Monday, March 29, 2010

The Snowboarding Adventure Story of Stephen Koch and the Seven Summits

Before we start the story of Mr Koch’s quest to snowboard down the seven highest summits on each of the seven continents, it’s worth pointing out that Stephen Koch has a funny name. Throughout his life Koch constantly and deliberately mispronounces his own name so that Koch rhymes with ‘crotch’, however Koch is a German name and if you actually say it correctly its pronounced ‘cock’.

It’s also worth pointing out that the story of the seven summits snowboarding quest has a bit of a strange reoccurring theme. So without further ado let’s take a looks at the story of Koch, Dick, Bonar and Tackle...
Accidental Hero No. 10 – Stephen Koch He took on snowboarding’s biggest quest and didn’t quite make it.
Huge Koch

Climbing the seven summits was a challenge first completed in 1985 by wealthy amateur mountaineer and Chairman of Snowbird ski resort, Dick Bass. I’ve just read the book ‘Seven Summits’ about his quest and it makes for an interesting read even through the writing is not that great. It does feature his nicely monikered friend Bob Bonar and Clint Eastwood recommends it...  

Dick’s quest was one of those nice mathematically pleasing challenges that caught the imagination of the public and press, and it’s credited with spawning the business of guided amateur mountaineering. Since the first successful seven summits, another 200 odd people have also managed complete the challenge, including a 17 year old kid and a cluster of skiers.

Stephen Koch was one of the people that the idea appealed to and in 1994 he told everyone, presumably during a long drinking session, that he was going to be the first to snowboard down from all seven summits.

Presumably this drinking session.

So he started ticking the summits off. Here’s an example from Mountain Zone of the challenge he was enjoying…

“In February 1997 I went to Tanzania to again attempt the first descent (ski or snowboard) of Mount Kilimanjaro. I had tried to get official permission for the descent of the Heim Glacier in 1995, but the national parks director would not budge in his stance that no "pleasure devices" were allowed on the mountain.”

Its those penis references again…
Is that a pleasure devise in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

And he doesn’t describe the ideal snowboarding conditions when he says, “I felt like a rodeo rider getting tossed around on the icy terrain.” and “the sound of my board on the ice was like a front end loader on blacktop.”

“The first few turns were treacherous, but then I found my rhythm and was having a blast turning in front of the Breach Icicle. The crux, though, at 17,500 feet was too steep even to sideslip with the ice axes. I took my back foot out and put on a crampon and using that, my board as an anchor, and the axes, I blurred the line between climbing and boarding. When the angle mellowed I was able to strap my snowboard back on and ride again until the bottom of the glacier, which was too icy, forcing us to downclimb to our camp at 15,500 feet.
It just doesn’t sound like it was worth the climb. I’m not going till they stick in a ski lift.

Koch of the Antarctic

Over several years he managed to complete six of the summits, but he’s also had a hell of a run of problems and bad luck.

Money. Dick Bass managed to complete the seven summits challenge within two years but he spent a huge quantity of money financing the trip. I was roughly keeping score when reading his book and he spent about $1million of his own money in that period. Koch clearly didn’t have that laying around so he needed to get most of it from sponsors. 

Timing. Just a few years into his quest the glamour of the amateur mountaineer lost a lot of its sheen with the Everest disaster of 1996, when in a single day, eight people died in guided climbs. That sort of publicity is something major sponsors really don’t want to be associated with.

Avalanche issues.
In 1998 he got battered by an Avalanche which destroyed both his knees, which put a bit of a hold on things for a while…

“The "wet cement" came rushing over the ledge just above him, grabbed him and, as he remembers, "I saw it when it came over the lip. It shot out and got airborne and hit me in mid-air. I was immediately on my back and sliding and tumbling," Koch recalls. "I was amazed I was taken out so quickly. It was a shock how fast it happened and how cleanly it took me down," Koch recalls. "I thought I could at least put up a fight." His backpack, complete with snowboard attachment was ripped from his back.

Though he says the tumble lasted 15 to 20 seconds, it was long enough (2200 feet) for him to "distinctly remember" the ligaments in his left knee being torn, quickly followed by those in his right knee. When he did come to rest, aside from the bruises and scratches to his face, the compression fractures of his back and injuries to his ribs, he also bruised his liver and lungs making it "very difficult to breath."

Here’s Koch talking to a room full of cowboys about the avalanche

Mt. Everest
All the time though, the elephant in the room was Mount Everest, which is by far the biggest obstacle in the challenge Here’s a look at the mountains to scale...
Mount Everest… Big

When Koch started, he was going to be both the first man to snowboard the seven summits and the first man to snowboard down Everest. However by 2001 two other snowboarders had beaten him to the punch and to make matters worse the second guy, Marco Siffredi, tried again on 2002 and died in the attempt. Again not good for the sponsors.

The Boast
But Koch’s biggest problem was that once he made the promise to complete the seven summits challenge there was no easy way to back down. Before his final attempt on Everest he was interviewed by Outside magazine in their article ‘Slave to the Quest’, and it was very revealing.

Yet for all his success in this new arena, Koch the snowboarder has soldiered on, goaded, he says, by one overarching fear. "I've been talking smack about this thing for ten years," he explains. "I need to finish what I set out to do. I'd feel like an idiot if I didn't."

"Listen," he says, sinking back in his seat, "I just want to do this, and then I wanna be free." He takes a deep breath. "I can't wait to be free." 

Over the years Koch’s sponsors dropped him, his relationships were damaged, his health suffered and ultimately the boasts he made as a young man led to him losing his love for snowboarding because it became a burden.

After almost ten years he finally made his attempt on Everest in September 2003 where he was aiming for the extremely difficult route of the Horbein Couloir (the route Siffredi had died attempting the previous year). He didn’t make it…
Koch up

When Stephen Koch set out to snowboard the insanely steep Hornbein Couloir on Everest, he knew he might die trying. He chose life.

Although he took a consolation run down a lower section of Everest, Koch gave up the summit effort when he decided conditions were too dangerous. "That he used discretion and decided to turn around is a great victory," says Wade McKoy, a Jackson-based ski-and-mountaineering photographer. 
Koch down

At 9 a.m., when the group finally reached a consensus to turn around, Koch's altimeter read 22,454 feet—a hefty 6,581 feet below the summit. On the descent, Koch went ahead and snowboarded what he could of the North Face's "steep and deep powder." But back at camp, the thrill had worn off. "I felt incredible disappointment, incredible relief, sadness," he says. "It was just kind of every emotion in my body going off at that moment." 
Three months later, Koch seems at peace with his decision, even pleased at having undergone a "healthy ego check." His Seven Summits quest, he claims, is over. Yet it's clear the Hornbein still has a strong pull. "It is huge, truly the ideal line on the world's highest mountain," Koch says. "Someone's going to succeed on this route. I just hope it's someone who has vision and does it in good style." 
Talk to Koch's oldest friends in Jackson and you often see the same look. Most express support for the project, but it's not hard to read the worry in their eyes. "I wonder if he feels like he's pounded himself into a corner and needs to get this out of the way so he can say he did it," says Jack Tackle, 49, a fellow Exum climbing guide and a veteran of many Alaskan epics

Unfortunately for Koch his bad news didn’t stop after the seven summits. He was recently fired from his job as an Exum mountain guide after 15 years, for snowmobiling in the wrong area. Seems a little harsh considering that you can snowmobile in that area if you are going fishing. Why didn’t he just say he was fishing? I recon you could clobber a salmon with a snowboard if you were really hungry.
Koch's fishing tackle

So now he pays his way as a motivational speaker, a masseuse and a real estate agent.


Normally we only get to hear about success stories of the people who complete big challenges like this. Koch’s story is a good example of what most people actually experience when they start down this route. Usually when we hear about a challenge like people climbing Everest or the seven summits we only hear about the small number of people who succeed and the smaller number (although proportionally very high number) who die trying. We never normally hear about the huge number of people who have tried and failed, or the significant number of people who come away injured or negatively affected by their attempts. Koch’s story is ultimately quite a sad one and you have to wonder what he could have achieved with those years if instead of being a slave to a youthful boast he had been free to concentrate on doing the things he wanted to do with his life.
Koch helmet

Still, if someone does manage this challenge at some point it would be pretty awesome and it will be a hell of a good story to tell in the pub. Make sure you send us the postcards.

Here’s a good video of Stephen Koch appearing on the Conan O’Brian show

And if you want more Koch news he has a blog on his website and he has a Twitter page. 

Related Article…


  1. sad is that you spend your time writing and drooling about someone else's adventures, intend of going for your own. you only have 1 life. use it for good, instead of trying to bring others down out of jealousy...

  2. Sandy Hill Pittman DitmerMay 2, 2013 at 5:38 AM

    He was my bitch.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

© 1896. Design by Main-Blogger - Tinkering by Zhang - Colouring in by Illicit