Nine years ago, on a clear and magnificently cold day 20,000
feet high in the Alaskan sky, an idea formed in Stephen Koch's
oxygen-deprived brain. After a long climb he was standing at the
summit of Denali peering down a precipitous ice field. I wish I
had my snowboard, he thought. I can snowboard this. Koch was a
restless and unfocused man of25 who the year before had stirred
the Alpine community by snowboarding down Argentina's Aconcagua,
the tallest peak in South America. Now, on North America's
highest mountaintop, he suddenly saw a clear path before him: He
would become the first man to snowboard down the tallest peaks
on each of the seven continents.
The idea was novel, and dangerous enough to appeal to Koch, but
even as it came to him, an image, both exhilarating and ominous,
rose up in his mind's eye. "Everest," he says. "We slag it
sometimes, you know, because it's so popular. But Everest is the
great unknown, the big one. I knew from the start to save it till
The end, one way or another, is nigh. This summer Koch will
attempt to complete his so-called Seven Summits Snowboarding
Quest by cutting turns on a steep, unpredictable run down 9,000
vertical feet of Everest's north face. He plans to do it during
the heart of monsoon season, when snow falls for days on end and
the threat of avalanche and sudden death is high. The ascent's
final push from advanced base camp should take close to two days,
and even if it unfolds without calamity--a big if even for a
climber who has made more than 50 first descents on his
snowboard--Koch will mount his board physically exhausted,
mentally spent and dizzied by the thin air. On the way up he'll
be supported by at least two companions. On the way down he'll be
on his own. "Monsoon season is a very, very dangerous time to
go," says Christian Beckwith, the editor of Alpinist magazine.
"That's how Stephen does things. At least he knows he'll have
Thus far the summit mission has given Koch what he hoped for when
he conceived it: a series of fabulous adventures, high challenges
and direction in his life. Yet the summits, and Everest in
particular, lured him for another reason. Many of the great
Alpine achievements occur well out of sight, on esoteric routes
of little-known bluffs, and are only slightly different from
ascents or descents that preceded them. Climbers awe their peers
with subtle variations in style or risk tolerance--"He soloed it!"
they say, or "He led all the way!"--that hold little currency
outside the community. But to snowboard down the seven summits?
"That," said Koch, poring over a photo of Everest at his home in
Jackson, Wyo., not long ago, "is something the greater public can
understand. People get it."
Alpinist etiquette is clear: Don't climb and tell. The sport's
true legends are climbers you've never heard of, leathery men and
women who wage long battles on perilous faces, lose digits to
frostbite and never say a word about it. Koch, in contrast,
prefers that folks know what he's been up to. He has a website
(stephenkoch.com) that chronicles his climbs and snowboard
descents. "We'll climb together in the Tetons, do something new,
and Stephen'll be awesome up there," says Hans Johnstone, a
former Olympic skier who lives in Jackson. "Then later I'll hear
him talking all about it, and I'll be like, Whoa! You just don't
talk about that stuff."
It's no exaggeration to suggest that virtually all of Jackson's
8,647 year-round residents know who Stephen Koch is. He lives on
the edge of the tiny downtown, near Snow King Resort, a
1,600-foot ski slope that he regularly runs up and snowboards
down. He has been one of the region's climbing heroes since age
19, when he pulled off a daring solo ascent up the wet, loose
rock of the Grand Teton's north face. In the spring of 1998, Koch
attempted to become the first person to snowboard Mount Owen, the
second-highest, first-gnarliest peak in the Tetons. Near the
summit he heard a rumble. In an instant an avalanche had knocked
him off the face. He crashed over rocks, flew over cliffs and
traveled 2,200 vertical feet in 30 seconds. When he finally
stopped, he was coughing blood. His right leg dangled uselessly
below the knee, and he had two fractured vertebrae in his back.
He spent a night huddled on the mountain before a rescue team
Less than a year later, after a grueling rehabilitation, Koch
returned to Owen and snowboarded down. "I remember my doctor
saying I'd never snowboard again," says Koch. "I kept quiet, but
inside I knew there was no way that was true. There was not a
moment when I considered not going back into the mountains. It's
what I do, it's how I live. Don't people feel challenged when
they sit down to write a poem? Or make a candle? This is my
thing. O.K., so there's a risk you'll die. So what? If there's no
danger, what's the point?"
Even as he has forged a reputation as one of the world's most
fearless and skilled boarders, his seven-summits quest has
roiled many of his peers. "C'mon," says one prominent ski
mountaineer, "that's pretty hokey." The fight for legitimacy is
partly why Koch refuses to tackle Everest in customary fashion.
In 2001, Marco Siffredi of France made the first snowboard
descent of Everest, ascending and coming down one of the
standard routes that guided recreational climbers use. It's an
ascent that hard-core climbers hold in contempt. Beckwith's old
Alpinist business card, for example, featured a sardonic New
Yorker cartoon of middle-aged people rising through the clouds
on an escalator, picnic baskets in tow. "I understand the
Everest climb used to be quite a chore," read the caption.
Siffredi went the common way, took oxygen and enlisted Sherpas
to carry his snowboard. "Go up a trade route?" scoffs Koch, who
in 1996 was at Everest base camp (for a climb up the nearby
Lohtse peak) when the infamous storm hit that inspired Jon
Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air. "That would be a giant f-you to
the climbing community. If you do this, you have to do it in
Koch plans to ascend and descend the fabled Hornbein Couloir, a
treacherous and rarely traveled route on which, incidentally,
Siffredi disappeared without a trace last September. Koch and his
two companions--Jimmy Chin and Mark Newcomb--will aim for a break
in the monsoon snowfall and climb without the aid of supplemental
oxygen or fixed ropes. "If he makes it up there, he's got one
rule coming down: Don't fall," says ski mountaineer Rick
Armstrong. "No matter how bad the conditions, you can't go down
when you're coming off a peak. If you fall, nothing catches you."
As of last week Koch was still raising money for his Everest
trip. He is not wealthy; he lives in a rented room in a small
two-bedroom condo in Jackson and drives a battered 1985 Toyota
long bed. "I do wish he would settle down, find a steady income,
find a normal way of life," says his mother, Mary Lou. "But this
is Stephen. He goes up into the mountains, and every time he
does, he brings me down on my knees to pray."
When Koch envisions the movie version of his life, he sees a
quixotic work complete with high suspense, low comedy and a
streak of the noir. It will be part documentary (the climbing and
the snowboarding) and part dramatization (the rest of it), and
however the narrative unfolds, the film's crucial scene will take
place on Mount Everest. The camera will follow Koch through the
monsoon and up the Hornbein Couloir. He'll be traveling light,
and the narrator will note that his backpack contains only two
ice axes, mittens, goggles, sunscreen, boots, water and food.
Then, at 29,028 feet, if all goes well, Stephen Koch will step
into his snowboard, adjust his goggles, take a deep breath and
launch himself into the thin air.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WADE MCKOY/FPI THE JOY OF SIX Koch's seven-summit quest has taken him up Denali (left) and down Mount Elbrus; only Everest remains.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WADE MCKOY/FPI HIGH STYLE To reach Everest's summit, Koch will take the perilous Hornbein Couloir--without supplemental oxygen or fixed ropes.
"The seven summits are something the greater public can
understand," Koch says. "People get it."