A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

On the Top of the World

By Colleen Kearney Rich on March 21, 2019

Mason psychology professor Patrick McKnight loves a challenge. In May 2018 he successfully summited Mount Everest in his third visit to the mountain. We recently talked to McKnight about his summit and other adventures.

This was not your first attempt at climbing Mt. Everest. Can you tell me a little about what bought the other attempts to an end?

I traveled to Nepal twice before to climb but never got the chance to ascend the mountain (from the South side or South Col route) for various reasons. In 2014, I set out to climb from the Nepal side (again, the South), but after we reached basecamp from our trek in, we discovered that a catastrophe took the lives of 18 Sherpa who were in the Khumbu icefall. That tragedy was well documented in the press. The Nepali government shut down the mountain due to strife with the Sherpa community. I left shortly thereafter without any chance to even enter the icefall.

In 2015, I sought to climb Everest from the same time but was buoyed by the generosity of the Nepali government for accepting my permit (an $11,000 cost) from 2014. When we reached Camp 1 (roughly 20,000 feet and the first camp above the Khumbu icefall), the massive earthquake struck the area. We were stranded for about a week up at that camp while teams were evacuated. For obvious reasons, we did not summit, nor did we climb higher. Those two efforts were not really attempts but rather expensive trips to Nepal. I originally chose to climb from the Tibet (or North) side in 2014, but Hillary Clinton—then, our secretary of state—met with the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government [subsequently] decided to restrict Americans from Tibet. In 2018, I finally got to climb Everest from the Tibet side, and the trip was a huge success.

Mason psychology professor Patrick McKnight recently summited Everest. Handout

You trained extensively for this summit. Can you describe your preparations?

Yes, I trained for an average of 20 hours each week during every hour I could afford. The training consisted of hiking, cycling, running, lifting, swimming, and other activities to keep me strong and healthy. I also slept in a hypoxic tent at night to acclimatize to the “thin” air. The training was not uniformly spread throughout the week. Often, I would train for 9 to 12 hours on Saturday or Sunday to mimic the summit push days. These are long days where I would do everything I could to tire myself out, determine how my mind responded to the stress, and refuel during and after the effort. All told, I believe I actively trained for about 900 hours over the course of those three years. I was fit and remain fit despite the fact that I have essentially taken the summer off from training. It was time for me to rest.

Your journey was not without its hiccups. Can you tell us about some of the problems you encountered, both funny and scary?

Every expedition involves hiccups or unexpected turns—those are what make the adventure! I encountered few problems other than health concerns—something always relevant when we climb. There were a few instances when my asthma acted up, but I was able to treat myself without resorting to extreme measures. [All] together, I would say that there were few problems this year.

Funny times? Too many to recall. My climbing buddy, Brendan Madden, and I laughed more than we breathed. There were some times that were stressful, but most of the time on these expeditions we spend resting and recovering. Big mountain climbing is similar to war in that we sit around for hours upon hours waiting for something to happen. When the happening occurs, it can be quite a stirring event.

Regarding scary times, I cannot recall many. People often ask me if I am afraid of heights and I say no… not during a climb. It is a rare instance that your feet are not firmly placed upon the earth while climbing. Jump out of a plane? Nope. I refuse. Climb a big mountain where I may leave the ground for at most a second (or a minute) at most is perfectly acceptable. Note: I am not necessarily fearless; I take calculated risks. Climbing affords me to take those risks after careful consideration of all my options.

Tell us about the summit itself. What did you take with you to the top of the world?

My initial response to the question is “as little as possible,” but that would skirt your real question. What was the summit like? It was windy and cold. We expected a calm day, but the winds never subsided, and our time on the summit was less pleasant than I desired. Brendan and I had scripted a rather tight plan to video each other, take some pictures, and enjoy a few minutes basking in the morning sunlight upon the summit.

Instead, we reached the top in a howling wind and cold temperatures (probably below –40 degrees Fahrenheit with the windchill). Our cameras (aka cell phones) froze, and we had access to only one camera (Brendan’s new 4K video camera that remarkably stayed unfrozen). We were equipped with just enough oxygen to get up and down without incident. Furthermore, we had just enough water to make the round trip but not much else. Thus, our gear weighed as little as possible, and for that fact, we were successful. Hauling more than necessary is a terrible mistake that only makes climbers tired. I can recall too many things, but not much makes sense. Due to my oxygen mask failing me, I was a bit lightheaded but strong enough to descend. The summit was memorable for me, and the images I witnessed at the top are permanently etched into my memory.

Will you do it again?

Nope. I am not a repeat customer for most things in life. The past five years were dedicated to Everest (and marathon swimming). I have many other hobbies and objectives. Everest was just the culmination of many years of climbing, skiing, and mountaineering that served as a nice finale. I do plan to climb more, but I do not plan to return as a climber to Everest. Some of my friends who desire support may find my services at basecamp useful, but other than as [part of] a support crew, I have little desire to return.

Mason psychology professor Patrick McKnight recently summited Everest.

I understand there are other challenges you’ve taken. Can you talk about some of them?

I [have] spent my life to date accepting challenges—physical, logistical, emotional, and intellectual. The ones that are most germane to my Everest expedition probably fall into two categories. First, I was a swimmer from a young age and continue to swim recreationally. During my hiatus from climbing Everest (2015 to 2018), I decided to swim the English Channel. Preparation for that swim began right after I returned from Nepal in 2015. I tried to swim the channel in 2015 (September), but due to weather conditions and a limited window to swim, my swim was rescheduled for 2016. I spent almost two weeks in Dover meeting many incredible people. As planned, I swam the English Channel in 2016 along with two other marathon swims—all in about a month of one another. That effort set the record for what is referred to in marathon swimming as the “Triple Crown.” Yes, I am the record holder—but one who will cheer on any other person who desires to break it. I did not set out to break any record. Instead, I just wanted to experience the swim, feel what swimming for 10-plus hours felt like, and endure the cold. Those experiences alone were worth the price of admission.

Second, I grew up racing sailboats. I sailed up and down the East Coast and some on the West Coast of the United States. While I have yet to sail around the world, that is next on my list. Climbing, swimming, and sailing are my triathlon these days.

See photos of  McKnight’s successful summit and previous attempts

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