Climber summits Mount Everest in cause dedicated to saving lives

August 16, 2021
Cokie Cox on a mountain top
Everyday Everest founder Cokie Cox summited Mount Everest, raising critical funding for cancer research at MUSC Hollings. Photo provided

There’s nothing quite so terrifying as waking up to the sounds of a crashing avalanche, especially when perched on the side of Mount Everest. Helen “Cokie” Cox, now safely at home at her farm in Awendaw, South Carolina, knows what it’s like.

“There was a pretty large avalanche on our last push up the mountain at camp three. I was woken from my sleep with that noise, and I had this sense that I really don’t know where this was coming from. I'd let my guard down, and I was just comfortably sleeping. That was probably one of my scariest moments.” Fortunately, the guides for her climbing team had expertise in tent placement, so the group was safe, but it was a reminder along the way of how unpredictable each day would be, she said.

Cox, who created the Everyday Everest campaign to support MUSC Hollings Cancer Center’s cancer prevention and awareness efforts, said she was thrilled to see the campaign bring in more than $1 million. Because of her partnership with Hollings, she always felt – both before and during the climb – that summiting meant more than just bagging another peak.

Here, in this Q&A, she shares highlights from what was a life-changing experience this past spring – one that she hopes will affect others in positive ways.

What was your favorite part of the journey?

Wow – honestly, it was just being in God's playground in the Himalayas with 360-degree views all around us, and that we were there for almost two months. It was just beautiful. That was one of my favorite parts, but the most special part was being supported by special people, being with dear friends during the climb and best of all, having my oldest daughter accompany me to base camp. That was such a special experience of trekking from 10,000 feet up to almost 18,000 feet, day in and day out, with her and going through the struggles of altitude and acclimatization together.

Mount Everest basecamp 
Cokie Cox and her climb team resting before the ascent. Photo provided

What surprised you about the climb?

What I was positive would be the hardest part, was not the hardest part – I thought the physicality of scaling the world's largest mountain would be the hardest part and that turned out to be the “easiest” part. The toughest part was being stuck in a tent during storms and not being able to move my body after such rigorous training for nearly two years. Exercising my patience muscle and daily coping with not knowing what the next day would bring surprised me as the toughest part of the climb.

You had a scary moment during the climb. Describe what happened.

On Everest, one typically moves through the Khumbu Icefall two to six times. During my fifth time through the icefall, I saw an almost 30- by 20-foot ice tower disappear right in front of me. I was moving across an ice bridge with my climbing partner/Sherpa, Lakpa. When he hit the next fixed line, which was my cue to move over the ice bridge and to the next fixed line, the tower adjacent to him disappeared below us with no sound. It was at that moment when I saw my Sherpa’s eyes, I knew that this was not good. I mean, this was a large structure, and there was no noise. It was a silent disappearing of a very large ice structure. Have you ever been so frightened that there’s no fear? That’s how it felt – survival instincts set in and carried me over the ice bridge and to the next anchor point safely.

How many days were you on the mountain and were you afraid you wouldn’t get to summit?

It was just shy of 60 days. My hope was to be home for my first wedding anniversary on May 30th, and I did that by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin. The summit was amazing and very special. It was surreal from having been trapped in a weather system for multiple days on end and being in a tense situation of being in storms and not knowing what would come next. We were thinking that our climb was over and that we were not going to get a weather window and not be able to summit. But then our guide made a very professional, calculated call, and we got a window and were able to summit, so it was a very surreal and special moment. But there were so many other amazing moments that got us there that it kind of felt a little anti-climactic.

What was the summit like?

It was beautiful – no question about it. We had such beautiful weather for about 12 short hours on our summit day that I feel so fortunate that I got to clearly see the roof of the world. It’s hard to describe the beauty, the visual of having the sun rise below you. When you've climbed above the horizon line and when the sun comes up on the cloud line below you, I can't explain what that feels like, whether it's on Kilimanjaro in Africa or on Everest in Nepal. It’s just an amazing feeling to experience something as unnatural as the sun coming up below you. That feat is one that always feels good.

Cokie with jewelry 
Cox took several pieces of important jewelry with her on the climb. Photo provided

You took some special items with you to the top. What were they?

I don’t usually climb with jewelry, but my mother sent me away with a very special cross the day that I departed for Nepal. She’s had this cross for quite some time, so that was a very special thing for me because my mom was prayer ‘warrioring’ here in the States and rallying those to help me get through the often daily hard, tough spots. And then the other was a vintage locket that has a picture of my two girls in it that I always had on me just to keep them at the forefront of my mind and of coming home safely. I wore my locket and this cross my mother gave me every day of the climb. A writer’s group I recently joined sent me with a few items and one was a hair tie with a heart and the letters “CC” on it. My new initials are CC. That was also on every day!

What was the hardest moment?

The hardest moments were some of the dark nights with 40-mile-an-hour winds and storms all around us and not knowing if we going to be able to progress to the next camp and then onto the summit. The unknowns of having put in 50-plus days and the idea of not being able to capture the summit because of the weather was really tough. There was the fear of getting sick on the mountain, as the base camp was fraught with COVID issues. Thankfully, it did not affect any of our climbing mates, but it was just coping with all the unknowns that you really don't have control over – that was the hardest part. Ultimately, Everest was about surrender. And we both won!

Was there ever a moment where you thought, “I just can't do this”?

So that's the funny thing. The worst part on the mountain was me being hot. I got hot during a couple of moves upward above the icefall in my down suit. I have a very hard time moving my body if I'm overheating. When you're in a down suit with an oxygen mask on, which, by the way, is making you warmer, and you're baking in the sun on a white ice field – it was debilitating to me. I ended up pulling a Liza Minnelli, and I had a couple of wardrobe changes one day, literally disrobing and climbing up to camp 3 in my base layer and crampons. Taking the suit off was time-consuming but doing so helped me to push through and get to camp slowly but surely!

What did you discover about yourself on the mountain?

Surrender and the power of protecting one’s confidence. Even though I'm fiercely competitive, what I decided to do to protect my confidence on the mountain was not to be worried about being competitive while climbing – worrying if someone came up behind me, for example, and appearing weak or slow. I decided to be consistently the last person on every big move on the mountain to make sure I wasn’t overtaxing myself and that I was consistently finishing strong, versus first. That's never really been a part of my MO, which has typically been to work harder and faster and stronger. I didn't do that on the mountain. I think the switch in my mind – that striving to be first and better and more isn't always a winning strategy – is something that will stick with me. Ultimately, that surrender of self for self, as well as having to surrender to the mountain, taught me quite a bit about what I can also surrender to during everyday life at sea level – from teenagers to the stock market.

Cokie on Mount Everest 
Cox and her climb team on the way up Mount Everest. Photo provided

Is it back to life as normal?

It’s hard because I'm not the same, yet everyday life is absolutely the same as it's ever been. I mean, externally I'm the same person. But internally, there is a shift because I have something that no one can ever take from me. I've experienced this previously but never to this profound of a level.

Are you glad you did the Everyday Everest campaign?

Just like Everest seemed out of reach for so long so did raising $1 million for Hollings Cancer Center. It’s that message that keeps the summit close everyday – that message of the hope and promise that we can achieve in just about anything we set our minds to. I’m so thankful to have something so tangible and evergreen to “attach” to my summit. My overarching mission is one of inspiring people to say, ‘I might not ever aspire to climb Everest, but I can take the health pledge. And I can commit to putting myself first.’ This could just simply mean getting a colonoscopy or keeping your mammogram appointment. And I recognize that that's a summit certain days for certain people. If I inspired just one person to get a screening that saved his or her life through this campaign, it makes it so much the better to have made the climb. I’m overjoyed that the Everyday Everest campaign has raised more than $1 million, and I know that Hollings will put that to good use to increase the strong community outreach and prevention programs that they have. That’s important to me because of the impact cancer has had on my friends and family.

What now?

It's everyday life here at sea level. My uber-supportive clients and my family on the farm didn’t miss a beat without me, but I’m right back in the game with both sleeves rolled up. On the farm, we just went from nine to 18 goats in a week, and at the office, we’re planning a Perfect Day Everest Retreat at Canyon Ranch in September. Thankfully, its almost back to school time for my girls. My next climb I hope to do with my daughters and Tim, my husband, will be in Australia next summer, followed by Mt. Vinson in Antarctica in December of 2022 – that will most likely be my seventh summit.

While I’m still unpacking emotionally all that happened on Everest, I’m committed daily to passing on the lessons I learned about surrender and protecting one’s confidence and a plea of taking the health pledge. I think everyone has that little person in his or her head that says, “You can’t climb that mountain” or the mountain in front of you – whatever that mountain may be – telling you, “You can’t climb me.” I think protecting your confidence is honing and being closer with that other voice in your head that says, “Yes, you can.” I can imagine that might resonate with some Hollings patients because I can't imagine getting a cancer diagnosis and having to deal with the possible effects of surgeries or radiation or chemotherapy – of not feeling well and managing family and finances and doctor visits. I can imagine sometimes there's a voice constantly in your head of, “I just want to give up, and I don't want to go through another day.” I think protecting your confidence is calling on this level of self-care that's compassionate and kind to yourself and says, “Yes, you can. Yes, you can.”

Listen to more of her story on the Cancer Chat podcast by MUSC Hollings Cancer Center.