Hiking season is in full swing. Leaf peepers and seasoned hikers alike are hitting the trails. Hiking, climbing, and running is great for body and soul. But it can be tough on your body - especially your feet. No one knows this better than Mike Chambers. Mike is an ultra marathoner, mountaineer, and professional adventurer. His story is relevant for all hikers, and it is a great way to get excited for your next trek.
How did hiking and climbing become your passion?
I’m the product of two parents who met while helicopter skiing in Jackson Hole. The outdoors have always been a big part of my life. When I was young, I didn't care much for hiking. I much preferred the thrill of skiing and surfing. Still, I always dreamed of what it would be like to revel in the thin air of the world’s highest peaks. In high school and college, I started to appreciate the mental and physical aspects of hiking, trail running, and, more specifically, mountaineering.
I graduated college in 2009 and teamed up with some friends to create Flying Kites Adventures. It’s a program that guides people on treks and adventures all over the world to raise money for education in East Africa. I started leading trips to places like Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya, Everest Base Camp, and Machu Picchu. At the same time, I started competing in ultra marathons and managed to pick up sponsorships from companies like Merrell and GU.
The more I pushed myself, the more I realized that I had an ability to quickly adapt to altitude. As a result, I could move really fast in the high mountains. After a few big mountain expeditions in Argentina and Ecuador, I set my sights on the world’s highest peak: Everest. I joined the 2013 IMG Everest expedition. After two months on the mountain, our team got shut down by weather on summit night, less than 1,000 ft from the top of the world. The following year I returned to Nepal to lead the first Kenyan Everest Expedition. That climb was tragically cut short when an avalanche broke off the West Shoulder of the Khumbu Icefall killing 16 climbers.
Hiking and mountaineering continue to be a big part of my life. Now, it’s less and less about the thrill, and more and more about the strategy, camaraderie, and personal challenge. The mountains and trails can teach you a lot about yourself. Most importantly that you are capable of far more than you ever imagined.
What has been the toughest physical challenge you’ve faced so far?
The “1 mile run test” in 5th grade was hands-down the most excruciating physical challenge I can recall. Remember that? My god, it was torture! Much of mountaineering and running is equal parts physical and mental. Not to get preachy, but if your mind and body aren’t in sync, even the most casual experiences can turn to hell, fast.
Mountains like Everest are far more challenging mentally than physically. Dealing with the “downtime” during a big mountain expedition is far more difficult, for me, than the actual climbing.
My first 100-mile run attempt in 2011 was a disaster of epic proportions. The race started out great. I ran the first 50 miles in 9 hours and was neck-and-neck through mile 65 with the would-be winner, two-time Badwater 135 Champion, Valmir Nunes. (For whatever reason I didn’t see that as a problem at the time). By mile 72, however, my body completely shut down. I entered what I now refer to as the “darkest hour” of my life. Three miles later I “fell asleep” on the side of the trail and woke up in the hospital. It was a learning experience, to say the least.
How do you prepare your body for such a testing trek?
I don’t really have any secrets. I try to maintain a strong endurance foundation throughout the year (running and cycling) and mix in a decent amount of high-intensity interval training. A couple months before an ultra marathon I’ll jack up the weekly mileage and lose some weight. And a couple months before a big mountain expedition I’ll increase the weekly pancake consumption and spend more time in the gym. On high-altitude expeditions, I tend to lose a ton of weight. On Everest in 2013, for example, I lost 32 pounds in the course of 6 weeks. Knowing this would be the case, I put on as much healthy weight as possible ahead of the expedition. Overall, I just try to listen to my body. It’s the easiest way to avoid burnout or injury. If I’m really tired on a big training day, I won’t train.
Anything you do for your feet before a big climb?
Mountaineers and endurance runners are obsessed with feet. Cleaning them, treating them, rubbing them, talking about them, and, occasionally, smelling them. In the mountains, taking care of your feet is crucial and the first step is making sure you have the best footwear possible.
What footwear do you trust and why?
Regardless of the context - running, mountaineering, hiking - when choosing footwear, it boils down to balancing performance and comfort. I prefer a shoe that performs well over a shoe that is comfortable. Then there’s reliability. While on an expedition or in a race you need to feel confident that your footwear will last. I tend to stay away from the “high-tech” footwear. The more features on a shoe the more likely something will go wrong.
At high camp on Aconcagua in 2011, my climbing partner had a catastrophic gear failure that almost cost him the summit. We duct taped his boots to his feet to keep them from falling apart. These are situations that we try to avoid.
I’ve been a global ambassador for Merrell for the past few years and really trust their footwear, especially for the trails. Their products are at the perfect intersection of durability, comfort, and performance.
Do you use any other tools? (Insoles, tape, band-aids, particular socks, etc.)
Good shoes/boots can go a long way. But good socks make all the difference. On every expedition I keep a clean pair of heavy-weight Smartwool socks for the summit push. One of my weird little rituals is to give the summit socks to my wife before leaving for an expedition. She draws on them with a sharpie and puts them in a stuff sack for me to only open on summit night. Sock life is a tough life. I tend to retire them the moment they show signs of wear. The last thing I want to deal with is a sock with holes in it.
I use insoles in my 8,000-meter mountaineering boots. I’ve haven’t tried them in my trail shoes yet.
How do you treat your feet during recovery?
I rarely have issues with my feet. Even after big expeditions or races. The trick is to have your footwear dialed-in.
Any tips - for feet or otherwise - for new hikers and climbers?
Find a shoe/boot you love, and marry it. I have go-to footwear for each and every activity. I try not to mess with a good thing. Everyone always talks about the importance of “wearing-in boots” but you really need to wear-in your FEET. Every time you switch up the brand or model of your shoes, your feet need to readjust to the different fit. Stick with known and trusted footwear and over time your feet will develop callouses in all the right places. You’ll never have issues with blisters or discomfort.
What has been your favorite trek thus far?
Every adventure has it’s moments, but nothing can rival the Himalaya.
What’s your next big adventure?
Off to Ecuador in November to climb in the Andes. Visit www.mikechambers.me to follow the expedition!