On top of the world
In 2009, Lance Fox of New London, Wis., fulfilled a dream by climbing to the summit of Mount Everest. He also used the opportunity to show off his Packers pride by wearing a Cheesehead at the world’s highest peak.
Climbing Everest became Fox’s dream in 1997 when his son, Jordan, was born six weeks early. Jordan had to spend time at a pre-natal intensive care unit in Madison. Fox and his wife, Katherine, stayed at the Ronald McDonald House to be close to their son. During that time, Fox’s life changed forever after one visit to a bookstore.
“A few blocks away I picked up a book about Mount Everest and that changed my life,” Fox said. “I read it from cover to cover, and when I finished it after a day and a half of reading it, I said, ‘Someday I am going to climb that mountain.’”
Fox said the book was not only an overview of Everest, but also detailed the disaster that occurred in 1996 on the mountain when eight people died.
Fox had never climbed a mountain before, but was fascinated by them after reading the book.
“I think it’s the fact I grew up in flatland Wisconsin and mountains are so intriguing to me because they are enormous,” Fox said. “If you look up at them I believe they are kind of like ladders to heaven.”
Nine years later Fox climbed his first mountain in Colorado. During this whole time Fox never told anyone about his dream of climbing Everest, not even his wife.
In 2008 Fox received the opportunity to climb Everest with an international team. It was a chance he couldn’t pass up, and he had to share the vision with his wife.
“I really didn’t talk about it a lot so yeah, when I broke the news, it was a shock because out of fairness to her, I hadn’t talked about it a lot,” Fox remembers. “I conveyed to her that who I was going with had never lost a westerner. The death rate on Everest has dropped dramatically over the years with the expedition style of climbing. I think she put her fears aside as best she could and supported me as best she could.”
Fox trained for a year, which included giving up beer and desserts.
“You have to make sacrifices when you have goals, and that’s what I did,” Fox said.
Mount Everest is 29,035 feet tall. Between 1953 and 2013, around 6,000 climbers have reached the summit of Everest, 2,000 of those being westerners. Over 200 people have died on the mountain.
Fox began his journey to the top of Everest in March 2009. He traveled to Amsterdam, then to India and finally to Kathmandu, Nepal. His final flight took him to the airport in a village called Lukla, the most dangerous airport in the world.
“It’s in a little mountainous ravine,” Fox said. “The runway is almost 1,700 feet long. It sits on a 12 degree pitch, and at the end of the runway is a 2,000-foot cliff. At the top of the runway is a 20-foot brick wall.”
He and his teammates then embarked on a nine-day walk to the Mount Everest base camp. Fox got altitude sickness during the trek, as the altitude increases from 9,400 to 18,000 feet.
Fox said the entire climb up Everest takes around 45 days. He arrived at the Mount Everest base camp on April 10, 2009, and reached the summit on May 21.
“The climb was tough. I had the biggest troubles down low,” Fox said. “My body just took a long time to acclimate. Once I got higher, physically I got a lot better, believe it or not. You’re tired. I lost 30 pounds on the trip. It’s a weird environment and you just try to survive.”
He said Everest is just as demanding mentally as it is physically.
“You see what you are made of,” Fox said. “There are many times you want to turn around. There are many danger spots on the route and you wonder, ‘Why am I here?’ I thought a lot about my kids. At the time my son was 11 and my daughter [Bailee] was nine, and it’s a long time to be away from your family. There are many times when you really debate whether you really want to continue on. There were a number of climbers who turned around.”
Fox said the weather for most of the climb was good.
“There were a couple of blizzards that we down-climbed through which were pretty scary because you are blind, you are just feeling the rope and hope you have good footing,” he said.
As one would expect the climate was frigid for most of the climb. Fox said there were many sub-zero mornings, the coldest being minus-33 degrees. And as hard as it is to believe, during one portion of the climb the temperature reached 100 degrees. He said that area is called the Valley of Silence. It is a trough where all the big peaks form a valley.
“Because the winds go right over the top of these enormous peaks and the sun radiates off the snow, so it’s like a bowl and it causes that reflective radiation effect. It just grinds you, it’s so hot. That was probably my worst day on Everest believe it or not,” Fox said.
Fox says that part of the climb took seven and a half hours.
During the entire journey, Fox hauled with him a special item — a Cheesehead. Fox said he has been a Green Bay Packers fan his entire life, and is now also a shareholder. He admitted that bringing the Cheesehead was due to a bit of Wisconsin and Packers pride.
“I had it in base camp and some of the Sherpa staff started wearing it,” Fox said. “Everyone was getting chuckles and laughs and thought that was the coolest thing.”
Seven of the 28 members of the international team Fox was with were Americans. Fox said the British members of the team knew what the Cheesehead was and got a chuckle out of it, but the members of the team coming from China and Japan weren’t quite sure what it was.
Fox said the Sherpas thought it was a cool hat. The head cook wore it in camp while cooking. Another wore it when washing dishes.
“They just got a big chuckle,” Fox said. “Being from a third-world country deep in the mountains I think for the most part Western civilization is still amazing for them because of our advances.”
The base camp leader didn’t find all the humor in the Cheesehead, Fox said.
“He kept teasing me during the whole expedition,” Fox said. “He would never wear it. I’d try to get him to wear it for a photo op and I think he was kind of shocked that I actually shoved it in my pack and hauled it all the way to the top. It’s not a normal thing to do.”
Fox knew climbing Everest was serious and lives were at stake, but he said he believes that you also have to have fun while living life. He had the Sherpas, base camp staff, the expedition leader and all his teammates sign the Cheesehead.
“It was phenomenal,” Fox said. “There are signatures underneath where the head goes. I decided that truly, without good teamwork we wouldn’t have gotten to the top of the mountain, or back alive. It was just the right thing to do.”
The final push
While Fox had fun with the Cheesehead, he still had a decision to make before making the final trek to the summit. When making that final ascent, Fox said climbers will carry the least amount of weight as possible. They go to the extremes of cutting the handles off toothbrushes and the tags off coats to save weight.
With that being the case, Fox had to decide whether to haul the Cheesehead to the summit. It was a tough decision since Fox said it weighs around a pound.
“Just a couple of days prior to leaving on the final voyage up the mountain, I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to squish that thing down into a little ball,’” Fox said.
He squished it into a ball, placed it in a compression sack and shoved it into the bottom of his pack under the oxygen cylinders. After all, this was his one shot at climbing Everest.
“It was a pride thing,” Fox said. “I’m a devout Wisconsinite and I love the Packers.”
Reaching the summit
Fox reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 21, 2009, at 8:50 a.m. He said it was a nice day when he reached the top — a little breezy, about minus-20 degrees without the windchill.
“When I get to the summit, first it’s surreal that you’re up there and you’ve accomplished your goal and your dream,” Fox said.
He said most climbers get to spend only five minutes on the summit. He got to spend 45 minutes up there because he was also part of the filming of a documentary.
After reaching the summit Fox spread some of his dad’s ashes. That was Fox’s main goal. His dad had passed away at the age of 36 after battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for eight years. Fox was 16 years old when his dad died. This was a final tribute to him.
“That’s the highest honor I could pay him, quite literally,” Fox said.
After honoring his dad, Fox retrieved the Cheesehead from his pack.
“I’ll never forget when I reached down into my pack and pulled this compression sack out. I had that thing down to the size of maybe a grapefruit,” Fox said. “In the sack was a little cinch. I’ll never forget the look on my Sherpa’s face. I’m pulling this sack out and I undo the little cinch cord and just like a Jack-in-the-Box, it sprung right out of the sack. He didn’t speak great English but he spoke just good enough, but he didn’t need to say a word at that moment. He looked at me and just shook his head from side to side, like you are one crazy westerner. It was great.”
The Cheesehead finds a final destination
When Fox returned to New London, he placed the Cheesehead in a shadow box and kept it in his home office.
“The more and more I looked at it, I thought people needed to see this thing,” Fox said.
Through mutual contacts, he reached out to a Green Bay Packers board member, who got him in touch with a contact at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
About a year and a half ago Fox took the Cheesehead to the Packers Hall of Fame to have it placed in the special Packers Fan Hall of Fame. It is in a glass encasement, along with a copy of the book Fox wrote about his journey to the summit of Mount Everest.
“I’m glad it’s in a great spot,” Fox said. “I’ve had so many people write who have gone to see the Cheesehead touring the Hall of Fame.”
Looking back, Fox said he is glad he decided to take the extra weight of the Cheesehead to the summit.
“That little bit was well worth the effort to display it on the top of the world,” Fox said.
This story first appeared in the December ’13 edition of Packerland Pride magazine.