Ambassador Spotlight: Jeff Glasbrenner

Calling his shot like Babe Ruth

By Sam Sala 
Having been a long-time, top-tier athlete in both wheelchair basketball and triathlon, Paradox Ambassador, Jeff Glasbrenner decided to set his sights even higher… 29,035 feet high to be exact. Recently, we got to chat with him a bit about his goals and accomplishments, his attitude toward disability and of course, his recent summit of the world’s tallest peak, Mt. Everest…
Paradox Sports: “You’ve got a pretty impressive history as an athlete already…You’ve played with the US National team for wheelchair basketball for 17 years; you’re a 3-time Paralympian, 2-time world champion, and still hold the single-game scoring record, set in 2004, of 63 points (with 27 rebounds to boot!). You also have a very impressive record as an endurance athlete, with twenty-five full Ironman races (that’s 3,515 human powered miles!!!) under your belt…what was it about climbing and mountaineering that drew you in?”
Jeff Glasbrenner: “It’s always been a dream of mine to stand at the top of the world. I’ve also always had a drive to be the best at what I do. Combining those two things obviously led to the goal of climbing Mt Everest, but that in itself wasn’t quite the challenge I was looking for; I wanted to go even bigger. There is a prized mountaineering feat, called ‘The Seven Summits’ which consists of climbing the highest peak on each of the seven continents, and that got me closer to the level of challenge I wanted, but still fell a touch short…so I set my sights on ‘The Explorer’s Grand Slam’ which involves not only climbing the Seven Summits, but also venturing to both the north and south poles. Only around 35 people have successfully managed to do it. It fits my style perfectly.”

A gorgeous day at Everest Base Camp

PS: “That’s a pretty lofty goal…how did you get started with it?”
JG: “I found a link to the Front Range Adaptive Climbing Club (FRACC), hosted by Paradox, through an internet search and when I called to get some info, the person I spoke to was super inviting and supportive, so my whole family and I decided to attend. My daughter also has a disability with frequent seizures, so it was great to be able to do something like this with her; being together in a way that you can really only feel by tying into a rope with one another. We spent 2 hours climbing that night and she never had a seizure; it was really empowering for our entire family. In fact, my wife, who is now a climber and mountaineer, my two sisters and I are busy planning a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro which will also fit as part of my Seven Summits goal.”

The Glasbrenner family atop the Colorado “14er”, Mt. Evans

PS: “So you and your family were hooked pretty early on then.”
JG: “Yes. In fact, at the end of that FRACC, I heard Paradox had an opening in an upcoming climbing trip on Grand Teton. I signed up for the trip with no experience and a week later, we set off for Wyoming. And by ‘no experience’ I mean I hadn’t ever even slept in a tent before…funny thing is, we slept in a yurt for that trip…I actually ended up spending my first night in a tent when I went to South America to climb that continent’s highest peak, Aconcagua.”
PS: “You’ve been a top-tier athlete for years, and you’ve already climbed to some very high elevations, so I imagine your baseline fitness was quite strong going into your Everest attempt…did you add any different style of training, or any specific practice to prep for challenges you anticipated you’d face on the mountain?”
JG: “Going into this, I was fortunate enough to already have a pretty incredible base fitness…I have a resting heart rate of around 43 BPM, which certainly helped on the endurance side of things. As for strength training, I worked with a trainer and really focused heavily on my artificial leg side. In a lot of endurance racing, like when I’m on the bike, I can let my left leg do a big chunk of the work, but with something like Everest, you really need to engage your entire body. I also did a bunch of hiking on some of Colorado’s 14ers (14,000’ peaks) with a heavy pack on and did some elevation-mask training, which essentially simulates working out at around 18,000’ and forces you to really control your breathing which is critical when you’re at 29,000’. My family and I also set up ladders and fixed rope systems at home to practice crossing crevasses and climbing up through the Khumbu Ice Fall. I really enjoy training, so it all was actually a lot of fun even though it was also a lot of work.”
PS: “Apparently all the training paid off…”

Taking in the views on an early acclimation hike

JG: “Yeah, even though I’m missing a leg, I still felt like I was the strongest climber in my group.”
PS: “So, regarding challenges on the mountain; were there any that came as a surprise or did you feel like you had them dialed? And was there anything that was more or less challenging than you thought it would be?”
JG: “On the physical side, I knew that I had put in the work, and I really felt really good with my training. I had three mentors who had climbed Everest before, and I did a lot of visualization exercises to anticipate challenges. I would get input on a potential obstacle, info on how to overcome it, then really focus on visualizing myself getting through it; and it really did pay off. I never felt like there was an obstacle I was unprepared for during the climb. Mental challenges were another story. Being gone from my family for almost two months was definitely tough. There was also the day-to-day stuff around the camps that you can’t really practice for. You spend a good amount of time not doing much, relatively speaking, even during good weather.”
PS: “…and when it gets bad?”
JG: “It got bad at one point and we were stuck in a storm at Camp 2 for six days; tent-bound for around 23 hours each day. For someone who is really accustomed to moving around, that was like prison. The key was just maintaining a good attitude. On a mountain like Everest, if you can’t keep a positive outlook, you’re going home; it’s as simple as that. We had a couple of guys on our team leave early because they just weren’t able to stay positive.”
PS: “Six days tent-bound in a storm sounds absolutely awful…”
JG: “It really was. But what made it worse, is I lost almost 20lbs in that time. For most anyone else, 20lbs is a pretty big loss, but manageable; for an amputee though, it causes all kinds of problems. My stump shrank up and my prosthesis fit became a real issue. I normally don’t wear a sock on my stump, but I ended up wearing FIFTEEN to fill the void, so not only was the weight loss an energy suck, but it was killer for my leg.”
PS: “Well that leads into, and sort of answers part of my next question. Did you use a standard prosthesis or do you have a custom unit specifically for mountaineering? And did you have any issues with the fit at altitude or in the cold?”

Custom-engineered leg by Astep Ahead Prosthetics

JG: “The cold and altitude didn’t really play into the fit issues much; it mostly was the weight loss and like I said before, I just had to layer up the socks to make it work. As for ‘custom versus standard’ prosthetic…I have a custom-made leg for mountaineering. I actually had two NASA engineers working on it with me and Astep Ahead Prosthetics for some time to develop a design that functioned well. I took the first version on a climbing trip to Ecuador to test it out, and it really didn’t perform like I’d hoped. The ankle was too stiff. It felt unstable. The performance just wasn’t there, so we scrapped it and came up with a totally new design that ended up working much better. I can actually run uphill and downhill with this new one…on ice…it’s pretty incredible.”
PS: “As most people know, in the world of high-altitude mountaineering, the cold is often among the most dangerous aspects. Did you do anything specific to insulate your leg?”
 JG: “Frostbite was definitely a concern for me. I ended cutting a Thermarest Z Light sleeping pad down and wrapped that around my leg, then covered all of that with 3 thick wool socks. It worked really well and I didn’t have any issues. On summit day, I added in a couple of those open-and-shake hand warmer pouches before I put on the wool socks.
PS: “It sounds like you had a lot of the kinks worked out before they even became kinks. I’d like to switch gears a bit and ask about life around base camp. Was there a lot of curiosity or questions surrounding your leg, or were you considered ‘just another climber’ by most everyone else?”
JG: “At first, there was a bit of spectacle to it; especially on the 9-day trek to base camp. I like to wear shorts whenever possible and when we’d come through these little villages along the way, the kids would all come running out and want to touch my leg, and ask me about it. It was actually kind of great for the kids, and adults, especially ones with disabilities themselves, to see me going to climb something like Everest though; I feel like it provided a bit of inspiration all around. A bit to the story that I thought was funny…when we first started out, we all got paired up with ‘our’ Sherpa and -understand that these guys make a good bit of their income based on bonuses for getting a client to the summit- when my Sherpa saw me, he was a little bit…visibly ticked-off. I guess he thought I was going to be a problem. Early on, there definitely was a bit of doubt and questioning about how I’d do, or if I’d be a liability.”
PS: “How did you guys get past it?”
JG: “I just put in the work. We did some technical training and a couple of harder acclimation hikes, and I was the first one in our group to finish more than once. At one point, he finally gave me a big smile, a pat on the shoulder, and said ‘I think you can do it!’…after that everyone’s doubts were put to rest and my disability became a non-issue.”
PS: “It’s understandable the Sherpa might have some concerns about their income coming up short, given the events over the past few seasons. Was there much discussion or angst among guides, climbers, or Sherpa considering safety this year?”
JG: “I honestly didn’t notice anything like that at all. Everyone was just really psyched to climb. The Sherpa and guides all came prepared to give 100%, and that’s exactly what they did. While I was there, there was only one time when morale dipped, when a Sherpa who was fixing ropes on Lhotse died in a big fall. There was a total of around seven deaths this year, but relatively speaking, it was a successful climbing season.”
PS: “Seven sounds pretty fortunate, given some of the accounts you hear of the busy traffic and people having a big lack of mountaineering skills for a climb of this scale…”
JG: “Yeah, there were definitely some people on the mountain lacking some basic skills. So many folks these days just want to check off the box, and they rely solely on paying a guiding company a bunch of money to do the work for them. I put in a ton of research on which guide service to go with, and I also did a lot of work training and practicing skills to be safe and self-sufficient up there. If you’re promised to be guided up on a rope with relatively no effort, and have oxygen handed to you at x-y-z…you know, if for some reason those bottles aren’t there, or weather conditions fall apart, or you get separated, you can be in a lot of trouble if you don’t really know what you’re doing. It’s kind of scary to see happening.”
PS: “Well, we’re glad to hear you went in as well-prepared as you did. Other than the seemingly obvious ‘being on the summit’ what was your favorite part of the trip?”
JG: “Honestly, I really loved providing inspiration with this climb. It meant a lot to me to know that other people with disabilities were looking to me, and that I was able to succeed and show them what’s possible if you really go after it.”
PS: “…and your least favorite part?”
JG: “Being away from my family for so long was tough…and being stuck in that tent for six days. I was so psyched to climb and I knew my training was solid, but you can’t do anything about the weather. You really just have to sit back, try to relax, and maintain your positive outlook. Oh, and here’s another bit…kind of a slanted story, but it’s one of the funnier and stranger pieces of the trip. I just got done climbing the tallest mountain in the world…I’m feeling pretty proud…pretty strong. I get on a plane to fly home and I happened to be seated in an exit row…The flight attendant comes by, sees my leg, and says ‘you can’t be seated in the exit row, sir.’ Now, I know I’m plenty capable of opening that door, and helping others out, so I try to explain ‘but ma’am, I just finished climbing Mt. Everest’ and she basically says ‘I don’t care…you can’t sit there’. It was a bit of a punch in the gut. Here I am, a guy who just completed one of the toughest physical challenges you can find on Earth, and I can’t sit in a specific chair based solely on being seen as weaker than a ‘normal’ person. Disabilities like mine are being seen less and less as an issue, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
PS: “Wow…and I’d be willing to bet you were among the strongest people on that plane. Okay, one last gear change…you’re well on your way in the Grand Slam project with Everest behind you; what’s your next big peak going to be, or is there anything else you’re psyched about that isn’t part of the Grand Slam?”
JG: “Well, my climbing mentor and I are thinking about an attempt at The Nose route, up El Cap in Yosemite; maybe toward the end of summer or early fall. As for my next ‘big’ peak, I’ve been looking at Mt. Elbrus in Russia, because there is a marathon nearby as well. In past years, they’ve stated on the website ‘no disabilities allowed’. This year, that note isn’t there, so I’m really wanting to go run that race, just to do it. If you tell me I can’t do something, I will prove you wrong. That’s a huge part of who I am. I’m also a sponsored athlete through Lincoln Financial Group, so I’ll be working closely with them for upcoming trips and adventures.”
PS: “Excellent. We’re looking forward to seeing more! Thank you so much for your time and congrats again on your summit of Everest…Before we go, is there anything you’d like to tell anyone potentially wanting to get into adaptive climbing or mountaineering? Any tips or tricks for getting started?”
JG: “Absolutely. For tips and tricks, I’d say contact Paradox Sports. They’re so welcoming and well-equipped for this stuff. They have the knowledge and experience to help anyone climb just about anything…and if they don’t know how to accommodate your particular disability, they’ll work their butts off to figure it out! They work with almost anything; blindness, amputations, spinal cord injuries, burns, you name it. Check out the FRACC; call them and sign up for a trip. Just get out there and go do it. If you surround yourself with the best people and work hard, you can accomplish just about anything. I mean…look at me, I started climbing relatively recently, and I just got back from the top of the world. The key is not feeling sorry for yourself or looking at your disability as a negative. Use it as inspiration to do something that other people, maybe even yourself, thought was impossible!”