Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Summit of Fandom


             The loyalty of NASCAR fans to their favorite drivers and sport, and the measures they’ll take to prove it, is legendary.

There’s the iconic gentleman whose photo of the number “3” manscaped into his prodigious hairy back lives in internet infamy.  There’s the ambitious farmer in Ohio who, like Michaelangelo on a Yardman tractor, marvelously groomed green acres into an expansive tribute to Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 car (

You could do a coffee-table book just showing the tattoos.  All noteworthy examples of fan devotion; but extreme outliers boldly venturing where none have gone before have a new mountain to scale. A mild-mannered gent by the name of Patrick Hickey upped the ante to higher levels. His was a feat of extreme danger and borderline lunacy. Hickey, who has a deathly, debilitating fear of heights, took a NASCAR flag to the top of the world – the summit of Mt. Everest. 

Adding to this incredible accomplishment, the mountain climber, registered nurse, nursing professor at University of South Carolina, managed to time it for May 24, matching the number of his favorite driver, Jeff Gordon. When Hickey stood on the roof of the planet, he had completed a dangerous eight-year quest to scale the “Seven Summits of the World” – the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. He joined an elite group of one of less than 150 people in history who have attained this “Holy Grail” in mountaineering. “The Seven Summits was the fulfillment of a quest so wild and fanciful, few have ever dreamed it, and fewer have experienced it,” Hickey said.

As he charted the course for conquering the final – and most dangerous – summit Hickey wasn’t planning on taking a piece of NASCAR with him. As with so many things that go down in this sport, the fans had a say. In a blog tapped out during 64 days on Everest, Hickey wrote he could deal with the cold, isolation and constant danger. But there was one very distressing, depressing thing about the trip. He was cut off from NASCAR.  What was happening with Jeff Gordon, Hickey wondered? Soon, online updates from strangers in 20 different countries began pouring in.

“All kinds of hits came in from so many NASCAR fans. They were giving race results, points updates, and news like Dale Jr. leaving DEI,” Hickey said. “Co-workers were amazed to learn I was a NASCAR fan, when I had no idea they were fans, too. Of course, the best part was being up on the mountain and hearing Jeff was doing so well on the track.”  

Hickey noticed something else: NASCAR fans were giving generously to The Summit Scholarship he had created to promote nursing amid the growing shortage and to support the education of nursing students at USC.  The goal was to raise $29,035 – or a buck for every foot of altitude of Mt. Everest.  (Donations can still be made at

One blog reader, Elizabeth Henry, is also tight with Kristin Nave of NASCAR Corporate Events.  Henry was following Hickey’s fascination with Jeff Gordon, and she contacted Nave to see if NASCAR could send something to Pat.  Presto, a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series flag was heading from Daytona Beach to base camp at Mt. Everest.  Eight days later – and two before his climb – the flag arrived on a U.S. MedVac helicopter, which swooped in to take away two sick climbers. 

Up on the summit, completing the most challenging physical task on the planet, Hickey quickly removed his insulated mittens, grabbed the NASCAR flag and posed for a photo.  He had to be fast – after 30 seconds, frostbite will set it at temperatures reaching 40 degrees below zero and winds gusting to 125 mph. Hickey had serious business to attend to as well.  Stowed in his backpack were the ashes of his dear friend, Sean Egan, who had perished on Everest in 2005.  Since 1921, the mountain has been climbed by more than 2,200 people.  More than 190 have lost their lives – frightening odds for not making it down.  Hickey would worry about that soon.  For now, he opened the urn and released Egan’s ashes high into the raging winds and across the wide expanse of mountains.

While Hickey downplays the danger associated with the climb, it is wickedly perilous.  The mountain’s top 3,000 feet is considered “the Death Zone.”  The digestive system of climbers starts to shut down just when their bodies need nourishment the most.  There is increased risk of high-altitude cerebral edema, an often fatal swelling of the brain, as well as pulmonary edema, where fluids gathering in the lungs can drown a person.

Basically, the human body is not built to survive such heights. We rapidly deteriorate.

Moving upwards in the Death Zone, on his way to the summit, Hickey had been caught in a violent windstorm.  His legs went numb, and he couldn’t move them.  He luckily spotted his climbing team’s tent and used his arms to pull through the ice to safety.  He could only speak in unintelligible grunts and was unable to offer his comrades any clue about his condition.  Fellow climbers diagnosed advanced hypothermia. Hickey was revived in a tent only three hours before the final climb to the summit. Once there, he lost sight in one eye and had extremely limited vision in the other. 

If you meet Hickey at a race, he looks like any other fan. But don’t let his slight frame and easy smile fool you. He’s a tough, stubborn, experienced mountain climber.  Even so, the elements on Everest are brutal, and at the top of the mountain, Hickey was completely beaten up. He knew making it to the top doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t make it down. He’d heard about the difficulties of the three-day descent – where 80 percent of climbers lose their lives – but would now personally experience the hazards when it was his own depleted body wanting to shut down. More than once he sincerely believed he’d be another well-dressed carcass eternally frozen on the face of Everest.

“Your emotions are riding on the exhilaration of summiting Mt. Everest, which turns to sheer terror when you remember you have to get down,” Hickey recalled. 

Unable to see much, he was confronted with a series of frightening moments that stretched to agonizing days. Deprived of oxygen and woozy, and battling his paralyzing, stomach-turning fear of heights, he had to cross deep crevasses by crawling over aluminum ladders in strong winds. On the verge of complete exhaustion, he fell down.  Instead of tumbling toward Tibet 10,000 feet below or taking a steeper drop into Nepal, 12,000 feet downward, he crashed to stop on a very forgiving part of the trail and was snagged by safety lines preventing a sure death plunge.

“Everest is the ultimate high and the ultimate risk,” Hickey said. You’re not eating or sleeping. You’re not hydrating. Your legs are going rubber. My needle was past the E, and I still had to make it down a vertical ice wall. The steepness of the canyon walls and the radiation of the intense sun reflected off the snow and underlying glacier combine to sap your fluids until your tongue seems glued to the roof of your mouth. I knew I needed lots of water, but every time I swallowed it felt like sharp pieces of glass were tumbling down my throat, so raw from the wind.”

Worse than the severe dehydration was not being able to see. Hickey visualized his wife, Carol, holding in his head her image and the thought of seeing her again.  Virtually blind, freezing to death, and malnourished, he dug deep to find reserves of courage and determination he didn’t know existed.  He kept moving forward, taking one small step, crawling, getting up, then another step, then another.

“With each step, I kept repeating: I’m coming home, I’m coming home,” he said.

Home is where Hickey became a NASCAR fan, but not until he was in his 20’s.  He grew up the eldest of nine on a 100-acre farm in rural Canada.  As a boy, he was plagued by his bad asthma and that fear of heights.  Once he missed dinner because he was stranded in the barn, holding onto a plank in the rafters for dear life.  He felt awkward in school, wearing second-hand clothes and mismatched gloves from a bus depot’s lost-and-found due to the family’s meager finances.  He did poorly in class, his mind wandering to dreams of exotic places far away.  A guidance counselor directed him to study nursing.  He was initially confused and put off; wasn’t that a women’s profession?  But he was a tender, caring soul and realized the possibility of traveling the world, saving lives. A lifelong passion for helping others and visiting strange lands began.  While studying for his advance nursing degree at the University of South Carolina, Pat kept the TV on “for background noise.”  One Sunday the race was on, and he grew interested.

“I got caught up in the soap opera of the sport” he explained. He was entertained by the changing alliances on the track and the simmering grudges in the garage. He was immediately drawn to Jeff Gordon.  He saw an admirable leader who remained positive no matter the present circumstances, qualities which would preserve his own life climbing on several continents.  He liked that Jeff was a staunch competitor, always quick to praise unsung team members, which would be his philosophy on hospital trauma teams and developing new nurses.  He was impressed that Gordon was an ambassador for goodwill in channeling millions of dollars for the needy through the Jeff Gordon Foundation.  After all, Hickey’s own desire to help others inspired him to become a nurse and then to train and mentor future nurses as a university professor, nursing advocate, spokesperson and creator of the Summit Scholarship.

Hickey’s first Sprint Cup Series race was at Darlington Raceway in 2006.  He sat three rows from the track, riveted by the thundering procession, aiming his mobile phone at the passing rush of cars.  A year later, as he was climbing to the “roof of the world” and tackling the seventh and final summit, Jeff Gordon was racing at that same Darlington track.  Before heading to Nepal, Hickey had told his good friend Judy Barr, a Tony Stewart fanatic working at the University of South Carolina, “If Jeff Gordon wins at Darlington, I want Jeff to know somebody will be smiling on top of the world.” 

“The whole time I was at Darlington, I kept thinking about Pat’s words,” Barr said.  “When I climbed to the very last row in the stands for the race, I thought of Pat climbing.  I was right in front of Jeff's pit box.  Throughout the race, Jeff had water issues.  There was just no way he was going to win the race, let alone finish.  Steam was pouring from the engine.  When Jeff ended up winning, even he said he had no idea how the engine held up.  Drivers talk all the time about the ‘Racing Gods.’  The way Pat’s climb and Jeff’s win worked out, I like to think the Racing Gods were looking down on both of them that weekend.”

Word about Gordon’s win got to Hickey on the mountain, and he was naturally elated.

After hearing Hickey’s Everest tale and Seven Summits accomplishment, NASCAR helped arrange for him to attend the Sprint Cup Series race in Charlotte in October 2007.  At the prerace ceremony on pit road, he presented the NASCAR flag he took to the top to NASCAR President Mike Helton.  It will reside in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte when the facility opens in 2010.

Pat finally got to meet Gordon prior to the race.  The two world-class athletes who tempt fate in an often hostile and unpredictable environment stood in the narrow hallway of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet hauler.  Hickey peppered Gordon with questions about maneuvering a stock car around at track at 180 mph inches from good friends and respected rivals.  Gordon wanted none of that.  He was hitting Hickey with questions on making it up – and then down – the treacherous ice and howling-winds of a mountain so breathtakingly majestic and satanically cruel at the same time.  Hickey pulled from his backpack a rock retrieved from the top of the world and handed the unique keepsake to his NASCAR hero.  The race car driver said to the mountain climber, “Some people question what I do.  But I think you’re the crazy one here.”

Hickey keeps another rock from the top of Mt. Everest in his office desk at the University.  “I want to remind myself of the great potential we have within us to do anything we put our minds to, and also the great responsibility I have to find that potential in my students,” he said. “Each of us has a sense of adventure within us.  Mine are just more noticeable because they’re more extreme.  For some, the adventure can be to climb a mountain, run a marathon, learn a new language, travel to a foreign country, or seek a more challenging job or position within an organization.  We all have the potential to do better in our lives.  I hope my Seven Summits helps show that.”

The next time you’re confronted with a daunting, seemingly impossible task, maybe you’ll remember fellow NASCAR fan Patrick Hickey.  Asthmatic and afraid of heights, Pat went to the highest, thinnest air on earth.  He ventured far outside of his comfort zone, testing his limits way beyond reason, and discovering what he’s truly capable of: Anything.

It was Pat’s idea to bring the banner of his favorite sport to the top of Mt. Everest.  But if NASCAR had its choice for a flag bearer, there would be no better selection than Dr. Patrick Hickey, a giving man whose deep, dark fears could have robbed his full potential.  Pat did what few attempt.  He got down on his hands and knees, and he crawled right over those demons.


For more stories like this, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans is available online.