Mountaineering is bloody hard and wildly unpredictable. Steve Plain knew this, but he set out to make it harder still with Project 7in4, a world speed record attempt to climb the highest peak on each of the 7 continents in 4 months. Oh, and he broke his neck 3 years ago.
The Project 7in4 story begins with a morning swim at Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia in late 2014. Steve was dumped by a relatively small wave and was unlucky enough to break his neck when he hit the sand. Strangely enough, he was also incredibly lucky; surviving that kind impact is pretty rare, especially in the water.
Pulled from the waves by a mate and 2 surf life savers, Steve found himself on a hospital bed, confronting the possibility that he’d never walk again.
Rather than set a simple goal to motivate himself through recovery, Steve aimed absurdly high. He was going to walk out of there, pursue his dreams of mountaineering and climb the 7 summits faster than anyone before him. He was also going to raise money for Surf Life Saving WA and SpinalCure Australia, causes close to him after his accident.
When I caught up with Steve he was in Sydney Airport after 2 weeks in Australia, about to fly out to Russia to climb his 5th peak, the 5642m tall Mt Elbrus in Russia.
So how was your time in Australia, relaxing?
Nah not that relaxing actually! While in Australia I’ve been doing a whole heap of media interviews and running around getting things organised, so I’ve been pretty flat out.
So you’re climbing the tallest mountains on each continent in under 4 months – were you always a mountaineer?
I was new to mountaineering after the accident. Since then [a bit over 3 years ago] I’ve climbed in the Peruvian Andes and the Himalayas twice and summited 9 major peaks.
Did you always want to climb mountains?
Yeah, I always wanted to but always prioritised work and daily life matters. The accident was the impetus for me to get out and do it. I also really wanted to do something to support Surf Life Saving WA and Spinal Cure Australia. Surf life savers saved my life when I broke my neck and SpinalCure Australia is working towards a cure for spinal injuries and paralysis, this could have a huge impact on people with current injuries as at the moment treatment involves not moving much and hoping it will fix itself.
So how lucky were you with the way you recovered?
99% of people would be in a wheelchair for life or worse. For some reason the damage wasn’t too bad, it healed by itself and I was able to regain full movement, but I did have to spend 4 months in a Halo Brace.
What draws you to climb mountains? Is it the beauty? The physical challenge?
Both I think! I enjoy the physical challenge definitely, I used to do a lot of endurance sports, Triathlons and Ironman, so pushing myself was something I enjoyed. I enjoy the suffering that’s involved with mountaineering and the contrast to the serenity, peace and quiet.
I know you did Scouts when you were younger – is that what got you into the outdoors?
I started in the Scouting movement in Cubs and then did Scouts and Venturers, it definitely got me into the outdoors along with my parents. After Venturers I went and did some long bushwalks and nature-based challenges that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. Actually when I was 16 I went to Everest Base Camp with Turramurra Venturers, that probably inspired my dream to climb big mountains.
What’s the current record for climbing the 7 summits?
The current record is 126 days and the 4 months I’ve chosen is 120 days, so that’s where 7in4 came from. Hopefully I’ll get them done in 110-115 days. Some of the bigger and more technical climbs are coming up so we need room to move with weather.
Which ones have you climbed so far? Which was your favourite?
Aconcagua – the style of the climbing was really enjoyable and I was climbing with a friend on an independent trip – it was awesome. It was quite a bit higher and tougher than the other climbs I’d done. It’s just shy of 7000m (6,962m) and it’s not that technical but the altitude is pretty intense.
Antarctica was amazing too, the whole journey down and seeing the place; just looking out over the glacier and ice caps from the top of Vinson (4,892m) was incredible.
Last weekend you went up Kosi, but that’s not one of the 7 summits right? Tell us about that climb.
Yeah Kosciuszko is a grey area in the 7 summits. There are 2 summits, one is the Kosciuszko continent climb (2,228m), the other is the Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya, 4,884m) in Indonesia, which is higher and harder. Generally people aim to do the Carstensz climb but my aim was always to do both of them, couldn’t leave out Australia.
Kosi was a bit different though wasn’t it?
We took 6 participants in wheelchairs and hundreds of volunteers from Cooma and Turramurra Rotary Groups up over the weekend.
I saw that your climbs have live tracking so people can follow your attempts. Is this a new thing?
It’s not the first time it’s been done but the tech is getting better. The one I’m using was initially designed for ocean racing–mapping and live tracking can be integrated with it so you can see my progress. People really enjoy it; they can check each morning where I’ve got to overnight, or they’re checking on me while they’re at work.
Which mountain are you off to next? You keen for it?
Elbrus (5642m) – I’m keen to get back on the road and get back into it. It’s going to be harder and colder than the climbs I’ve done so far. I’ve been climbing in the Southern Hemisphere summer so far so it hasn’t been so cold.
Now it’s pre-climbing season, we’re early and it’s going to be really cold, -30 degrees celsius. We’ll also have to reacclimatise. You usually try to keep it from one mountain to the next with this kind of thing but I’ve been in Australia for 2 weeks. Luckily there are 2 before Everest which is the big challenge in terms of altitude, pushing 8,000m.
Everest is actually well over 8,000m isn’t it?
There’s some debate about whether it’s going up or down and I think they’re resurveying it but generally it’s accepted that it’s 8848m, it’s pretty high (laughs).
What would your advice be to people who are sitting on a lifelong goal?
Well I wouldn’t recommend breaking your neck! That time in hospital really made me think but in reality, you never know what’s going to happen and shouldn’t need something big and terrible to happen to get you out there. If you’ve got a dream, start working on it right now and don’t let anything hold you back.
At the time of writing Steve had successfully climbed Mt Elbrus. With 5 out of 7 mountains climbed he’s well on track to become the fastest person to climb the 7 Summits. Follow his progress on Project 7in4 and click the button below to support his causes.
Donate to SpinalCure and Surf Life Saving WA
Ridin’ The Inspo Train