11 QUESTIONS TO RASMUS KRAGH
Rasmus Kragh is a Danish athlete, runner, and mountaineer with a very ambitious goal: climbing Mount Everest without artificial oxygen.
Rasmus has already attempted to climb Everest twice, but bad weather conditions prevented him to reach the summit. He was only 200 meters away. This year, he is trying again. As a true personification of endurance, we interviewed him to find out more about him and his 2019 expedition.
- Tell us a little bit about you: who is the person that is going to climb Mount Everest?
I come from a small town called Skive, in the Western part of Denmark. I have always done a lot of sports and went all in with everything I have done. I have played badminton for many years and when I was around 12, I found out that I was good at running. I decided to do athletics and went into long-distance running. After a while, I started to focus on sports orienteering. The fact of running fast through unknown and rough terrain in nature, and having to navigate yourself from A to B, all at the same time, was just the right combination for me. This is when I started being very serious about doing sport. I went to the Junior National Team and that became my priority, also above high school.
Of course, it was not easy. The problem is that I want to be good at everything that I go into – both for school, sports, and social relationships. I did not want to skip any of those, and that was hard for me to balance everything out. Going to high school, training twice a day. I was a bit fed up by the end of high school. I felt like I needed to focus my energy into something else and cut the elite sports off. I decided to change direction and enroll in the army.
I found out that worked very well for me. I thought that would have been my career but after two and a half years, I got enough of the army’s “squareness”. I have always had a creative side and wanted to try out different things. And that is when I turned to mountaineering. I decided to combine all my experience with sports and the mental training that I got in the army to focus on the outdoors.
- Denmark is a flat land. How has your passion for mountaineering started and what do you like so much about climbing?
After the army, I decided to go to Norway to check out the mountains. I had always dreamt about them! And that is when everything started. I went to a climbing school in Lofoten for a year. It is a very good location for climbing and it was here that I have truly learned to push myself out of my comfort zone in the mountains, both physically and mentally.
I call myself a “mountain athlete” because I love to do everything in the mountains. I think that training in the mountains can really make you become a “complete” athlete. In the mountains, you can freely set your own goals, and this is something I really enjoy. It is not only about reaching the goal but about doing it in my own way. This allows me to get to know my physical and mental limitations and challenge them. And if I fail, I can do it again. And the environment is, of course, an extra add-on that made me fall in love with the sport. And this is why I’m still motivated to attempt Mount Everest without artificial oxygen – even though it will be my third attempt now.
- How has the idea of climbing Mount Everest made its way into your mind?
Each mountain has its own set of challenges. Mount Everest is not the most technical and beautiful mountain, yet, it has the highest and thinnest air you can find. This would challenge you to the maximum physically and mentally. That’s why I decided to think about it in the first place.
The first time I attempted Everest was in 2017. However, my preparation for this started long before. I ended my experience in Norway in 2014, when I made the funny decision to come back to flat Denmark after falling in love with the mountains.
I did that because I started dreaming about doing mountaineering not only as a hobby but as a full-time job as a sportsman and athlete. I thought that could be easier in the country where I have my roots, and where mountaineering as a sport is a very small niche. So, I started to contact sponsors from my one-room apartment in Aarhus West, in the same way, business entrepreneurs do start-ups from their basement. I had no savings, but I was fueled by passion and driven by my goals and a strong belief in myself. And from there, I started to scale up.
Everest came into the picture in 2015. I was not ready for it yet. I wanted to do it without artificial oxygen and also be self-supported, carrying everything by myself. So, I decided that 2016 was going to be a journey year towards Everest in 2017.
I succeeded in climbing the first 8000 meters on Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world, in the fall of 2016. It was very hard on the body. After that, I only had 2 months before departing for the next expedition on Manaslu, in Nepal. That expedition turned out to be even harder on my body, and afterward, it was pretty rough to rebuild my physical shape for Everest.
- Tell us a little bit about this first experience on Mount Everest. What learnings did you take on to your subsequent experience in 2018?
The thing I learned the most from was the failure. If you want to be in this game, you need to learn that you are just a human and you are permitted to go to the summit only if the weather and mountain allow you to do so. I could have reached the summit but to a very high price. And this made me realize that reaching the summit is just a bonus, it’s more about the process and how you execute your actions. That is something I have tried to communicate a lot.
People often associate Everest with stories about losing fingers or toes, or not coming down – just for the sake of reaching the summit. I have tried to give a different image, which is to be in control all the way up, even in an extreme environment. That’s how I try to deal with it, with all the respect and understanding of the surroundings out there.
Preparing yourself can do a big difference in succeeding or not. When I look back, I think I was still in the phase of a well-prepared amateur. Now, I can say I am a professional athlete. I went through a long process of becoming stronger and better. And I am happy about it because now I see it more like “controlled” elite sport in an extreme environment. I see the mountain as my arena, and I can prepare myself up to 90%. 10% still lies in the weather conditions that I cannot control – you just have to accept that.
By preparing yourself to the fullest, you can have a great physical and mental margin so that if something of that 10% happens, you can take action before it gets too risky for you. It’s all about risk management and control in this sport, and this is what makes it durable. And this is where I wanted to go. I am only 30 years old and if I do not make it physically, mentally and financially sustainable, I would not last long.
- Climbing Mount Everest requires a lot of physical and mental preparation. Speaking of physical preparation, what kind of training do you do in order to make sure to be ready for the expedition? Do you have any professional coach following you?
Many people like doing pre-acclimatization, sleeping in a tent with lower oxygen levels from home. But I have decided to do it in the safest way, and that is just spending time. Spending 2 months out in the expedition instead of 45 days, as somebody does because of time constraints.
With my team, we’ve found out through various physical testing through 2017-18, that the best way to do is to train as a full-time athlete so that I can get to the same physical shape as an elite endurance athlete, with the result that my body has greater capacity to process oxygen – which is vital in altitudes.
For that, I do a lot of cardio and a lot of specific strength exercises for preparing me to the mountain. Good core stability and strength mean a lot: when you walk for many hours with a backpack, then you start to hang and your footsteps get more inefficient. Legs should also be very strong. I have a trainer that helps me with all of this, together with recovery – which is an aspect that many endurance athletes disregard but that should instead be prioritized. I also train and run at height of around 5000 meters and rest at basecamp at sea levels.
Besides this, I have a mental/running coach that also helps me to step into an international level in ultra-running – because there is also life after Everest. He is also a sports psychologist and we work not so much on how to optimize me on the mountain, but rather on making my everyday life as an athlete more durable, efficient and structured. We work on focus and defocus periods, to prioritize things.
I also have a PR agent and manager, that helps me with the financial things, sponsors, media, etc., which is crucial when you are a full-time athlete! And this has been very important for me because when you are a one-man band it can be quite hard to focus on everything at the same time.
- A crucial part of your expedition is the fact that you will attempt to climb Mount Everest without oxygen. Why did you make this choice? Can you give us an idea of what it feels like to be without oxygen?
I told you where I belong. Mount Everest is 8848 meters. If you take artificial oxygen, you would be standing on top of Everest but you would breathe air with the same amount of oxygen, that is found 1000 meters below. I think that if you put yourself a goal, you should be ready for that and meet the mountain as an equal instead of pulling the mountain down at your level. So, I think that is the most honest way you can do it. Staying on top of whatever it is, breathing whatever air it’s there, fueled by yourself. And if you are not able to do that, maybe you should put your goals 1000 meters lower.
This is of course just my opinion, and that is why I do it. And I also know that it is in my reach and I totally understand who really wants to do it but can’t train as much as I do because they have a tough working life. But that is just a totally different sport and a completely different goal. Even if you stand on the same point, the process to get there is very different, and this is very important for me that people understand.
Also, I do not deny that there is a sort of sports mentality in this choice, of being the first one. There are already Danes that have climbed Mount Everest with artificial oxygen, but none had done without it. And I spent so much effort getting to where I am now and being able to do it in control. Then why shouldn’t I do it?
When you get above 8000 meters, people call it the death zone. Because there is so little amount of oxygen that your body is not meant to be there, and it literally starts to shut down. You can only stay there for a limited amount of time. You would simply die of exhaustion if you stay for too long.
In order to understand how it feels, try to picture yourself in a big freezer, running on a treadmill on medium speed with a temperature of -30 degrees. That is a normal day. You are all wrapped in that big teddy bear suit and you breathe with a straw on your mouth, in the day where you have the worst hangover of your life. And you constantly move for 24 hours – if you are on the summit push. And it worsens the higher you go.
When you are up there you need to accept it as the “new normal”, as something that you cannot do anything about. This is something I work a lot with because it only disturbs my mindset and my focus and my performance if I let the given circumstances become an irritation. I need to stop thinking about it and abstract from it. And it is crucial because it’s extremely hard conditions to move in. All the parts of your body are screaming. You move slow and you do not feel warm and there is not enough oxygen to warm you up, your appetite is gone, and you need to force yourself to eat. The body does not absorb any proteins up there, so you only eat carbs and a lot of water for hydration. You should accept these factors as the new baseline.
- Speaking of mental preparation instead, we can imagine that an endurance mindset is crucial in this kind of expeditions. But what does “endurance mindset” mean to you and why is it so important?
Endurance is crucial, especially in the process leading up to the expedition. It is about seeing the borderline of where you can push yourself. You can push that line further than you think, but only one step at a time. That takes years to develop. An average person can maybe push the body to 50% of the actual physical limit, and the rest is in the mind. And that is where you need to learn to move out of your comfort zone. And also, once you reach 100% you should be very careful there, because of the margin of error shrinks.
Regarding the actual expedition, I think once you are there, you need to forget about the broad goal of reaching the summit. You should break your stay into smaller goals that will eventually add up together. It can be very tough when you are up there.
Also, it is very important to keep your mind busy, especially in the resting periods, to keep bad thoughts away. You need to believe in yourself and trust your experience. Not trusting and believing yourself is not an option. The most challenging times are when you are in the base camp doing nothing. You need those resting times, but sometimes you feel so useless. I always create something to do for myself in the tent. When I am resting, I listen to music or read. In some days, I also do yoga and strength exercise with some Resistance Bands in order to keep myself in good shape and not to lose muscles. It is very important to have these routines, also to start thinking about base camp as everyday life.
- Tell us a little bit your plan for the 2019 expedition, also to give an idea of what life on Everest looks like.
I will go to the end of March/beginning of April. Two weeks later, I will be in the base camp, which is around 5200 meters. That is higher than the summit of Mont Blanc and it’s just the foot of the Mountain! When you arrive there, you feel dizzy and sometimes have a strong headache and it can be quite hard to get used to it at first. It is a totally different world. You constantly need to be covered in clothes and sun cream. The UV rays are so strong that you need to keep your sunglasses even in the tent. It takes a while to get used to it. After the first couple of nights, you start to normalize and to sleep well.
When you start feeling well, you can call this your new home and use it as a new baseline. Then you start working yourself up the mountain using the so-called “work high, sleep low” principle: you push yourself up to a certain altitude and then you go down again to basecamp to sleep. The next time, you will be a little stronger and you can push yourself a bit higher.
At a certain point, you move up to sleep at a higher elevation. Normally, when you do high altitude climbs, you move maximum 500 vertical meters up each day. But this is too much when you get above basecamp. When you are above 5000 meters your body recovers slowly and every night that you spend there, it gets a bit more of your energy reserves away. Every day spent above basecamp needs to be prepared and needs to have a function in the whole big picture of reaching the summit in the end. So, I actually make a schedule on how I want this journey to look like.
I usually go up and down three times and then recover in basecamp. The last time I go a bit higher than 8000 meters, to push and stress the body. After the last recovery in base camp, usually, at the beginning of May, I will wait for the weather window by comparing 2-3 different meteorological models and then I will prepare for the summit push. My guess would be, that I will leave basecamp around 15-20th May and I expect to be back again in basecamp 3-4 days later.
This year, I will go up from the Southern side. Besides basecamp, this has 5 camps (the first at 6000, the second 6500, the third around 7100, the fourth at 7500, and the fifth around 8000). On my acclimatization process, I will probably sleep in all of them except the last two. I will just make pit-stops to take water because sleeping there will take too many energy reserves away.
My summit push will probably start at the beginning of the night – and you will be able to follow it on GPS tracking on my website. I will climb to camp 1, through the icefall. You need to do that when it’s cold in order to avoid the risk of collapse in the glacier ice. I will rest there a couple of hours, refill my supplies and change clothes to something more suitable.
I will then move to camp 2 and 3, which will be my last place where I will do some rest. I will move as fast as possible from there. That should be possible because the terrain is easier on the south side of Everest, compared to the North side – where I was in 2017 and ‘18. I will move to the summit in the night and hopefully, I will be back to camp 2 or 1 on the same day.
- Preparing for such an expedition requires a lot of sacrifices. Why is climbing Mount Everest so important for you?
Everest means everything. It is not just reaching the summit, it is the whole process leading up to that. But it’s also a new beginning for me as well. It’s the greatest challenge I have set myself to. I want to prove to myself and everyone else that what I said was true and it can be done in control. Staying on the highest point of the Earth is a dream. It’s a unique place to be. Not many people are allowed there and have gone through that journey I have been through. For many people, climbing Everest is associated with something they do on the side as a hobby. For me, it is my life.
- For the 2019 expedition, you will bring our DANISH ENDURANCE SOCKS with you. What is the model that you will bring to the highest point in the world?
I think I will bring different models. I still need to test which combination I will use. On the summit push, I will use the Ski Socks, in combination with something thinner under. I will for sure use the Compression Socks because swelling can be an issue up there. Those models I will mostly use in the tent.
- What comes after Everest?
I thought a lot about it. I will give back to people that have supported me. As an athlete, it will be a new beginning. I want to get more into competitions and sports, long-distance running and try to become a profile in Danish trail and ultra-running. And then, we will see.