Chad Kellogg: Speed Climbing to Stand Still
Over the last five years, alpinist Chad Kellogg has lost nearly everything and everyone—wife, brother, climbing partners—close to him. In the next few days, when he plans to make his second attempt to break the speed record on Mount Everest, he'll be carrying an understandably heavy load.
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THE LONE HEADLAMP drifting up through the night, from Camp II to III, and then slanting toward the South Col, at 25,938, had to belong to Chad Kellogg—the only person attempting to summit directly from Base Camp. “He was still too low and going too slowly to make the summit,” recalls guide David Morton, who watched Kellogg’s progress from above during his own summit bid that day in 2010.
“I made a lot of rookie errors,” admits Kellogg, a former Rainier climbing ranger who lives in Seattle.
He was attempting to break Frenchman Marc Batard’s 1988 record of 22:29 to the summit and 36 hours round trip, without oxygen. (Ten years later, Kazi Sherpa clocked a time of 20 hours 24 minutes to the top, but because he used oxygen on the descent, there is disagreement in the mountaineering community as to whether the time should stand.)
In addition to climbing difficult alpine routes around the world, Kellogg has a thing for speed ascents. In 1998—and again in 2004—he broke the roundtrip record for Washington’s Mount Rainier (14,410) with a time of 4:59. Also in 1998, he made the summit of Nepal’s Ama Dablam (22,494 feet) in 9:44, an impressive feat but still 50 minutes slower than the record-holder, the late Alex Lowe, did earlier in the decade. In 2003, he won Festival Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan’s national speed climbing competition, whose previous winners have included Lowe, Conrad Anker, and Kazakh Denis Urubko. That same year, Kellogg set the record on Denali’s West Buttress route, cruising to the summit in 14:26 and returning the Kahiltna Glacier in 23:55. That record still stands.
“Speed ascents are just an exclamation point on a good season of climbing,” says Kellogg. “Alpine climbing is my favorite.”
Like most people who break records on routes, Kellogg shies away from the label of “speed climber.” That’s because the discipline is something of a sideshow, most associated with long-haired, Lycra-wearing men who bound up rock climbs like startled chimpanzees. Kellogg is a well-rounded alpinist, and his version of speed climbing shares little in common with the sort you may have seen at the X Games in the nineties. In fact, his climbing style doesn’t even look particularly fast. Kellogg achieves his record times not by racing, but by skipping camps, forgoing sleep, and rarely stopping. “There’s no sprinting here,” he says. “This is metered output over a 30-hour push.”
I MET KELLOGG at Base Camp in late April, where he was preparing to launch his second bid to break the Everest speed record. At 40 years old, he’s lean and powerful looking, but would never be confused for an endurance athlete on the street. The blue eyes and a Fu Manchu mustache fit better with the career as a general contractor he’s put on hold to chase this dream.
And there’s something else. It’s partly the way the skin above his eyebrows creases when he’s distracted by some thought in his head, partly in his lack of pretense. The man has suffered, hit bottom, and no longer seems distracted by the day-to-day bullshit that troubles the rest of us. His load is much heavier.
It was five years to the day that his wife, Lara Bitenieks, then 38, a well-respected fire scientist, died in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge after rappelling off the end of a rope on Mount Wake. They’d met at REI employee orientation at Seattle’s flagship store in 1994. (Kellogg had just given up his quest to become an Olympic luge racer and moved from Lake Placid back to Seattle.) “She was a lot smarter than me,” recalls Kellogg. “She’d already saved up a bunch of money that she used to get her pro deals. Then she’d quit and go climbing.” They married six years later.
At the time of his wife’s death, in April of 2007, Kellogg was off on his own adventure, at the base of a climb in a remote part of Sichuan province in western China with his good friend and climbing partner Joe Puryear, a renowned mountaineer who also lived in Seattle. “I’d already had this feeling like something had gone wrong,” says Kellogg. He had even told Puryear as much. Three days later, a lone horseman rode into their camp carrying a note Puryear’s wife had e-mailed to their contact in Rilong, the nearest town. It read, “There has been an accident. Call home.”
A friend who had one of the few cars in Rilong drove him 14 hours to Chengdu. There, Kellogg couldn’t change his ticket because he’d bought it with frequent flier miles. Thankfully, his friend of 20 years, Ammi Borenstein, a product designer at Outdoor Research who had also been the best man at Kellogg’s wedding, was able to find a ticket online. “I was the last person in the world to find out,” says Kellogg.
That was how his slide started. A few months after Kellogg lost his wife, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Ultimately, he was able to beat back the disease with surgery, though he says, “Cancer is always in the back of my mind.” Then, over the next five years, other friends and family began dying—”nearly every friend in my life”—17 in all. Three grandparents, three uncles, younger brother to a heart attack last year—all while he was off on climbing trips. “Every single one of them is constantly on my mind,” he says.
Then, in 2010, David Gottlieb and Puryear, who was 37, were attempting Tibet’s Labuche Kang. Puryear led along a ridgeline, but when Gottlieb turned the corner, all he found were a set of boot prints leading to a collapsed cornice where Puryear had fallen through.
To help make sense of all the loss around him, Kellogg had turned to Buddhism a few years earlier—a direction he says he and Lara had already been heading before her death. Prior to Puryear’s death, he took his vows with the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles. “It was like a Billy Graham crusade,” he jokes. “Raise your hand if you want to accept the Lord!” (At this point, Kellogg gets up, pokes his head out of the Base Camp tent where we’ve been talking, and spits out a bit of dip.) He gave up drugs and alcohol, when he converted, but admits, “I’m still a meat and tobacco guy.”
IN 2003, THERE WAS a shakeup at Seattle-based Outdoor Research, the company that has sponsored Kellogg since 1996 and is best known for its gloves and outdoor accessories. Sales at OR had been stagnant for several years, but when its quirky and much-adored founder, Ron Gregg, was killed in an avalanche that spring, the company went into a tailspin. A physicist turned outdoor adventurer, Gregg was more adept at designing products than selling them. When Gregg died, the business was in such disarray that selling parking spaces at their office, which is near the Mariner’s baseball stadium, was one of the more dependable parts of its revenue stream.
A few months later, Dan Nordstrom—of the department store family—bought the company and began to push it harder to innovate and expand. He also took a keen interest in Kellogg, who until then, had been something of a wildcard—a talented if rough-edged guy who was maybe just a little too honest to be good at marketing.
“If climbers are assigned a score, and that number is arrived at by dividing their climbing ability by their ability to market themsleves,” says Nordstrom, “Chad’s number would be really high, because he has high ability and low marketing. He’s just not into it. He doesn’t have time for it. He doesn’t think about it.”
Kellogg had been considering Marc Batard’s Everest record since the idea had come up among friends over several bottles of wine in 2003. A few years later, Nordstrom offered to put up $15,000 toward an attempt. Kellogg began scraping together the additional $25,000 he’d need to pull it off. He maxed out his credit cards and began to train hard, doing multiple ski laps in a day on Rainier. Two friends in Seattle, climber Brent Bishop (a member of the First Ascent West Ridge expedition I’m here covering) and producer Pete Voght, took an interest in the project and set Kellogg up with cameras to film his progress.
Among the first recordings is one of a badly bloodied Kellogg, standing in a frigid Park Service bathroom, saying, “Well, Brent, looks like I’m not going to Everest.” He was supposed to leave for Everest in three weeks.
In 2009, a few months before he was supposed to depart for Nepal, during one of his solo ski laps down Rainier, Kellogg had gotten caught in a blizzard and fallen blindly over a 25-foot ice cliff. His right arm was smashed—humerus broken in 12 places—nose broken, and teeth slammed through his lip. He’d limped back to the Paradise parking lot where he’d left his Toyota T100. He fired it up and started down, but didn’t make it very far when an avalanche swept across the road 100 yards ahead of him. He briefly considered punching it through the debris, but then thought better and returned to the lot. He spent the next 12 hours in his truck as the storm turned it into a powder mogul. In the morning, when rangers arrived to evacuate people who were still on the mountain, Kellogg leaned on his horn. After a truck ride and an ambulance to the Morton Hospital, followed by another ambulance ride to a chartered Life Flight jet, he finally arrived at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital, roughly 24 hours after his fall.
Sidelined by the injuries, he was forced to put the bid on hold until 2010. While he recovered well enough in the intervening year, he thinks a series of small mistakes is what set him back. He showed up in Base Camp weighing 185 pounds, as opposed to his normal climbing weight of 155, with the idea that he’d slim down during the acclimatization process. Instead, he kept the extra muscle, which his body then had to struggle to supply with oxygen. He also tried doing a simulated speed ascent to Camp III, which just burned his lungs and wore him out. He couldn’t afford to hire Sherpas, so he made an unheard-of 13 laps through the deadly Khumbu Icefall, setting up the camps and gear drops he’d need for his single-push ascent. And finally, there were the insults: somebody stole his ski poles in Camp I; and when he was first starting into the icefall, he fell through a thin spot and was soaked to his knees. Still, he tried.
THERE’S A BLUE-COLLAR ethic to the way Kellogg attacks climbs. When he talks about what’s set him back, you don’t get the sense that he’s complaining or making excuses—just recalibrating for next time. He was born to a pair of Presbyterian missionaries in the sagging timber town of Omak, in Washington’s northeast corner. When he was two, the family relocated to Seattle. It was there, in the North Cascades, that he got his first taste of the mountains. On family outings, he was given pebbles to suck on instead of a pacifier. When he was 11, his father, Richard, made him look at a topographical map and asked, “How far is it from here to here? What’s the elevation gain? So how fast can we get there?”
Like his father, Kellogg has a facility with numbers. During our conversation, he easily recalls the dates of life events and rattles off both summit and round-trip times from memory. (He started college at the University of Washington at 17 and graduated in 1989 with a 3.75 GPA in economics.)
It was on a church youth group retreat, at age 13, that Kellogg discovered actual climbing. A local rock guru named Dan Waters was leading the trip and recognized Kellogg’s natural talent—mostly because he couldn’t outrun him on the trail. But after their climbs together grew a little bolder, Waters pulled the plug. “He didn’t want to be responsible to my parents if I chose climbing as a life path,” says Kellogg.
But it was too late. Kellogg was hooked. But as hard as the years that led up to his first attempt in 2010 were, things actually got worse for Kellogg personally after his first Everest bid. According a mountaineer who’s active in the Seattle alpine scene, Kellogg buried himself even more deeply in climbing—both the source of and the respite from everything that had happened to him over the years.
Housing starts were off, which made it harder to repay those credit card bills; an Internet stalker who is hell-bent on discrediting any and all speed records set by Kellogg wasn’t making it any easier to land sponsorship deals. Well aware of the disagreement among the mountaineering community about what does and does not constitute an official speed record, Kellogg has stopped trying to defend against the claims and now says, “Just spell my name right.”
His only solace was training and climbing. In 2011, Kellogg and Gottlieb completed a new rock-and-ice line on the sheer south face of Nepal’s Pangbuk Ri (21,736 feet) that took 50 hours, without sleep, to complete. That spring, Nordstrom asked whether he might have another attempt at Everest in him. Nordstrom knew Kellogg wanted to try again, but wouldn’t come to him hat in hand. “He had a hard time even getting around to the ask,” says Nordstrom. “I finally had to ask him if he wanted us to help with the trip.”
“I obsess about my projects,” says Kellogg. Of course he had another attempt in him. But even though Nordstrom agreed to kick in even more cash than he did the first time, he’d still have to go deeply into debt again—which he did—to pull it off. “I might lose my house on this expedition,” he says.
On May 18, 2011 he badly tore his calf muscle while guiding and immediately began rehabbing. His new girlfriend left him. He moved out of his house, rented it, and became semi-nomadic—healing and training by going on a year-long climbing trip that started in Nepal, continued to the Canadian Rockies, then on to Patagonia (where he summited Cerro Torre on the same January day that David Lama made his free ascent of the Compressor Route) and finished back on Aconcagua just in time to fly to Nepal.
“HE WASN’T LOOKING very Olympic when I saw him,” says David Morton, another of the Seattle-based First Ascents West Ridge climbers who I’m living with in Base Camp. A few days earlier this spring, he’d passed Kellogg humping loads to Camp II and noticed that he didn’t look well. In fact, Kellogg was fighting off the same upper-respiratory virus that he’d had in 2010. But he was resting and taking care of himself. He’d come back from much worse.
This year, his plan is more streamlined. He’ll drop minimal supplies—changes of boots and suits to help him deal with the decreasing temps higher on the mountain—and spend no more than a night or two at Camp III acclimatizing. Rather than rushing into the first weather window he encounters, he’ll wait until it gets warmer, when his body will be better able to use the minimal oxygen on the final leg of the journey. He’s shooting for May 19–20, which is an auspicious time according to the Buddhist calendar and includes a lunar eclipse. He’s ground down the soles of his boots and bolted crampons directly to them to save weight. Below the South Col, he’ll use Yaktrax rather than crampons at all.
Kellogg figures that if he leaves at 4 p.m., he’ll be able to climb the icefall in daylight and make it over the ladders and crevasses to Camp II by 8 p.m. He’ll spend a half-hour there eating, pounding water, and changing into heavier gear for the four-hour nighttime trip to Camp III, reaching it at midnight. Between camps, he’ll carry one liter of water, four Clif Shot Bloks, four meat sticks, and a Coke. If all goes according to plan, he’ll reach Camp IV by 3 a.m. There, he’ll change into his 8,000-meter boots and meet a Sherpa who’ll pace him to the summit over the next six–eight hours, which, he hopes, will put him on the summit in under 20 hours. The time he hopes to beat, remember, is 22:29 up and 36 roundtrip.