Days after breaking his neck in a freak surf accident in December 2014, Australian Steve Plain made an odd decision: to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. And he wanted to do it faster than had ever been done before. It was an audacious goal. Plain had multiple fractures to his C2, C3, and C7 vertebra, a contorted spinal cord, a dissected arterial artery, and torn ligaments, among other injuries. His doctors told him to prepare for life in a wheelchair. Plain’s Seven Summits resolution was all the more strange because he had no mountaineering experience to speak of.
Still, he needed a big goal to fuel his recovery.
Last May 14, Plain stood on the summit of Mount Everest, 117 days after he began his Seven Summits quest, breaking the previous record of 126 days set by Polish climber Janusz Kochanski in 2017.
“I guess I would have expected to feel elated or excited having completed the summits in record time,” Plain said after the feat. “But I don’t. I actually feel somewhat sad that it has come to an end.”
Plain started with 16,067-foot Vinson Massif in Antarctica, summiting on January 16, 2018. He then flew directly to 22,902-foot Aconcagua in Argentina where he met up with his British guide, Jon Gupta. “Steve is the strongest person I’ve ever climbed with in the big mountains,” said Gupta. “He is very fit and acclimatizes well.” While in South America, they made a side trip to summit 22,615-foot Mount Ojos Del Salado, the world’s highest volcano.
The pair ticked off the next few mountains in quick succession: 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro, 16,023-foot Carstensz Pyramid in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s 7,310-foot Mount Kosciuszko, and 18,513-foot Mount Elbrus in Russia. (There is some debate about whether Carstensz Pyramid or Kosciuszko should be considered one of the seven, so Plain climbed them both to avoid any controversy.)
But it wasn’t until they summited Alaska’s Denali on April 3 that breaking the speed record came into focus. “Until then I was simply focusing on each climb as we got to it, one by one,” Plain recalls. He and Gupta climbed from the 14,000-foot camp on the West Buttress route to the 20,320-foot summit in a blazing time of 20 hours.
Plain and Gupta arrived at Everest Base Camp on the Nepal side in mid-April to begin the acclimatizing process. He needed to summit by May 22 to break the record. They made several climbs to Camps I, II, and III before setting out for the summit on May 14 along with Pemba Sherpa. They made the summit without incident and were back at the South Col by 11:00 a.m. For extra credit, the trio even went on to tag Lhotse on their way down from Everest.
“For me, the entire journey has been much more rewarding than simply achieving the record itself,” Plain said. “I always had the belief that I could do it. I knew it was going to take a lot of work in terms of training, planning, preparation. But it was that goal and determination to succeed that spurred me on during my recovery.”