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Death’s Door to Death Zone: How Cancer Climber Sean Swarner Tackled the 7 Summits with One Lung

In a world where overcoming adversity often seems insurmountable, there are individuals who serve as beacons of hope and inspiration.

Sean Swarner, a name synonymous with resilience and determination, stands tall among them.

In today’s episode, Kinsley interviews the adventurer, author and speaker, Sean Swarner to discuss his adventures up to Mount Everest (with one lung), his two-time diagnoses with cancer, his training regimine, and how all of that affects his overall sleep and sleep wellness.

Join the adventure and learn how Sean has become an inspiration to individuals from all walks of life. His unwavering belief in the power of the human spirit and his unyielding determination to achieve the seemingly impossible serves as a testament to what can be accomplished with the right mindset and perseverance.


Mark Kinsley: With one functioning lung, Shawn s Swer became the first cancer survivor ever to summit Mount Everest, and that’s just one slice of his amazing story. Shawn was in a coma for nearly a year. He battled two deadly forms of cancer. He was given 14 days to live. He was red. His last rights, Shawn’s been featured on CBS Evening News, interviewed by Steve Harvey, and now he’s here and I can’t think of a better guest for a show called Sleep Summit.

And it starts right

Sean Swarner: now.

Mark Kinsley: If there has anybody that’s ever been on this show who has slept in some very strange places, it is this amazing man. Shawn, welcome to the Sleep Summit Show.

Sean Swarner: I appreciate it, man. You’re, it’s funny, you’re like, you know, you mentioned all these accomplishments and then you mentioned sleep, and I was like, well, you know, I don’t do too much sleeping because I’ve accomplished so many things, but at the same time, I realize how important

Mark Kinsley: sleep is.

Hey, wildly important and we’re gonna get into that because right now I know you’re training for Kilimanjaro, which you’ve been up. This will be your 24th time. Crazy. Uh, and I know you have some contraptions that we can break out and show all of our sleep, uh, nerds here. Uh, but I’d, I’d like to start and we are gonna find out the strangest place you’ve ever slept.

And I have a feeling if I was gonna give an award for that, you would win it. Um, but that’s later. And we’ve got our sleep summit quiz question. We’ve got all the fun stuff that we’re gonna do. But I wanna start by talking about. Your neighbors, what did your neighbors say the first time they witnessed you with a rope around your waist, pulling your Jeep through the

Sean Swarner: neighborhood?

You know, that was when I was training for the North Pole and it was, it was so crazy because I had. Well, first of all, I, I went to, I think it was like Big O Tires. Be quiet, Alexa. Um, I went to Big O Tires. Be quiet Alexa. Like I went to Big O Tires, like, what do you guys do with your, like your old tires?

I’m like, we recycle ’em. And I looked at and was like, well, can I have four? And like, for what? I was like, well, I want to drill holes in. I’m gonna tie ’em together in a line and drag ’em around my neighborhood. The guy’s like, Um, sure. Right. Help yourself. So I went back and I, I got four tires stuck in my Jeep, drove home and I drilled holes in the sidewalls, tied ’em together to go behind my harness that was gonna simulate pulling this sled to the North Pole.

So I’m, meanwhile, I’m walking around dragging these tires through town right through my neighborhood. And one of two things would happen. It would be, oh, you know what, what are you doing? That’s, that’s fascinating. And I, what, what are you training for? And I would say, the North Pole, please show the explorers Grand Slam.

And then other times people would look at me, I could see the window slowly going up. Their, their, their vision just went straight and like, ignore him. Ignore him. He’s a crazy guy. So one of those two, re those, one of those two, uh, responses.

Mark Kinsley: And so you did the tires, you, you put ’em together with a rope and you pulled ’em.

But also I saw a video of you actually pulling your, your full-size jeep, your actual automobile.

Sean Swarner: Yeah. I tied it to my Jeep too, and I showed my friends that, and they’re like, there’s someone in the passenger, or there’s someone in the driver’s seat. And I was like, well, of course there is. I want them to hit the brake in case, you know, I could start going downhill.

Mark Kinsley: Yeah, there’s, there wasn’t a finger on the scale in that situation. You had to have somebody be able to put it in neutral and then pump the brakes. Exactly. Yeah. So you’re training right now for Kilimanjaro, and when we spoke previously, you were talking about how you’re training 3, 4, 5 times a day. Let’s start with some of the training that happens in bed.

You have a tent that goes over your bed. What is that all

Sean Swarner: about? So I have. A clear tent that goes over my bed, so there’s like two loose. At the header and at the footer of the bed, um, almost like the, the same, the same type of, um, poles that you stick in a tent, like a regular tent, right? But just on, on each end of the bed of the, the bed, the header and the footer, and then there’s a pole that goes through the top and connects ’em, and it kind of goes down on each side and there’s this half moon shaped zipper.

On both sides. So before we go to bed, I’ll zip up my wife’s side, zip up my side, and I’ll stick this tube at the bottom by my feet that is connected to a machine that filters out oxygen where I can dial up or down the altitude. And you normally, you wanna slowly go up, right? And then it pumps in oxygen, less air.

So at night when we sleep, we zip up the tent and I’m eventually, I worked my way up to sleeping at about 19,000 feet. But we start, you know, I live at about 6,500 feet in Colorado. Anyhow, when I first got this machine, I lived it. Nine, 10,000 feet near Breckenridge, Colorado. And I remember the, the, the CEO of Hypoxic saying, you know, make sure you slowly dial it in.

And me being arrogant and like, I, I live in altitude, I’m fine with this. I cranked the thing up like 20,000 feet. My dog was in there sleeping with me in the middle of the night. She wakes up like right in my face, just going, you know, like, like I can’t breathe.

Mark Kinsley: Your wife must be a very patient woman.

Sean Swarner: She, she’s a saint.

She is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I’ve taken her up Kili Majaro once. Um, I took her up to Everest Base Camp once I. I took her on her first run, which was a half marathon in Mexico. Once, um, if you’re starting to see the trends here, there’s 1, 1, 1, but now whenever I go up Kili Majaro, she supports an orphanage called the Hope Center.

She, for the past five years, she’s fed a hundred kids every year. Wow, that’s amazing. Amazing, amazing person. And then also training wise, that that same tube that I mentioned, When I’m working, you know, I, I strap this thing around my head and I call up my koala nose. So I’ll crank that up to like 22, 20 3000 feet.

So if you ever get a, an email from me, that makes zero sense, tell me to dial it down a little bit.

Mark Kinsley: And for people who, who are listening on the podcast, you can head over to our YouTube channel, the Sleep Summit YouTube page, and you can see Shawn’s Koala knows we don’t have visuals on the tent yet, but maybe we can get a picture from you.

So whenever you dial that up, And it’s simulating oxygen at 22,000 feet. It’s basically depriving you of that oxygen. What’s happening to your body? What’s it doing to your body that’s gonna prepare you for altitude y?

Sean Swarner: You’re absolutely spot on. So every time I get on that machine, I have a pulse oximeter.

Right, which is an ox. It basically measures the blood oxygen saturation in your body, and at sea level, it should be right around 95 to 99%. What happens when you go up mountains in an altitude, there’s less oxygen. So to adapt to that, your body. Literally manufactures and makes more red blood cells and hemoglobin to carry more oxygen since there’s less out there.

So being on this hypoxic machine, I’m simulating those altitudes. I’m pre acclimatizing before I go to the mount. What is your

Mark Kinsley: training like overall? A and by the way, I don’t wanna bury the fact that, uh, we did tell you that Sean has one functioning lung. He went to the top of Mount Everest. He has completed the Explorer’s Grand Slam.

Which we’ll get into what that’s all about. It does include the training that you talked about earlier with the tires being pulled behind your back.

Sean Swarner: Um, it’s, it’s a de it’s a Denny’s breakfast platter, right?

Mark Kinsley: It’s a Denny’s the Grand Slam. That’s right. Uh, you probably could eat about 30 of those after, uh, doing any of these one challenges.

Uh, so right now you’re getting ready to take a group up, Kilimanjaro. This is gonna be your 24th time talk. You told me earlier that you’re training multiple times a day because you, you are responsible for the entire team that you’re gonna be taking up. What, what is your training right now? Like, describe that day for

Sean Swarner: us.

Absolutely. So you’re right. I’m, I’m training for myself, but I’m also training for 16 other people, right? I wanna make sure that they’re, they’re safe and healthy. So I wake up, I do yoga. Uh, my wife and I do yoga. It’s like a 30 minute online deal. Then here locally in Castle Rock, I will go up and down.

There’s a set of 200 steps. I call it a mini incline. I’ll work my way up to 10 to 12 times. So, you know, 2000 steps up and down, 2000 vertical steps. Then I’ll come home, do some work. Then later on I will put on the oxygen mask, not the koala nose, but the actual mask that covers my mouth and my nose. And I will bike at 19,000 feet for about 45 minutes.

Then after that I’ll go back to work, you know, get lunch somewhere in there, eat hydrate. And then depending on the day, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, um, I do weights. You know, I have like a, a circuit that I do. And then on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturdays, I will do an ab workout that’s starts off just being 11 minutes long, but it’s super intense and I end up doing that like three times.

So before I leave, the week before I leave, I’m working up to 33 minutes. Of Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. It’s up between four and five times a day. Wow.

Mark Kinsley: What is, what is your sleep like whenever you’re training this much, what happens to your

Sean Swarner: sleep? I am out by 8 30, 9 o’clock. I’m up at five 30. So, you know, roughly eight hours.

I mean, and even on the weekends, I I, for a month before I leave, I give up alcohol, I give up sugar, I give up carbs, I give up all that stuff. I literally starved my body. Um, but then right before I leave, you know, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll have a couple drinks. I love beer. I, I ma I make beer. So, you know, takes two weeks to ferment.

So I’ll make beer and then when I come home I’m like, oh, it’s fermented, it’s beer. Um, sleep wise, I’m so exhausted. Uh, but I’ve, I’ve also noticed that if I open my windows or I have the AC on at a really cool temperature, I sleep through the night.

Mark Kinsley: That’s good. Yeah. They say the optimal sleeping temperature is what, 60 to 68 is typically the range they, they toss out there.

You’ve slept at a little bit colder than that. I, I assume

Sean Swarner: last, last night it was 44 degrees. We had, uh, we have an AC and a swamp cooler that pulls in the, the outside air woke up last night. It was 44 degrees in our bedroom.

Mark Kinsley: Is that part of your training though, to like start sleeping at much colder temperatures? Because in, when you go up a, like a really high summit or you do one of these challenges at the north or the South Pole, you’re having to prepare your body to sleep at very uncomfortable cold

Sean Swarner: temperatures. I, I, I would say it’s probably by accident that happened, but I, I purposely put myself in uncomfortable situations.

You know, where I, where I push myself and make myself comfortable being uncomfortable,

Mark Kinsley: like the ice baths. My friend, our friend Matt Smith got me into the ice baths.

Sean Swarner: Nope. Uh, you can count me out. No way, man. I, I put myself in some cold situations. It was, you know, 80 below going to the North Pole, and I, I can’t.

Basically strip down and get buck naked and hop in the water because there’s no place to warm up, right? So you have to maintain that internal core temperature because there’s no, unless you have like a thousand mile long extension cord connected to small bar, you know, in, in, in, uh, uh, long urine. It’s, it’s not gonna work.

So you, people who do the ice cold, the the cold plunges enjoy, man. That’s, that’s great. Good for you.

Mark Kinsley: No, I was told that the inflammation benefits are a small piece of that, but what it does, it actually releases these, uh, cold shock proteins from your liver that help clean up your body. So, uh, it, I’m, I’m probably not the one to get into all this science, but it, it is one of those situations where you’re like, I’m gonna be uncomfortable.

I’m gonna face this. Yeah. And just the mental. Piece of the puzzle, I think is a, is a good one. Hey, let, let’s, let’s go into your story and talk about that mental piece of the puzzle for you because, uh, we’ll get to the Explorer’s Grand Slam and really what led to that. But I wanna back up and have you describe the moment when you looked in the mirror after waking up and looking at a pillow piled up with human

Sean Swarner: hair.

You know, that that was going back to when I was 13 and I. I, I’ll never forget that moment because I was about three months into the chemo, uh, where they told my parents, your firstborn son has three months to live. So I, I had an expiration date of three months, and I remember waking up that morning and looking to my left and seeing my hair covered in, or my pillow covered in hair.

And running to the bathroom and looking at myself in the mirror and not really being able to recognize who I was. Like, there was nothing left that was, I was 70 pounds overweight. Um, I used to be a, a tremendous athlete. Now I felt personally like I was a troll. I should be hiding under a bridge. Um, I, I, I felt like I had no hope.

And fast forward, I, I remember being on the bottom of the shower floor on my hands and knees. Sobbing, just absolutely weeping, pulling chunks of hair out of the drain so the water could go down, you know? But I think in, in moments like that, you can choose how you wanna react, and I decided as a 13 year old that I didn’t wanna focus on not dying.

I wanted to focus on living. I. And I think that’s a perspective that I’ve developed over the years. You know, especially through the teen years, the developmental years of your life, when you’re, you’re focused on and worried about, you know, who am I gonna be sitting next to at lunch? Right. You know, is, is my shirt ironed properly?

How does my hair look? You know, that stuff didn’t bother me because I was literally fighting for my life and I didn’t know if my eyes were gonna open up the next morning or not.

Mark Kinsley: So what happened next? You made this decision in your mind. You’ve been, now, is this the point at which you’ve been diagnosed with your first round of cancer? It was stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

Sean Swarner: Yeah, absolutely. So I, I went through about a year and a half of chemotherapy and. Look, looking back at it, I don’t think I knew it at the time, but looking back at it, I think I put the right step in front of the other one.

So it wasn’t just one thing that happened. Just like climbing Everest, you know, you don’t show up at base camp and then the three hours later you’re on the summit. You know, I, I didn’t get diagnosed and then all of a sudden like that I was in remission. It was one step at a time focusing on what I wanted, not the avoidance of what I didn’t want.

I. But I was also, whenever the, the bad moments were there, like I was, I was vomiting for 36 hours straight, you know, and I lost my hair. I gained 70 pounds. I mean, I lost my friend. I lost everything. My life was over. But when the, the times were bad, I took my myself somewhere else. So I’m a huge believer in the mind body connection, and I utilize vivid visualization and I visualized myself swimming back and forth.

I was a huge competitive swimmer. So when the times were bad, I knew they were gonna pass. You know, it was a, a temporary state, not a permanent condition. And I pushed myself to go somewhere else in my mind. And I think that really helped. And then when I had the good days, I learned how to be present in the moment, which I, I think so many people aren’t.

They’re you, you look at people who are depressed or living in the past, people who are anxious or living in the future. But if, if you can. Focus your energy and attention on living in the here and now, because that’s all, that’s honestly all we have, right? But most people are out there, they’re somewhere else, you know?

And then all of a sudden time starts going by like this. They look back at their lives and like, oh my God, what happened? Well, that’s because you weren’t present. You know, you’re not, you’re not truly home with, with your significant other. You’re not truly spending time with, with your, your kids or your grandparents.

My grandma’s a hundred years old, you know, I, I spend as much time with her as I possibly can, and when I’m there, am I on my phone? No. I’m, I’m there present with her. And that’s what I learned going through these cancers. When the days were good. I’m here. I’m here and now.

Mark Kinsley: Let’s, let’s take the next step in that, in that thought process, because that’s a really advanced concept, I think, for a lot of people, especially a 13, 14, 15, 16 year old kid, and it sounds like that turned into an absolute gift.

So let’s, let’s fast forward a little bit and let’s talk about. Your your second bout with cancer. At 16 years old, you had developed this mind, this mindset, and what happened after that? Once you beat it, I mean, did you graduate high school and go off to college? Did you get a job at True Value? Did you, uh, head off from Ohio and start climbing mountains?

Walk us through that.

Sean Swarner: Well, after the first cancer, I had a second cancer. They gave me 14 days to live. I was read my last rights and I was in a medically induced coma for a year. So, you know, look, looking back at being 16 years old, I don’t even remember being 16. So except for the one month of radiation therapy, which destroyed my right lungs.

So I have both lungs, but only one of ’em works. Um, but I, I do remember. Being in the hospital bed. I was also read my last rights. The hospital wanted to put me in hospice, and I’m looking at my parents, I’m like, you know what? Basically what the hell’s going on? I’m like, there’s a guy with man in the cloth and reading me my last rights at the end, at the foot of the bed.

And I’m like, I’m not dead yet. You know, it, it kind of felt like the opening scene of, um, what was it, Monty Python, meaning a life where they’re strolling down the street collecting dead bodies from the Black Plague. They’re like, bring out, you’re dead. And they tossed the old man on there and he’s like, I’m not dead yet.

And they respond, but you will be soon. Like, I felt like that, you know, they’re like, you’re gonna be, you’re gonna die soon. I, it’s like we’re all gonna die at some point, but I’m not dead now. So I, I, I, to answer your question, I, I went to college. I looked back. Looking back at it, I relived my high school years.

I turned into Belushi from Animal House. I was a party animal. I loved it. Um, I studied molecular biology, organic chemistry, which I found very difficult to actually pass because I didn’t open a book cause I was parting too much. Uh, I switched to psychology. I mean, who knew? You had to study for immunology, right?

Um, I, I switched to psychology because I thought, again, about the mind body connection, and I wanted to help other people who were going through cancer because as we all know, it’s not an individual disease. You know, my, my whole family went through it with me, my mom, my dad, my brother, some friends that I had.

Um, and then I went from there to grad school to Jacksonville, Florida. So, When I was working F four jobs, working on my master’s in doctorate, which I do not suggest to anybody, that was just a mess. I was sleeping like three nights of three hours a night. Um, and then that’s when I came up with the idea of climbing Mount Everest.

I wanted to be the fan first cancer survivor to climb the highest mountain in the world and literally use it as a platform to give people hope because so many people need to see. I would say the majority of human beings need to see something as possible before they believe they can do it themselves.

Me, I’m, I’m the complete opposite. I need to believe it’s possible and then I’ll do it.

Mark Kinsley: So you’re going from Ohio to Jacksonville? No mountains around. Pretty flat terrain at that point. And so how did this idea creep into your head? Did you see something, did you read something? Did you watch something on tv?

Sean Swarner: You know, I, if you ask one of my buddies from college, he said that he loaned me a book on Everest. And he was like, I’m responsible for your climate, Everest. I planted the seed. Well, I also kept your R E M CD and I’m not a musician, so, you know, we can talk about that too. Um, I, you know, I, I initially started thinking about ways to inspire people and motivate them, but more importantly, empower them, because not everyone’s gonna climb Everest.

Not everyone has the same goals, but if you can empower somebody to figure things out on their own, you change their lives. So I, I initially thought, well, maybe I can run across the country, you know, and visit local hospitals and share my story. And I just kept thinking bigger and bigger and bigger. And it sounds odd saying out loud, out loud, but the logical step was Mount Everest, you know, the highest point on earth.

Mark Kinsley: I have to rewind just a little bit to you. As a 16 year old I. With the man of the cloth at the foot of the bed Bible open. I just envision you at that moment, maybe lovingly kicking the book out of his hand and saying, I’m still here, and by the way, I’m gonna be such a badass that I’m gonna skip buying a Jeep and driving it as a 16 year old.

I’m gonna pull it.

Sean Swarner: No, it’s, it’s, it’s funny cause I do have some friends who are pastors. I, uh, I helped put one through school in Africa. Um, and I sh looking back, I sh I should have kicked the book. You know, just lean up there, close it, be like, dude, dude, I’m, I’m still here. Look. Right. Right. I’m still alive.

Mark Kinsley: Wow. So you, you talk about this vivid visualization.

And it sounds like that started many years ago, um, maybe when you were, uh, going through this battle with cancer and then, you know, eventually, you know, working on, uh, your education and then coming up with this idea to climb Mount Everest. I, I heard you at one point say that vivid visualization is part of your bedtime routine.

Can you take us through that?

Sean Swarner: Sure. Um, absolutely. You know, and I was also going back to the, that pastor, you know, Some others might have expectations of you, you know, and expectations of what they believe is gonna happen. But I think ultimately it, it depends on what I believed was possible, what I thought was possible, what you think is possible in your own life, not what others think is possible for you.

And I think that’s, that was one of the keys. But going back to the, the vivid visual visualization, I, I u utilized it a couple of different ways. One, I. And, and this was before visualization was really utilized. Have you ever heard of or read of any, any comics called Calvin and Hobbs? Yes, I have. Okay. Bill Waterson was, was the author.

Right. He’s actually coming out with a new book in August, apparently, like a more demented version, so I’m excited about that. But he was one of my favorite characters and every, every day I would read the comics and Calvin and Hobbs were in there and. Calvin, for those of you who don’t know, is just a, I don’t know.

He, a young kid who had this stuffed tiger who came to life in his imagination and he had an altered ego called Spaceman spiff. You know, he would go into these different worlds, and I utilized that to become this microscopic spaceship in my chemotherapy drip bag. And I remember vividly while I was getting my chemotherapy, I would close my eyes and I would visualize myself in the chemotherapy drip bag coming down the clear tube, and I could see my body laying in the hospital bed, the door off to the left, and the television up there playing whatever garbage was on tv, um, the window to my right.

And then mom or dad sitting in one of the, the hospital chairs. And then I remember getting shot into my body. Everything around me went dark, and I was literally, in my mind, I was in my body and all these little microscopic spaceships. Now remember, I’m a little kid, so imagination’s going crazy. So all these microscopic spaceships collected in the heart.

Which was like, you know, grand Central Station or what, whatever you wanna call it. And I, vis, I visualized from the inside my, uh, valve of the heart opening and closing. I could hear my heartbeat. So I was really, really in tune with my body and then I was shot out. Of my body, you know, flying through these veins and then into the capillaries and fo following like a blip on my, my dashboard, telling me to turn right, turn left.

And I would sneak up on like guess a cancer cell and I would unload missiles and laser beams and everything else full of chemotherapy, essentially in my mind, destroying the cancer from the inside of my body. So that was the first time I, I utilized vivid visualization where I was destroying the cancer and taking care of my body from the inside.

And it worked. Uh, apparently it worked, right? You know, apparently it worked. The second one was when I had those bad days, I mentioned before I was doing something else. I vividly visualized myself swimming back and forth doing the 50 meter breaststroke. Uh, cause I was a swimmer. I’ve been a competitive swimmer since I was five years old.

And I would hear the sound of people cheering me on when my head came out of the water and my head would go back down, you know, and I would visualize the bubbles coming up around my, like everything, utilizing every possible sense you can imagine. And then turning, touching the wall and turning. And I would, he and I would see my friends and hear them shouting, you know, go, Sean, you can do it.

Go. But it was just so quick. I’d flip over and I’d swim back and everything would, would go silent because I was underwater doing the pullout and the same thing kind coming back. But then I would, in my mind, I would touch the wall and I would look to my right, look to my left, and I pictured and visualized myself hundreds and hundreds of times.

Touching the wall, being lengths, you know, body lengths ahead of everybody else. After I was in remission, I went back to the pool. I trained, I put, I put in the time, I put in the work and I was un undefeated for the summer league, right? I, I had my sights set on nationals. I had, I, I still have some records from the, the league and I touched the wall at the championship and I did the same thing that my mind had saw hundreds of times before.

And I literally finished, I. Body lengths ahead of everybody else. And I did the same thing when I was training for at Mount Everest. You know, I would smell the, I, I would picture myself taking the last few steps on the summit. I would hear the styrofoam crunching of the snow under my feet. I would smell the ozone.

I could feel the sun’s radiation burning my face, utilizing all senses, and that’s where most people stop. But when I was utilizing vivid visualization with destroying the cancer, with going through and doing the 50 meter breaststroke and going to the top of Everest, the one common connection that brings the mind and the body together that most people.

Don’t utilize is why, what does that mean to you? So for me, you know, when I got to the summit of Everest, how did I feel? Because those emotions make it real. And there have been scientific studies shown that. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between vivid visualization and reality. So essentially, when I was climbing Everest, it was almost like deja vu because my mind had already been there hundreds of times before, so I had already been successful even before I stepped foot on the mount.

Mark Kinsley: You said you’d been there hundreds of times before. Is that a process? You know, once you figured that out, when you became, I. That missile that was destroying cancer in your body, or when you, uh, used vivid visualization to accomplish other goals before then, like the swimming goal, um, and being first is, is that something that you say, okay, I know I’m gonna have to do this a hundred times in my mind, and then when I get there, it’s gonna be real, or by doing it a hundred times in my mind?

I know that I’m gonna take the steps necessary because I programmed myself to focus on that goal. Is there a process that you break down for people?

Sean Swarner: There is, and, and going back to your question, apparently I’m answering it like a politician going completely around the subject every night when I go to bed.

When I have something that I, I want, you know, I vi I visualized myself doing it. Um, what I do is I, and I, I’ve actually recorded this too, if anyone’s interested. Um, I put together a program on vivid visualization, which is part of Big Hill Challenge, and I put together is, it’s an online course. Actually take that back.

It’s an online challenge. Um, but I walk myself through from my feet to my head. Right. And every time I take a breath, I first start off with my toes and my feet. I tense up all those muscles and then when I re, when I exhale, I release my toes and my feet, and then I do the same thing. When I inhale. I do my toes, my feet, my shins, and my calves then exhale.

And I slowly work my way up my body until I’m at my face making this like super sour. Like I just ate a lemon face, you know, puckering up. And then when I finally get to the top of my head, that’s when my whole body is relaxed and I kind of picture myself sinking into the bed almost like a puddle of goo.

Now I know my mind’s rested and it’s ready. My subconscious is ready to hear those, I guess, commands that I’m gonna give it. Because there, there’s the conscious and subconscious mind. So the conscious mind is the one that judges, it’s like, Hey, you’re not smart enough. You’re not strong enough. You can’t do this.

Well, that’s, that’s a, that’s a stupid idea. The subconscious mind is just the one that’s sitting there going, okay, let’s do it. No, you don’t wanna do it. Okay, let’s not do it. You know? Yes. No. So, if, if you can subconsciously impart what you wanna do, why you wanna do it into that part of your mind, you will find a way to make it happen.

So what I do is after I relax my body, I visualize myself doing it and then tap into those emotions while I’m doing it, and then all of a sudden it pull, tap into

Mark Kinsley: the emotions. Tap into the emotions.

Sean Swarner: Yeah. Like, so getting, getting to the top of Everest, what does it feel like? You know, like say, say somebody’s working hard to get a new car.

Right. They want, uh, for me, I, I don’t know, let’s say, uh, an Audi R eight, whatever, you know, wonderful car and I. If you’re excited about the car, great. Picture the color. Picture the sound, picture the day, picture who’s with you, picture what you’re wearing, picture all that stuff. Take it a bit further because after about five, 10 years, the car is not gonna sa mean the same to you, right?

So it’s never about the summit. It’s never about the finish line. It’s never about the new car. It’s never about the money. It’s never bought the raise. It’s never bought the new house. Tap into your personal core values and understand why you want that. Is it, is it appreciation? Is it love? Are you doing it for security for your family?

Is it freedom? What does that represent? Because that is gonna be your driving force that empowers you to have this, this unlimited source of, of motivation and, and, and inspiration to go after something. So for me, going up to the top of Everest, I had a flag that had names of people touched by cancer, and I had it with me in my chest pocket, every step I was on the mountain, my driving force, my inspiration.

And I pictured in my mind, like I said, hundreds of times, reaching this summit, unfolding this flag and doing it for other people. So for me, appreciation, love of charity, stuff like that, that’s the deeper meaning behind it. And I, I remember collapsing to my knees, even in my mind. Collapsing to my knees and just weeping because of, of all the emotions that were coming out at the same time.


Mark Kinsley: So you talked about values there, uh, you’ve clearly identified your values and the values. You know, I heard somebody say one time, values are what you act out, what you live out. You know, beliefs are things that you can just say, but they can evaporate. But values are what you live out. What’s your process for getting clear on your values and then mapping that to actions?

Because I think that that’s the, also the disconnect because values can be kind of what I call hollow terms. You know, it’s like quality service value we talk about in the sleep industry, but sometimes values can seem a little opaque. How do you, how do you get clarity number one around your values and then the actions you’re gonna take connected to those values?

Sean Swarner: Well, I, I think first of all, you like, like you mentioned, your goals, kind of compare values and goals. Pretend like you’re, you’re driving your car goals are the ultimate destination, right? That’s the GPS coordinates. You punch in. Values are the roots you take to get there. Right. So going up to Mount Everest, there are any mountain for that matter.

Um, there are numerous ways to get to the top of any peak. Pick the one that works best for you. You’re, you’re going for, uh, you know, a raise. You wanna double your salary, whatever that is. That’s, that’s your ultimate goal, right? How you’re gonna get there. There are hundreds of different ways to, to double your salary.

There. There are hundreds of different ways to, to sell something, you know, what works best for you, what those values are, the. Things that are gonna get you there. So for the longest time, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Like there’s nothing out there. So I actually created my own. So

Mark Kinsley: I I what, what does it say on the front?

Just it was a little, I couldn’t quite see the Big Hill challenge.

Sean Swarner: The biggest challenge journal. Well, I actually put it together and I, I made my own core values list. All right. I, I self publish, I put it together, and then I also have, I created my own core values, my personal core value assessment. So this is, this is just the beginning, but what I do is roughly every three weeks, I’ll go through this because your values change as you go through life like, What you value now I’m hoping isn’t the same as what you value when you were 20 years old, like 21 years old, right?

You know, and if it is, you might wanna go seek some help, um, aside from like family health, stuff like that, but your personal core values can change throughout your life. And what I do is I write down my top 10 from the list of 50 over here, and then I rate myself on how I’m actually living those values.

Yeah. And when I do that, I can look back and you have, you have to be honest with yourself. And if I look back and I’m like, okay, well here’s family my third personal core value in no particular order, I’m actually living that, uh, at a five out of 10. Well, hell, now I know exactly where I need to start focusing my energy and attention to make me feel better.

You know, and it, and it’s not a selfish thing because if, if I don’t take care of myself first, how can I take care of others? You know, I’m, I’m doing them a disservice if I’m not giving completely and, and helping as much as I possibly can. So, appreciation, say personal growth, you know, one of my top 10 if I’m living it at a six out of 10.

Now I know, oh well, I start reading some more and start scheduling time based on where I’m lacking.

Mark Kinsley: Shawn, have you ever gone through your list and had to make hard decisions based off it? You, you looked at it, you said, oh, wow. I’m not able to live that value because of something that’s holding me back or some.

Person or decision I’ve made have. Have you ever had those tough looks in the mirror? I,

Sean Swarner: I have, but I’ve also realized that there no one’s gonna hold me back. The only person, like I, I will never blame anyone else for my situation except for myself, you know, taking full accountability for my place in life.

Where I am right now is because of all the seemingly mundane decisions I’ve made in my past to get me where I am right here, right now. And if somebody’s gonna stop me, it’s because I allow that to happen to me. So if, if I have to make any hard decisions, those decisions are based on what I want for my life.

Mark Kinsley: I heard one, uh, coach for the, uh, Washington Wizards, JB uh, Joseph Blair. He said, you can’t always control the outcomes. You control your effort. It sounds very similar. You control your effort.

Sean Swarner: Yeah, absolutely. I mean it in any situation. For example, I, I had no control over the fact that I had cancer. But I could control how I reacted to it.

You know, in every situation, you may not be in control, but you’re always in control over how you feel, how you act, what you say. So this happens to everybody. You know, you’re, you’re getting into an argument with your sick, significant other or somebody else, and they say, you see what you’re doing to me?

You see how you’re making me feel? You know, you’re making me angry. Well, you know, in all honesty, you’re making yourself angry based on how you’re reacting to what’s happening. Take responsibility for your own actions.

Mark Kinsley: Let’s, let’s go there a little bit deeper. So you’re talking about accountability to yourself, being responsible, controlling your effort as you’ve been out and about on these wild, wonderful adventures.

I’m sure you’ve come into some very harrowing situations where it was scary, dangerous, insert whatever description you want at this point. Take, take us through some of those crazy, harrowing, wild moments. That stand out from your expeditions and then we can talk about your reaction to them.

Sean Swarner: Well, one that pops in my mind is going up Kili Majaro.

A couple years ago I. There’s a place called the kissing Rock, right? You go up this wall called the Barco Wall. It’s literally a mile vertical. I mean, it’s just, you get to this point, you look up there, you’re like, who in their right mind thought to themselves, oh, that’s the way we should go. And when they’re putting in the root, it just makes no sense.

It’s a vertical trail that goes back and forth, just a ton of switchbacks, literally for like a mile up. And a couple years ago, we had someone who was on the trip terrified of heights and. Like I said, there’s this thing called the kissing rock, where I’m sure you can imagine you have to like shimmy by it, and you’re so close to this rock that’s bulging out from the wall.

You could just literally lean, lean forward and kiss it behind you. It drops off, I don’t know, a couple thousand feet. So she was terrified to go across there, and she did it and I, I, she was hyperventilating and I was like, what? What are you focusing on? She said, I’m so scared. I’m like, but you’re on the other side.

And she goes, yeah, but I’m so scared. I’m like, what’s gonna happen now? And I’m like, we, we talk about it before we leave. You know, just, just on the other side of fear is where life begins. You know? That’s where you can start taking chances and really be alive and not just live. And she looked back and I was like, look what you just did.

You know, look, look at what you just accomplished. You’re terrified of heights. You could have died. She’s like, don’t encourage me. You know? I was like, what are you talking about? Like, but look at what you just did. Right? You just accomplished something amazing. She goes, yeah, I faced my fear and moved forward.

So walking people through that, what? Looking back at what they did, again, going back to the personal core values, I told her, or I asked her, I was like, why are you here? What are you doing? She’s like, I wanna get to the top. Why? She’s like, because my grandma had cancer. And then all of a sudden like that, she’s like, I’m back.

Let’s do it. The fear was gone, you know, on, on, on the mountain. I mean, if, if you wanna look at like leadership, I. So many people think, oh, I need to be out front and blaze the course. I need to make sure everyone’s following me. Follow me, follow me. But in reality, that’s just ego talking. You know, on Kili Majaro, we have Double the Mountain Success rate.

The average success rate is 48%. My groups are at 99% success rate. Hmm. When it’s dangerous, I’m upfront. I’m like, Hey, put your foot here. Put your hand here. Grab this guy. Mgu, one of our guides. Zuku will take care of you. Teo Phil will take care of you. No problems, do this, this, this, when it’s not dangerous, and no one’s in fear of dying.

I’m actually leading from behind. I’m the last person. I’m pulling up, um, um, the caboose in the train, but I’m keeping an eye on people. So if I see someone starting to stumble over off the side, I’m gonna make sure they don’t fall off the mountain. But I think more people need to lead from behind, get out of the ego, and utilize and encourage others to go out and explore and use their personal core values to, to empower themselves.

Mark Kinsley: Shawn, you’ve been all over the world and you’ve completed the. Explorers Challenge. And for people who don’t know, will you describe that? Because, uh, only a handful of people I’m assuming have ever done it, and you’re the first person to ever climb in Summit Everest with one functioning lung. But also now the Explorers challenge with one functioning lung.

What is the Explorers challenge?

Sean Swarner: So it actually is, it’s one of two things. It’s called the Explorers Grand Slam, or the Adventures Grand Slam. And it consists of climbing the highest mountain on every continent, which is the seven summits, and then also skiing to both the North and south poles. So that whole thing is called the Explorers Grand Slam.

And you’ve done all that? I’ve done all that. And then also, if you add in the Hawaii Ironman World Championship, I’m the only person in history who’s ever accomplished all that. Wow, that’s crazy.

Mark Kinsley: So, okay, let’s keep going with some of these moments though. I mean, you talked about somebody else facing their fear.

I wanna hear some of the wild stories about Sean Swer. Like, here’s the predicament I was in. Here’s what happened on one of those mountains, or on one of those ski trips.

Sean Swarner: You know? Absolutely. I, I have another phone call in seven minutes, just so you know, unfortunately, um, you know, I would. One of the biggest, I call it, oh shit, moments that I, that I ever had was I was on Denali, up in North America, up in Alaska is the highest mountain in North America.

And I was on the crux of the climb, which was probably about a half a mile of 50 degree ice, and I was using my crampons, which are metal spikes You attach to the bottom of your boots, so you have front points and then a number of points underneath. I was roped up to my climbing partner. I hit the crux of the climb.

I took a one wrong step, like half an inch in one, one direction or another, and I, I fell, I started rocketing down. I fell a hundred feet down the mountain, and I remember laying on my stomach because I just fell in my face and snow was shooting up between my ggl, my glacier glasses and my my eyes, and it’s amazing how.

Time is perceived from different perspectives. So from my climbing partner, he goes, it was over like that. It was just done like you fell and stopped. For me, I remember sitting there falling down and my mind thinking to myself, Well, this isn’t good. You know, like, I should probably try to stop. I’m gonna die.

Roll over, idiot, roll over. So I rolled over, used my ice ax to slow down and thankfully I was climb, uh, attached to my climbing partner with a rope. So we had 50 feet a rope between us. I fell 50 feet to him and then 50 feet down. So a total of a hundred feet. I climbed back up to where I fell. I belayed him in, meaning I brought him in safely.

And when he got there, my adrenaline was gone. I looked at him like, dude, we gotta go back down. So we went back down to the last camp and I remember sitting in my tent looking up and just saying, man, give me a sign. Let me know if I should be here or not. You know, after this I’m kind of shake, shaken up and I remember leaning back into my tent, my hood caught my glacier glasses somehow that were hanging and snapped them in a half.

And I was like, I kind of need those. So, you know, a smaller sign would’ve been great, but that was it. You know, I’m a huge believer in things like that and, and paying attention to external forces that human beings have lost touch with over the years. Because we have our phones, we have technology, and put it down and pay attention, be in the moment.

I was like, okay, I’m done. Came back the next year. No problems.

Mark Kinsley: You’re like loud and clear. I hear you. Yeah, absolutely. One of the, one of the questions we ask everybody on the Sleep Summit Show is, where is the strangest place you have ever slept?

Sean Swarner: I would say the most interesting place would be on Everest, on what’s called the Lotsy ice face.

It’s a sheet of bulletproof ice at a 45 degree angle that goes on for a mile where you have to dig down and out to put your tent. And I remember it was so dangerous. We had to tether ourselves to the mountain so we wouldn’t slide down the mountain. Hey,

Mark Kinsley: just outta curiosity, do you actually get sleep?

Are you just exhausted? You tether yourself into the side of the mountain and, and you’re good to go? Like, I’m, I’m gonna get some sleep.

Sean Swarner: You know, I, at extreme altitudes, you really don’t sleep at all, you know, severe hypoxia. Um, you, you wake up in the middle of the night if you’ve never experienced it, it’s so weird.

Say, say you and I are sleeping in the tent. Next to each other, and all of a sudden I will wake up in the middle of the night and sit, I’ll bolt straight up to go. Yes. And then slowly lean back down. Because what happens is, you know, we’re not paying attention to our, our breathing. Right? It’s, it’s done by our brain and, and what happens is your body freaks out.

Your mind’s like, Hey, we need oxygen. Breathe, breathe, breathe. So all of a sudden you just. If you start to hyperventilate and then the brain’s overloaded with oxygen, it’s like, okay, stop. We have too much stop, stop, stop. And then you stop breathing, and then you go through this cycle again, and the person who’s doing this, who’s waking up with a sleep apnea essentially up and down, up and down, they have no clue.

Mark Kinsley: You didn’t, you don’t realize you’re doing

Sean Swarner: it. No, not at all. And, and if, and if your tent mate doesn’t know it, it scares a, you know what? On him, they’re like, oh my God, he’s possessed. Like, what’s going on?

Mark Kinsley: It’s like my brother, when he was in fifth grade, his friend wouldn’t spend the night anymore because he set up straight in bed and screamed fire, fire.

And he was sleepwalking. And the kid like left in the middle of the night, parents came and got him. Yeah, that would be really freaky. Um, and I, and I’m sure that if we really dig into it, Shawn, you probably have a long list of crazy wild places you’ve slept, but I think the Zi ice face is probably gonna take the cake.

Um, hey, let’s do this. We, we haven’t gotten to our sleep summit quiz question, so I’ve got a quiz question just for you. We’ll see if you can answer it. It is Everest related. Okay, here we go. So in 19, in May of 1999, Babu Cheer Sherpa spent a record of how many hours on the summit of Mount. What’d you say?

23. Oh, I gotta finish the question. Hold on. And I’ll tell you if you’re right. He, he spent a record of how many hours on the summit of Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen, and he did not sleep. So you’re guessing 23? Pretty close. 21. 21 hours.

Sean Swarner: Yeah. Babu. I actually know that guy.

Mark Kinsley: Oh, you know this guy?

Yeah. Oh, wow. That’s amazing. Yeah. So 21 hours at the summit of Everest. That would definitely be, uh, someplace it sounds like he would, wasn’t able to fall asleep himself.

Sean Swarner: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, well, in that altitude, I mean, above 8,000 meters, 26,000 feet, it’s actually called the death zone. And, and a lot of times if you fall asleep in that altitude, you won’t wake up.


Mark Kinsley: That’s scary. You’ve been in some wild situations. Hey, uh, if people wanna, if people wanna learn more about you and more about the wild situations you’ve been in and maybe even participate in the Big Hill Challenge, uh, I would encourage them to head over to your website. It’s sean and we’re gonna have links to everything and then the show notes for the podcast.

But it’s s e a n s w A R N E R. That’s it. Well, man, hey, uh, thank you so much for taking some time to share your adventures with us, your leadership lessons, vivid visualizations, all the crazy experiences you’ve had surrounding sleep and pulling jeeps and overcoming incredible obstacles. You spent a lot of time on the road.

I know not only traveling, but doing keynote speeches for big corporations. And so if anybody needs to reach out to Sean, um, holler at me, get in touch with him directly. Sean, thank you so much for being on the Sleep Summit show. We’ve, we’ve reached the pinnacle, we’ve reached the peak with you.

Sean Swarner: I appreciate it, man.

Thanks for the opportunity and, and I’m sure we’ll be in touch.

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