013: Astronaut & Doctor Scott Parazynski
Scott Parazynski is a marvel of accomplishment. He was raised overseas before coming back to the states and attending Stanford. He then went on to become a doctor at that same university before being admitted into NASA program to become an astronaut. A veteran of five space shuttle flights and seven spacewalks, Parazynski’s latest mission was in October, 2007 – highlighted by a dramatic, unplanned EVA to repair a live solar array. He retired from NASA in March 2009 to pursue opportunities in the private sector. He is the only person to have both flown in space and summited Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. Wow, could Scott do anymore than this? Yes. Listen to the podcast and find out. Rockstar!
We have an epic guest. This guy’s name is Scott Parazynski. I’ve met and been around a lot of super impressive people in my day but this guy might be at the top of the list. Grew up overseas, Tehran, Beirut and Greece. He ended up going to Stanford. He was down there for ten years. He became a medical student and then entered the NASA program, applied because of his wide-range and different skills that he had. They wanted to bring him aboard. He has been in space. He spent over 40 hours doing spacewalks, multiple missions, hung out with John Glenn. He was the coach of the Olympic team for the Philippines in the Luge and then of all things, he is out climbing mountains. He has done the high mountain fourteener in Colorado and did Mount Everest. It took him twice to do that. We go through each one of these different things, these different phases of his life. I love hearing the stories of these guys with accomplishment. Like me and everybody else, you go through a few hard knocks but it’s what you learn and what you take away from that as you go forward. It’s such a pleasure to speak with Scott. You’re going to love this episode. As always, just remember to go out, rate and review. We love it. We love the love and it really helps us in terms of the rankings. If you can do that through iTunes, it is greatly appreciated.
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Astronaut & Doctor Scott Parazynski
I’m talking to one of the most talented guys I have ever come across. Scott Parazynski is with us. To give you a little setup, this guy is an astronaut, a medical doctor. He has climbed Everest. He has been all over the world. I just found out he also was a coach in the Olympics for Luge for the Philippine team. Scott, I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “Mark, very impressive what you’ve done over your time. Playing in NFL, starting these different businesses, starting one venture backed, selling it and climbing the Seven Summits.” I’ve always taken it, “I feel like I haven’t really done anything.”
I’m not worthy, Mark, but mutual admiration, absolutely. I’m honored to be on your show. This is going to be a lot of fun.
I am talking to you from The Pacific Palisades in California, you’re in Houston and that I’m sure has tie with your astronaut stuff. I was digging into everything you’ve been doing and where you’re from. I just really want to understand, you’re such a driven guy and that doesn’t just happen out of the blue. There must be a drive and the first thing that really jumped off the page to me was here’s a guy that didn’t have the all-American grew up experience in Cleveland, Ohio or somewhere in Michigan or in my case, Seattle. You grew up in all parts of the world, Beirut, who does that? The Senegal, dangerous spots too.
Some of them were and we didn’t know it of course when we moved there. We thought, “How exciting would this be to live in West Africa or in the Middle East. At that time when we moved there, they were wonderfully safe dramatic places to go live. Then after we arrived in Beirut for example, we had to evacuate after six months because the Civil War began. When my folks decided, “They’re opening up a new office in Tehran, Iran, let’s go check that out.” A few months after we arrived there, the same thing happened. A bunch of my friends actually joked. They thought that my dad worked for the CIA because we’re always moving to these places that trouble would erupt. My dad assures me that that wasn’t the case.
What did he do?
He sold aircraft for the Boeing airplane company. We have a Seattle tie in common actually, Mark. Boeing is a very international company and my folks we’re very, very adventurous. I think that’s what set me up in the path that I’ve taken in my life. Life is an incredible gift. It’s an adventure to be savored and pursued. Also the sense of curiosity that’s driven me to try new things, be willing to fail every once in a while.
[Tweet “Life is an incredible gift. It’s an adventure to be savored and pursued.”]
I’m trying to find where you did fail. Finding Your Summit is really about that whole we’ve got different segments in life. You’re a high achiever and have done some things too but everybody has got their story. It’s not just about you’re in space and doing this other amazing things but it’s also about how you had to overcome these different journeys. I’m interested to get into that. Now, you’re living in different parts of the world and your high school years were overseas or in the States?
They’re overseas. I spent most of my time in Athens, Greece and then I spent the first part of my senior year in Tehran, which is right at the start of the Islamic Revolution. A bad time to be there, late ’78. That was one of the big challenges that I had to overcome growing up is moving every few years. You’ve got to pick up, meet new friends, adjust into a new environment. It’s really difficult going through it at that time but it gave me the skill set that I think has really helped me as an entrepreneur and as a business person. Being able to speak to a lot of different people, to relate to people, but it was hard as a kid doing that.
Did you play sports?
I did. Basketball and track were my main sports. I actually tried to play football. I was horrible failure at it. I’ll be perfectly honest. I didn’t grow up playing football. Senior year when we arrived in Iran, they actually had football teams. I was pretty fast and athletic so I tried out for the team and they said, “You’re pretty lanky and long, why don’t you try and be a wide receiver?” I found out that I have a really serious self-protection instinct. Whenever guys start to run at me, I would wince and I was a pretty easy guy to catch. I was not the best football player. They ended up making me a nose guard and I was the kicker. I had a pretty good leg. That’s all I could ever do in your sport.
We actually have something in common. Actually, I was the same way too. I would wince as people come up to me. The only difference is that I could outrun the field. It sounds like I’m not sure you could. That’s the only thing that kept going on my end. I always believed that sports really is the unifier in a lot of cases. A new kid comes into town and it’s hard to integrate especially when these guys have been around and hanging out together for all those years and then you insert yourself into a sports team and just bonds instantly.
Basketball and track, I was able to do that. I really have a great connection there and I felt part of a team. All the things that I’ve done in my life and I’m sure in your life as well, you recognized that the really great accomplishments or achievements in life don’t come as a solo accomplishment. They’re part of a team. That shared experience is the things that I cherished the most.
[Tweet “The really great accomplishments or achievements in life don’t come as a solo accomplishment.”]
Was it in 1979 that the Iranian hostage crisis came to be? Had you moved out of there by then or we’re you still in Tehran?
We had left in December of ’78. I guess it was early spring of ’79 when the Shah left the country and when they took the hostages. In fact, the superintendent of my school, William Keough, is one of the hostages that was held for 440 somewhat days in captivity. Really an extraordinary time in history for sure.
I can’t even imagine that. As I’ve said, I’m in Southern California right now and the street that’s just outside the fence here is Sunset. Back in the day the Shah, when he left, he actually came to the States and was living on Sunset. I can’t remember if the house was still there or not but I remember years ago, I’d dropped by it and the place had been torched. I can’t even imagine in the States, it seems to be there’s isolated incidence of that and then just watching the whole thing play out on TV and then when Reagan came to the office, how everything switched over. Crazy time.
For a young kid, being immortalized as we thought we were back then, it was really an adventure for me. Living in Beirut, Lebanon as we had earlier during the beginnings of the Civil War there, it was really exciting to know that history is happening around the transition. My parents were just completely beside themselves fearing that I would get into some trouble or get into a place where I shouldn’t be. I had a pretty good street sense early on back then.
After your freshman year of your high school, you moved back to the States and where did you land? Houston?
I moved back after my senior year of high school, we moved to Seattle actually, Bellevue, Washington. It was from there that I went down to California for college. I spent my college years down at Stanford.
I grew up in Seattle and I went to the University of Washington in the big high school there. My house actually looked right across Lake Washington right at Bellevue. To your point, back in the day, the only thing that kept the lights on Seattle really was Boeing and now it’s become such an entrepreneurial community with Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks and Expedia, a huge tech hub. You go to Stanford and I think you and I are roughly in the same era. You might be a year or two older but back in the day, John Elway was the quarterback. I would have loved to go in Stanford and that didn’t play out that way. I had a scholarship offer to Cal but Stanford, it’s interesting. I have this conversation a lot with my buddies and I actually travelled to UCLA, Jim Mora is my best friend at the football team and I serve in a mentorship role with them. The question for me, and there is no right answer here, but besides all the top schools that are up there, the Michigan, the Alabama, the LSU, Washington, and USC, schools like UCLA, if there is one or two schools that you could take on your list that you went to or you got an offer to and you would bypass going to a school of higher stature in terms of football-wise, where would you go? My answer for me, there’s two schools. One is Stanford and the other one is Harvard. There’s just something about you graduating from there. It’s on your resume. It just sets you up down the road.
I got rejected from Harvard so it wasn’t an option for me.
You did your undergrad there. Tell me about your medical pursuits. Why was there an interest for you in that field?
My grandfather who I never met actually, he passed actually before my parents were married. He was an ophthalmologist but my grandmother was a nurse and the stories that she would tell and my family would tell about the capacity to help other people in a time of crisis really resonated with me. I wanted to do something that would in some way benefit other people. It seemed to be a noble profession, which I still think even though it’s a lot harder to practice today for a lot of reasons. We can have a whole other podcast on healthcare and the challenges in it. I think it’s a wonderful profession. I set my sights on doing that. The more I got involved, I realized that I really wanted to not just help the patients that might be directly in front of me but to have some scale to it. Are the things that I can invent, is the research that I can do that would benefit an even larger number of people? That set the bit for me to become an inventor and a product developer trying to have some scale.
Did you go to Stanford Medical School?
I did. I was a lucky guy. I spent ten years in Palo Alto on the farm we called it. I really loved that life experience. It was great to have Elway there during my ten-year as well. We didn’t win all that many games but the games were always exciting.
One of my first games, I was playing down there and we were ranked number one of the country and Elway just went off like he could. I remember, Sports Illustrated was there and they showed a shot, I was on the ground trying to catch him. Actually it wasn’t him, there was a punt return and I was on the punt team. I was down there and the shot was this kid running past me as my head is buried in the grass and the big clump on the top of my helmet. I was like, “That’s not the way to start my college sports career,” but that’s the way it played. There are all these different lanes, verticals, whatever you want to call it within medical school, what was your specialty?
I ended up training in Emergency Medicine and Trauma. I was really interested in, at that point even back then, becoming an astronaut. Clinically, I was most interested actually in neurosurgery. I had had a chance to do a rotation in neurosurgery. I got the chance to work with some amazing surgeons and help people in real crisis and it really resonated with me. I was thinking clinically, I should go and do that but I realized that if I wanted to become an astronaut, it’s a really bad day if they need a brain surgeon in space. I chose something that I also enjoyed but was broader in its applicability, which is Emergency Medicine.
Were you already thinking in terms of that connection point of wanting to become an astronaut even though you were in medical school?
Yeah. Since I could walk and talk, I was fascinated with the Space Program. My dad worked on the Apollo Program when I was very, very young. I had a front row seat to the Apollo launches that first landed man on the moon and actually saw Apollo 9 launch as a young kid. I had that faraway dream of maybe one day travelling in space. I knew it was longshot. What are the things that I could do to increase my odds of becoming an astronaut but also have not a fallback career but something that I would really enjoy doing? That was medicine for me.
How do you become an astronaut? I want to go and I want to do that hypothetically. Is there like a you go online in NASA and there’s a little PDF that you fill out and send in and they take applicants or how does that work?
It’s a self-selecting thing. I would imagine preparing yourself for that faraway goal of becoming an NFL professional athlete. I don’t know what the odds are, 1 in 10,000. It’s really long odds to become a professional athlete. You have to have innate ability, drive, determination and then you’ve got to apply it over a long period of time. For me, the foundation of it is every two to four years, there would be a national callout and you could submit an application to NASA based on a background in Science or Engineering. Each time they would have lots and lots of applicants. They would select a limited number of people based on the needs that the program had at that time. Astronauts are physicians, they’re engineers, they’re scientists, they’re pilots and they like to have a mix of those skills. I didn’t serve as an astronaut just as a physician. I was a spacewalker and a robotosist and a Space Shuttle flight engineer. I operated all sorts of different experiments not just in life sciences but you have to wear lots of different hats. I did combustion physics experiments, material science and many different things. NASA would hire people who have demonstrated aptitude as members of teams but who had also shown a broad skill set. For me, that was really exciting to be able to get a chance to learn about lots of different fields and contribute in lots of different areas of science.
I would say that makes sense to me just based on my limited knowledge, if you’re up in space and you need a guy to be a handyman who can do it all. Different things come up and I would imagine you just need to have a wide-range skill set to take those issues, technical difficulties or just commanding the Endeavour or fly it back, right?
Yeah. They’re looking for people who have MacGyver type skills that are comfortable with uncertainty because things aren’t always going to work the way that you anticipate before the mission. There are going to be curveballs there thrown at you. Being comfortable in uncertainty and being a really strong member of a team, those are the requirements.
You must be one of the few guys in the planet to ever go to medical school and go down that path and then make the leap over to becoming an astronaut.
A buddy of mine, Bernard Harris, he is one of my mentors actually. He became the very first African-American to walk in space. He actually later went on to become a venture capitalist and just a really great technologist as well, a brilliant guy. He and I were talking about this and I think there maybe have been about sixteen physician astronauts. The very first was Joe Kerwin during the Skylab Program and then there had been a number since then.
Now, you’re up in space and let’s talk about what a spacewalker is. I know you’ve had 40 hours plus in space walking around. I just can’t imagine what that is. I think I heard one story where you were tethered on some 90-foot thrust or something at the end of this thing. It’s the farthest at that time that anybody had ever been away from the mother ship. I’m trying to understand because most people haven’t been in a situation where there’s no gravity. You have the ability to float. If you were to unhook, you’d be at Saturn or someplace right now. I’m trying to understand what that sensation is like, number one. Number two is, when you’re out there actually in space, you go, you open the door, you jump out and you’re out there, is it exciting? Is it scary? What are those emotions that you’re going to through?
Walking in space is the ultimate astronaut experience. In fact, in my life there’s nothing that compares. It’s the most exhilarating, incredible, life experience that I can possibly imagine. You’re actually outside on your own personal spaceship. They built a spacecraft around you. Everything that you need to sustain life in a space shuttle or a space station has to be on your back or around you because you’re in the vacuum of space. When you’re in direct sunlight, it’s 300 degrees above zero when you are in orbital night behind the Earth and in shadow 200 degrees below zero. You have this incredible temperature shift in one orbit of the Earth. Every 90 minutes, you go around the planet. You’re just looking through a thin visor out of the enormity of the Universe. You’re not really walking, you’re actually crawling. You’re holding on to handrails and propelling yourself around that side of the Space Station or as what you’re describing, being out on the end of the robotic boom, in a foot restraint, your feet are planted in the plate and they swing you around like on a cherry picker out to the very tip of the Space Station. It’s like an out of body experience. There’s no way to really do the experience justice. To see continents almost in a single glance, to see the Southern Lights from that vantage point. You actually fly through them in your spaceship. It’s crazy. It’s so beautiful. It’s interesting after a while, after training that spacesuit becomes an extension of your body. You’ve worn all sorts of gear out in the field, I’m sure after a while you don’t even think about all the stuff that you got on you. It just is part of your exoskeleton and you just go about your thing. After a lot, lot of training, that sensation happens too and you feel like you’re just unencumbered zooming through the universe. It’s pretty cool.
Are you actually hooked in somewhere?
We have a safety tether reel. It’s steel braided cable basically on a spring that’s supposed to retract. In one of my spacewalks, it didn’t retract and they were concerned that I was going to get all tied up and it could have been a really bad day quite honestly. You have a safety tether reel that always hooked to your spacecraft and even when you’re out on the end of a robotic boom, you’ll be tethered in some way. If you lost your grip on the space station, you could pull yourself back to safety. We also have a Buzz Lightyear jet backpack. In a really bad day, if our tether would break or something like that, we could pull out, it’s like an Xbox controller and fire some jets and fly ourselves back to the Space Station.
This reminds me a little bit, and I’m sure Hollywood makes it much more dramatic than what it really is but there’s a movie with Matt Damon, and they crashed on Mars or someplace; The Martian. They all take off and then he has all these characteristics and attributes that sounds like you have, which is sustain life and make water and grow plants and all these different things and trying to figure out how he can stay alive until the ship can come back and rescue him. I love that movie. I think he did a great job and it was just fascinating. If you put yourself in that position, what would you do?
[Tweet “Nothing is a greater motivator than necessity.”]
Nothing is a greater motivator than necessity. That was a great movie that highlighted creativity and problem solving. Some of the assumptions that went into that movie, it’s a little bit tough for a guy like me to look at a movie like Gravity or Armageddon where they really stretched the bounds of physics and chemistry and things like that. I thought The Martian was very, very well done. I really enjoyed it.
What’s it like to reenter the atmosphere?
The Space Shuttle is actually pretty benign. We have atrophy of our body even though we’re a couple of weeks in space. We don’t have to work against gravity, we don’t have to carry our bodies upright. Our heart doesn’t have to pump against gravity either. Our strength is actually moderately reduced by the time we come back home even though we exercise about 45 minutes every day. The G-force on our body, it’s about 1.5 Gs from our head down to our toes. We wore a G-suit that squeezes our belly and our legs that keeps the blood circulating in our system so the pilots upfront can’t land the Space Shuttle. You feel reasonably healthy after landing. It takes a few minutes before your gyro has settled down before you stand up and try and get out of your seat.
The real challenge though is for the poor folks that come back from the International Space Station. They spent six or more months up there. My friend, Scott Kelly, just spent 340 days up there. That’s a long time without gravity. They come back under four to five Gs of acceleration really violent. The spacecraft is swaying underneath the parachutes and it slams down onto the hard dirt of Kazakhstan and the most likely greeting committee is some camel herders. It’s a very different kind of welcome back home.
You’ve been on the Endeavour though where it comes back from space, and it lands in California?
It landed a couple of times in California at the Edwards Air Force Base. Three of my flights, we landed at the Kennedy Space Center and we have basically a five-mile long runway there. That’s how we would come back home.
How fast do you fly when you come in?
The equivalent air speed is Mach 25 or 25 times the speed of sound. You’re hurling around the planet at 17,500 miles an hour and what we do is we slow the ship down slightly to then start to interact with as it reaches the atmosphere. We slam through the atmosphere using the tiles on the belly of the Orbiter. That’s why we feel the 1.5 Gs. We’re coming down through the atmosphere and it creates this fireball outside. It’s really brilliant orange. It’s an incredible view out the windows. After that, once we’re down into the thicker parts of the atmosphere, the aerosurfaces of the shuttle start to move again. We can use elevons and the rudder and we use a speed brake to also slow down. It’s coming more like a glider than anything else. It’s a glider that flies more or less like a piano or a brick. It has very limited liftover drag. It’s coming down very, very steeply, very, very fast about 300 knots on short final. About 2,000 feet above the ground, the Commander will nose the shuttle up a little bit and then will lower the landing gear. We land at about 200 knots which is much faster than even fighter aircrafts have. You are really zooming.
Last space question here. I admire and look up to people who have gone before me always. A guy that, I’m not sure if he is a mentor to you or just a guy that you happen to interact with and certainly he gives you an endorsement on your book which is called The Sky Below, John Glenn. What’s he like?
He’s one of greatest Americans of our time. I miss him dearly. He and I really got to know each other when he came back to fly aboard the Space Shuttle at age 77. This is a guy that was my boyhood hero. He was the very first American to orbit the Earth. President Kennedy actually told him, “You’re such a national icon. You can’t fly again.” He took the hint and what are you going to do? He reinvented himself. He became a politician, served nobly for four terms in the United States Senate. Even was a contender for the presidency at one time. I won’t get into politics. Stay away from that taboo subject. That’s a topic for another time.
He was just a wonderful man. One of the things I really admired about him deeply is his humility and his willingness to just chip in and be one of the crew. He was of course revered by all of us but when he first came into our office as the crew who’s assigned, he said to all of us, “If any of you guys call me Senator Glenn, I’m going to ignore you. I’m just John or Payload Specialist Number 2.” He didn’t want any fanfare, any special attention and he wanted to contribute to even just the simple housekeeping chores around the Space Shuttle. He didn’t want to just be on the flight to do his science. He wanted to chip in and do everything that he could to help the mission to be successful. Just an incredible role model not only to me as a boy but also as a much older now retired astronaut. We can contribute significantly throughout the course of our lives. John took great risks at age 77 returning to space but he did so because he wanted to further Science. This goes to show that we can be real contributors in life even well into our 70’s and 80’s.
My grandfather was like this, I will be like this. I will never ever, ever retire. You literally throw dirt on me as I’m doing something. It’s impossible for me to do that. We all have to be very purposeful in what we’re doing. I just believe that you need to have that drive and that goal and that whatever you’re doing, get up in the morning and get after it. Another thing just a side note here, a side rift, I’ve had people compliment me on some of the things I’ve done. You’re probably the same way, which is I never get up in the morning and go and look in front of the mirror and look at that guy that I’m staring at and say, “You’re one impressive dude.” I don’t look at myself. I haven’t accomplished near enough and I look back and that’s just stuff in the rearview mirror. I don’t dwell on it. Everything is out in front of me. I’m inspired by guys like you and others who there are things that are my personal aspirations. I think that’s what keeps you going. You’re talking about at the age of 77, I feel like I can go to 100. I’m just starting.
You always have incredible gratitude for the good fortune that you’ve had in your life as well. For me it’s like, “How can I earn the oxygen that I breathe? How can I pay it forward?” I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I want to continue to contribute to society in the best ways that I can in trying to find the best areas for me to focus my energies. First off, I’m very grateful that I was born an American, lived to be a in a country that dream big and had the opportunities for me to pursue my ultimate dreams of flying in space. A country that takes big risks and is willing to invest in things that are important for humanity. I hope we don’t lose that spirit. That I think is part of the American fabric but again, I’ll avoid politics.
I want to jump over into your mountain climbing pursuits. You’re a guy who has climbed Everest two times to get up and you’ve climbed all 53 fourteeners in Colorado. Does that sound right?
The lists vary but somebody decided, “They are actually 59 if you count the sub-peaks” and so I said, “I’ve got to climb those other six too.” I went and topped out on those peaks as well. It’s an amazing way to see the State of Colorado.
I don’t need to do all 53 or 59 as you described it but there are definitely some that I have in my bucket list that I want to get to Colorado and do, a beautiful State of course. Let’s talk about Everest. Tell me what that was like for you. I’m planning to do Everest in 2019 and I have a lot of buddies growing up in the State of Washington. A very huge climbing community up there, spent a lot of time in all these different mountains, Rainier and others. I’ve had my sights set on this. I’ve been slowly going through the Seven and getting closer to that goal. Tell me what that was like for you to be on Everest and the whole experience?
I’m so excited for you, Mark. I know from your background that you are actually preparing to do this with great diligence and you’re not in a rush program to just bag a peak but it’s a journey for you and that’s really the right way to do it. I bet we know a lot of the same climbing community up in the Pacific Northwest. It’s really the epicenter of climbing in the United States. In fact, I ended up going to Everest with IMG, Eric Simonson and his team. Do you know Eric?
Yeah, and Phil Ershler. I’ve done all my climbs with IMG except for I was on Denali this last but they don’t have a license up there so I went through one of the guides for IMG that got leased out or whatever you want to call it.
[Tweet “The things that come as the toughest always mean the most to us.”]
I draw a lot of strength from my Everest experience. The first time I went in 2008, I didn’t make it to the top. In fact, it could have killed me. I made it up to Camp 3, which is about 24,500 feet-ish where we start to use supplemental oxygen. I had ruptured a disc in my low back. I didn’t have an MRI or a CAT scan but something was really amiss with my back. I was crippled in pain. I had to limp down from that point not knowing whether or not I’ll ever be able to return. I’ve already spent two months on the mountain basically acclimatizing and getting ready to go for the summit. We were on our summit push on Day 59 of the expedition. It was a gut-wrenching horrible time for me. I was able to come back home and I needed surgery to remove the disc out of my spine and within a couple of months, I was back at the gym and I still had it in me to go try it again. Fortunately, I was able to get back in 2009.
After another two months of pain and suffering, it’s a lot of work as you know high in the mountains there but I was able to top out on May 28, 2009 at 4 AM in the morning. I actually saw the sunrise from the top of the planet, which is really, really special. The thing that I bet you can resonate with is that the things that come to as the toughest always mean the most to us. The fact that I had to struggle up one more time, I had to figure out a way to get back to Everest the following year and repeat all the pain and suffering to attain the summit. Whenever I think I’m having a really tough day, I think back on my Everest years and you realize, I can deal with this. I can press on through and make whatever it is happen. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of examples of things that you’ve really had to work for that fall in that same category of injury or what have you.
Training camp; I’m trying to make it through six weeks and two days. My story is a little bit like yours on Denali this last May. The main difference, there are no Sherpas or porters, donkeys, anything else to take your stuff up so you’re dragging. Each guy had 126 pounds in their back going up the steepest 45-degree hills if that’s what you want to call them, the slopes. Put myself in a position like you. In this case, it’s 16,200 to make that summit and it was minus 60 at the top. It’s either two things as you know. It’s either going to be death or you’ll lose fingers and toes and that’s not an option. Mother Nature won on that round and just like it did. It sounds like it was a little bit more physical for you. The common thread there is the amount of work it took to get to that point, all the time spent on the mountain. Then you’ve got to go home and sure enough, I am going back in May 2018. It is what it is. I have to do it. Did you run into any craziness on your second time when you actually did summit in terms of horrific weather or avalanche, dangers or things like that beyond just the longevity that you have to be on the mountain and go through? Did you go through any kind of altitude issues?
I was very fortunate. I acclimatized very well and I didn’t have any issues either of my seasons on Everest. I dealt with a lot of altitude-related illness actually. As a physician, I treated mild acute pulmonary edema. I treated coronary insufficiency basically at a teammate who was probably not getting enough blood to his heart. He was developing shortness of breath and chest tightness. Your blood as you spend a lot of time up there, you get really sludge-like blood. You build lots and lots of red blood cells because the air is so thin up there. I think he might have been potentially about to have a heart attack so I had to send him down on aspirin and oxygen. There’s not a whole lot you can do for someone who is really, really ill up there. You can support them, you can help them as best as you can but you can’t carry someone down and that’s the thing that a lot of people don’t understand about a mountain like Everest.
It’s at the limit of human capacity to go up there. It’s a very unforgiving place. You need to be in peak physical condition. You need to be well-hydrated and well-nourished. The weather has to be perfect. You have to have strong teammates and looking out for one another. What you need to do is apply really good judgment. Obviously, you made the right call on Denali. I had to make that call on Everest my first time as well. I’m sure you have your wits about you and you make the right decision. There are people up there that have summit fever and it’s their life ambition. The only thing that they have their sights on is summiting. As Ed Viesturs would say, “It doesn’t really count unless you made it a round trip.” There are 250 plus probably close to 300 souls now that have perished on Mount Everest and over 64 years of climbing on Mount Everest, successful summits on Mount Everest.
I’ve climbed with Ed. That was a thrill for me. He is like John Glenn. We are about the same age but just fun to do that with him and engage with him and that was just a super fun day on Rainier. I knock on wood because it can always hit you. I haven’t yet had any altitude issues. Actually when I was on Aconcagua down in Argentina, almost 22,000 feet, I felt great. No issues. I was very blessed for that. Also in Denali like you, there was a guy that was right in front of me from a German team and he literally 30 feet away, he is there and he just fell over. He had a massive heart attack. It was just crazy to watch that play out. I went back with the NFL group and the Green Beret group last February with the project with Chris Long who plays for the Eagles now, last year was for the Patriots, Howie Long’s son. The Green Beret was with us. This guy just fall on a case of pulmonary edema and just literally collapsed and fell. He was in bad shape. He was taking shots of dex two days before at lower altitude. As a physician you understand that. It’s not like candy. This is real stuff.
On Everest also you’ll see, and you probably saw on Denali, daily avalanches. At least the Denali side is very, very dynamic. With global warming, there is weakening of the ice wall and so it’s a very dynamic area. In fact, in 2009 one of the avalanches swept down and killed a Sherpa climber and nearly killed two Austrian climbers that were with him. You can limit your risk to those things by trying to get through very early in the morning before the sun would hit the ice wall. You can’t entirely mitigate that risk.
I want to transition to the last point here. I grew up in the Northwest and did a lot of climbing and five or six years ago, I was going through a really tough time in my marriage and my relationship and certainly driven in a certain way. I need to go refill my bucket in a way that’s going to give me some joy and some happiness. That’s where this whole Seven Summit thing came about and I want to become the first NFL guy to do that. All these other things have now come out of it like this podcast. Nobody in the history of my family had ever been divorced. For me to be that first guy, this was humbling and hard and everything else. Everybody has got their thing. We call this podcast Finding Your Summit. For me, that was metaphorical in the sense of going through a rough personal time, which led me to the mountains which led me to a lot of clarity and peacefulness in terms of being out there and there’s no social media and phones. I don’t want to touch too far on this if you don’t want to go there but it sounds like you had some similar experience with your first wife and now you’re happily married to your second. Do you want to talk about that?
Talking about failures in life, we learn from them and they shape who we are. It’s easy to manage success but it’s how you work through the failures that defines who you are. It’s certainly one of the toughest moments or periods in my life was actually the dissolution of my first marriage. I have two beautiful wonderful kids. My daughter, Jenna, is actually autistic and that adds a degree of challenge and difficulty but she is an incredible joy in our lives. I do talk about that period of my life in a bit of detail but really, I never point fingers at anyone else at the things that haven’t gone well in my life. I talk about what I’ve learned my own failings. I take responsibility for the decisions I made and the mistakes that I made and that was the kind of theme that I wanted to have for my book.
We’re in some sense two birds of the same feather and I agree with that. I don’t believe the people that play the victim role. I take for responsibility for the part that I played. It takes two always. Whether it’s that or a business I have started and things don’t go right, you’ve got to take responsibility. Like you’ve said, it’s the things that you’ve learned that you take away in your next venture, in your next thing and better perspective and insights and vision that just makes you a better person and more successful the next time around.
Recovering from that and then also finding the love of my life, Meena. My life is really beyond wonderful. I just pinch myself everyday that we were able to find each other. She is a kindred spirit of mine. She is a hiker, climber and just great with the kids. It’s a journey for sure.
We had a quick chat and it sounds like she was in an accident. I’m sure that must have just ripped your heart apart. Fortunately, you were able to get her back here to the States in a great hospital and she is doing fantastic now, right?
She is doing amazing well. She is a planetary scientist. She was doing field research in Iceland, a very, very remote Iceland and was involved in an automobile accident. She is the backseat passenger and was ejected from the car, a horrific potential for injury. She ended up with a fractured pelvis and many other fractures and was life-flighted to Reykjavik. We eventually got her to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where she had a definitive surgery. Now, I’ve got her back home here in Houston in rehabilitation and physical therapy. She’ll be back in about six months back running. She has already decided she wants to join a half marathon and get back into doing triathlon so watch out.
Scott Parazynski and his book is The Sky Below. Scott is such a remarkable guy. Thank you so much. I will throw out and invite for you to be on my Denali expedition next May if you’re game for that.
I might take you up on that. That would be wonderful. I made it up to 18K on Denali when I had to turn back for whinging weather. It’s still on my bucket list. Maybe we can do that.
We need to get that done. Jim Mora will be on that climb too. It will be a lot of fun. Scott, thank you so much.
I really enjoyed it. Thanks a lot, Mark.
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