Park City native sets out to conquer Everest, the English Channel and America’s coasts all in one year
December 4, 2018
Rob Lea has a wild goal – three wild goals, actually.
The Park City native plans to climb Mt. Everest, swim across the English Channel and bike across the U.S. all in a single year.
It came to him while he was in the doctor's office in 2016. He was in for an examination of his ankles, which were in bad shape from years of competitive running. When the doctor told him he needed a procedure to remove bone spurs and reattach the stabilizing ligaments on both ankles – and also that he probably shouldn't be running – Lea, 37, knew he needed an objective to push himself and avoid falling into a rut.
"Immediately, sitting on the doctor's table, I thought of the English Channel," he said. "I'm not really sure why that came to my mind; I just thought 'Hey, that would be a hell of a goal.'"
Then, while researching the swim between England and France, that dream started to grow.
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Some call the open water swimming feat "The Everest of swimming," so he thought he might as well see if anyone had done both in a year – swim the English Channel and climb Everest – and found information on a small handful people who had attempted or done both, but never in the same year.
So it was settled: he would try both in 2019.
But what self-respecting triathlete, who had once won his age group at the Ironman World Championships, would just do a hike and a swim without a bike ride?
He might as well hand over his bib at that point.
"You can't really do that and be a triathlete and not throw in some bike aspect of it," he said. "So I thought, 'What would the bike be?' And for me, it would be biking across America."
Lea has long had something of an audacious streak. He's climbed Denali and Aconcagua, the highest mountains in North and South America, respectively. He was also a state champion swimmer for Park City High School, from which he graduated in 1999, setting a handful of records in sprint events before competing for the University of California, Davis, in college.
But the three-course sufferfest he's cooking up for 2019 would easily be the piece de resistance of his athletic achievements so far. Fortunately, Lea's job as a realtor for Berkshire Hathaway gives him some flexibility with his schedule. He and his father, Jim Lea, work as a team, and trade covering each other's business while the other is on vacation.
"When my father brings up possibly going on a vacation, I always jump right on it and tell him to go so I don't feel bad leaving," Lea said. "We watch each other's business while the other is away or unavailable. It works really well and makes my schedule very flexible."
But he will still need to raise a colossal amount of money to make the expedition possible, and is aiming to gather $100,000 before setting out. He will also have to log countless hours in preparing both his fitness level and planning the intercontinental challenge's logistics to make it all come together. He'll be preparing to bag Asia's signature peak, negotiate an aquatic exit from Britain to Europe, and go from sea to shining sea in America.
Mt. Everest almost needs no introduction. At 29,029 feet (8,848 meters), the Himalayan peak is the tallest mountain in the world, which means it gets really cold, with highs during July, its warmest month, averaging around -2 degrees Fahrenheit near its peak, and climbers draw in far less oxygen per breath than they would even at Park City's elevation. The altitude causes all kinds of problems – from coughs and fatigue to cerebral edema – while the exposure and elemental factors cause a whole set of problems outside of human control, like avalanches, the effects of frostbite, and snowblindness. These issues come together to create a myriad of challenges for climbers. Of the nearly 1,300 who buy a permit to climb the mountain, about 600 reach the summit, and more than 300 have died trying since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers on record to summit the peak in 1953.
Though Lea had some experience as a mountaineer before this year, he had never climbed anything like Everest. He had never been into the "death zone," the 26,000-foot marker that connotes a precipitous rise in altitude-related difficulty. At least, not until this autumn, when he and his current fiancee (then his girlfriend) professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich, climbed Cho Oyu.
Cho Oyu sits about 20 straight miles from Everest on the Tibet-Nepal border, and shares some of Everest's characteristics. The mountain gives adventurers a taste of the high-altitude climbing, topping out at 26,906 feet, and expeditions often include the employment of local mountain guides (called sherpas, though some aren't members of the Sherpa ethnic group) to set fixed ropes for groups of climbers.
Gleich and Lea went with Alpenglow Expeditions, a group that approaches the mountain from the north in Tibet, and provides staged camps at various points of the climb for the five climbers to use on their acclimatization hikes and their eventual attempts to summit.
After some acclimatization, Lea and Gleich reached the summit of Cho Oyu on Sept. 28.
As if bagging one of the 14 "eight-thousanders" wasn't enough, the day took on even more importance when Gleich proposed to Lea, and then skied down some 5,000 feet, as was her goal, while Lea descended through a mix of skiing and hiking.
Their experience solidified the couple's ambition to climb Everest.
To make that ambition a reality, they will have to act fast.
They need to secure funding through sponsors or a donor to pay for the considerable cost of climbing the mountain (Alpenglow's Everest expeditions cost $85,000 each), including guide services and permits. And Lea said he must make a $10,000 down payment to by the end of this year to secure a place on the mountain. With reservations secured, Lea and Gleich would start acclimatizing by sleeping in a hypoxic (low-oxygen) tent in February, start exercising with hypoxic masks in March, all before flying to Tibet in April and spending roughly a month acclimatizing and climbing the mountain.
Lea and Gleich plan to finish the climb by May 26, when Lea would then turn his attention to English Channel. In the two months between his estimated summit date and his English Channel plunge, Lea will need to start gaining weight (climbers can lose anywhere from 15 to 50 pounds over the course of one Everest expedition), and changing his athletic build from one centered on trudging up and down mountains to one centered on swimming through sea currents.
The section of the English Channel known as the Dover Strait, a 20.7-mile gap between the white cliffs of Dover in the United Kingdom and a peninsula near the French port city of Calais, is not for the faint of heart. Of the 3,951 attempts to swim the gap made by about 1,832 swimmers since its first crossing by Matthew Webb in 1875, about 60 percent have been successful, according to Dover.UK.Com, a local news outlet that keeps records on the swim.
Fishermen, invaders and recreational swimmers going both ways have always had to contend with the channel's strong Atlantic currents and temperamental weather patterns, but in the modern age the strait also is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with up to 600 ships passing through and 200 passenger ferries crossing per day on average to create traffic and wakes. It's also a bit nippy, and to get credit for swimming the channel, you have to do it in, essentially, a Speedo and swim cap. Wetsuits are considered poor form.
This was news to Lea.
"In some sense I kind of committed to it at that point," he said, thinking of that day in the doctor's office when the idea to swim the channel formed. "Which is funny because I knew very little about it. And, as I have learned since then, this endeavor is going to be more difficult than I ever thought it would be."
It's the cold that Lea thinks about the most.
Temperatures in the channel hover around 63 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, and on average a swimmer paddles through the gap for 13 hours, but it has taken as long as 28. Swims take longer if the swimmer misses the landing point at Cap Gris Nez, and currents often send them closer to Calais, 12 miles to the north.
To prepare, Lea went to an open water training camp in Mallorca, Spain, in March of 2018, and trained in cold water through the summer. He moved from local swimming pools to the Jordanelle Reservoir in spring, then started diving into higher venues where the water was colder, like Smith and Morehouse Reservoir, nestled in the Uintas east of Oakley, as the temperatures rose through summer.
He also changed his bathing habits. It's cold Scottish showers for Lea. Exposure to the cold is supposed to help prepare his mind and help his body store brown fat — which is thought to be rapidly metabolized by humans as a method of keeping warm.
Gleich said she will be there for parts of Lea's project, though probably not in the boat for the English Channel, where she won't really be able to help him and she might get seasick.
"It can be hard for a parent or a loved one, to see the person they love in so much misery," she said, differentiating open water swimming from land-based activities, where one can give a hug or food for support.
If everything goes according to plan, Lea would slip into the strait between July 10 and 16, when he has chartered an escort boat to help shepherd him across the busy channel.
Once Lea has cleared those hurdles he will start training for his more-than 3,100-mile bike ride, working up to the day he sets out to pedal for a full autumn month, coast to coast, from Seattle to Nantucket, Massachusetts, at an anticipated rate of more than 100 miles per day.
"The start and finish is still to be finalized," he said, but added that a friend's second home in Nantucket would make an appropriate finish line.
"Ironically, I've been invited in years past, and I've always thought 'Nah, I don't really want to go sit out in Nantucket, and it was kind of a joke that I would one day ride my bike out there from Utah and I'd be tired enough to just sit back and enjoy myself," Lea said. "That's where this has come full circle."
The undertaking would require a follow van to help Lea on his way and carry his gear – a job for which Gleich said she might take over for part of the trip.
"I think his mom might need to do two weeks," Gleich said. "I think we might need to split it up just for our own self care and preservation."
The fastest bike ride across the U.S., according to Guinness World Records, was set by Austrian triathlete Christopher Strasser during the 2014 Race Across America when he rode 7 days, 15 hours and 56 minutes, covering about 3,000 miles from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland.
Though Lea will not be attempting anything close to that speed, it will still be challenging.
Though, technically, there will likely be one additional challenge to the three physical feats.
"Then somewhere in there we will probably throw in a wedding, so that will be fun," Lea said of 2019.
If Lea was to achieve his goal, he would likely be the first person to do so.
But swimming the English Channel and summiting Everest are not only very difficult; they require good weather conditions at very specific times.
"It's hard for me to say what the odds are," Lea said. "Obviously I wouldn't try and do it if I didn't think the odds weren't somewhat in my favor. … But of course, we could show up there and the weather could be terrible for a week and I never even get in the water there in the English Channel. Same thing on Everest. You can do everything you want but you can get altitude sickness, you could have terrible weather the entire time."
It took Gleich a while to warm to the idea, too. Lea said when he first introduced the idea to her two years ago, she was less than enthusiastic. Gleich said she felt like Lea was stepping on her toes, since she was the pro athlete of the couple.
"For a long time, I was pretty egocentric," Gleich said. "To be a pro athlete you kind of need to be a little bit self-absorbed. But there's this beautiful moment in a relationship where it goes from all about you to how you can help someone else. For me it's been at times challenging, but also this really beautiful realization that there's a lot of satisfaction in stepping back and asking yourself 'How can I contribute to his goal and his dream.' I didn't really realize how much satisfaction you can get from that."
As for her perspective on his project, she said she expects it to be a very difficult year, and success will take an incredible amount of willpower.
"It will really come down to how bad he wants this," she said. "It feels a bit stressful at times but I really believe when you really put your whole heart into it, then you can do the impossible."
If Lea does succeed, he said he will likely take a beach vacation and "just relax."
He might not be built for relaxation, he admits.
"That's what I say now, but what I'll probably want to do is climb and ski Vincent Massif in Antarctica," he added.
Which seems likely enough.
Lea and Gleich will give a presentation on their ascent of Cho Oyu, and Lea's triathlon project, at The Slide Show in Jim Santy Auditorium at the Park City Library on Wednesday, Dec. 5, from 6:30-8 p.m. For more information go to theslideshowpc.brownpapertickets.com.
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