Reaching the South Pole after crossing 60 nautical miles of Antarctic wilderness photo by Andy Cole

To hold the accolade of completing the Explorer’s Grand Slam, an adventurer must climb the highest peaks on each of the world’s seven continents and reach both the North and South Poles. It’s an undertaking every bit as demanding as it sounds and one that at the time of writing has been achieved by less than a hundred people in history. We spoke with US climber Alexander Pancoe, one of the few to have accomplished this feat, to hear about his fascinating journey with Adventure Consultants.

By his late 20s, Chicago native Alexander Pancoe had established a growing career in finance and seemed set on the path to success. However, despite his apparent achievements, he found himself growing restless. “My entire life after college I was very focused on my career—and was more concerned with material things than experiences. My life had become a bit routine and I needed to challenge myself, and the status quo.”

It was an impulse that led him to spontaneously head off on a safari to Africa. “It was like a curtain rolled up and I was seeing endless possibilities to challenge myself, to learn and to grow. I realized I’d arbitrarily put limits on what I was supposed to do with my life, what constituted success and what I personally was capable of. Traveling around Africa was a profound and impactful moment in my life. When I returned home, I knew I wanted to take on a challenge that would test me and allow me to discover my limits—whatever those were.”

Navigating a jaw dropping three wire bridge crossing on Carstensz Pyramid in Western Papua.
The Explorers Grand Slam is about pitching in and working with your team, Alex Pancoe digs in on Denali.

As Alex sought an adventure that would push him outside his comfort zone and test his physical and mental limits, he still felt the pull of Africa and decided to focus on its highest mountain, 5,895m/19,340ft Kilimanjaro.

“At that point in my life I needed to train harder than ever before. I went from being a foreigner in a gym to spending countless hours on a stair machine. Having never climbed a mountain, I started climbing ‘14ers’ in Colorado. I took an alpinism course in the Alps with Adventure Consultants. Despite all the training, I was unsure of what to expect when I began my climb of Kilimanjaro. When I stood on the summit, the feeling of achievement was the most incredible feeling in the world. I never considered myself capable of achieving such a feat and to succeed only made me want to test myself further. That was when I decided I wanted to attempt the ‘Seven Summits’. I was unsure how far I could go, but I figured I would aim big and see what happens.”

Still not truly considering it a realistic possibility, it was a daunting prospect. However, as Alex progressed, he found doubt replaced with excitement. “I trained harder and more efficiently, working with Uphill Athlete. I spent about 20 hours a week in the gym or the stairwell of my high-rise in Chicago. As often as possible, I trained around the world on mountains, improving my skills so I could not only make it to the top, but do it in good form. As I progressed throughout the Grand Slam, my growing confidence and love of climbing made the challenge exhilarating.”

Traversing Aiguille d Entrèves in the Mont Blanc Massif on a European training mission.

After Kilimanjaro, Alex continued his quest through the peaks throughout 2017, focusing first on South America’s Aconcagua, then Europe’s Mount Elbrus and Antarctica’s Mount Vinson. It was during this time that the idea came to expand the challenge to also include both the North and South Poles. As he progressed, Alex became more focused on climbing and enjoying the journey, and the big picture became less daunting. 

The journey was made easier by the many highpoints along the way, including first setting foot in the Himalayas on expedition to Island Peak in October 2017 with Adventure Consultants: “Being able to see Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam for the first time is awe-inspiring. The trek in the Khumbu is beyond beautiful and the energy there is unlike any other place on Earth. Seeing Everest up close for the first time, knowing I planned to climb it one day, was absolutely incredible. I would recommend anyone who has aspirations to climb these giants to go on a separate trip first just to experience Nepal and lose yourself in its majesty without the pressure of an expedition.”

It was this appreciation of the journey that Alex credits as helping him in his quest. “I did not rush the Grand Slam. Rather, I grew to love climbing and used many other challenging expeditions to hone my skills so I could be a strong team member—but also because these expeditions were great adventures and challenges on their own! My experiences on Cho Oyu, Mont Blanc, Aspiring, etc. allowed me to see the world and enjoy some amazing climbs in the process.”

All smiles on the top of the highest peak on the planet Mount Everest May 23 2019 photo by Rob Smith

In 2018, Alex completed a successful summit of Australasia’s Carstensz Pyramid and skied to both the North and South Poles before completing the challenge in 2019 with a May 23 summit of Mount Everest and a finish on his home continent with North America’s Denali.

Many of these international adventures Alex has undertaken with Adventure Consultants, acquiring skills and experience critical for the next stage of the journey. “A company like Adventure Consultants is really the sum of the people who work there. The guides are great teachers—fun and easy-going, but serious when necessary. Many of my guides have grown to be friends over the years and have not only made me a proficient client, but a better person. When you’re on a mountain for weeks at a time, sharing the experience with great guides and team members allows you to grow a lot as a person. They also have expectations and want you to be proficient, which is great because when you feel you’re earning the summit, it’s a great feeling versus being handheld.”

“The front office and management are extremely friendly, and masters of logistics. AC has been flawless in executing our expeditions, which isn’t easy when we’re talking about all the potential challenges and issues that can arise! Despite being gone for a long time and making a big financial investment, it’s refreshing to know you have a company like AC behind you and watching out for you.”

As to be expected with a project of this magnitude, that’s not to say that Alex’s journey was all plain sailing. “The biggest lesson I learned from this endeavour is to embrace failure. Failure is inevitable when you’re truly challenging yourself. Failure is also a far greater teacher than success. There were plenty of setbacks throughout this journey, but I’ve learned to view it through a positive lens. Every climber can make mistakes. Sometimes you don’t achieve your goals and objectives, but the Explorers’ Grand Slam isn’t meant to be easy. Climbing is a constant learning experience, no matter what your expertise is.”

One specific setback stands out during Alex’s journey. During a solo training climb of Snowmass Mountain, one of Colorado’s 14,000ers, Alex suffered a bad fall ahead of an expedition to Cho Oyu. “I was going for a speed ascent and carrying minimal equipment. During my descent I severed my leg on a rock, slicing my calf muscle in half—literally to the bone. Alone and with minimal supplies, I managed to stop my bleeding but was stranded on the mountain and in danger of losing my life. I managed to get a hold of Aspen Mountain Rescue and they along with the Colorado High-Altitude Army National Guard hoisted me to safety with a Blackhawk Helicopter. Initially, the concern was saving my leg from infection and hoping I could walk normally again. Miraculously, my nerve was missed by millimetres and I was able Cho Oyu just 6 weeks later with Adventure Consultants.”

It is in moments like these that Alex believes the proper mental attitude is critical: “It’s important to accept that there are a lot of things out of your control… You want to be confident in your skills, but also stay humble enough to keep learning. Accepting failure and embracing it is a necessary ingredient to achieving success.”

“But, training and being in top shape doesn’t hurt.”

Alex Pancoe celebrating the summit of Everest with AC Guide Rob Smith.

True to his tenet, throughout this entire challenge Alex has committed to raising funds for Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, the institution where he himself was treated for a brain tumour as a teenager. For Alex, giving back has been an amazing feeling: “We’ve raised close to $500,000 for paediatric brain tumour research while sharing the stories of the amazing champions battling life-threatening illnesses there. Climbing for a cause has been such a privilege and incredibly humbling It’s also given me a boost at times when I’ve had doubts or have been physically and mentally burnt out. When you’re struggling, climbing for these kids helps you in those moments, and everyone has them, but it’s about being able to get through them. Now that I’m done with the Grand Slam, I’ve heard from other aspirants who want to use their endeavour as a platform for philanthropy and I would love to see that and hope to help by sharing my experience and advice.”

When asked how the Seven Summits experience has changed him, Alex is emphatic: “So many of the lessons I’ve learned apply to life versus strictly mountaineering. I’ve learned to erase ‘I can’t’ from my thinking. I’ve learned to respond to adversity and embrace failure as progress rather than an end. I’ve become a better team player and understand how to operate in stressful situations as an asset to a team. I’ve become a more confident person yet simultaneously more humble.”

Training on Mount Aspiring in New Zealand's Southern Alps.

And for those future aspirants, the advice is clear: “Enjoy the journey. Don’t rush it. Embrace the adversity — no challenge worth undertaking is easy and the adversity makes success that much sweeter. When I think back on the Slam, I rarely think about the moment I finished it… I think about all the adventures and journeys along the way. It takes years to do but then it’s over in the blink of an eye. You should live in the moment and love it.”

And now that that journey is over? “I’m enjoying some well-earned quality time with my friends, family, and girlfriend… probably a few beach vacations that involve lying around with some cocktails.” Of course, Alex can’t let go of climbing completely. He was already heading off to climb Mount Baker in Washington at the time we contacted him, and, not a man to rest on his laurels, admitted: “My next climbing challenge is just starting to come together… stay tuned!”

If you want to find out more about Alex’s journey or donate to his cause, please visit his website on the link below.

Crossing the dramatic Namche swing bridge enroute to Everest Base Camp.
On the summit of Antarctica's highest peak Vinson Massif