For Jeff Evans, life is coming full circle. Back in 2001, he made it to the top of Mt. Everest—a feat very few accomplish, with people dying every year trying. Now, as a medic and leader of a world-class high-altitude rescue team (which includes Sherpas and helicopter pilots), he’s revisiting the infamous mountain to save lives.
“There’s no doubt that Mount Everest casts a mystical net at those who have marveled at the idea of climbing the mountain,” said Evans. “Every person that decides to climb it has a deep-seated desire to push themselves—it’s an itch that has to be scratched. Leading an Everest rescue team was one of my most satisfying projects. Every day I witnessed an extraordinary group effort.”
You can see Jeff and his team in action on the Travel Channel’s new show Everest Air—a six-part special event—that airs tomorrow, Wednesday October 26th at 10pm ET/PT.
But first, check out our Q&A with Evans below.
*This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
Men’s Fitness: In the time that you’ve been doing these rescue missions, is there one particular day or rescue that stands out to you as the most insane?
Jeff Evans: The day that really stands out to me as the most dynamic and the most memorable is the day [near the end of the series] I think we did twelve rescues in one day. So many people were coming down from being hammered for days and days and your body is trying to check out and I could see that was happening. We knew this was going to happen, we knew the weather was bad. We knew there were a lot of teams in trouble so we just moved me up from just under 10,000 feet up to Base Camp which is 17,500. I took a black sharpie and I wrote on the top of my hand the time: I remember writing like 8:15 or something. [That’s so that if] I, the guy that’s not on oxygen who’s is no longer acclimated for 17,000 feet, passed out they can have an idea of how long I’ve been up there.
That day we landed in the morning and I went up to camp 2 with one of the pilots maybe 2 different times and then came back down and then they continued to just run missions up and down and up and down and up and down all day long just dropping people at my feet and then I would do what I can.
I would move some over to the Everest ER which was about a hundred yards away, a good 15 minute walk on that terrain and then they get dropped off and get back here or if they are critical we would take them straight to the hospital and we would just have multiple helicopters going. It was just intense. Every moment was intense. It was either receiving patients, picking up patients, treating patients, or funneling them down the valley.
MF: What’s it like for you going through all that after having summiting yourself in 2001? How does it feel for you now that you’re protecting others and keeping others safe after you were once on the other side of it?
JE: It’s a bit of a bittersweet thing. Because I’m a climber, I like to be on the sides of the mountains and summiting and seeing what my body and my brain can do. I’ve always done that my whole life. So it was a little bit tough for me to not be the guy climbing, but how do I justify that and understand that I’m there to be of service to these folks who are going through this journey, this transformational adventure that I went through at one time so I can relate to them?
I know what they’ve been through and I know how bad it hurts and so I can justify the fact that “hey, I’m not up there climbing but I’m doing something that’s bigger than that,” which is working with an amazing team that are all there to serve someone else other than themselves and that made me sleep well every night knowing that we were there to serve other people when they needed us and so in my ‘dang I wish I was up there,’ moments, I can justify it, like it’s okay man. We’re doing something that’s greater than that: Helping people when they’re hurting.
MF: Can you talk about the level of fitness that a guy needs to have and what type of fitness—whether it’s endurance, strength, a combination in order to make it safely on an expedition and end up, hopefully not needing medical attention?
JE: That’s a great question and the ideal is to avoid us, right? You don’t want to see us. There’s a lot of layers to it and everybody takes a different approach. The one thing that I can say is that we all acclimate differently. It comes down to how your body handles these higher pressures, lower oxygen availability and then how your body handles moving the fluids around in your body.
Because when things go bad it’s when the fluids build up in your brain or in your lungs, right? Some folks will acclimatize very very quickly. I’m not very good at many things but that is the one thing that I’m pretty good at. I acclimatize well. A lot of my buddies do, but then on the other side there’s folks who don’t acclimatize that well no matter what their level of fitness is and the reason is because a lot of acclimatization is what your mom and daddy gave you. A lot of it is genetic. So all of that has to be the backdrop of training and conditioning for something like this. It’s understanding that there’s obviously some tricks to optimize your body’s performance when it comes to acclimatizing but there’s some of it that is just out of your control.
So how do you train? I always try to really reinforce long, long days. I’m talking like 8 to 10 to 12 hour days minimum when you’re training and it’s tough for folks that live in an urban setting to do that so you have to get out of the city and you have to be able to just charge in the hills for double digit hours with little stops here and there training, using the same techniques that you would usually use when you’re climbing—for instance grazing throughout the day. Not just sitting down and eating a big meal but like snack, snack, snack—lots of calories and protein throughout the day and simple sugars. Also, hydration: Not just sitting and gulping but trying to sip throughout the day.
Then of course is the strength. It took me a lot of trial and error to figure out that upper body strength is important. You can’t forget about it but obviously it’s also about squats. It’s about kettle bell throws. It’s about core. Basically I look at it from everything from your pecs all the way down to your toes and increasing core strength. Increasing your quad strength and the collaborative muscle strength in your hamstrings as well as your quads. I started doing squats half way through my mountaineering career. I noticed a massive difference in my ability to go longer throughout the day.
I neglected that for years and I’d be pretty tired at the end of the day. Now, I do 3 sets of 20 single leg isometric squats pretty much 5 days a week and I work on my core strength. Once I started doing that I noticed massive improvements in my ability to go longer and just go stronger. Because really what that’s doing is strengthening your quads, your glutes, your calves, coming up on your toes. It was a game changer for me and so I really recommend everybody do that. I just got back from Kilimanjaro about a week ago and I had all twenty clients doing single leg squats 3 sets of 20, and I got 19 of 20 to the top. Not because of that but that definitely helped.
MF: You kind of answered my next question which was what you’re fitness routine looks like but it sounds like you kind of practice what you preach and you do all that yourself.
JE: Yeah. And I cross train. I think it’s really important because when somebody tries to kick off, like I want to go climb Mount Everest or I want to go climb Kilimanjaro, the focus is on just hiking with weight or climbing or doing mountains. I think it’s really important to cross train. So I mountain bike a lot as well and trail run. Mountain biking is one of the best [forms of] cross training because you are working on your hams and your quads and your calves. You’re strengthening your ankles as well which I think is really important with mountaineering. It gets neglected, ankle strength, and I think that that’s something that no one really thinks about but boy it really comes into play as you’re trying to cross a ladder and you’re broke off and tired and exhausted and your legs are wobbling. You need that ankle strength to support you. And that uneven terrain if you step wrong and roll your ankle. If you have a weak ankle it’s going to break. So keep it strong.
And then I have to add this one thing too. Mountaineering is about 60% strength and conditioning and endurance and about 40% mind power.
Some people might even flip that. Some people can train and train but they just don’t didn’t have the bandwidth in their brain. I saw it last spring—they just gave up. You have to want it. You have be willing to suffer. You have to have your brain wired to be able to knuckle down and take it because it’s going to hurt and except that. How much discomfort can you manage?
That’s what it really comes down to. How well do you manage pain and discomfort.
MF: Is there anything that you think that viewers will be surprised by when they watch this special on the Travel Channel?
JE: When people tune in to this they’re going to probably be thinking that it’s a rescue team just going off and plucking off a bunch of very rich, entitled folks in their shiny gear on Mount Everest and it is very far from that. Yes we do a fair bit of that—there were definitely a number of rescues that we’re plucking off westerners that were in big trouble—but over half of our rescues were with locals.
We went up valley, down valley. We rescued folks that were miles away from Everest. A local woman fell out of a tree from like 40 feet up and broke her back and couldn’t walk and she was dying and we went and picked her up and put her in a helicopter and took her to a neurosurgery unit in Kathmandu. Another Nepali woman had a miscarriage the night before and she was hemorrhaging. We went and picked her up and helped control her bleeding and took her straight to an OBG-YN. So I think folks will be surprised that, especially from the Travel Channel perspective, this isn’t the glorification of death and fear and all the sort of … The dark side of Everest. But in fact this is a show that focuses on a really solid performing team going out and being a part of this community and that includes locals, Sherpas, climbers, the entire valley up and down.