An NFL player’s incredible journey to the top of the world

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Mark Pattison was in big trouble. The kind where your next move can determine whether you live or die.

It was May 23 and the former NFL wide receiver had just reached the top of Mount Everest. But standing on top of the world’s highest peak is only half the challenge; going down can be just as difficult.

Pattison’s crew had taken too long to reach the top and begin their descent. He was running almost sleepless and on an empty stomach. He had gone snow blind in one eye. His oxygen was empty. Exhausted, he could only take a few steps at a time. Hundreds of yards in front of him, his guide was advancing, too far to hear Pattison’s calls.

It would be a bit too much to say that at that point Pattison drew inspiration from his football experiences to move him forward. But he found something in himself to keep going, tapping into the same well of inner strength that once helped him make his way to the 1986 Oakland Raiders roster.

“When you are focusing on something, when you have to do something against all odds,” he says, “that’s when you have to push yourself. You can rise to levels you never knew you had if you have a strong purpose and are passionate about it. “

Based on the numbers alone, Pattison hasn’t carved out a distinguished career in the NFL. He played for three teams – Raiders, Rams, Saints – over the course of three years. He caught 14 passes for 170 yards in 18 regular season games and one wildcard game.

Then again, based on the numbers alone, the 29,032-foot height of Mount Everest equates to a long walk along the beach. Numbers alone cannot measure intensity, difficulty or heart. The numbers can’t keep up with the willpower it takes to reach NFL land or to stand on top of the world.

Pattison’s journey to conquer Everest began on March 30, when he left America for Nepal. He is said to be hiking to raise funds and raise awareness about Higher Ground, a veterans organization, and his daughter Emilia and epilepsy research. And he would follow the whole trip on his and.

In Nepal, Pattison had to prepare for the altitude and weather, and made her way from Kathmandu to base camp on April 12. As he climbed, he could hear avalanches rumbling in the distance, a daily reminder of the threat and might of Everest. .

From base camp, Pattison hopped up the mountain, camp to camp. He trained with ladders and rope, scaling 60-foot-high walls of ice – a challenge at sea level, a decisive test at 20,000 feet. All the while, Pattison was getting more and more used to the altitude, building red blood cells and helping her body understand that oxygen was now a precious commodity.

What he saw further than he rode impressed and humbled him.

“Base camp and Camps 1, 2 and 3 are in good condition,” he said. “Camp 4 is like Mars. You see dented tents everywhere. I slept two meters from a tent where people who died on May 12 were lying next to me.

Pattison crammed into a small tent with two other people, wrapped up tightly, and tried to sleep as much as he could. He and his 22-member team (11 climbers, 11 Sherpas) were scheduled to leave for the summit at 12:30 a.m. local time on May 23.

Under normal circumstances, climbers wake up an hour before departure to eat, prepare their boots and oxygen equipment, and prepare for the ascent. Time is of the essence of a summit of Everest; the unpredictability of the winds and the narrow window of daylight at the top mean every minute lost is a minute closer to disaster.

But that morning the problems started right off the bat, starting with the crew not waking up until 20 minutes before departure. There was no option to delay the climb – Pattison and his crew had to leave immediately, which meant he could only knock down a cereal bar for the biggest and most difficult climb in the world. his life.

“I was not organized,” he says. “I had no intention of attacking the mountain.”

Just after midnight on the 23rd, Pattison got out of his tent and, shortly after, walked into the teeth of a 40mph wind. In less than an hour, tiny windblown ice crystals sliced ​​through his left eye, leaving him blind to the snow in that eye.

“From the moment you leave the camp, you go straight up,” he said. “It doesn’t bend or flatten out. There is no relief for someone who has not had much sleep and nothing to eat. I was sucking candy to help me with my energy, but I really struggled.

It is impossible to overstate the risks involved in climbing Everest, even under the best of circumstances. The cliffs drop thousands of feet just steps from the ropes. Cracks in oblivion dot the road to the summit. The weather can trap climbers at the top of the mountain, freezing them where they huddle. And at more than five miles above sea level, rescue is impossible, as is retrieving the bodies of fallen climbers. They remain there to this day, macabre kilometer markers perfectly preserved on the way to the mountain.

The stiffness of the climb and the hunger that gnawed at him in his guts, made Pattison consider again and again to turn around and return to camp. He was having more and more difficulty hanging on to the right lines on the mountain and the language barrier with his Sherpa turned out to be almost overwhelming.

“There are four or five lines, some from previous shipments, and you don’t know how frayed they are,” Pattison says. “You have to make sure you hang on to the voucher unless you want to fall off the mountain and enter Tibet.”

The descent was just as dangerous. “My Sherpa was 200 meters in front of me,” he recalls. “I was out of oxygen. I could only do a few yards at a time. I tried to wave at him, but I was gassed.

Luckily Pattison made it to the top and came back in good weather. If a storm had started as he was walking away from the summit, he would have been in serious trouble, with no hope of rescue.

As he climbed the highest peak on the planet, passing the bodies of the climbers who had fallen, Pattison summoned something deep within himself, marching forward for his daughter and for the thousands of people following his journey. from afar.

“I’m a really good climber and I sucked that day,” he says. “I would be 10 feet, I would rest on one knee, I would do another 10 feet. But I continued to tap into all those people who had supported me throughout the process. All these supporters that were in my corner were like, ‘Come on, Mark.’ This is what allowed me to advance 10 feet at a time, one step at a time.

After finally returning to camp, Pattison decided to abandon his plan to attempt to climb Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest peak, the next day. He would have been the first and oldest NFL player to reach both highs in 24 hours, but he decided the risk far outweighed the reward.

Even after returning to base camp, Pattison’s challenges did not end. COVID had raged in the Everest base camp, and now Nepal was days away from closing its borders to all flights, in or out. Pattison chartered a helicopter to one of the higher camps rather than descend, flew to Kathmandu, and exited the country just before a long lockdown. And now he’s just trying to get over it all.

“My weight, I lost about 25 pounds,” he says. “Physically, I’m kind of a wreck. I’m trying to get back to being an au pair. The more it goes [into the past], the more I will appreciate the accomplishment over the past nine years. But right now it’s healing time.

With the luxury of distance and safety, Pattison can remember how he rose from the NFL to the top of the world and how the league was just one step – one big step, but only one – on the way.

“The most rewarding part of [the NFL] that’s what I’m capable of doing 30 years later, not 30 years ago, ”he says.

Yet there were lessons that followed him. ” When I got [to Oakland in 1986], I remember [then-head coach] Tom Flores speaks to all of us, rookies, players, undrafted free agents, ”said Pattison. “Marcus Allen, Lyle Alzado, Howie Long, Jim Plunkett, over a hundred guys were there. And he said, “Guys, I want to remind you that you’re here to take care of business when you get to this lot.” “

Only half of the men in that locker room would make the team. “I remember looking around this room, and it was kind of like I did going up that mountain, I had the same type of determination,” Pattison said. “I was a pick in the seventh round draft. I was like, ‘I’ll be sitting here at the end of the day, when the last roll call comes,’ and sure, that’s what happened.

Pattison has now completed the announced Seven Summits challenge, climbing the highest peak on each continent. Everest was his last on a list that includes notable peaks such as Kilimanjaro and Denali. So what’s the next step? Even he doesn’t know.

“The will be a ‘next’, ”Pattison laughs. “I just have to reset my brain for a minute.”

Mark Pattison with Everest in the background. (Courtesy of Mark Pattison)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]

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