John Collinson On Big Mountain Skiing and Summiting Everest

From Little Cottonwood Canyon to Mount Everest, John Collinson was born to take on the world’s biggest mountains. Coming from a ski racing father and adventurous mother, John grew up climbing volcanoes and fourteeners. On his seventeenth birthday, he flew to the Himalayas and became the youngest person to ever summit Everest and the seven summits. Ever since, he has learned the power of patience, persistence in his sport, and taking one step at a time to reach the top. 

CC: Let’s start at the beginning — what it was like growing up in the mountains, and how did it shape you into who you are today?

JC: I grew up at Snowbird Ski Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. My dad grew up in New Jersey ski racing and came here to race for the University of Utah. He saw the potential of the mountains out here, and started skiing in the backcountry in the ‘70s-’80s. He was pioneering crazy ski lines before people were doing it. He met my mom at Snowbird, and they both shared this passion for being outside. When they had my sister and I, they just toned down their passion and asked, ‘How do we make this kid-friendly?’ I was two when I started skiing. Once I was four, my sister was five, we were able to roam free. We knew the rules of the mountains, the employees [at Snowbird] knew who we were and looked after us. No worries about us being out there. The mountains were our playground, and we felt safe. 

est. Once my sister and I could carry our own stuff, we started doing longer backpacking trips. We would spend two weeks setting up a basecamp, climbing all the peaks around the area, and then move our basecamp, get back to our van, and drive through a new mountain range. We spent a couple of summers in Colorado climbing a lot of fourteeners. My dad always wanted to turn new corners, so he would take us to obscure places. We would do really cool loops like the Uintas in Utah or the Beartooth Mountains in Montana. And, our family became super close. Especially my sister and me. There was no option to fight or bicker. We were like, ‘all right, we are living in a van and in a tent. We better get along.’ 

My dad always wanted to turn new corners, so he would take us to obscure places. We would do really cool loops like the Uintas in Utah or the Beartooth Mountains in Montana.

Nature became our home from the start. As a young kid, I had a hard time appreciating what we were getting. I’d always think, ‘I wonder what it would be like to play on a baseball team or go to soccer practice,’ you know? Part of that stems from being homeschooled in the winter and going to public school in the spring and fall. We got that dose of socializing with kids, but we were also outsiders because we were, like, the weird mountain kids that didn’t really fit in. My mom homeschooled us initially because highway 210 in Little Cottonwood is one of the most dangerous roads in North America for avalanches. By the time we were teens, we started to love skiing so much that my sister and I didn’t want to move away and continued homeschooling. That was the start of everything.

CC: What was it like to summit Everest at age 17? How did you prepare for that mentally and physically? 

JC: Everest and the seven summits came along in a funny way. I’ve been so intrigued by the big mountains since I was little. We’d be stuck in a storm in our tents or climbing, and I always thought, ‘Woah, Everest must be so much gnarlier than this.’ Once I was fifteen, my sister started ski racing at a high level. That’s what ended the family vacations, and I was left wandering a bit. I was going to the skate park, not really doing much, and my dad was not having it. He wanted us to be goal-oriented, have focus and drive. 

So, I started [training] with Willy Benegas who was a North Face alpinist and a guide on Everest. It kind of came out that it was always a dream of mine to go to Everest. And he was like, ‘yeah, we can make that happen.’ So, our gears started turning. When I was 16, we came up with the idea for me to go [to Everest] when I was 17, to try and set a record. The age thing seemed kind of cool, but I had never been out of the country, never been above 15,000 feet. 

We went to do Aconcagua first in South America. That went super well. I performed well at altitude, which is what we looked to test. I went to Everest next. I flew over there on my 17th birthday, March of 2009. WIlly has a twin brother named Damian, so I ended up summiting with him. The dream just became a reality through all of these weird, different channels. We were able to do it in a way that wasn’t totally self sufficient, but a bit different than the norm. We were able to do more of our own foot work to keep the cost down, which ended up being amazing. I got to spend more time with the Sherpas because we had to carry a lot of our own gear up the mountain during acclimatizing. It was a really cool, unique experience that I got to have. 

On our summit day, somebody had sat down and gone to sleep high up on the mountain. Our team — it was me, Damien, Damien’s girlfriend, and this older guy, Eugene — hit the Summit at 8:30 am. I was back at the South Col at noon, so I passed out in the tent. Willy was guiding another team, and he came over saying, ‘we have to rescue this guy who is high up on the mountain.’ So Willy and Damien — who had already gone to the summit and back — went back up the hill to drag this guy down. My role in the whole scene was pretty mellow. I had to take care of the older guy, Eugene. He got snow blind from goggle failure, so I was up all night helping him eat and nursing him. It’s kind of surreal. I was seventeen, spoon-feeding this older fellow, sending radio messages from the pole to the rescue team down at the base camp. I felt comfortable and good helping out.

CC: What is it like when you’re up there? Was it surreal, divine? What goes through your head when you summit? 

JC: It wasn’t as much of a challenge physically or mentally as I thought it would be. After spending so much time in the tents and backpacking as a kid, I was pretty well-versed in feeling comfortable in uncomfortable situations. At first, I was super scared and nervous, like, ‘What am I doing?’ Then I had this realization, I was like, ‘No, I got this. I know how to do this.’

The summit day was pretty surreal for sure. I felt focused, had to stay in the moment. One step in front of the other, just get up the hill. Take in stock how my body was feeling. I remember thinking to myself, ‘all right, I’m getting tired, I need to drink some water, eat some food. My toes are cold, I need a break, shake them out.’ I was focusing on these little minute things coming one thing after another. You do that enough times, and you get there.

CC: Is it mostly on foot or are you pretty reliant on climbing gear? How steep is the ascent?

JC: It’s with everything and it’s pretty steep straight from the start. There are fixed lines on most of Everest, and that’s where you’ll see those big jam ups. We could’ve moved faster, but we got stuck behind some people. Everyone’s just moving as fast as the slowest guy. 

CC: How long does it take to get from the base camp to the top?

JC: It takes three or four days to reach the summit. You go from base camp straight to camp two. You spend the night there. Sometimes you rest there for a day just to get ready. Then, you spend another day going to camp three. Spend the night there. Push to camp four, that’s a shorter push. You rest at camp four (also known as the South Col) until 9 or 10 pm and then you start for the summit. It’s a 12 hour push (about 1,000 meters) from the South Col to the summit. And then, back down. We did the push from South Col to base camp in one day. So, it was four days.

CC: Let’s shift gears and talk about a typical day in your life now. What are your daily rituals – any specific diet or workout regimen? 

JC: I’ve been getting pretty into gym focus training the past couple of years because of a couple of ACL injuries. Normally, I’d be mountain biking, running, or climbing, but it’s been really cool to learn how to take care of my body in the gym, and that has totally carried over in my everyday life. A typical day for me is; wake up, cook some breakfast, do some computer work. I’ll typically spend anywhere from two to eight hours [in the gym] depending on the week. Strength training, mobility, plyometrics, bike sessions — trying to cover all of the bases. After that, I eat dinner and go to bed. It’s a simple life, for sure. In the winter, I wake up, eat breakfast, gear up, and go to the hill. A lot of my winter is away from home, traveling.

CC: What are you working on these days? Are there new films, projects or any new lines or summits on your radar?

JC: This year I’m shifting focus back to the mountaineering side. I’ve been wanting to go back to the Himalayas for some time now, since there are insane lines over there for skiing. That’s a big goal of mine — to find skiable lines and start free riding in the Himalayas. 

CC: Any collaborations or partnerships you’re stoked about?

JC: My top two brands that I work with are North Face and Red Bull. I’ve been with North Face for almost ten years, and they’re just amazing. I really believe in trying to preserve the environment, but I haven’t quite found the right way to talk about it. It’s really cool to work with brands that share my belief [in the environment]. North Face is this huge corporation that shares those same values from the products to the athletes, and that’s making a greater impact than I ever could. 

CC: What is your perspective on powder skiing vs. resort skiing? 

JC: I love both, I mean, I would have a hard time giving up resort skiing because you become such a great skier crushing laps and learning how to go fast in different conditions. I think that’s really important to being a good skier. [Powder] is more intimate, even aside from the environment, it’s just so nice to be in the mountains and seeing how they react to the weather and snow. And, when you choose the line you’re hiking, you’re in there. It’s an amazing thing that’s so accessible now. 

I really want to try and help people have a safe experience. Because there is a danger now that the equipment is so accessible. I feel like a lot of people miss the whole safety aspect. Whether I create clinics or classes to help people stay safe out there and make good decisions. You could be the most prepared person, the most experienced person, but if you’re in the backcountry surrounded by groups of people who don’t have that same knowledge — you’re experiencing that danger just as much as they are. The more everybody can learn and be safer, the better. 

CC: Any advice or ideas for our readers or for people who want to pursue their passions, their dreams, live this adventure lifestyle and give back while doing it?

JC: I think it’s very important to have a goal, assess that goal, and look at what steps you need to get there. Let’s say you want to climb Everest. You can’t just go to Everest. You have to break it down, like, ‘Okay, I need to learn how to manage a rope, ice climb, carry a heavy pack.’ Whatever your goal is, I think it’s smart to break it down into these small, bite sized chunks. And take it slow. That’s the thing I learned through this injury — patience and not needing to rush anything. Especially in the mountains. Because the mountains will always be there. And, they’ll be ready for you when you’re ready for them.

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