Everest 2018: Interview with Patrick McKnight

This interview with Patrick McKnight is one of an ongoing series I do each season with Everest climbers. Not the famous, sponsored ones who get plenty of publicity but the regular people, who often have full time jobs, full time families and climb for the love of the climb. I welcome suggestions for anyone climbing in 2018 I should interview.

Sometimes our public profiles on social media tell more than we wanted. Patrick’s on Google+ reveals “Associate Professor at George Mason University.  Sailor, skier, data analyst, climber, father, chef, wine drinker, mountaineer, swimmer, dreamer, builder, football fan, researcher, survivor.  Words I live by….” So where to start with this man?

First off, Patrick is a lover of detail. A quick visit to his blog shows graphs, tables, charts, oh my. His attention is detail is exactly what you want in a pilot or your doctor but in this case, as a climber, he will know when he leaves zone 3 or his hemoglobin level has spiked or … you get the point. His daily training log is, well, impressive.

Everest has become a mission for Patrick. His first attempt in 2014 was cut short after an ice serac released onto the Khumbu Icefall killing  16 Sherpas. He returned the next year only to be stopped by the massive  7.8 earthquake.  Now he is preparing to leave soon for his “last” attempt on Everest.

Please meet Patrick:

Q: As we covered in the intro, you trained hard and planned on Everest in 2014 and 2015 but conditions out of your control stopped you. So the obvious question. What brings you back?

I wish I could provide you with a simple answer but the fact of the matter is that I simply don’t give up.  Those past two expeditions had outcomes beyond my control.  I’m just tenacious.  My objective was to test my limits on Everest and I never got a chance to even try to climb.  The financial hit I took from those two years left me reeling for two years.  Now, after dusting myself off and preparing again to climb, I had the financial ability to give it a final go.  Yes, that is not a typo.  I have one more effort in me for this mountain.  After this year, I intend to focus my attention on other objectives.  Everest occupied my attention for 5 years – long enough to keep me interested but I cannot remain enthusiastic beyond these years.  So, I have a mission – to climb and test myself.  I hope to get the chance this time around and whatever the outcome I know I gave it my all in preparation.

Q: As mentioned you were in 2014 when the ice serac release killed 16 Sherpas. Where were you when this happened and how did it impact you own personal feeling of using Sherpas for support?

We were just walking into base camp when the serac slid into the icefall.  Our initial focus was on the health, safety, and well-being of all climbers regardless of their nationality.  I think the event really shook everyone.  Over the subsequent days, we witnessed behaviors that deviated from a cohesive climbing community to a divisive and divided group without any clear voice or direction.  We decided as a team to leave base camp and climb while the events unfolded.  During that time away from base camp, I grew more empathetic toward the dire situation for most Sherpa.  The Sherpa among our group wanted to climb but their lives and families were being threatened by a minority group and I really felt great sorrow with them.  We all paid a dear price.

How did these events influence my view of using Sherpa for support?  I think it only strengthened my connection with them and my desire to help them as I would anyone else who shared my passions.  It was a tough year for us all; I lost roughly one-third of my yearly wage after that fateful day.  The Sherpa lost an equivalent.  Not many people wanted to hear how the event affected westerners but we all suffered.  I feel more connected with our Sherpa as a result and I would not hesitate to climb with them or support them however possible.

Q:  2015, the earthquake again stopped all climbs and took 17 lives. Again, where were you and how did seeing so many lives lost over just two years impact your own view of objective dangers in climbing and your own mortality?

In 2015, we arrived at Camp 1 and crawled into our tents to relax when the earthquake occurred.  It was a surreal event.  Just after the glacier moved, we scrambled out of our tents to brace ourselves for what seemed like a certain death by avalanche.  The entire glacier rumbled and rattled like many of us have felt in the backcountry during avalanches.  Unfortunately, the whiteout conditions and our position close to the SE ridge of Everest prevented us from seeing or hearing the true location of the slide.  We were hit by two consecutive aerosol slides that could have easily swept us into a nearby crevasse – fortunately they did not. Afterwards, our focus was on getting to safer grounds and checking on our team.  It was chaotic to say the least.

I do not think that day nor the prior year had much of an effect on my views of mountaineering.  Dangers exist in the backcountry and I accept them and prepare for them the best I can.  An earthquake and serac fall are natural events that could neither be predicted nor prepared for in advance.  I accept those risks.  There are far more dangerous activities and I moderate my risk exposure through careful decision-making.  I consider these calculated risks and ones I am prepared to accept.

Q: Your training has been amazing as has your documentation of it on your site. What key lessons have you learned through this year as well as previous training periods that you think would surprise most people?

Training for these events requires more than just gym time and cardio training.  As you know, mountaineering involves many activities and it is often the lion you don’t see that eats you.  By that statement I mean that most people focus on fitness where I focus on becoming more rugged.  I change my diet constantly, adjust my sleeping schedule, create many uncomfortable situations, and monitor my response to all of these situations.  The hardier the person, the more able they are to adapt to unforeseen situations.  I firmly believe in that approach and I learned from previous expeditions (skiing, climbing, sailing, etc) that the most meaningful preparation is mental.  Train your brain to tolerate long days.

What surprises most people is that they believe mountaineering training involves high intensity bouts of exercise.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We all learn that low intensity, high resistance training produces both the muscle endurance and the mental fortitude necessary to push through the discomfort on summit day.  Want to train for climbing?  Work on your house after running a marathon at a slow pace; that should get you in great shape and ready to climb.

Q: You are using a Hypoxic tent for “pre-acclimitization”. I know you believe in this. Can you share your rationale?

Yes, I firmly believe that hypoxic acclimatization at home – especially for those of us who live at sea level – provides a huge boost to my success.  Over the years, I learned that I required more time to acclimatize on any mountain higher than 13,000 feet (4,000 m).  Why I needed more time was beyond me.  I simply required the time.  While climbing Denali, I ran into Brian Oestrike who was skinning up the mountain with a small pack tied to his sled.  His objective was to summit in 2 days.  Needless to say, my interest was piqued.

Brian used his company’s (Hypoxico) system to acclimatize to 20,000 feet at home in NYC.  Yes, he trained in the city at sea level and he sure seemed to be quite comfortable on his upward push.  Since meeting him, I invested in a hypoxic unit and monitored my training and sleeping.  In 2015, I casually strolled up to Everest base camp in about a day and a half without any problems.  While at basecamp, I was easily able to walk up the camp 2 on Pumori while chatting with the Sherpa.  We did a quick round-trip to the camp in a few hours and I felt fantastic.  I was able to accomplish this feat with the hypoxic tent.  What I learned over the past 3 years sleeping in the hypoxic tent every night is that I am able to process oxygen more efficiently than I was able to before I started using the tent.  My pulse oximetry readings can be quite frightening some mornings (low to mid 60%) but I feel great!

Living at sea level has some serious disadvantages for mountaineers.  I would love to live in the mountains but I love my job as a professor.  The hypoxic training and sleeping allow me to live in both worlds without much personal cost.

Q: You are climbing from the Tibet side. Why? Did you have concerns about the Nepal side? Any concerns the Chinese will play border games this year?

I needed a change of pace.  The 2014 and 2015 climbing seasons offered me a great glimpse of Nepal and the Khumbu valley.  I cherish my time in Nepal and look forward to more treks in the area.  Despite my love for the people and the area, I really needed a change of scenery.  Those two previous attempts left me feeling really low and I was afraid that going again from the Nepal side would drag me down.  I was not concerned about the Chinese because I focus only on the things I can control.  They may decide that we are not permitted to cross into Tibet but rather than focus on that potential outcome, I figured it would be more productive for me to focus on the climb.  Incidentally, I intended to climb from the Tibet side in 2014 but for reasons related to politics, I was unable to secure a climbing visa on the north side.  I really wanted to climb from the Tibet side from the start.  My 2015 climb from the Nepal side was dictated by the fact that the Nepal government honored my climbing permit from 2014; they did not honor my 2015 permit for this year so I was afforded the freedom to pick a side.  The side I picked….Tibet.  I really look forward to seeing Everest from a different angle.

Q: You are very clear that safety is a priority for you Patrick. What steps are you taking to ensure that objective?

Yes, I have many objectives ahead of me – not to mention family who fear for my safety all the time.  I value safety but I value preparation to protect against unsafe situations even more.  Some things I cannot control but I can control how I am prepared and how I respond to situations beyond my control.  The 2015 earthquake was a great test of that focus.  We had no control over the situation but we could use the resources available to us.

One resource was Global Rescue and I used them just as they were meant to be used.  Other steps to ensure my safety include making sure I am fit, knowing my equipment, using my equipment before climbing, and checking all aspects of the climb well in advance to enable me to forecast different hazards or challenges.  These steps make the most unsafe environment safer – at least that is what I want my family to think.

Q: Have you prepared yourself mentally if you have to turn back on Everest?

Without question.  My objective is to test my limits.  If a summit attempt is not within my limits, I am fine with turning around.  I might be tenacious but I am also well aware that there are many tests of my limits.  Everest serves merely as one test.  Success climbing comes not from the summit but from the return home to celebrate with friends.  I climb to test my own limits – not to impress others.

While I am mentally prepared to turn around, I also envision myself successful.  How?  Every video, picture, or illustration of Everest offers me the opportunity to place myself on the mountain in my imagination.  I see myself pushing through the discomfort just as I pushed through it at home during the long training days.  I am prepared to summit mentally but also prepared to call it a day if my body tells me so.  There are many mountains to climb and seas to sail.  If Everest turns me around then I know I gave it my best.

Q: What team are you climbing with on the north side and why did you select them?

I am climbing with Summit Climb.  Why?  I started with them in 2014 and feel comfortable with what they offer.  They are priced in a range that makes Everest affordable (for me at least) and since I do not require any amenities beyond the bare necessities they provide exactly what I need.

Q: Last question, do you have a favorite piece of gear you use on all your climbs?

I think we all have that one piece of gear that we cannot go without and for me that piece is my knit watch cap.  I rarely get cold but when I do, I put that cap on my head and instantly I return to a comfortable place where nothing can disturb me.  My cap comes with me for every outing including marathon swims, mountaineering expeditions, and sailing adventures.  I never leave home without it.

Q: Any other thoughts for us followers this year Patrick?

I hope for a uneventful climb this year.  No drama, no catastrophes, no natural events, and no obstacles to the top.  Oh, one other thing.  Alan, you provide such a valuable service to us all, I cannot thank you enough.  Hopefully your readers heap enough rewards to keep you going as long as our recently departed Elizabeth Hawley – may she rest in peace.  Thanks for the opportunity to chat.

For more on Patrick’s thought on training visit this entry he called “10 lessons learned in 100 days of training: 160 days left before I head off to Everest again” I agree with all 10. Thank you Patrick. While this may not the best use of the phrase, “Third time lucky” may this be your result. You can follow Patrick’s climb from Tibet on his blog.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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