'I Had To Step Over Bodies On The Line': Chicago Man Talks About His Summit To Mt. Everest

Lisa Fielding
May 29, 2019 - 12:49 pm
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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Highland Park native and Northwestern graduate Alex Pancoe began his journey to the top of the world seven weeks ago.

"We summited May 23 and I arrived in Katmandu March 30," he recalls.

Pancoe said it was a challenge of the lifetime.

Alex Pancoe, Mount Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

"I knew it was physically one of the hardest thing of my life. I never considered myself an elite athlete, but I worked very hard for this. I trained very well for this so I felt prepared," he said.

For nearly two months, he slept in tents, ate freeze dried food, and acclimated to the altitude, but he said the mental part was the toughest.

"After that first month, it started to be very, very hard. I checked in with family, I missed them. I heard about the Cubs on a winning streak," he laughed. "I missed home. The mental part was the hardest part by far."

Alex Pancoe with the Chicago Cubs 'W' flag on Mount Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

Eleven climbers have died on the mountain this year, two while he was there, making it one of the deadliest years on record.

"It's a different thing when you're there. I really am putting my life on the line. I might not see family and friends again and I'll be honest, up until the last day, I said to myself, you don't have to do this. You can go home right now. I pushed through that mentally," he said.

"There were two more rescues one night. As I climbed higher, I then actually saw two bodies from the night before. It's really a numbing experience, because you just can't go around them, they are on these lines. You have to literally step over them. There's a part when you question like what is this, how can I just step over a person's body, but there is that element of climbing where everyone knows the risk and if you want to get to the top, you're going to have to accept that you're going to see those things. The reality is that for every 100 who make the summit, about 2 percent will die. So statistically you expect that going in. Right before our final push, there were some accidents."

Alex Pancoe, Mount Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

Pancoe reached Everest’s summit Thursday.

"Getting to the top was a very emotional moment for me. But then you have to refocus toward getting down where most people have accidents," he said.

The toughest part of the climb is the descent. The so called "Death Zone" is where oxygen is limited.

Alex Pancoe, Mount Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

Pancoe blamed the high death toll on weather, inexperienced climbers, and tour companies that are largely unregulated.

"Everest only has a few days a year when you can summit. Last year, they had 11 straight days of good weather. It was very crowded, but spread over 11 days it wasn't that bad," he said.

"The weather was not great this year, there was a cyclone, the jet stream that affects things. Instead of 11 days, you have all these people trying to climb in three, four days. You had a lot of climbers who had no business being on that mountain, accepted by operators who don't screen properly and who didn't provide extra oxygen for contingency. It's a real toxic mix."

Alex Pancoe, Mt. Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

Some companies charge as much as $60,000 for a permit to climb Everest.

"The crowding isn't so much the issue. The bigger issue is climbers moving well with experienced teams. They need to tighten up the standards on who can be on that mountain," he said.

Pancoe is competing in the Explorers Grand Slam, climbing the Seven Summits, raising money for Lurie Children's Hospital.

Alex Pancoe with Lurie Children's Hospital flag on Mount Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

"I started doing this on my own, but then I decided to do this for something bigger."

He was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2005 and said he realized he needed to give back and raise money for the hospital and the doctors who helped him recover.

So far, he's raised more than $400,000 of his one million dollar goal.

Alex Pancoe, Mt. Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

"I wasn't someone who had ever climbed a mountain. This experience has taught me not to dismiss or be scared of failure. It taught me to embrace challenge and embrace failure. Don't expect the status quo. I hope to share that with others now."

Pancoe has one mountain left to complete his quest to finish the Explorers Grand Slam, a challenge consisting of climbing the highest mountain on each continent, and cross-country skiing across both the North and South Poles.

Alex Pancoe, Mount Everest
Rob Kelso Smith

Only about 60 people have completed the feat to date.  He plans to climb Alaska’s Mt. Denali next month, which is the highest mountain peak in North America. If he completes the climb, he'd be the first Chicagoan to do it.

"I have a bit of pneumonia right now, but I'm going to rest for two weeks, see family in Florida, but I'll be ready for the final challenge," Pancoe said.

For more information or to donate, log onto www.peaksofmind.org.