Early in our training, I noticed there was, at times, what I would describe as a selfish intensity to Mark. It wasn’t a bad thing, to be clear, but he was so narrowly focused on the tallest mountain in the world and what it was going to take to reach the summit. He would rarely wait if someone was lagging on a hike, had little concern for anything or anyone who didn’t support his goal, and was completely obsessed with his journey. We have climbed Idaho’s Bald Mountain hundreds of times over the years. But I don’t know if he ever learned the mountain and enjoyed its views. He was so fixated on getting to the top that he rarely looked up to enjoy the climb.
There was a definite change in Mark when he became involved with Higher Ground, a non-profit that works primarily with adaptive athletes and military veterans, providing recreation, therapy and continued support to give people of all abilities a better life. I remember telling him, “I see you now as a guy who’s lifting others up as you climb.” It was powerful to watch. He began to draw strength from Emilia, and through supporting charities like the Epilepsy Foundation and Higher Ground. Mark realized he had a platform, as a former NFL player who was climbing the Seven Summits, to bring attention and awareness to worthy causes that helped others overcome their own hardships and reach their potential.
Mark conquered the first of the Seven Summits (Mount Kilimanjaro) in 2013, and though I was coaching at UCLA then, I tracked his minute-by-minute progress. We were able to send text messages back and forth during that and his other monumental climbs thanks to his Garmin watch — and I’ve kept most of them.
I was physically next to him during the two years of training for Everest and had thought of joining him on his trek into base camp in a role of support. And while I wasn’t able to join him on the May climb — it was scheduled during my son’s senior-year lacrosse season, and I wasn’t going to miss that for anything — I was able to communicate with Mark and track his progress on an app. At one point, while Mark was making his way to the summit on his final push, I was out to dinner with a group of people, and I had my cell phone out on the table, checking it constantly and paying no attention to the conversation being had right in front of me. I noticed on the app that Mark stopped for a while at the famed Hillary Step, a 39-foot, near-vertical rock face near the summit. I knew he was close, but I also knew he was battling extreme fatigue, including an eye injury, and the elements at 28,839 feet above sea level. I was still certain that Mark would accomplish his goal, knowing he was was physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for the adversity he was facing, and he did. On May 23, 2021, Mark made it to the summit.