My Everest | Uphill Athlete

I was sitting on my couch in my underwear, watching Family Guy in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, when I decided I wanted to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen. And I know it sounds overly dramatic, but that’s really how it went down. I was in the deepest, darkest hole of my life following a rough divorce, as well as losing a major sponsorship that I had depended upon (to some extent) for my career. I was so fat I could literally see stomach rolls hanging out over the waistband of my boxers. I knew I needed help (in more ways than one), so I called Steve House.

Steve and I first met many years ago, at a party in Canmore, Alberta. We traveled in similar circles, with many of the same friends, so that was an inevitability. But it was 2009, when Steve and I were both on Makalu, that we really hung out. We were both there attempting to climb solo, me by the Makalu La route and Steve by a futuristic new line on the West Face, and we both got shut down by an early season monsoon that just dumped a ton of snow on us. So we spent a lot of time in Base Camp together, and I quickly became to really appreciate both Steve’s depth of knowledge and diverse skill set, as well as his friendship.

By the time I called Steve last winter, we had been close friends for some half a decade. Things had gotten pretty bad for me, and he knew that. But I don’t think he expected me to lay on the request I did then. The prime time to summit Everest was only five months away.

Looking self-consciously at myself in the mirror, I half-whispered into the phone, “is it just completely crazy to even try? Do we have enough time?”

Steve said back the most obvious, and at the same time, the most uplifting thing I could have hoped for. All he said was, “We can try.” And for me, that was enough.

What followed for the next five months was … probably not what you’re envisioning. If this were a short climbing film, this is where you would cut to scenes of me screaming on a campus board, or swimming laps in a wave pool with a weight vest on, or doing the most heinous barbell workout in the world.

But it wasn’t like that.

We started very simply working to get my base aerobic fitness back up. Six days a week, we would do 15–25 hours of hiking and running, almost all uphill. The motto all along was “slow and steady.” I never felt like I was pushing to the point of injury, or overexertion. In fact, I had my doubts as to how useful the training was in the long term. But, especially after the fourth week, I was noticing significant and constant gains in my cardio fitness, and—what’s even more important—both Steve’s incredible skill as a coach and the innate friendship and respect that he brought to my training regimen were helping me dig out of this deep, dark hole I had been in. I can’t emphasize enough that Steve’s approach was completely holistic. He didn’t just treat me like a bag of bones and muscles from an Anatomy and Physiology textbook, he got to know me as an athlete: my strengths, my weaknesses, where to push me, where to ease off, what I was capable of, and what I wasn’t. It was all very tailored, very personalized, and very, very rewarding.

I remember getting to Everest and feeling sort of doubtful. It wasn’t like I had envisioned training in the past. Where I would have expected to have adrenaline coursing through my arteries, and veins rippling through my body, I really just had sort of a quiet confidence, and this mental fortitude that just said “one foot in front of the other.”

My climbing partner, Adrian, was just so much fitter. He was faster, stronger, more psyched, more confident. I was sure that I would hold him back. In fact, on parts of our climb, I did.

But when summit day rolled around, the tables began to turn. As the air got thinner, and the terrain got tougher, I went back to all the principles that Steve had instilled in me during our training. I heard his reassuring voice reminding me, as he had done hundreds of times: “Keep it slow. The value of the training will become apparent when you need it. Be patient.” About 3 or 4 hours into our final push, Adrian turned around. I caught my breath, looked around, and kept going. And I didn’t stop going till I stood on the summit.

There’s something magical that happened with Steve, which was not just him showing up as a coach and a friend. It was the depth of insight he brought to the training program he developed for me—the holism with which he approached my particular body, in my particular situation, at that particular time in my life. And on top of all that, he had to work around my crazy-ass schedule. As a coach, he showed up in a way that I’d never known before.

Steve was stern, and very committed, but gentle with how he approached criticism. He was very matter of fact, but also compassionate. I know that sounds more like a 12-step program than a training coach, but the truth is, that’s what makes Steve so special. He’s just very in tune with his athletes. He’s very in tune with their physical and emotional abilities, which (even though we’d like to keep them separate) are really one and the same.

I remember emerging from this huge place of darkness in my life, quite literally, into the light on the summit ridge of Everest. And that was a very, very special moment. It was so allegorical, and so apropos for what I’d been through. Suddenly I found myself looking over the entire Himalaya from the highest place on the planet, as close to space as I could ever get, and understanding that so much more had been accomplished than simply attaining a summit. I had regained a very important piece of myself that I had lost. And while the physical fitness itself had gotten me to summit day, it was something much bigger that got me to the top.

I’m not sure exactly what that something else was; but I am sure that I wouldn’t have found it without Steve’s help. To go from that couch in Colorado to that summit in Nepal in five months—that was something I had barely dared to dream possible. If that isn’t a testament to the efficacy of training with Steve, I don’t know what is.

-by Cory Richards

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