Climber sees Mount Everest summit as way to save lives, raise funds for cancer prevention and outreach

March 30, 2021
Cokie Cox stands on top of a snowy mountain in Ecuador with both arms raised
Cokie Cox, shown here on a recent climb in Ecuador, has already raised $1 million for MUSC Hollings Cancer Center through her Everyday Everest campaign. Photo provided

Helen "Cokie" Cox often gets asked if she’s afraid. It’s a good question as she’s packing her bags to leave for Mount Everest on April 1 to tackle one of the toughest summits she’s ever attempted. Towering more than 29,000 feet high, the ice- and snow-draped peak draws up to 800 climbers each year, and this year she’ll be one of them.

Cox, who on April 3 will be celebrating her 48th birthday far from home, expects to be at base camp by April 16. She then hopes to summit and then be off the mountain May 22 and home by the 30th to celebrate her first wedding anniversary.

“I’m not sure I’d ever feel 100% ready to climb the world’s tallest peak, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. Sitting outside on her farm in Awendaw, South Carolina, Cox enjoys a fine spring morning as her dogs roam freely and roosters crow out by the barn. She has spent the morning milking a goat, making feta cheese, training on her treadmill and walking across an elevated ladder with the sharp blades of her crampons scraping against the metal rungs. The ladders are used to cross deep crevasses encountered on the climb.

Cokie Cox walks across a ladder with crampons on her boots 
Cox practices walking across a ladder with crampons on her boots to prepare for the crevasse crossings she'll encounter on her Everest climb. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

One of the challenges she will face is the Khumbu Icefall, about 18,000 feet on the Nepali slopes of Mount Everest, not far above base camp. It’s considered one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to the summit.

“I know a lot of people are afraid for me. And it is dangerous. People die in the Khumbu Icefall every year, but people die in Colorado skiing with avalanches every year, and people die on Highway 17 and people die of cancer every day. And, so I'm more afraid of not going.”

Cox said she's done other climbs, including Denali, to fulfill her dream of climbing the Seven Summits. This is the first time she’s dedicated a climb to a cause — benefiting MUSC Hollings Cancer Center’s community outreach programs and raising awareness for cancer prevention and screenings. The need is greater than ever given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had in preventing people from getting their routine screenings.

The mother of two and business entrepreneur describes herself as an everyday person. The name of her campaign, Everyday Everest, arose from the vision that extraordinary feats can be accomplished from ordinary, everyday tasks. For many people, taking their health care seriously, adopting healthy lifestyles and taking the health pledge that’s part of her wellness campaign — “I pledge to prioritize myself and my health and wellness this year” — can seem to be a feat like summiting a mountain, she said.

“As I walk up Mount Everest one step at a time, you can help me by spreading awareness of cancer prevention, by taking the health pledge and encouraging all those you love around you to do the same.”
— Cokie Cox

“As I walk up Mount Everest one step at a time, you can help me by spreading awareness of cancer prevention, by taking the health pledge and encouraging all those you love around you to do the same.”

Cox, who has lost friends and family members to cancer, will be taking her daughter Helen Simons Berenyi, 17, with her to base camp. Jackie Berenyi, her youngest, 15, and Helen Simons both climbed Kilimanjaro, in Africa, with their mom in 2014 and 2016. She wants to teach her daughters to take responsibility for their dreams and their health and to be involved with projects that benefit the greater good.

“It's like I am just an everyday mom from South Carolina who's going to do this, and it was important to me to be able to leverage and shift that spotlight to Hollings Cancer Center.”

Bagging peaks

It’s no small feat to prepare for Mount Everest while living in the Lowcountry where the tallest peak is the Ravenel Bridge, a place she goes to train doing two laps over the spans to get in her “ten-miler” workouts. To up her game, Cox recently went to Ecuador, where she climbed three volcanic peaks in 10 days, including Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.

“It’s a country that’s beautiful, and it was easy to get to, and it was a great experience,” she said.

Packing for the trip, she did experience some “waistline disappointment,” pulling on a pair of her climbing pants that fit better pre-pandemic. She also had to stay focused on her goal, benchmarking her progress against where she knew she needed to be. “Chasing 28-year-olds up 20,000-foot volcanoes was quite humbling,” she said of the challenge of going up and down five peaks. “I'm usually not the last to summit on my teams. And I've got to tell you, I was the last to summit on every summit we did - to which my guides encouraged me and told me my times were just fine.”

Cokie Cox sits with two goats on her farm 
When she isn't training, Cox is busy taking care of the animals on her farm in Awendaw. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

Cox said the trip was exactly what she needed to hone her skills and fitness level. As she packs for Nepal, she continues her high-altitude training on a treadmill and she’s added more strength training to her routine, including sled pushing workouts and HIIT, or high intensity interval training.

“Training is pretty boring, actually. There are many, many hours that I just have to slog in the bedroom on the treadmill with my Hypoxico oxygen mask on to mimic higher altitudes higher than here at sea level. I simulate 3,000 to 4,000 feet of elevation gain, so I may be anywhere from a 22% incline to 30% incline. It's just really important with long and monotonous climbs to get your head right and be comfortable with yourself and being a little bored,” she said. “I do change it up sometime and am thankful to Tim and my girls for lots of movie time with me while I’m on the treadmill.”

What makes this journey so much easier, Cox said, is the support she knows she’ll have at home, not just from family but from all the people she’s been blessed to meet since the start of the Everyday Everest campaign, which already has raised $1 million for Hollings.

One part she’s especially enjoyed about the campaign is how in a time when COVID has caused so much social disruption, people have been drawn into each other’s lives to support the Everyday Everest cause. These people include cancer survivors and those who want to honor the memory of loved ones. As Cox leaves for her trip, she will take the connections of those relationships with her as well as the memory of her close friend and personal coach, Claire Stuhr, who died after a courageous 10-year fight with breast cancer in 2006. Cox said two other coaching clients of Stuhr will be going with her up to Base Camp.

“This is a big way to honor Claire and her life. Her legacy lives on,” said Cox, who credits the beginning of her climbing career to a coaching exercise, called Perfect Day, that Stuhr had her do. “That’s a big part of the story. I wouldn’t be climbing Everest if it hadn’t been for Claire and Perfect Day and, while that is a part of her legacy, I would like Everyday Everest to be part of mine.”

Saving lives

The path that her personal coach set her on 18 years ago has led to an amazing journey that Cox said she has managed by taking it one step at a time, making small lifestyle changes and defining her priorities in life. “It happened with just a thought. And so just the thought that you can prevent a cancer diagnosis by changing one small lifestyle habit today is very similar and analogous to say climbing a mountain. It really is one step at a time. And I believe that the tiniest shifts can really make a big impact. It's just about making that small shift and being consistent."

Because many people have canceled their routine health screenings, she is worried that cancer statistics will rise in the next 12 to 48 months. “Catching cancer at stage zero is so important to winning the cancer battle. You know, I believe the stats are that if you catch cancer at stage zero with breast cancer, your chances of survival are 98%. But it's a problem if you catch cancer and you're now at stage two or three or four. Now is the time to schedule well visits and screenings and, now more than ever, we've all got to get caught back up.”

“Catching cancer at stage zero is so important to winning the cancer battle. Now is the time to schedule well visits and screenings and, now more than ever, we've all got to get caught back up.”
— Cokie Cox

These well visits include children, as the HPV vaccination, recommended for kids age 9 and older, can prevent six types of HPV-related cancer. She praises Hollings’ HPV campaign, which has contributed to the state going from being last in the nation to catching up with national levels in the past three years.

Lifestyle plays a big part in preventing cancer as well as in surviving a cancer diagnosis. Cox said she realizes not everyone lives on a farm and can grow fresh produce, make their own cheese and grab fresh eggs in the morning as she does. But maybe they can try to eat less processed food and make small changes in their diets. That may be their “mountain to climb” — adopting a healthier diet and moving more, she said. “Making and keeping a cancer screening appointment can feel like a hard summit some days. I get it.”

The goal is to add more quality time to pursue whatever dreams they may have. Cox, who lost her grandmother and aunt to cancer, said she wants her daughters to understand that their relatives didn’t have the advantage of the awareness and prevention measures available today.

“I want to make sure they reprioritize themselves and their health through this campaign, and I want the same for others. And it's kind of a cool twist on the thought of Mount Everest because I have so many people who approached me and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so dangerous. Do you know how many lives Everest takes?’

“Well, I love the idea that Everyday Everest, in seeking 1 million people to take the health pledge, is going to actually give back lives.”