By Dierdre Wolownick
Roxanne Vogel, Nutrition & Performance Research Manager at the offices of GU Energy Labs in Berkeley, is definitely creative. She’s also fit and smart — and has a technical team that inspires confidence. In May 2019, she climbed Mt. Everest in 14 days, ‘car to car,’ as climbers say — Berkeley to Everest summit to Berkeley. She’s the first person ever to do so. The goal of this “lightning ascent” technique is to reduce the time it takes the body to acclimate to the world’s tallest peak, through training, technology and nutrition.
Roxanne Vogel, Nutrition & Performance Research Manager at the offices of GU Energy Labs in Berkeley, is a fast climber. In May 2019, she climbed Mt. Everest in 14 days, ‘car to car,’ as climbers say — Berkeley to Everest summit to Berkeley. She’s the first person ever to do so. The goal of this “lightning ascent” approach is to reduce the time it takes the body to acclimate to the world’s tallest peak, through training, technology and nutrition.
Vogel is an accomplished alpinist; before Everest, she had climbed more than 12 summits over 15,000 feet, including five of the seven highest summits on each continent. No matter how accomplished, though, one has to think differently to even imagine summiting Everest in a mere two weeks total.
It usually takes from two months to a year to get ready.
Alpinists who prepare for Everest have to train their bodies to perform at a high cardio level without the rich oxygenated mix we breathe at sea level, while carrying heavy loads uphill. They climb mountains — preferably up to or above 20,000 feet — to acquire endurance and experience dealing with the specialized gear and equipment, like jumars, crampons, and ice axes. They take supplements for vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients that will be lacking during the whole summit experience (no fresh fruits or veggies up there).
Instead of sleeping in a tent on the side of a really high mountain, she slept in her own bed at sea level — but that bed was enclosed in a tent that simulated the conditions at elevation, especially the lack of oxygen. Instead of hiking up and down for months at 20,000 feet, she worked every day at her job in a sea-level office that included a small hypoxia chamber where she trained, with weights, and where she simply did her day job — while breathing thinner air.
Many aspiring climbers lose up to 20% of their body weight while attempting Everest. At altitude, people lose lean tissue — their body basically ‘eats’ their muscle tissue. Vogel lost 20 pounds but all of it before she left, and most of it from fat. Sleeping in the tent changes the way the body loses its weight, she says, and she was trained to “fat-adapt” for months before her departure. For the last five years she’s been training hard, and eating a more or less paleo diet.
Part of the difference is gender. “Women,” she says, “are better fat-burners, in general.”
It also takes a certain personality, she adds, to commit fully to the rigors of the altitude and physical training. And time is a big factor. Not many people have the 20 or so hours it requires per week to prepare for lightning ascents of the world’s highest mountains.
Vogel wasn’t always this driven. No one in her family was “outdoorsy,” she says, laughing at the memory. She played the usual sports as a kid, “just for fun.” While she was in college, she discovered some of the joys of the outdoors, but it was in Peru, where she hiked on Incan trails, that she fell in love with the natural world. While going through a divorce, she experimented with getting out of her comfort zone — and wound up at Everest Base Camp. The peaks awed her, and she made herself a promise there.
“I need to climb those things,” she vowed.
She went on to get her M.S. in Exercise Physiology, then moved to Denver, where she began climbing and making friends with the mountains. When she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,340 feet, in Tanzania (Africa), she discovered that her body does well at “this high altitude thing.”
Encouraged by her body’s ability to cope easily with the demands of altitude, Vogel is on a mission to climb the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountain on each continent.
Still, Everest in 14 days — surely that requires enormous confidence. And support.
She laughs again at that. “The chance of death was only about five percent.” (I guess that makes some people confident.) “No, my family, all the people who knew me, couldn’t believe it.”
I wondered whether any of them had tried to talk her out of it.
“In the beginning they didn’t realize the extent,” she clarified. “I told them, ‘I’m going for a hike for a couple weeks.’ They didn’t really understand the whole “fast” thing. And I didn’t really try to make them understand!”
I couldn’t help but think about my son, Alex Honnold, not telling me, or anyone, about his free solos before he did them. There are some things a parent just doesn’t want, or need, to know.
Support, though, was plentiful at the GU offices, where everyone is an athlete and understands being driven to accomplish new goals. They encourage all of their athlete/employees to set physical goals for themselves each year, and they all celebrate when someone achieves one of them.
One of her colleagues, Magdalena Boulet, knows all about setting goals. Boulet is Vice-President of Innovation, Research and Development at GU. Although she grew up as a swimmer, she qualified for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in marathon running. Originally from Poland, she attributes her own tenacity to “mostly those tough Polish genes.”
Boulet needed help, though, in fueling her activities, and Vogel is a sports nutritionist. The two women have worked to accomplish many extreme sports goals together, including an ascent of the Ojos del Salado, a peak of 22,615 feet in Ecuador.
Everest, though, takes it to the next level. I was curious what drove a petite young woman from the Bay Area to attempt such a goal.
“Deep down,” she explains, “I’m just a big nerd. I’ve always been fascinated with high altitude physiology, and I guess that just pushed me to make myself a bit of a guinea pig.”
Besides, she explains further, “I thought it was a long shot. Maybe only a 10 to 30 percent chance of success, even if we stayed longer, 30 days or more. We were watching the weather. It was terrible, and very windy.”
They approached from the north, in Tibet (a contested part of China). Most climbers ascend from the other side, which is where the infamous pictures of the dangerous Everest crowds are taken.
But that long shot paid off, and — to her great surprise — she found herself on the summit of Everest.
“I was so tired!” she recalls. “I had banners, logos, sponsors’ things. But I was too tired to pull them out. I knew none of that was going to happen.
“It was really hard to process,” she continues, smiling at the memory. “I was just so, so tired! And then I looked around, and thought, ‘where is everybody?’ We summited at noon, and there were only four of us up there.
“As we got higher, I remember this out-of-body kind of experience. You watch yourself walk, hear yourself breathing hard. Then, above 20,000 feet, you put the oxygen on, and it’s like, ’Whoa! I’m back!’”
“Did it change your life?” I couldn’t help but think about all the back-country climbs I’ve done with my son or my friends. Each one changed my life in so many subtle, or not-so-subtle, ways. But this monster …
Her long pause as she thought about my question said clearly that she probably wouldn’t formulate an in-depth response to that for a long time; but she did try to answer it for me.
“My life is … not very different, but there’s been a fair amount of outreach from the media.” A shrug, another pause. I could see her mind scrambling, remembering, processing.
I left her to think about the rest. The “why” of climbing is never easy to explain.