of work and moved to Vail to be closer to her doctors and therapist. After 18 months of surgeries, physical therapy, injections and sacrifice, she still couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without her cane. Doctors could not figure out why her muscles weren’t strengthening or why there was still so much pain. Her physical therapist concluded the only thing left was an allergy to the 14-inch titanium rod holding her femur together. The only option to test that theory was remove it.

“Within a month after the surgery to remove, I could walk the stairs unassisted,” she said “Within six months of that, I returned to Everest Base Camp. I was stronger than ever. Not just physically, but mentally. My endurance and tolerance for pain and suffering increased significantly. So, next I climbed Kilimanjaro again – literally running across the top to reach the summit at sunrise. But I wanted to go higher.”

Buchanan has, indeed, set her sights higher, to conquer the Seven Summits – the highest mountains of each of the seven continents. And since she’s already halfway through that, she’s now aiming at the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which is the Seven Summits combined with the last-degree ski to the North Pole and South Pole, which is the last-degree latitude or about 60 nautical miles.

Less than 15 women have completed that feat, and she is well on her way to finishing it by next year.

Completed Summits:

   1. Mount Kilimanjaro. Tanzania, Africa – 19,341 feet, 2005 and 2015

   2. Aconcagua. Argentina, South America – 22, 838 feet, January 2017

   3. Mount Elbrus. Russia, Europe – 18,510 feet, August 2018

   4. Denali. Alaska. North America – 20,322 feet. July 2019

   5. South Pole and Vinson Massif. Antarctica – 16,060 feet. December 2021 through-January 2022

Upcoming Expeditions:

   6. Mount Everest. Nepal, Asia –First attempt, Camp 3, 25,000 feet. May 2021.

      • Second attempt scheduled for Mount Everest Summit, 29,029 feet. April-May 2022,

   7. Carstensz Pyramid. Oceana, Australia) - 16,024 feet. Scheduled for Fall 2022.

   8. North Pole - Spring 2023

Meghan Buchanan at the South Pole

Buchanan is now working to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which is the Seven Summits combined with the last-degree ski to the North Pole and South Pole. 

Meghan Buchanan takes a selfie, Dec. 31, 2021, after a seven-day ski to the South Pole during her expedition.

When back down at sea level, she manages a team of systems engineers at Raytheon Intelligence & Space. Buchanan said she joined RI&S in 2019 because she was looking for a company that embraced non-traditional skills and assets.

“Because of all the challenges that I’ve had to endure, I think it’s made me a better leader. I feel that I am more patient and empathetic because of my struggles and pain,” Buchanan said. “I am not cookie-cutter and never have been. I have had to learn to work around my disability and find creative solutions. I don’t give up on projects, and I don’t give up on people.”

She said Raytheon Intelligence & Space doesn’t consider her dyslexia as a disability but instead considers it a strength.

“Some engineers aren’t trained in communications or conflict resolution. I’ve had to overdevelop my communication skills to compensate for my learning disability,” Buchanan said. “This has turned into my greatest strength. It’s allowed me to have tough conservations and reach solutions quickly and effectively.”

“When you’re told every day that you can't, and when you finally have that belief in yourself, what a freeing, amazing feeling that is. I literally feel limitless.”

Meghan Buchanan | systems engineering team lead for the FAST radar | Raytheon Intelligence & Space

The one big climb still on her list: Everest. More than 300 climbers have died trying to reach the summit.

“She doesn’t care if you’re male or female, if you weigh 120 pounds or 220, what your net worth is or how many social media followers you have,” Buchanan said. “You are treated the same, and she will either show you grace or chew you up.”

She said that Everest, with its frigid and low-oxygen atmosphere, “eats you away.”

“Of course, there’s the physical strain, the dedication, but it's also the mental and emotional strength that get you to summit or even get you through the training to get there,” Buchanan said. “You have to be comfortable with suffering. You have to get your [butt] kicked and get right back up the next day. You have to get yourself out of situations, and you need to be able to deal with it with positivity and integrity.”

So what’s next for Buchanan after the Explorer’s Grand Slam?

“Maybe the seven beaches of the world,” Buchanan said, laughing.

Then added, what she’d really like to do is write an inspirational, self-help book based on the principles that helped her overcome obstacles throughout her life. Those tools are gratitude, growth, resilience, integrity and tenacity, or GGRIT for short.

“The thought of doing Everest probably 10 years ago – gosh, no,” she said. “I would never do that, but then I was like, ‘No. You know what? I got that fire in my belly. I can do this.’ And that is so much of what I want to share with other people.

“It's like, ‘What is your Everest?’ It doesn't have to be the actual Mount Everest. It could be someone with disabilities getting through high school, getting that college education, just believing in himself or herself enough to do it – and that's a goal right there, just believing in yourself,” Buchanan said. “That's so hard, especially for people who suffer from disabilities. When you’re told every day that you can't, and when you finally have that belief in yourself, what a freeing, amazing feeling that is. I literally feel limitless.”

Buchanan strikes a yoga pose near Denali's 14,000-foot camp in Alaska in June 2019. The spot is appropriately called the “End of the World,” because it drops off thousands of feet below.

Buchanan strikes a yoga pose near Denali's 14,000-foot camp in Alaska in June 2019. The spot is appropriately called the “End of the World,” because it drops off thousands of feet below.