DON KETCHUM is a native of Phoenix. He was a sportswriter for The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette for nearly four decades. He covered high school sports on several occasions as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State sports. From 2008-14, he was a staff writer for, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Talia's big climb is a triumph of the spirit

There are days when we get out of bed and think about something really difficult that is staring us in the face and say, “I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this.’’

Now consider the story of Xavier Prep junior Talia Novack. The outlook likely will change. For the better.

From Aug. 23-25, just one brief month ago, she completed the rigorous Utah 29029 Everesting Challenge at the Snowbasin Ski Resort in the Wasatch Mountains just outside of Salt Lake City.

The 29029 is in reference to the height of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak at 29,029 feet. It is part of the Himalaya Range on the Nepal-China border.

Everesting began as a cycling challenge in 1994. But in 2016, endurance athlete Jesse Itzler and a friend, Marc Hodulich, came up with the idea for a version for hikers. This would not be for the faint of heart, to be sure. The first event was in Stratton, Vt., in 2017, with an added version in the West, at Snowbasin, in 2018. Those annual events remain the only two thus far, but the intent is to expand.

Participants such as Talia climb to the top of the ski area (Snowbasin hosted Winter Olympics events in 2002) and have a 15-minute ride on the ski gondola back to the bottom before starting the same thing all over again.

In the Utah Everesting Challenge, athletes must climb up and down the slope 13 times (2,233 feet per “lap’’) with a time limit of 36 hours to do so, the equivalent of the height of Everest. It is equivalent of walking 30 miles uphill (about 2.3 miles per climb) with an average incline of about 20 percent.

Talia first heard of the challenge around Thanksgiving 2018, after her father, Eric, read an article in Outside magazine. Eric, an orthopedic trauma surgeon in the northwest Valley, would be approaching a milestone birthday (50).

He asked his wife, Tracy, if it would be OK for him to do it, then asked Tracy and Talia if they would be interested in joining him.

His wife politely declined the invitation. Politely as in, “No way.’’

“I asked Talia about it, and she thought about it for two weeks,’’ Eric said. “Then she said, “I’ll do it if you get me a car.’ I had a two-part answer, (a) “No.’ And (b), “This is not an event where they give you a reward.’ ‘’

Talia had participated in soccer and tennis as a young child, but the only other athletic endeavor was skiing. She and her dad have gone on Xavier’s father-daughter ski trip to Colorado.

“She is a very good skier,’’ Eric said.

What followed was eight months of intensive training at the gym.

Is Talia Novack excited? Wouldn't you be after climbing a mountain 13 times? (Photo courtesy of Eric Novack)
“It was the hardest endurance challenge I’ve ever had, especially lengthening the normal workout, going on the treadmill at the highest incline, doing some running and some weights,’’ Talia said.

Dad was impressed by Talia’s willingness to give this a try.

“This was so far out of her comfort zone. That she was willing to persevere with it was pretty remarkable,’’ he said.

The process also meant adjusting the diet.

“We had six meals a day, to keep that metabolism moving,’’ Talia said. “There was no salt and no sugar, and that was hard because I enjoy having fruit (a green apple just about every day). And no dairy. I could have vegetables and a small bit of protein. Carbs? Not really.

“I was also supposed to drink a gallon and a half of water per day. I know how important that is. I grew up here and have seen the effects of dehydration.’’

At Xavier, Talia has been involved with the National Honor Society, the Key Club, the Mu Alpha Theta math group and volunteering for service projects. As a freshman, she was a member of the Xavier Hotshots archery team.

She came to Xavier after attending a performing arts school in grades 5-8. And she has been in numerous plays, mostly musicals such as The Little Mermaids and Seussical at XCP and School of Rock in community theatre.

But what would be her greatest performance was creeping closer.

She admitted it was weird trying to stay motivated.

“There was no real testing point,’’ she said. “I couldn’t believe I was actually going to do it.’’

Apprehension followed her around like a shadow.

It got bigger in July when she and her dad went to Utah to check out Snowbasin’s terrain first-hand.

“It was humbling,’’ he said. “We thought, “How can we possibly do this 13 times?’ ’’

Talia began to develop a calmer focus while listening to a speech at the event’s welcoming social.

The words came from Colin O’Brady, an American professional endurance athlete who in December of 2018 became the first man to cross Antarctica by himself, unaided. The 932-mile trip lasted 54 days.

“I was so inspired by that. I told my dad, “We’re going to go as far as we can go,’ ’’ she said.

And so the trek began.

Over the next two days, it was climb up, gondola down. The route of the climb was pretty much under where the gondolas glide down the cables. Flags along the course directed the climbers. There were two aid stations, one at the summit. Climbers are allowed to use trekking poles, essentially ski poles with handles.

“It was very steep, that first mile,’’ Talia said.

On the ninth summit climb, it was beginning to get dark. People donned helmets with lamps on them, similar to what miners wear. It was starting to get cold, and the climbers put gloves on.

“No. 9 was harder for me,’’ Talia said. “There was a lot of dust in the air because part of it was where people do their skiing. I was breathing it in and started to cough quite a bit.’’

At the end of No. 9, she thought she could do one more. She took in some pickle juice (yes, pickle juice, which helps prevent cramping).

But after about a half-mile, “I was not doing well,’’ she said. “The fatigue took my body to where it’s never been through before. I was stunned.’’

The No. 10 climb took longer because of it, around three hours, as compared to only one hour the first time through. By about 2 a.m., it was time to stop and rest.

There were small tents set up near the ski lodge, but the Novacks went inside the lodge itself. Talia slept for three hours on a fireplace hearth until around 5:30 a.m., using her small backpack as a pillow.

Wearing their red bibs signifying their success, Talia and dad Eric Novack celebrate their accomplishment. (Photo courtesy of Eric Novack)
Talia was glad to have her dad to lean on, particularly with another tough day ahead.

“I’m sure I probably wouldn’t have made it if it had not been for him,’’ she said.

“I learned something about myself. The mind has so much power over what the body can do. Climbing the 11th was reassuring, and that pushed me through 12. When you go to the last summit, they give you a red bib, replacing your white one. It says, Final Ascent.‘’

There were 220 people entered in the event, with 65 percent completing the full route. And at 16, Talia was the youngest. Eric Novack said that one man who has a daughter the same age called his daughter back home to tell her about Talia’s accomplishment.

“All of the people were very nice, very supportive,’’ Talia said.

She and her dad made it in 32 hours, using only one pair of shoes with another pair on hand as a backup. They had four hours to spare before the time limit.

At the bottom of the slope, there were wooden “ascent boards,’’ where climbers used an electronic device to burn the logo of a peak into the space for each trip next to their name.

Talia said she can still smell the wood and see the wisp of smoke coming off the board.

The experience will be burned in her mind forever, something she will not forget.

Will she ever try again? Perhaps one day, she said, but only after she gets through her senior year in 2020-21 at XCP and all that goes with it.

Blogger’s note: Want a closer view of Everesting Utah? Go to and click on Past Events, then 2019 Utah for numerous great photos.

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