Last ski season, Sun Valley’s 59-year-old Mark Pattison skinned up Bald Mountain 45 times as part of the training regimen on his quest to become the first NFL player to reach the top of the highest summits on each of the seven continents. He had already climbed the first six, and his intention was to finish the endeavor with Everest and within 24 hours summit its neighbor Lhotse (the fourth highest mountain on Earth), a twofer that fewer than 40 people have accomplished. He left Sun Valley for Nepal in March and spent two months of preparation and acclimation on Mount Everest.
On May 23rd, Pattison left Camp 4 for the summit at 12:30 a.m. with his guide and the 10 members of his team composed of climbers from Norway, Ireland, Russia and Canada. Ten reached the summit. Each had a Sherpa helper and several oxygen tanks. A 40-mph west wind blew tiny ice crystals into Mark’s face, and within an hour, one of them had slashed his left eye, and he became blind in that eye. (Fortunately, his eye recovered.) “I couldn’t believe how steep it was and how hard I was struggling because I hadn’t been able to eat enough that morning. Many times, I considered quitting and turning around, and each time I thought about all the people who had been inspired (or had inspired) and been affected by my journey, and I got re-engaged to keep going.”
“As I slowly moved up the mountain, I climbed past dead bodies,” said Pattison. “It was a sober reminder that life is fragile and to focus on each step. Although my energy was low, my bigger concern was that I couldn’t see out of my left eye. On Everest, you are connected to fixed lines, not other people. My ability to clip on and off became difficult, and my Sherpa didn’t speak good English, so he didn’t understand my need for help. At the end of the day, I was able to summit, but not without the help of everyone who supported my goal and believed in me. As I was descending back to Camp 4, the idea of climbing Lhotse suddenly didn’t matter as I knew I would have put my life in jeopardy.”
It took Pattison nine hours and 40 minutes to reach the summit from Camp 4 and eight hours to get back down to Camp 4. He started the day with four oxygen bottles and ran out of oxygen an hour before getting back to Camp 4. “I spent the night at 26,000 feet without supplemental oxygen,” said Pattison. “The next morning, we started down, and it was really hard to keep moving.”
“I knew that there could be a fatal outcome if I took on Lhotse,” said Pattison. “The goal was to get the record, to be the oldest guy to do that. (The twofer.) But at the end of the day, not only are my kids (Claudette, age 25, and Emilia, age 23) important, I wanted to come back. My goal was to go up there and do it, not die trying to do some stupid record.”
Born, raised and schooled in Seattle, Washington, Pattison was a two-time All-American football player in high school, leading to his induction into the High School Football Hall of Fame in 2005. He was an All-American football player at the University of Washington under legendary coach Don James, playing in two Rose Bowls, two Aloha Bowls and one Orange Bowl, in which he made the winning catch. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
After college, he played in the National Football League for five years, the first three with the New Orleans Saints and the last two with the Los Angeles Raiders. He became a free agent and moved back to Seattle, a move he thought would be great since it was his hometown, but it ultimately killed his love for the game, and he retired.
Pattison started several businesses and was living in Los Angeles when, about 10 years ago, he broke up with his wife of 24 years, and his father died. “It was a very lonely existence,” he said. “After a couple years of asking myself, ‘How did I get here?,’ one day I decided I needed to change my mindset and get unstuck.”
While growing up in Seattle, he had climbed extensively in the nearby Cascade Mountains, so he started to think again about climbing. “I had always been intrigued by the guys who had been on Everest and some of these other crazy mountains. I did some research, and I came up with the fact that no NFL player had ever climbed the Seven Summits. So, I said, ‘I’m going to be that guy.’ It really helped me get out of my fog.”
Pattison moved to Sun Valley, and the rest is history. A friendship with Ketchum’s Gary Vinagre led Mark to partner with Higher Ground to raise $56,972 (the combined height of Mount Everest and Lhotse) to build awareness about epilepsy, a cause near and dear to him after his daughter Emilia’s diagnosis. “Her journey to overcome epilepsy and live her life to the fullest has been 10 times harder than anything I have ever done,” said Pattison. “In early 2020, we raised over $29,029 (the summit of Mount Everest) to build awareness for the National Epilepsy Foundation so they can find cures to this disorder that, for many, seem insurmountable.”