Chicago adventurer Alexander Pancoe has traveled to some of the most desolate places on Earth and scaled mountains with fearful body counts. But the most danger he has faced in his quest to achieve the Explorers Grand Slam, a feat that involves scaling the highest mountain on each continent and trekking to each pole, didn't happen atop a wind-scarred alpine peak or a patch of arctic ice.
Pancoe, 32, said he was training by himself in July at Snowmass Mountain in Colorado, not far from the glittering Aspen ski resort, when a rock he was using as a handhold broke, sending him hurtling into a jagged stone that plunged deep into his leg.
He had to use his coat as a tourniquet, leaving him unprotected against the cold as night closed in. He had no cellphone reception and so little hope of rescue that he made videos saying goodbye to his family and friends.
But he kept his wits about him enough to start crawling down the mountain and eventually found a signal. He called for help, and soon a helicopter arrived to whisk him to a hospital. Doctors were able to save his leg, and six weeks later, he was on to Cho Oyu on the China-Nepal border, the sixth highest mountain in the world.
"That was a moment where I truly thought I was going to die," he said recently as he prepared to tackle Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak and the second-to-last climb on his list. "I remember how I felt in that exact moment. That really kind of humbled me. I would say that I've really grown to love risk-taking, but at the same time I've learned to be very calculated about it, keeping the big picture in mind."
That picture includes using his climbs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, where Pancoe was treated for a brain tumor when he was a teen. He dedicates all his adventures to the hospital's patients and stopped by recently to have children sign a flag he plans to carry to the summit.
"It's very encouraging to hear other people's stories. ... He's inspired me to never give up, definitely," said Serena Lewis, a 15-year-old who underwent multiple surgeries to remove a brain tumor before being declared cancer-free.
Pancoe attended Northwestern University, where he felt a vague presence in his brain slowly grow into a painful, paralyzing tumor. Even though it turned out to be benign, he still underwent surgery to have it removed.
He went into the financial industry and made a pile with shrewd investments, but a few years ago, he said, he became unsatisfied with the comfortable life. He went on an extended safari in Africa and had a revelation.
"For me, it was like this curtain just lifted," he said. "It's such an amazing world. That's when I kind of started to realize that I hadn't spent enough time valuing experiences. I really wanted to keep doing that, but I wanted to challenge myself in a way I'd never been challenged."
Though he wasn't much of an athlete, he vowed to attempt Mount Kilimanjaro, which at 19,341 feet is Africa's highest peak. He wasn't sure he would make it, but once he did, the intoxicating feeling of accomplishment inspired him to set his sights on a rarefied goal: the Explorers Grand Slam.
That feat was first achieved in 1998, and only 70 people have done it, said Vanessa O'Brien, a Grand Slam veteran who runs a website recognizing those who have earned the distinction.
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She said including pole exploration in the criteria — it counts only if a person treks there from the 89th parallel, a 69-mile trip — greatly increases the difficulty.
"Especially with climate change today, conditions in places like the North Pole make it increasingly more challenging with open water (exposed through the ice) and more dangerous, so I would say there is respect and recognition (from other adventurers)," she said. "These activities are hard, filled with misery and discomfort, and it takes a strong constitution and mindset to continue."
Pancoe said the poles indeed posed some of his biggest challenges. The cold is so extreme that exposed skin becomes frostbitten almost instantly, he said, but explorers need to maintain enough dexterity to tie ropes and set up camp.
"You're literally playing this cat-and-mouse game where you rip off your big mittens that are protecting your hands," he said. "Within seconds, you can tell your fingers are getting frostbitten. You throw them back in your gloves and warm them up, then you rip them out again. ... You're in a constant battle to keep your fingers and toes."
He's also dealt with pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs) when he ascended Cayambe, a 19,000-foot volcano in Ecuador, without getting properly acclimated. He's also had to call off climbs because of bad weather or teammates' illness.
Everest, at 29,000 feet, is next. After spending a week in Hong Kong, he'll arrive at base camp in mid-April. If all goes well, he will reach the summit about a month later.
While thousands of climbers have reached the top of Mount Everest, it is still a forbidding and potentially lethal undertaking. People die there almost every year — 2018 saw five fatalities — and James Holliday, a Pittsburgh engineer who achieved the Grand Slam earlier this year, said it is the most daunting challenge of all.
"Everest is so high it exposes flaws in your physiology," said Holliday, 63, whose first attempt at Everest failed when a stomach bug caused him to pass out at 22,000 feet. "Anything wrong with you is going to be magnified."
Pancoe has hired Adventure Consultants, a New Zealand-based guide company he has worked with throughout his quest, to assist him on the climb. Pancoe declined to say exactly how much he has spent in pursuit of the Grand Slam, but said it's above six figures.
Guy Cotter, the company's CEO, said Pancoe is ready to make a serious attempt at the summit.
"When adventuring at this level, a successful outcome is never guaranteed," he said in an email. "That is the definition of adventure, not knowing the outcome at the outset, yet Alex has set himself up with the skills and support network to achieve his goals, and his prior accomplishments endorse that he is ready."
Should Pancoe make it to the top, he plans to immediately try to climb Everest's sister peak, Lhotse — it's right there, after all — and then make his second attempt at Denali in Alaska in June. If successful, he will add his name to the Grand Slam list.
Before it's over, Pancoe said he hopes to raise $1 million for Lurie Children's Hospital through donations via his website, Peaks of Mind, and social media channels (the hospital said he has already raised more than $400,000).
Lucy Dennis, whose 3-year-old son River is being treated at the hospital, said she has a special understanding of what Pancoe is trying to accomplish.
"I actually climbed Kilimanjaro years ago; that's the easiest (of the seven peaks), I would say, and it's really hard," she said. "I honestly can't believe the strength and perseverance he has to get through all this because I know how difficult it is on those last moments. Doing it for a cause like the pediatric brain tumor program ... it just means so much."