Training to climb the tallest mountain in the world requires unrequited focus and determination. Day in and day out, for three excruciatingly regimented months and nearly a years worth of training, Roxanne Vogel is attempting to summit Mount Everest in what she is dubbing, “a lightning ascent.” In a “quick” 14 days, Roxanne will go from her door in Berkeley, up to 29,035 feet to the highest point on Earth and back. Roxanne is hoping to cut the acclimatization protocol in half making her the first person to go from sea-level to summit in the shortest amount of time. In addition to the (impending) demonstration of her athletic prowess, Roxanne will be added to the shortlist of women who have summited, a mere 610 of 9,159 recorded ascents.
I sat down with Roxanne at a small coffee shop around the corner from her office at GU Energy Labs on a sunny Friday afternoon (just a week away from her departure). With a double shot americano in her hands, and a small oat milk cappuccino in mine, she let me pick her brain on just how much energy it takes to train for a conquest of this magnitude. From her 4:30 am alarm clock, to multiple hours on the stair climber, climbing Mount Everest has been her sole focus, and I was curious to find out just how she manages to stay focused and determined day in and day out.
Here’s my conversation with the badass mountain babe herself, Roxanne Vogel.
Training to climb Mount Everest requires a whole new style of training. Is this your first time working with a coach?
Pretty amazing! My training was pretty much running a 50k to a 50 mile race every 3 weeks. My aerobic fitness was on point. When I finalized my Everest date, that’s when I started working with a coach. I thought I was in good shape but in the 4 months I’ve been training with them I’ve seen a whole new level of fitness.
So would you say your experience with a coach has been relatively positive?
Yeah! One of the surprising aspects of having a coach was them making sure I wasn’t doing too much.
Do you find that being a sports nutritionist hurts when having a coach because you also understand the science? Or do you find that it’s helpful?
Both. It makes me question them more. For example, my coaches had me do most of my moderate intensity workouts fasted. And some of that was up to five hours fasted so no nutrition before or during. That was challenging because I understand the value of fueling for your performance.
5 hours fasted!?
Yep. Which is anti-what I advise as a sports nutritionist. At GU we’re in the business of fueling exercise, and my coaches were saying not to eat anything. They want me to be able to survive on the mountain and tap into my fat stores if something goes wrong, and it definitely works. When they tested my metabolism, they found that I burn primarily fat until almost my max heart rate. But in the back of my mind, I’m also thinking, this isn’t sustainable, it’s not normal for most humans.
It’s not considered, “healthy” for most athletes either.
Right, I wouldn’t tell any of our athletes to go do a five hour workout and not eat anything before or during.
I think that’s what’s tough about these sports; what we’re doing isn’t “normal” so the “normal” protocols don’t really exist. Does that mean you’re ravenous when you’ve finished your workout?
I mean, not as much as you’d think. You get used to it. And now I’m just hungry all the time in general. My metabolism has really sped up. I’m used to the feeling of training fasted just because I’ve been doing it for so long now.
Do you ever get scared being out there fasted?
No, not at all. My energy is really stable and I’ve gotten to that point where I can just burn through body fat.
Rewinding the clocks a bit, how did you get into mountaineering? What was your AHA moment?
My aha moment was when I was getting divorced at a very young age. I was 23 and it ended up not working out for various reasons. So I was going through this divorce and decided to go trekking in Nepal to clear my mind. I did the trek to Everest base camp in 2012, saw the mountains, and thought, “I need to be climbing these things.” Now it’s now come full circle, and 7 years later here we are.
That feels really powerful. I got into ultra running in the similar vein. I felt broken from a past relationship and felt this need to fill a void.
Yeah, I mean it was the first time I had really ever done anything by myself. It was transformative. I’m such a different person now then I was seven years ago and it’ll be an even more powerful experience going back as the person that I am today.
Absolutely. You’re looking at the mountain from an entirely new perspective. Did your first expedition at basecamp go well?
Oh yeah absolutely, it was incredible. After the trip I had originally been planning to go to back to school in North Carolina. I had a full ride and a graduate assistantship position lined up and everything. As soon as I got back [from the trip] I got off the plane I said, “Nope. I’m moving to Colorado, I want to be close to the mountains.”
How did you navigate the moment of uncertainty between deciding to leave your scholarship and move to Colorado?
It was so scary. I had this “sure thing” career, school was paid for and everything was ready to go. But something in me felt like the right path was going to be in the mountains. So I jumped. And it worked out. And I feel like that’s a byline for how things in my life have played out. I get strong intuitions and even if it doesn’t feel like the most logical path, my gut always knows what’s best. Moving to Colorado was being able to feel comfortable being on my own. Not in a relationship. Not attached to a man. It was really liberating and affirming.
Since that first Everest base camp expedition, how many have you done in total?
Close to a dozen big international expeditions.
Coming off of your divorce, figuring out you wanted to go to Nepal, how did you go from “I want to do it”, to physically doing it?
I started small. I started climbing 14ers in Colorado. Then I did took a mountaineering course in Seattle. That’s where I met my climbing partner who I do all my expeditions with. He’s actually on the Southside of Everest right now acclimatizing.
Do you have a favorite climb you’ve done so far?
Denali. That was in 2016 and it was 3 weeks total. It’s a tough climb because you’re carrying your bodyweight in gear and as a woman out there you’re expected to carry as much as the men so I had to train really hard for that.
When did you know you wanted to climb Everest and when did it happen so that you knew you were doing it?
I knew after Denali that if I could do it then that would leave a good chance I could at least attempt an Everest summit. Andrew, my climbing partner and I figured out that we could do a few more trips to really get comfortable. So we settled on 2019 as being the year [to climb Everest]!
You put it on your calendar and wherever you were with work/life your employer had to be ok with you climbing?
Yeah. There are certain things in my life that are non-negotiable and whenever I get hired by a company I tell them about what I do, and it has to be a good fit. Luckily I work for a company that told me it was awesome. I started “training-training” after my trip that ended in March of last year.
It that when you hired a coach?
No. I figured I only needed coaching for the final lead in. Steve House is one of GU’s sponsored athletes who owns “Uphill Athlete.” I reached out to them in November and we decided that December would be a good time to start coaching. I’ve been working directly with Scott Johnson one of my climbing heroes and it’s been a really cool experience.
What does a typical training week look like for you when you’re here in Berkeley?
I typically get one easy/rest day per week which is usually Monday. I’ll do yoga, hop in the sauna — heat training is really good for altitude acclimation.
Are you working out in the sauna or just sitting in it?
No, no I’ll just go sit in it. Monday is pretty casual. Tuesday is a muscular endurance workout. So 100s of plyometric repetitions with a weighted vest; jump lunges, jump squats, box sumps, that sort of stuff.
You said 100s of them!
Yeah. It’ll take me a good couple of hours to get through.
Do you do that in the morning or at night?
I try to workout in the morning. I’m an early bird, I wake up around 4/4:30 and try to be training by 6 at the latest.
Because I’m nosy, you wake up at 4:30 and do you need anytime to sit and have coffee, go to the bathroom, truly, “wake up”?
Oh yeah. I like a good solid hour to have coffee, pack my bag, make my lunch for the day.
My boyfriend [Elan] is the exact same way. He needs a solid 60 minutes before he can function. I’m like, wake up, go to the bathroom, get out. And when I’m done with my workout I’ll drink coffee and have breakfast.
I wish I had that! No it takes me a little while to organize myself.
Okay so the rest of your week looks like…?
Yeah, so that’ll be a Tuesday [muscular-endurance workout]. Most weekdays are around 2+ hours in the morning, then I’ll go to work, and have like, an hour in the afternoon to do strength or cardio. Typically around 2-3 hours on weekdays with most of them being aerobic and an hour of strength. Fridays are yoga. The weekends are back to back trail runs, hiking, running, anywhere from 3-6 hours.
With the focus being less on miles and more on vertical gain?
Yeah, absolutely. Vert. Moving uphill under load is the name of the game. And doing it fasted. Most of my workouts are fasted.
What are your favorite workouts?
I do really like the muscular endurance workouts probably because they’re so challenging but you’re also so focused. I love them because at the end you feel super shaky and like you’ve worked yourself to the max.
I like that too! The thrill of exhaustion.
Yeah it’s an amazing endorphin rush.
Least favorite workout?
Honestly I don’t have a least favorite. I love working out, I’m weird like that. Sometimes I’ll be on the stair-master for 2-plus hours though at the gym and it can feel like a lot.
What are you usually doing during a stairmaster workout?
Podcasts usually. I try and learn while I’m working out. It makes the time go by a little faster.
What happens on a day when you wake up and think, “I don’t want to do this.”
You know, there aren’t too many of those days where I wake up and I don’t want to do what I’m doing. Just because I’m so accustomed to waking up and training.
Do you think that’s because you’ve put in so much work already? Or do you think that’s just because of how you’re hardwired?
Honestly I think it’s more because of who I am. I’ve always (at least for the past 10 years) worked out in the morning. There are definitely mornings where I wake up and I feel tired and the way I motivate myself is by thinking, “the mountain isn’t going anywhere and it’s not getting any easier. So you better get it together because it’s not going to do you any favors.”
Right, absolutely. The mountain doesn’t care if you’re tired.
And if anything, the scope of the goal is exactly that. It’ll be exhausting and challenging so maybe even those hard mornings are the most pivotal?
Yeah, learning how to push through is the name of the game.
Do you have a mantra you tell yourself?
I have this weird one, which has worked on previous climbs. It’s very simple. While I was working in research we used to test participants on what we call repetitions to failure. Essentially, how many bench presses they could do before their muscles gave out. One of my colleagues would always be spotting and he’d say to them as they were fatiguing and struggling to get the last reps in, “one more” and that got stuck in my head. On trips where I’ve struggled to even take another step, that’s the mantra. “One more”. And you just keep doing one more.
I have goosebumps!
Yeah, it works.
When you were young, did you ever think you’d climb Mt. Everest?
Not at all. We were not an outdoorsy family. I grew up in San Diego so I was a beach kid. The outdoors were not a part of my childhood. I didn’t even know there were mountains in California until I moved up to NorCal. I would have never guessed that I’d be climbing the tallest mountain in the world.
I want to talk about your diet. Has being a sports nutritionist helped you in this process?
I think fully understanding how to adequately fuel for the amount of exercise that I’m doing has definitely helped, as well as understanding the importance of recovery which is often undervalued. As a sports nutritionist I have access to blood testing through InsideTracker so I can actually test my bio markers and iron levels which has also been really helpful. The drawback is that I have to track every single thing that goes into my body. It’s very regimented and can get very numbers focused which leads to a fine line between it being obsessive and it being something purely for science.
How do you balance the fine line between it being obsessive and it being something that helps you achieve a goal?
Honestly sometimes I wonder if I am being too obsessive. But the scientist in me tells me that I have to record everything. It’s tough because that means everything I eat needs to be quantified so I’m not going out to eat because I won’t know what the nutritional value is. That takes a toll because it greatly restricts my eating behaviors and my social life and sense of community. But I also tell myself that this is for science and one day I may want to look back on this data and ask myself, okay what was I eating on this day, what was your average diet like and how can what I’m eating help determine proper protocols to be able to replicate this in the future?
And knowing that there is an end date might also help.
Yes. Because I already have reservations at French Laundry!
No you don’t! How do you have reservations at the French laundry!?
I put a reminder in my calendar for three months out to call and get a spot. And I got one!
So you haven’t gone out to eat in 3 months?
Yeah not really. I mean here and there I’ve gone out where I’ve been able to order things that I can easily assess the nutritional information of.
Have you been following a specific diet?
Not really. I’ve always been low carb-high protein anyway. I’m making sure to eat a ton of vegetables — making sure I get a lot of micronutrients in. Pretty much everyday I eat a giant salad that’s over a pound of vegetables.
Does that sit well with your stomach?
You know, I’ve trained my gut to deal with it. And I can even do that for lunch and be able to run in the afternoon.
What’s a typical breakfast, lunch and dinner. And snacks snacks snacks for you? I’m sure you’re eating a ton of food.
So breakfast is a bit different because a majority of my workouts are fasted. So I may not have breakfast.
I’m assuming you drink coffee though. No creamer?
Yes, always coffee. You’re right, no creamer. Black with maybe a shot or two of espresso. Then I’ll train, and maybe do a recovery shake which is pretty much just protein and almond milk. Snacks are nut butters, hard boiled eggs, almonds, veggies, hummus. Standard snack fare!
Lunch is a pound of salad!
Yes with fish on it. Either salmon or tuna.
Do you dress it with like, olive oil and apple cider vinegar?
Yes! Exactly. I usually make my own salad dressing. Dinner is usually some sort of protein and cooked vegetable.
I’m sure you get asked this all the time. But what do you do when you’re craving something sweet? And if you tell me you don’t ever crave sweets, I’m going to fall off my chair.
No, no no, I’m a sweet tooth. Every night I do dark chocolate.
Do you have a brand that you like?
No, I switch around. Right now I like the Taza 95%. It’s a bit grainy because it’s stone ground but I really love it.
Do you eat fruit?
Not too much. I like blueberries. The way I see it, fruit is just a vegetable with extra sugar. Berries are the extent to which I eat fruit.
So you’re eating this way in large part because you’re training for such a huge goal?
This is sort of how I eat anyway though. But definitely much more strict.
For someone who’s reading this and asks, “Roxy doesn’t eat apples so I shouldn’t either,” what would you say as a response?
I mean, I think everyone has to find what works for them. And I experimented with adding more carbs into my diet to see how it would affect my training. I was doing oats for breakfast, eating apples and such versus what I was normally do. I found that I put on body fat and my blood markers looked worse. It just didn’t agree with my physiology. You just have to figure out what works for your body and you’ll know because you’ll feel it. Your energy levels will be good, you’ll have this intuition for what works and what doesn’t.
So that’s the basis for intuitive eating. Listening to what your body is asking for.
Exactly. But you have to listen to your body otherwise it’s a diet in disguise.
How would you encourage an athlete to figure out what works for them if they aren’t a scientist or if they don’t have access to blood marker testing?
Honestly, looking into books and information on intuitive eating. Learning not to eat around rules and guidelines but being in tune with your body. For a lot of people that’s really tough.
It seems like you have quite a pragmatic view on nutrition. Has it always been this way?
I think I’ve definitely had my own battle with distorted body image and negative eating habits. And sadly a lot of women have, more when I was younger for sure. Understanding the science has been helpful for me in terms of knowing what exactly my body needs.
How do you navigate feelings of distortion — or if you’re working with an athlete who’s struggling with their relationship to food? Is it more important to focus on nutrition for the goal or is it more important to focus on nutrition for their mental space?
I think it really depends on where the person is. If the athlete is really deep into negative feelings around food, I would say treat that before the athletic goal. Restrictive or orthorexic tendencies can undermine the entire plan and it will derail performance. Treating any underlying distorted issues always comes first.
I imagine that training for Mt. Everest requires having and maintaining a positive mental space. Do you have a mindfulness practice?
Absolutely. The mental training has been a huge part of my training. I do meditations at night before bed through an app called Insight Timer. Yoga is another outlet for me. In addition to being the only way I get myself to stretch!
And slow down 😉
Yes! As well as small mindfulness practices and deep breathing throughout the day.
How do you deal with feelings of inadequacy?
I struggle with that all the time. I feel like, who am I to be attempting this goal? I’m just a normal person. It’s really hard. I don’t have an answer, but I just try and let those thoughts pass through.
Switching gears a little bit. Climbing Everest has a huge environmental impact on the mountain. Do you feel a certain social responsibility to talk about the ways in which you can offset your footprint for the climb?
Yes, absolutely. For one, I’m not climbing on the south side which is more “popular”. The north side is more rigorous about trash removal and being held to a higher standard in terms of leaving no waste. I also feel like I know myself, and I know that my intentions are in the right place. I respect the mountain and I fear it and I want to protect it.
What does the 14 day agenda look like?
From my door it takes two days to get to basecamp. Flying into Chengdu, China then off to Tibet.
Are you packing all your own food? Own airplane food too I assume?
Oh hell ya! Airplane food is probably the worst thing you can eat on an expedition. I’ll be bringing all my food on the plane and we even created custom products that are formulated for my ascent. So our team here at GU made a special “Everest Bar” that I’ll eat everyday. Coconut butter, macadamia nuts, all these delicious ingredients. A special drink mix, and gel formulated for the altitude specifically as well.
So then you climb from day 3?
Yes, I’ll start acclimating and climbing. Basecamp is at 17,000 ft and the summit is at 29,035 ft. So I’ll have another 12,000 ft to climb. Man, am I doing that math right? Sleeping at altitude has made me slower! I’m sleeping at 17,000 ft every night.
Holy guacamole, seriously?
Yeah! That’s basecamp altitude!
Is that nauseating ever?
No, but I definitely feel mentally slower throughout the day.
Oy! So, could you do this if you had a typical 9-5 job?
No. Absolutely not. Even now, at work, I spend 3-4 hours in the altitude chamber at work.
Right, and you literally have a team of scientists helping you day in and day out.
You’re trying to climb Everest in 14 days, appropriately called a rapid ascent. What’s the quickest it’s been done?
So you want to be able to write a protocol once you’ve done it for how to do it in the future?
Yes! I mean, this is challenging. It’s rigorous, there is no room for error. No room for a social life. No room for a family right now.
Okay to wrap things up, we’re going to end with a quick fire round of questions.
- Coffee or Tea
- Sauerkraut or Kombucha?
- Favorite brand of Kombucha?
I like GT’s, Tantric Turmeric
- Weight lifting or Yoga?
Oh man that’s so hard. Both.
- Early morning or late night workout?
- One diet fad that you’ve read about that needs to leave right now.
The Carnivore diet.
- Chocolate or nut butter?
Chocolate, right now it’s Taza.
- 7 summits or Everest?
- If you could give one piece of advice to anyone who wants to be or get into mountaineering, what would it be?
Get some legit training. Invest in it. Be smart. The mountain isn’t going anywhere.
Send your energy! She’s going to need it to get up that mountain!