William Lobdell | Photo: John Gilhooley | February 28, 2013
Meet three O.C.-based adventurers exploring the world—one mountain at a time.
Carter Cox, Alexander Barber and David Van Der Roest have set out to climb the world’s highest peaks.
The trio of mountain climbers had already stood on top of Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest spot in the Americas at 22,837 feet. They had been on the mountain in the Andes for nearly three weeks, braving storm conditions that generated winds of up to 135 mph and wind chill factors of more than minus 50 degrees. The thoughts of Alexander Barber, 24, David Van Der Roest, 26, and Carter Cox, also 26, were about getting back to base camp and off the mountain when they encountered a fellow climber at Camp 2 who had developed an advanced form of high-altitude pulmonary edema—he was literally drowning in his blood. At 19,000 feet and carrying limited medical supplies, the mountaineers from Orange County could only provide basic aid and comfort while watching the climber die. “I think about him every day since it happened,” says Barber, the expedition’s leader. The razor’s edge between life and death at nearly four miles above sea level dictates that climbers must keep their minds in the present—the past and future don’t matter—and provides much of the allure of mountain climbing. As Van Der Roest explains: “At my job and in my daily life… my mind is rarely in the present and focused on a single goal. I find it so easy to get lost in this forward-thinking, scatter-brained approach to life that permeates Orange County. Climbing on big mountains like Aconcagua forces and trains me to focus on the now. The paradigm shift from the future to the present is profound and leaves me with a lasting peace.”
Orange County, where the highest elevation registers barely one mile above sea level (Santiago Peak at 5,689 feet), is the unlikely base of Peak Expeditions, the homegrown brand under which the trio climbs and attracts sponsors (Zeal Optics, Nuun, Adventure Medical Kits and Mountain House). But Barber, Van Der Roest and Cox all grew up locally and, through mutual friends, found each possessed a similar passion for wanting to climb the world’s highest mountains. Barber is the professional climber among the group, spending 75 days a year as a guide on Mount Rainier in the state of Washington. Van Der Roest, who resides in Santa Ana and works at a tech startup, is PeakX’s photographer. “Before I could drive, I remember begging my mom to drop me off at local trail heads and pick me up the next day,” Van Der Roest says. “The Santa Ana Mountains were my playground growing up.” Cox, born and raised in Orange County, is pursuing his master’s degree in seismic and structural engineering at UCI and handles PeakX’s logistics. “To me, high-altitude alpine environments are some of the most beautiful settings in the world,” he says. “It’s an incredible, awe-inspiring experience to be outdoors, away from city lights, smog and people, enjoying creation.” The trio decided to form a mountain climbing team based on their technical expertise, sense of trust and the simple but essential ability to get along together for hours inside a tiny tent. “During the 18 days on Aconcagua, nearly half were spent waiting out storms in the tent,” says Van Der Roest. “During one snowstorm, we were in our tents for almost 72 hours, with the exception of bathroom breaks outside.”
Team chemistry is critical in situations like the ones PeakX faced on Aconcagua after spending a long week getting to Camp 2 from base camp. Inside a cramped tent, the team debated for hours whether a forecasted window in the stormy weather would permit a summit attempt. Van Der Roest and Cox argued that they should at least try to make it to a shelter about halfway to the top. Barber was adamant that they stay put, even if it meant they might not reach the top of the mountain during the expedition. Barber won the argument, and the team, after an arduous retreat to base camp, later made it to the summit. It’s that type of debate and critical thinking that keeps climbers alive at 20,000 feet above sea level. “It’s usually not any one decision that gets you killed in the mountains,” Barber says. “It’s normally a series of bad decisions.”
With work and school commitments, the PeakX members have learned to climb on a shoestring budget. The Aconcagua expedition cost about $3,400—less than half the normal expense. But the small budget fits nicely with the team’s minimalistic approach to scaling a mountain. “I’m very much a purest,” Barber says. “I don’t believe in an extravagant amount of gear and tents and having a nice little tea party each morning with scones.”
PeakX is already planning its next adventure: a 26,261-foot Himalayan mountain near Katmandu that they hope to climb up and snowboard down. Yes, snowboard. And what keeps pushing the trio to scale the world’s largest peak is much more than what’s contained in the classic answer: because the mountains are there. Listen to Van Der Roest: “The self-discovery that takes place on big mountains is more intense than anything else I’ve experienced. To know the limits of your mind and body and understand how you can manage anxiety and stress while working with other people as a team gives me a confidence and, incongruently, a humility that will be with me throughout my whole life.”