Courtney Reardon on "Chaos of Climbing Everest: The Mental Journey"

Nancy LoCascio:        Welcome everyone. My name is Nancy LoCascio and I'm a volunteer with TEDx Asbury Park. This year's event, TEDxAsburyPark Chaos is May 18th, and please check us out at www.tedxasburypark for information on tickets and how you can join us that day. Today I'm speaking with Courtney Reardon. Courtney was one of our selected speakers, and what she'll be sharing with us at TEDxAsburyPark is the chaos of climbing Mount Everest.

        I don't want to share too much about Courtney because I want to hear from her, but one fun fact that I am just amazed at... Courtney is the 68th woman to ever make it safely to the top of Mount Everest. Is that right? Have I got that fact right Courtney?

Courtney Reardon:        68th American woman. I think about 400 women globally have done it.

Nancy LoCascio:        And it's important to note that you safely made it right? Because many attempt it.

Courtney Reardon:        Yes.

Nancy LoCascio:        As I was preparing for our conversation today, the question that kept nagging at me is... why? Did you just wake up one day and say, "Hey, you know what, I'm thinking about climbing Mount Everest."

Courtney Reardon:        Absolutely not. I actually said many times before that I would never climb it. So the fact that I did, you know people tease me if I ever say I'll never do something, it's probably on the list. It was a very slow progression, and it started where I ... It actually started by accident. I signed up to do an outdoor light and fast backpacking course while I was also training for the New York City Marathon. I ended up developing a stress fracture in my foot and the next trip I could go on with this organization called NOLS, National Outdoor Leadership School, was a winter camping and back country ski trip.

        I had no plans or intentions of ending up even developing an interest in mountaineering or snow or traveling in winter conditions, and it sort of just fell in my lap and I said, "Okay, I'll do that one." I tried the trip and I loved it. We got caught in a snowstorm and had three feet of snow and minus ten degrees temperatures and I had a blast. I figured this is something I enjoy, let me see how I can develop it further. Then I did a course in Alaska that was an intra mountaineering course and slowly the snowball kept rolling. No pun intended. And that was 10 years ago.

Nancy LoCascio:        How many times have you climbed Mount Everest?

Courtney Reardon:        Just the one time.

Nancy LoCascio:        Just once.

Courtney Reardon:        Typically, a third of people that attempt it on their first try make it to the summit. So going into it for safety reasons I had in my head, "Okay, I might not be successful on the first attempt. I'm willing to make another attempt if I need to." Just having that in your mind, makes it so that you don't feel like getting to the summit is the end all be all, and you're never going to get another shot.

Nancy LoCascio:        How many people have summited Mount Everest?

Courtney Reardon:        In total about 12,000 have attempted and as I said earlier, about a third summit on their first attempt, so I think the total is about 3,000 something.

Nancy LoCascio:        But do accidents happen up there? What happens and when and how come?

Courtney Reardon:        For Everest specifically most of the accidents have happened in what's called the Death Zone. Which is an area above lets say 27,500 feet. I think it's technically lower but that's... on Everest that's kind of where we think of it. And that's where most of the accidents, most of the deaths have occurred. I think only about 200, maybe 250 people have died in the process. Which is actually pretty good, compared to some of the other 8,000-meter peaks when you think about 12,000 people have attempted and only 200, 250 people have died in the process. Any death is unfortunate, but when you look at the statistics for Everest it has one of the lower death rates of any of the 8,000-meter peaks. A lot of people think of going up as the riskiest part, but 80% of accidents in climbing happen on the way down.

Nancy LoCascio:        Why is that?

Courtney Reardon:        If you think about your adrenaline has really worn off when you get to the summit, so you're a lot more tired. You've probably been climbing for at least five to seven hours, so you're exhausted for more than just the adrenaline but just physically exhausted. And then when you think about your weight underneath you, when you're going up it's really underneath you, but when you're going down, it's kind of out in front of you so you're more likely to slip.

Nancy LoCascio:        Give us some perspective on how high Mount Everest is. You know, I'm very scared of heights. I wouldn't even go in a helicopter. How high up is Mount Everest? Just give us a perspective.

Courtney Reardon:        It's 29,000 feet and change. For perspective, it's twice the height of anything in the Rockies and for the New Yorkers out there, it's 23 times the height of the Empire State Building. And for example in terms of how the altitude affects you, there isn't a helicopter capable of landing on the summit, but if there were, a person could only survive for 30 minutes if they weren't acclimatized.

Nancy LoCascio:        Wow. So how does that compare to when I take a plane flight?

Courtney Reardon:        It's the same altitude that most jumbo jets fly.

Nancy LoCascio:        Wow. Okay. What were you most afraid of?

Courtney Reardon:        Failure. I know this sounds silly, but when I was training, I felt very like, "Okay, this is part of the process." Training and procuring everything that I needed for the climb. And I hadn't really told very many people that I had plans to do this. Even days, weeks before. When I did finally kind of reveal that I was doing it, I had forgotten that it's probably one of the only mountains in the world that almost everybody knows. The response from people .... to me it was the natural progression in my climbing, you know, interest but the reaction from people, I forgot how much it meant to everybody else. I suddenly felt the pressure in a different way than I did when I was just preparing for myself.

        And then, it's not just failure because if I fail I'll attempt again, but it's also the... I know from my prior climbs the suffering involved. And that's very scary because you have to go through it to experience the joy, but you don't know how much it's going to be, and how much you can endure in any one moment. It's intimidating to know, "I'm stepping into a situation where even though I'm as prepared as I'll ever be, I'm going to face a lot of suffering and it's going to be really hard and I don't know what my limit is, so I'm just going to keep pushing it until I feel the limit and maybe I'll push a little further and then I'll back down." You have to listen to yourself and so it's very, it's intimidating knowing you're going into that situation.

Nancy LoCascio:        You said you didn't tell that many people. Did you tell your family, your husband? Obviously your husband knew because you were out training, but how did you train and did you have a team of folks that were helping you? What did your mom and dad say?

Courtney Reardon:        The funny thing was I did tell my family and I think most of them got what I was doing because I had climbed Denali previously and climbed some other big peaks, but the best part was I remember a couple of weeks after I told my family, my sister texted me, "To the top?" And I thought that was hilarious. What other part of the mountain do you think I'm going to? Even when you tell the ones that know you best, they still might not realize exactly what you mean.

        But my husband, it was the team training me was a team of one. It was him. And I quickly turned into a meathead. Half my text messages were my workouts to him. But he was very very proud. He was in Special Operations in the military for 13 years doing combat search and rescue, and has transitioned to his own sports medicine practice where he works with a lot of professional athletes in various disciplines. I had a unique situation where I had the perfect coach living with me. And we've climbed together before, so he knows how much I love it. He jokes that you don't know me until you've climbed with me because I'm so happy and enjoying it, even when it's terrible and I'm suffering.

        A big component of the training was this special treadmill that my gym has. It has a 30% incline and I would wear a 50 pound weight vest and walk on it for sets of 20 minutes. Eventually, I got up to walking on it for three and a half hours to get in 4,000 vertical feet, which is kind of how I was thinking of the distance. Then another one, I would go to a friend's stairwell and climb the stairs for four, four and a half hours with a 30 pound pack, skipping steps and I had to breathe through my nose in order to get the extra cardio workout.

        And then I also did some sprint workouts, interval training. Most of it, that was the only thing I did that didn't involve heavy weight and cardio. I think that's a big thing with climbing. It's not about necessarily just going for a run, it's about doing it with something heavy because that mimics the altitude and mimics your backpack and helps your legs prepare.

Nancy LoCascio:        Two questions, how long did it take you to prepare? And then actually how long does it take from day one, I've gotten to the starting point and then how long does it take to climb Mount Everest?

Courtney Reardon:        I've been climbing for 10 years so I would say that really is the biggest component of my preparation. The fitness is just a small aspect. The comfort and training and experience using crampons, ice ax, ropes, was the biggest part of my training so I had done that for 10 years. In terms of the fitness training for the climb, I decided very late that I wanted to do it. I was trying not to want to do it but eventually it caught up with me and, so I started training and trained for three months. I would not recommend that for anybody but like I said, I lived with the perfect coach so I got a unique situation, and I think I have some genetic physical ability to do it but I would not recommend three months.

        On the mountain, it takes two months so if you think about ... If you picture the mountain, if you think about it, base camp is 17,000 feet, which is higher than anything in the Rockies. Even getting there can take a week, a week and a half because you have to acclimatize on your way. Then when you get there, you spend about a week there, and then you go up to maybe 20,000 feet, spend a week there. Go back down to 17, another week. Then you go back up to maybe 23,000 feet, then you go back down to 17. Then you spend a week going all right the way to the top, a night at every camp lets say. And then you come down very quickly. You're going up and down the mountain for several rotations. That's how you acclimatize.

Nancy LoCascio:        We talked a lot about the technical side of climbing Mount Everest, the training, how you did that, how long it takes, all the statistics around Mount Everest. But as we wrap up our conversation today, tell me more about the emotional side of it.

Courtney Reardon:        It was funny when I was thinking about the topic of chaos, because in my head I thought climbing Everest is the antithesis of chaos. It's so well organized and planned by the outfitter and by the sherpa team that it was the antithesis of chaos, and then I realized, the chaos was all within me. I was the part that wasn’t, couldn't be organized, couldn't be planned because everything was new to me.

        And I think a lot of people think that they are prepared for the mental process and it's the physical that they need to train for. I think that it made me realize that the entire process, it's a series of setbacks and wins and it's very hard to know when a setback is a real setback, versus something that's just going to be temporary. You're listening to all these signals, and you're trying to decide which ones deserve weight and which ones you should just ignore or toss out or realize that they're going to pass. It's hard to tell in the moment because you feel as though your life is on the line, or your comfort is on the line. You're definitely going to be uncomfortable but you don't want to be so uncomfortable that you put yourself in a dangerous situation. It's really listening to yourself and you're deciphering what's meaningful and what's not.

Nancy LoCascio:        That sounds like good advice when you're managing chaos right?

Courtney Reardon:        Exactly. Exactly.

Nancy LoCascio:        What was the best part for you? When you were done, what did you just celebrate the most?

Courtney Reardon:        One of my favorite things was I was just standing on the subway when I was back in New York, and I felt like I had this little secret that nobody knew. Like, "You guys have no idea what I'm capable of." I'm just like this little person standing on the subway in my dress and heels on my way to work. It was this nice little, I guess it was confidence, truly, but it was truly radiating from within me. It wasn't anybody else's praise. Because I realized when people were interested or not interested in the climb, it really had very little to do with me. I was just a character in the story. It was really about their own ambitions and aspirations and I was just an example of somebody doing it.

        I didn't really attach too much meaning to other people's interest or disinterest. But that moment on the subway when I was like, "You guys have no idea what I'm capable of," was really rewarding and I didn't know what it was or what to call it, but it was amazing.

Nancy LoCascio:        And that's sort of after you've climbed and after you've accomplished that right?

Courtney Reardon:        Yeah.

Nancy LoCascio:        But as you were preparing, and as you actually went through the climb itself, was there doubt? Was there fear?

Courtney Reardon:        There was a lot ... I don't know if fear was the word. Maybe fear of disappointing myself and maybe disappointing my husband because he was like, "You got this." And he had no doubt. I didn't want to let him down and I really didn't want to let myself down. Doubt was everywhere, every day, constantly. I was agonizing over, and over little situations like that. Doubt I would say, doubt was probably the most effervescent emotion that I experienced in the process.

Nancy LoCascio:        One final question, what inspired you to talk to us at TEDxAsburyPark about chaos and climbing Mount Everest?

Courtney Reardon:        Well, it's interesting. I went to a family friend's church. They asked me to come and speak about Everest and I was thinking about how I wanted to do it. There are really two ways you can think about it. It's very logistical planning, here's what we did, and I decided no, they can read that. A lot of people do that. I'm going to talk about how this fear-driven person ended up on the top of Everest and kind of the emotional journey behind that. And I'm willing to be vulnerable in the process. And I think that it's very hard to do unless you've gained the confidence and done something that you feel gave you enough confidence to be able to be that open with people.

        I kind of realized in that moment that I'm talking about climbing Everest to people that don't even have ambitions to climb Everest, but they can relate to the story I'm saying because it's about facing a challenge, how you prepare for it, how you find yourself there, and the doubt you experience in the process. And then when you do reach your goal, relief. Sometimes it's relief more than elation that you perceive and then what you do with that next.

Nancy LoCascio:        That's great. Well Courtney, thank you so much for being with us today. You've been listening to Expert Open Radio. As a reminder you can get your tickets for the largest, highest rated TEDx conference on the East Coast at This year's event will be held on Saturday, May 18th at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, New Jersey where you'll have an opportunity to hear more from Courtney as Courtney talks to us and shares her experience of climbing Mount Everest and the chaos that ensued. Thank you so much for joining us.