Matt Brennan should be sitting on his patio right now, beer in one hand and cigar in the other, regaling friends with stories of snow, ice, and terror. Of the howling winds, the bottomless drops, and the blinding sunlight. Of the magnificently muscular Sherpas who seem to sprint, rather than scale, the world’s tallest mountain while carrying 80 pounds of gear.
But this is not the story of man standing on top of the world. It is, instead, a story of never-give-up grit and stubborn defiance of Murphy’s Law. Perhaps it’s a tale for our times.
When I first interviewed Brennan in mid-February, the COVID-19 pandemic was primarily a worry in Asia. The first U.S. coronavirus death had already happened, but we didn’t know it. Brennan, CEO of Loveland Excavating and Paving, was clearly ready to begin his third attempt to climb Mt. Everest. Mentally ready. Physically ready. And calm, because he’d already tried twice and was forced to turn back. He knew what he was getting himself into.
His first attempt, in 2018, ended when he pulled a groin muscle at the Everest base camp, a makeshift tent city perched at 17,900 feet above sea level. “It caused a hernia, and I had a lot of swelling,” Brennan recalls, looking down as if trying to forget the pain and disillusionment. “I got up to 20,000 feet and was worried about going higher because my leg turned purple. I figured this was no place to be.”
His second attempt, last year, ended in a long rope line of climbers stuck in stratospheric gridlock just 1,000 feet short of the 29,035-foot summit. The photos of that rock and ice bottleneck went viral, and the stalemated queues contributed to the deaths of several of the 12 mountaineers who died on Everest in 2019.
Brennan was two weeks away from leaving for the Himalayas on March 29 for his third attempt when the host country, Nepal, cancelled the May climbing season. His heart was broken, but his head told him it was the right call. With millions of people being infected with a raging virus and more than 100,000 dying here in the U.S., the disappointment of missing out on Everest—again— seemed best to keep to oneself.
The atmosphere above 26,000 feet is so thin that climbers need oxygen masks. As soon as Brennan took his first breath from the tank, he was on the clock. That’s why climbers call it The Death Zone. You don’t want to run out of oxygen going up—or coming down.
As he stood for hours in that stalled line in May 2019, legs burning from an awkward position on the ice, Brennan’s business mind went into gear. How much oxygen did he have? Not enough, especially after his Sherpa had dropped one of his tanks down the Triangular Face. How tired was he? Bone tired, and there was nowhere to get off his feet. He had fallen well short of the recommended rest period at Camp 4 before starting out for the summit. How fast was the line moving? Inch by inch as the ascenders were mixing with the descenders on a narrow ridge ahead of him. He figured—and his fellow climbers agreed—that he was still four hours from the top. And that ridge up ahead? Drops of more than 8,000 feet on each side. It wasn’t a good place for tired legs or a foggy mind.
“I was pretty sure I could make it to the top, but I was also pretty sure somebody would have to carry me down,” says Brennan, the distaste still evident. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys where it was gonna take four others to get me down. That’s not how I wanted my experience to be.”
One of the guides could see Brennan was struggling. Together, as the wind swirled, they discussed his dwindling options. Brennan thought of his wife and two kids back home in Loveland. He didn’t want to die on that mountain. “I’m within 1,000 feet of the top of the world,” he says, almost in a whisper, “and I’m not afraid to say I just cried.” He turned his back to the dream and began to descend.
Back in Kathmandu, deflated and exhausted, Brennan decided he was done. “The grind on your body, both during training and then on the climb, is just so tough,” he says. He figured he had spent four months in a tent over the last year backpacking and climbing other mountains, countless hours training in the gym or on the Little Miami Bike Trail, and he’d now been away from home for two months trying to climb Everest.
Brennan had been climbing mountains all over the world for more than 20 years. He thought about the holidays and birthdays he had missed. Everest, he decided, was just too much.
In Nepal’s capital, he spent some time reflecting on his trip and analyzing what went wrong. At first, he was simply happy to have made it off of Everest alive. Talking to his family, who had been following along online, gave him a lift. “And then,” he says, laughing, “I got mad.”
Why did an experienced Sherpa mishandle his oxygen tank? Why did he climb so fast from Camp 2 to Camp 3, causing him to “bonk” in his climb to Camp 4 the next day? If he hadn’t been so tired and so slow, he would have gotten to Camp 4 hours earlier, affording him the rest time he so desperately needed. Why had May’s weather been so fierce that it cut the 2019 climbing season almost in half? Everyone was on the mountain at the same time, competing for the same confined space. Traffic moved faster on the Brent Spence Bridge at rush hour, even with one lane closed.
For a little while, Brennan fell into second-guessing his decision to abandon the climb. Then logic reasserted itself. “I’m thankful that I even had the ability to make that decision,” he admits. “You can get tired enough that you lose all sense of judgment, and that’s where you get into trouble. I’m thankful I never got to that point.”
When he arrived back in Cincinnati in June 2019, Brennan wasn’t gung-ho to return to the Himalayas. The failure to summit had left him deflated, and he recognized how the long hours of training and the trips themselves had taken time from his family. How could he ask them to sacrifice again? And, at age 58, he wasn’t getting any younger.
Brennan has had an ongoing love affair with mountains since he was 14 and accompanied his sister on a church group visit out west. The Badlands and Mt. Rushmore intrigued him, but the Tetons blew him away. He gradually increased his skill level from hiking to backpacking to rock-climbing, and, not long after graduating from UC, he started leading extremely challenging trips into the Rockies.
After turning 40, Brennan says he wanted a more demanding challenge. A friend turned him on to an alpine climbing class in Washington state that culminated in a two-day trek to the top of 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier, a difficult and dangerous sleeping volcano that’s truly the definition of fire and ice.
As Brennan’s group headed up the mountain, he knew he was where he was supposed to be. He drank in the majesty of the landscape, reveled in its demands on his body, and tensed to the dangers of every step. He was in the moment until his guide’s radio suddenly crackled. “He just yelled, We gotta go, we gotta go,” Brennan remembers, “so we started hauling ass up the Ingraham Wall and I thought, Geez, we’re going awfully fast.” The Ingraham Wall is a two-and-a-half-mile-long towering glacier and the site of Rainier’s worst mountaineering accident when, in 1981, an avalanche killed 11. Typically, climbers trudge carefully through the icefall.
Brennan and his team were the first on the scene where three climbers had fallen into a deep crevasse. One, the experienced guide who was also an ordained minister, was just pulling himself up, and Brennan could see his head pop up from below the ice cliff. The other two, an engaged couple planning to marry on Rainier’s summit, were dangling below on their rope line. Brennan helped pull them up.
When the rescue helicopter arrived, Brennan assumed his group would continue its ascent. “I was mad as hell,” he says, now able to laugh about it. “They said our trip was over, and I thought, Like hell it is. I wasn’t the one who fell.” To add insult to injury, he discovered his expensive new down jacket had been ripped in the rescue.
Back at base camp, Brennan let the guide company know he wasn’t a satisfied customer. “And they said to me, Well, you can come back anytime, and we won’t charge you,” he recalls. “So, I said, Good, I’ll be back next weekend!” And he was. Brennan flew home to Cincinnati, worked a few days at his business, packed his bags, and returned to Seattle. On the following Saturday, he stood atop Mt. Rainier. The guide company even gave him a new down jacket.
Well, that’s Matt,” Brian Cheripko says of his Everest climbing buddy. “That’s a testament not so much to his physical strength as his mental strength, his fortitude, and his work ethic.” The CEO of a San Diego engineering consulting company, he met Brennan on the 2018 Everest trip. They became instant friends and confidants. When he made it to the top, Cheripko says he felt a “sense of loss” that Brennan wasn’t there with him.
“We were hiking together from the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 1, and he was really struggling with his groin injury,” Cheripko remembers. “We talked about it, and it was just so sad when he realized he wasn’t going to make it.”
Cheripko has followed Brennan’s training regimen ever since, talking or texting with him regularly before the 2019 attempt and in the months leading up to the planned May 2020 expedition. “He works so hard,” says Cheripko. “We talk a lot about the mental game, pacing, and burnout. That’s what’s so hard about losing this trip. You’ve got to pace yourself, and he had. Now he’ll have to start over.”
That’s Jen Segger’s worry, too. The veteran endurance coach from British Columbia might be described as Brennan’s secret weapon. After the 2019 attempt, Brennan decided he needed a new training strategy. He was in great shape, but he’d been in a fog of fatigue at 26,000 feet. What he needed was someone to get him past that last wall. He chose Segger and her specialty in anaerobic training.
Anaerobic training focuses on sudden bursts of energy. Your heart can be racing up to 165 beats a minute for two minutes as you intentionally overexert yourself with quick sprints. It leaves you gasping for air and with burning muscles, just like a mountain does. It also, over time, builds red blood cells, and a reserve bank of those come in handy at 26,000 feet. Brennan trained the last four months of 2019 anaerobically as Segger tracked his heart rate and pace from her home near Vancouver. They spoke by phone or texted almost daily, analyzing the crushing workout regimen and adjusting it occasionally to keep Brennan fresh and the rest of his life manageable. In the weeks leading up to his expected late March departure, Segger moved him to a more traditional aerobic training program to build up his long-term endurance. Brennan, she says, was ready.
“I was gutted,” Segger laments, describing the moment she read Brennan’s March e-mail. “I know what he put into his training, and to see that and then not being able to go?” She lets out a moan. “He was so prepared, but I am really impressed with how fast he’s regrouped and refocused.”
It’s his focus and his desire to get back on the trail that concerns Segger the most. Brennan can’t continue training at the level he was when Nepal closed its 2020 climbing season. Seventeen hours a week and three days in a row of high intensity training wearing a weighted vest works well in the short term. Over a longer period, it breaks you down physically and mentally. She talks passionately about the need to move Brennan’s state of mind back to what she calls “marathon thinking.” That’s especially important since he can’t make his next attempt until May 2022.
“My daughter is graduating from college next May, and I just won’t miss that,” says Brennan. “It’s a big deal in our family, and we’re really proud of her.”
In the meantime, he has other mountains to assault. Mont Blanc in the French Alps, Switzerland’s iconic Matterhorn, Pakistan’s Broad Peak, Alpamayo in the Andes, and Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia are among the rocks in his above-the-clouds schedule. When Brennan finally stands atop Everest, if he does make it, he will join the most exclusive club of mountaineers on the planet: scalers of the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. That, he says, will keep him going.
Deflated as he is, Brennan doesn’t consider this year’s cancelled trip to be strike three. He’s just on a different path and still at bat.
The charm of Kathmandu and the broad smiles of the Sherpas beckon him. The allure and danger of the Khumbu Icefall with its shifting crevasses and walls of ice larger than a house thrill him. He looks forward to the glare of the sun off the snow, the deepening blue of the sky, and the crunch of his crampons. He is undaunted by the nighttime trek across the Western Cwm glacial basin and face of Mt. Lhotse. He thinks about that spot just below the Southeast Ridge, where it all ended last year, and how good it will feel to take the first step past it. And then there’s the summit.
How will it feel? He might be surprised, says Cheripko, who reports there were the usual hugs, photos, and gazing at the majestic views of dozens of other formidable ice-capped peaks that shaped the wild landscape below him. It’s still all business, though, because more climbers have died descending than ascending. So, he admits, it wasn’t until a few hours later and out of the Death Zone that he could celebrate. “Then it just hit me, and I was simply overwhelmed with emotion,” he recalls.
Three weeks after an e-mail ended his 2020 quest, Brennan and I speak over Zoom. He’s in Florida for some sun and family time, and his voice still bears the sting of disappointment.
But he’s undaunted, and we talk about this story and how it might look to a reader in July. Will it appear trivial when compared to the disruptions we’ve all experienced in our lives? Will it seem oblivious—or worse, disrespectful—to the pandemic’s brutal toll? Or will readers enjoy a story about fighters who pull themselves off the mat, who face adversity with audacity and don’t give up on their dreams?
I wish I could end the story with a triumphant Matt Brennan standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, bright sun shining off his Ray-Bans, eclipsed only by the smile on his face. I’m looking forward to adding that paragraph in two years.