SEATTLE — At 12:30 a.m. on May 23, Mark Pattison set out for the summit.
In the 52 days since he arrived in Kathmandu, the 59-year-old Sports Illustrated executive and former University of Washington football player had scaled sections of Earth’s most notorious mountain numerous times, building red blood cells to acclimatize to the astronomical altitude. And in the eight years previous, he had touched the top of the highest peak on six of the seven continents.
Everest represented a formidable finish line.
Among other obstacles, it required navigating the constantly shifting crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall — a notorious cityscape of treacherous ice towers, located just above base camp at 17,999 feet.
“Imagine New York skyscrapers and twisted steel everywhere, but all that’s ice, and every single day they move,” said Pattison, who utilized ladders and crampons to cross the unforgiving crevasses. “I went through that five different times, up and down and up and down and up and down. And the mountain is super steep. This is just a different level of steepness. It doesn’t go up and then level off. It just keeps going up and up and up and up and up.”
And while the mountain is menacing, climbers also contended with COVID-19. After more than 400 climbers and 1,100 Sherpas and support staff arrived on Everest, an outbreak in Nepal made its way to the mountain. According to the Wall Street Journal, between 40 and 200 people were infected, though no one died. As a result, numerous companies were forced to abruptly cancel their expeditions.
“Most of our team of foreign climbers were vaccinated, but not all,” said Seattle-based Everest guide Garrett Madison, who led Pattison’s team. “None of our Nepal staff was vaccinated — our Sherpas and cooks and porters. (Vaccines are not widely available in Nepal.) We had to be very careful for them.
“Other teams had issues with COVID where their climbers weren’t vaccinated, but also a lot of the teams had Sherpas get sick with COVID. That meant they had to cancel the expedition because they didn’t have the support they needed to go up the mountain. So we had to be very vigilant the whole time, and also lucky.”
Added Pattison: “Everybody (at base camp) was trying to play really secretive about it initially, and kind of towards the end the whole thing imploded.”
Yet Madison Mountaineering managed to avoid an outbreak — thanks to vaccinations, COVID-19 tests, daily temperature checks and diligent distancing from outside parties. For Pattison and crew, the climb continued.
But as Pattison went up, his weight went down.
“It’s not like you’re going out and getting a T-bone steak that you’re grilling up every night,” he said. “So you’re trying to keep protein, and the higher we went we were using freeze-dried foods, and that really became a challenge for me. The freeze-dried stuff was just not going down. So I probably lost 20-25 pounds altogether.
“Especially on summit day, I just had a little thing of granola and then I was throwing down candy bars the rest of the day. That’s just not the breakfast of champions, to take on something like Mt. Everest.”
Granted, he’d been put in precarious positions before. Earlier in the expedition, Pattison fell 10 feet off a ladder on an ice wall but was astonishingly uninjured. Everest dealt daily avalanches as well. It took him two tries to conquer Alaska’s Denali (elevation: 20,310), after initially encountering minus 60-degree temperatures at the top. He lamented that “half the thing is just luck. It’s whether Mother Nature is going to let you step through or not.”
On Everest, Mother Nature packed quite a punch. Though Madison called May 23 “my best summit day ever out of 11 summits on Everest,” his team did momentarily encounter 40-mph gusts, and a pesky ice particle pierced Pattison’s left eye — leaving the retired wide receiver with limited sight.
“It’s not completely dark,” Pattison explained. “Your cornea has been slightly ruptured or scarred, so it’s opaque. It’s kind of white-ish. You can’t see, but it’s not pitch black.
“It’s like if you’re playing in a football game and you sprain your knee. You’ve got to contend with it, and it is what it is.”
With one working eye, he kept on climbing.
• • •
It was never about the summit.
More than four decades before he battled snow blindness, Mark Pattison couldn’t bench-press his body weight. He was a 6-foot-2, 181-pound wide receiver from Roosevelt High School, a skinny Seattleite who accepted a scholarship to his hometown school. He arrived at the University of Washington, completely unequipped, for his first collegiate training camp in the summer of 1980.
And like a piercing ice particle, reality hit hard.
“I never really learned how to work for something,” Pattison said in late March. “Then the water was thrown on my face that first day when I showed up at fall camp. I hadn’t prepared at all. I just had been playing around on Lake Washington. Back in 1980, that year we went to the Rose Bowl, we had a lot of talented players, which would ultimately lead to a lot of players that went on to the NFL. They were big and they were strong and they were confident, and I was 181 pounds. I couldn’t bench my own weight. I was just so far in over my head.”
Which is when famed UW football coach Don James provided a framework for an overmatched freshman to flourish — in the end zone, on Everest and everywhere else.
“So essentially there’s 25 different individual team goals,” Pattison said of the “Pyramid of Success,” which was passed from UCLA head coach John Wooden to James and then to Pattison. “For us back in the day, the top rung was to go to the Rose Bowl, to be Pac-10 champions. It showed all the things that we needed to do individually and as a team to get to that point.
“At the very tippy top of that pinnacle, in John Wooden’s model, is this phrase called ‘competitive greatness.’ What that really means is the people who elevate to doing things that are amazing, who have gone through all the different steps, however long it takes, really love the process. Loving the process equates to competitive greatness.”
So Pattison prioritized the process, rather than the result. And after playing sparingly in his first three seasons in Seattle, he caught the go-ahead touchdown in his first home start — a 25-24 win over Michigan on Sept. 17, 1983. Fittingly, in the final start of his Husky career, Pattison produced a sequel — grabbing the go-ahead touchdown in a 28-17 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma on Jan. 1, 1985. He notched 62 catches for 876 yards and six touchdowns in his college career, before playing parts of three NFL seasons with the Raiders, Rams and Saints.
The process propelled Pattison from Husky Stadium to the heights of professional football.
It also carried him through what he calls a “rough patch.”
“I had been married for a long time, 24 years. (A decade ago) that whole thing was kind of falling off the tracks,” he said of a relationship that ended in divorce. “I was in this stuck place for a number of years, and one day I just woke up and said, ‘Enough is enough. I’ve got to do something athletically great.’
“I knew I couldn’t go back and play in the NFL. So I started thinking of things I could do that would be grand, that would be big. So I kind of tapped back into my whole hiking thing and this idea came to me: has any NFL player climbed the seven summits (the highest peak on all seven continents)? At the time, after doing some research, the answer was no. So I said, ‘I’m going to be that guy.’ “
For Pattison — who grew up climbing Mount Si and Tiger Mountain with his father, before summitting Mount Rainier in 1998 — this was an excuse to redirect his process toward a different pursuit.
“A lot of people would be like, ‘Are you insane to want to go up 150,000 vertical feet (roughly the combined height of the seven summits), and go through all that? The answer is, honestly, I just love the challenge of getting better,” he said. “When I wake up I go and do crossfit every single morning. To me it’s like brushing my teeth. It’s like breathing air. I’ve found that’s my magic tonic for solving problems and getting through things and putting myself in the best position to do things like this.”
Things like summitting Mt. Kilimanjaro (elevation: 19,341 feet) in Africa in 2013.
Then Mt. Elbrus (elevation: 18,510 feet) in Europe in 2014.
Then Mt. Kosciuszko (elevation: 7,310 feet) in Australia in 2015.
Then Aconcagua (elevation: 22,837 feet) in South America in 2016.
Then Denali (elevation: 20,310 feet) in North America in 2018.
Then Vinson Massif (elevation: 16,050 feet) in Antarctica in 2019.
Which left only Everest.
At least, at first.
Because, after former Oregon State, Steelers and Patriots linebacker Craig Hanneman became the first NFL player to complete the seven summits in 2019, Pattison added an additional peak. Immediately after descending Everest, he sought to summit its neighbor — Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain in the world, at 27,940 feet — all within 24 hours.
He’d be the oldest man ever to accomplish the feat.
“Mark is really an internally motivated guy,” said former Seahawks and UCLA head coach Jim Mora, Pattison’s training partner and former UW teammate, in a podcast with climbing specialist Alan Arnette. “I think some people are externally motivated. Things have to motivate them. For Mark, it’s more about the goal. It’s the process that it takes to reach the goal. It’s achieving the goal and immediately setting another goal. He’s always climbing.”
• • •
After climbing for nine hours and 40 minutes, he stood atop the world. It was 10:10 a.m. on May 23 when a half-blind, malnourished Mark Pattison made it to the summit, a finish line at 29,032 feet. It took an additional eight hours to complete the descent.
During which, he arrived at a potentially life-saving decision.
“I knew that there could be a fatal outcome if I took on Lhotse,” he said. “The goal was to get the record, to be the oldest guy to do that. But at the end of the day, not only are my kids (Claudette and Emilia) important. I want to come back. My goal is to go up there and live and do it, not die trying to do some stupid record. It just didn’t become important in that moment. Before I went up there that morning it was very important, and as I was coming down it just became irrelevant and I didn’t care.
“My goal was to complete the seven, and I completed the seven, and I’m totally at peace with that. I don’t need to go back and do Lhotse. There’s no desire. It’s all good. My place will stand in history wherever it’s going to stand. I fulfilled the dream.”
Besides, it was never about the summits — not Everest or Vinson Massif or Denali or Aconcagua or Kosciuszko or Elbrus or Kilimanjaro, either. It was about the quest for competitive greatness, the process, the climb. There could be no summit without each individual step.
“Competitive greatness all had to do with Mark loving the process and just being in the position where every day, so much of what I did during the year building up to it has been working towards this goal,” Pattison said. “I sincerely did literally love every moment of that.”
What Mark cherishes most are a million individual moments — the 45 times he summitted Bald Mountain in his hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, this year, in preparation for the Everest expedition; the Nepalese villagers he met on an eye-opening 40-mile trek to base camp; the Las Vegas Raiders flag he proudly hung on his tent; the Puja ceremony before his ascent, in which a local Buddhist Lama blessed the expedition; and the steadfast support he received on social media, including 318,000 followers on Facebook alone.
But this was more than a selfish ascent. Pattison also partnered with an organization called “Higher Ground” in hopes of raising $56,972 — the combined height of Everest and Lhotse — to fight Epilepsy, which Pattison’s daughter Emilia has battled since she was eight years old. Heading into last weekend, the campaign has raised $55,846.
On May 28, with his sight almost fully restored, Pattison and Mora reunited on a ranch in Hermosa Beach, Calif. They sipped Starbucks coffees and walked to the edge of the ocean, 7,900 miles (and 29,000 vertical feet) from the tip of the tallest mountain in the world.
“I think the further time goes on, the more I’ll appreciate the accomplishment,” Pattison said in a phone interview that morning. “It seems so surreal. I’m sitting here across the street from the beach, watching these people play volleyball at sea level, and four days ago I was at the top of the world. It just seems so weird. Was that really me?”
Eventually, he thinks, it will all sink in, and Pattison will redirect his process (again) toward a different pursuit. He doesn’t know what that will be, or when. But there will be another summit to strive for.
He’s always climbing.