Coaching Paul Fox to summit Everest (and get back safely…)
(Check out Paul’s photography on his Instagram: @flyingfoxoir)
Optimize Fitness had already worked with Paul for his first summit attempt on Everest from the Tibetan side in 2015, he was high up on the mountain when the massive and devastating earthquake hit Nepal and the Chinese authorities pulled all climbing parties off.
In August 2016, Paul contacted and said the next summit attempt was on for 2017 and we had 9 months to get him to peak condition. But this time, there was a difference as Paul wanted to become keto adapted through a low carb high fat diet. This meant that he had to restrict his carbs to about 50g a day, think one banana or some broccoli with the rest of his calories coming from fats and protein. The advantage of theketo diet was that it meant Paul would be able to fuel his activity from his own fat stores on the long summit day when eating and drinking would be difficult with the cold, windsand exposure high up on the mountain.
The overall aim of the training programme was to get Paul back safely, we knew that most deaths on high mountains happen in descent when climbers are tired and depleted in strength, power and energy supplies. The longer the time spent in ascent and descent also meant more exposure to danger so getting up and down as fast as possible was essential.
To do that, we worked on several big rocks: building VO2, endurance and eccentric strength but keeping a close eye on fatigue using HRV to maximise adaptation – we weren’t taking chances with the likes of fatigue or illness. All of this was done through the lens of a keto diet.
VO2 was really important. VO2 is the amount of oxygen a person can take in and represents the ‘engine’. High up on Everest, Paul would be using bottled oxygen but the bigger his engine, the less he would need and the longer his supplies would last. We also knew that altitude effectively lowers a person’s VO2 so the higher his top end was, the less the effect would be and the quicker he could move. To build VO2, we used a combination of individualised HIIT (high intensity interval training) and long endurance sessions through biking and running. Paul’s focus and consistency were amazing, the numbers he produced in training were stunning and show the importance of motivation and psychological strength when training for such a demanding adventure. Look up his blog: https://foxoneverest.wordpress.com/ where he writes about doing the Three Peaks and cycling back home over the Pennines. What he doesn’t tell you is that all of this was done solo and into the teeth of a gale in winter.
Endurance training involved long days in the mountains carrying a pack and fuelled by his keto diet. The M6 was Paul’s friend as he spent days in the Lake District and Scotland, spending long hours on the hill over the winter. We gradually built up the length of the days, not wanting him to burn out or get injured.
Paul also spent hours in the gym. We knew being on the hills of the Lake District and Scotland would give him general strength, but no stone was to be left unturned. We wanted him a strong as possible – eccentric strength was specificallyimportant for downhill movement when leaving the summit – this being the most dangerous section. The stronger he was eccentrically, the less fatigued he would be and the easier it would be down the summit ridge when tired. Stronger athletes get injured less which would be important with the volume of training Paul was doing until the taper started in March.
Paul’s recovery was monitored daily using a range of tools. HRV (heart rate variability) was a key method to measure fatigue and whether to train hard or easy on any particular day. It also helped us to individualise his training cycles to optimize how much he did and when. By the end of the winter, Paul was working on a 16-18-day cycle with 2 to 3 days off and then he was good to go again.
Science was used as much we could, ranging from specialists in physiotherapy, nutrition to respiration and altitude acclimatisation. No stone left unturned.
Paul summiting on the 27th May, 2017 was a fantastic achievement. The sight of that tracker on the summit will live long in my memory and was only bettered by the message from Megan to all his friends that he was off the mountain and safe.
Check out his blog for some wonderful storytelling of his experiences of both times on Everest and the spectacular achievement of summiting: https://foxoneverest.wordpress.com/