High altitude maven Don Bowie

Doing an Ironman triathlon or an Ultraman event certainly has its challenges and is clearly worthy of respect, but the challenges taken on by high altitude climber and endurance ace Don Bowie are on a completely different level. He can't just quit and sit down and wait to be taken by an ambulance or the broom wagon to the next aid station - sitting down and not moving forward or down often would mean death. When climbing in the death zone, there is no easy way out. Bowie has been also working hard on his cycling and the Badwater Ultramarathon seemed like a natural fit and the stepping stone for more.

ST: Thank you for your time Don.

Don: Thanks for your interest in my unique sport. I am a big fan of Slowtwitch and I use the forums as a resource frequently.

ST: In a Facebook post you mentioned having rubber legs after the 132 mile ride from Badwater to the base of Mt. Whitney. Is that how you like to start a 7 mile run/climb that covers 8,000 feet of elevation gain?

Don: I'm still a bit of a rookie on the bike since I only started road cycling in 2013, so I haven't yet discovered just how far I can push myself over that kind of distance with that much elevation gain (more than +15,000ft). In training I'm able to consistently ride those distances significantly faster, but I question whether or not I still have it in the legs to climb to the summit- and back down. This time I did have rubber legs just off the bike but recovered quickly, so I'm confident I can push the bike split much harder in the future.

ST: How much faster do you think is possible?

Don: I think the bike split can be cut down at least another 40 minutes, and the run another 15-20 minutes. In the future I expect someone to break the 12 hour mark, but wind and snow conditions would need to be perfect. Sub 13hrs is my personal goal.

ST: I think your goal was to cover those 7 miles up Mt. Whitney in 2.5 hours. How many folks do you think could cover that section in that time even if they never had to ride any distance prior?

Don: Most people take 2 days to climb Mt. Whitney, but these days it's getting more and more common for folks to climb it in a day. The record is just over 2 hours, and I've done it in 2.5 with fresh legs, so I've been happy with 3.5 hours during my events. It's important to keep in mind that unlike most races, when you finish Badwater-Whitney you find yourself still standing on the top of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,500 feet elevation- and the hike back to the car is unusually grueling.

ST: Oh yes, the hike back. I assume you did not have to go all the way back to Badwater on your own.

Don: Unlike previous years, I had a few friends follow me to the summit on my last attempt, but I dropped them in the last steep chute about 30 minutes below the summit. The highest section of Mt Whitney can be covered with ice and snow at times, and you need to be careful not to make a mistake. Certain sections are pretty dicey- especially when wearing trail-runner type shoes. Every year a few people fall and die on Whitney despite full mountaineering kit and equipment. It takes confidence and some backcountry experience to be comfortable up there alone, in the dark, completely exhausted.

ST: This is the actually the second time you have done this very epic event, and we don’t throw around the word epic lightly here. Tell us how the idea first came up and why this specific climb?

Don: The Badwater Ultramarathon has been around for ages, so the course is not new. I've been a professional high altitude climber for years now, so when I started road biking it seemed like combining the two sports was a logical step. My friends and I have been calling these big altitude events Ultrahurt, and the Badwater-Whitney course is just one of many Ultrahurt events we've come up with, including Mt. Hood, Mt. Shasta, and San Gorgonio- all from the ocean in a day. Next winter I'll attempt Aconcagua in Argentina, which is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere at nearly 23,000 feet elevation- from the ocean in a day.

ST: What is the total distance and what time goal will you have?

Don: On Aconcagua the bike is 117 miles (188km), then 14 mile run to base camp (22.5km) , then a 9000ft climb to the summit- all in less than 24hrs. Although shorter and about the same vertical gain as Badwater to Whitney, the challenge on Aconcagua is finishing at 22,837ft above sea level before facing a very long climb back down.

ST: For a ride and run like this, what kind of team does it take to get it done?

Don: Since my sponsors have started to get behind these events I'm now able to have a strong support crew. Sampson and Shimano helped me customize a quiver of bikes enabling me to ride a TT frame on the longer flat sections, then switch an ultra light climbing frame for the big hills. Garmin set me up with the computers and power-meters, and Kask with the aero helmets, and of course my main sponsor Adidas has re-entered the cycling arena with awesome kits. I've also just developed a new line of supplements with IsoRide specifically for the bike, like a one handed gel snap with a 15 second delivery time. Really cool stuff.

ST: You are mostly known as a climber or alpinist. Can you talk to us how you got started with climbing and who or what inspired you?

Don: I started climbing organically as a teenager through my interest in the nature. Although I was a good athlete then, the mountains were more about wilderness experience then a venue for athletic pursuits. As time progressed I got into rock climbing and then ice climbing, then started climbing higher and harder peaks in the bigger ranges. One of the things you learn very quickly about high altitude is that your physical ability to acclimatize is something you can't train for- you either acclimate well or you don't. I just happen to have been one of the fortunate people who has the physiology to climb the highest mountains on earth without supplemental oxygen.

ST: I think your first 8,000 meter climb was Broad Peak in 2005 and you attempted that one solo. You however turned around at 7,800. Is that the kind of self-discipline a climber needs or at least one who wants to live long?

Don: Unless you're climbing on Everest with sherpas and guides and bottled oxygen, high altitude climbing is a very dangerous sport. All the infrastructure on Everest has taken a lot of the danger out of the equation and these days you don't even need much climbing experience to summit Everest. But once you venture out onto more remote or unclimbed 7000-8000 meter peaks in the Himalaya things can get dicey in a hurry - especially when climbing solo. Unlike many other sports where you can mitigate danger with experience, high altitude climbing requires throwing the dice a lot. Over the last 3 years I've lost 7 of my former partners, all killed during climbing expeditions.

ST: Does that make you more cautious or apprehensive?

Don: I would not say that the tragedies I've experienced make me more apprehensive, but they certainly have made me cautious. You don't conquer an 8000 meter peak, but rather sneak up on it and then get the hell off before it notices you. You have to be humble enough to back off at times, but still have enough bravado to attempt something that others have failed- or even died- trying. Sometimes you need to follow your intuition, and at other times abandon the inner voice screaming at you to just go down. The 8000 meter mindset is a weird inner dialog.

ST: Do you consider yourself to be a gambler?

Don: I did mention throwing the dice before, so admittedly there are times where bad timing can mean the worst outcome. But consider riding your bike on the side of a public road or two-lane highways: it's actually a rather dangerous thing to do. Even on a bike some things are in your control, other things are out of your control. One swerve left at the wrong time and it's lights out. Is this gambling? I don't think so. In my opinion this is merely a reasonable level of assumed risk, and must be considered individually. A while ago I adopted my own twist of a familiar phrase, and often say -- Familiarity breeds exempt. Meaning that once you've done something risky and survived you feel more confident and therefore less exposed to the risk. In reality, the level of risk has not changed at all - you're just simply more confident in the face of that risk. It's the same in the mountains.

ST: In 2007 you summited K2 via the Abruzzi Spur. Where does that climb rank among all the ones you have done?

Don: Despite being the second highest mountain on earth, K2 is notoriously dangerous and difficult to climb, especially without bottled oxygen. However Annapurna in Nepal has an abysmal 1-in-3 death-to-summit ratio, and I've attempted Annapurna 4 times. Of all the mountains I have tried I believe that Annapurna is among the most difficult, and certainly the most dangerous. It's always a tough decision to go back there again, but I think I'll give it another go this coming spring.

ST: Is 7,300 meters the highest you managed on Annapurna, and is that what draws you back?

Don: Even though I've not reached higher than 7300m on Annapurna, I feel that I have the skill and ability to climb it. In prior attempts there were circumstances and tragedies that didn't allow me an honest shot at the summit. This spring I hope things will be different and I'll finally get the chance to reach he top.

ST: What are your thoughts about all these massive commercial groups that seem to drive more and more folks about the mountains, and especially Everest?

Don: I don't mind the groups on Everest at all. I think it's a great accomplishment for many people. If anyone seeks a remote climbing experience on some big, bad mountain somewhere, there are literally thousands of unclimbed peaks all over the world to choose from, or you can climb Everest via one of the many seldom visited or unclimbed routes and have the whole place to yourself. The problem I have with Everest is public perception, and that climbing by the tourist-guided standard is somehow the ultimate achievement in the sport. If Everest is so extreme, why is there a huge conga line up the mountain? It's because almost nobody in that line has the ability to climb without the rope that extends- without gap- from bottom to top. Consider the competency of any “climber” who doesn't have the simple ability to unclip and pass another climber for a few easy moves, or even climb just beside the line. In the world of high altitude climbing, comparing the tourists on Everest with the top high altitude climbers is like comparing a world class Ironman triathlete to a rookie age-grouper; they are both in the same race, but there is a huge difference between the two.

ST: Do you have any bigger climbing expedition planned?

Don: After taking 2014 off from climbing expeditions I look forward to getting back into the Himalayas this spring, hopefully Annapurna again.

ST: Back to your Badwater – Mt. Whitney ride and run. You own the record, but I think you want to go faster. Will there be a third attempt?

Don: Absolutely, and not just myself. I know at least a half dozen other people who will attempt it this year, included Ryan Tetz who briefly held the record in 2014 before I took it back. There also are a few small groups who will try it as a team. Personally, I welcome the competition, and for guidelines about the route, timing, permits, and information they can visit my website at www.donbowie.com or contact me with any questions.

ST: What about triathlons? Are there any events that have tickled your fancy?

Don: Triathlons have that infuriating thing called swimming. Because I've been an athlete my entire life I'm used to a baseline fitness and tenacity that enables me to be reasonably competitive at many sports- even golf comes naturally to me. When pro triathlete Jenny Fletcher got me into cycling, she and her training partners told me right from the start that I was a natural on the bike. But when I got in the pool they couldn't stop laughing. I have huge respect for good swimmers and the balance between form and fitness it requires.

ST: So is that a very strong no to triathlon?

Don: During my ultra-cycling/running events I have come to understand a unique kind of suffering due to the maintained physical output required. High altitude climbing requires a slightly less intense level of physical output but stretches it out over 3 or 4 days (or more)- and all that time you haven't slept, you're extremely dehydrated due to a max intake of 2-3 liters of fluids per day, you can't eat much due to constant nausea, and you feel light-headed and utterly exhausted due to lack of oxygen. Meanwhile your physical body is actually dying with every hour you spend above 6500 meters, and the arctic temperatures feel even colder due to hypoxia induced shunting and vaso-constriction in your fingers, toes, and extremities in order to keep your vital organs oxygenated enough to stay alive. Plus, you must keep a clear and calm disposition despite the constant threat of objective dangers like rock falls, avalanches, hurricane force winds, huge crevasses, and steep slopes that need be navigated without mistake- or you die. If by chance something were to go wrong there is no rescue - you are totally on your own- because helicopters can't fly that high, and even if by some extremely remote chance someone were able find your location, you'd likely die from exposure before they arrived.

This combination of remoteness, fear, mental anguish, and physical output, under such harsh conditions, over such long periods of time, present a level of suffering I have yet to find in any other sport - but then again, I haven't tried a triathlon. Yet.

ST: Any final words?

Don: Thanks so much for your interest in my sport and high altitude climbing experiences!

You can learn more about Don Bowie at donbowie.com