As evening settled over Mount Everest on May 31, Mike Posner sat in his tent at the 26,000-foot altitude of Camp 4, consuming a dinner of dehydrated Teriyaki chicken and contemplating the undertaking before him.
There would be no more meals for the next 18 hours, only snacks and water.
After 20 months of exhaustive preparation that took the Grammy-nominated Southfield native to the tops of 70 mountains in several countries, Posner was 3,032 feet from the summit of Earth’s tallest peak. That’s less than three-quarters of a mile, but covering that vertical distance at such an altitude usually takes more than eight hours. The journey happens entirely in what’s known as the Death Zone — the altitude at which the concentration of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for an extended time span.
By 8:30 p.m., Posner had donned his boots, crampons, and backpack and turned on his headlamp. It was go time.
He began pushing toward the top of the world with Dr. Jon Kedrowski, the Colorado-based guide who had climbed Everest twice before and had prepared Posner for this moment, and with their Sherpas (gear-handling Nepalese assistants) — Dawa Chirring and Dawa Dorjee. They were one of the first groups to depart Camp 4, and Posner soon settled into a pattern of taking one step followed by three breaths, all the while clutching pre-fixed ropes.
“There were probably about 100 people climbing to the top that day, so it was nice to get in front of everybody and not have to worry about running into a bottleneck of slower climbers,” Posner recounts during an interview 10 days later.
The sky began to brighten as the foursome cleared Hillary Step, less than 200 feet from the summit. The sun was at their backs, reflecting off the clouds below them and illuminating that summit when they finally arrived just after 4:30 a.m.
Then a dam of emotion burst.
“A lot of emotion, man, a lot of tears while looking into the eyes of the guys who helped me get to this incredible place. And the timing was perfect, with a brilliant sunrise,” says Posner, who coincidentally recorded the song “Top of the World” with Detroit rapper Big Sean in 2013. “Of course, I have a lot of gratitude and humility toward Dr. Jon and the two Sherpas. Without them, there is no Everest for me, not a chance.”
The team was soon joined by record-setting adventurer Colin O’Brady, the mutual friend who had introduced Posner to Kedrowski. With sunshine reflecting off his shoulder and Kedrowski smiling behind him, Posner took a seat in the snow and shot a fist into the air as one of the Sherpas snapped a photo. The pair were determined to soak in every bit of the mere 20 minutes they would spend atop Mount Everest.
“The conditions were pretty good on that final summit push with a good night moon, and when I saw the sky getting lighter, I knew we had it,” Kedrowski says. “Such a wonderful moment at the top. It felt like a graduation for Mike as the student and me as the teacher.”
The inner journey
Posner and Kedrowski were back at Kedrowski’s Vail, Colorado, home by June 6. By then, Kedrowski had begun to see how the experience had changed Posner.
“I think Mike came back from Everest with tons of gratitude for what he has in life, especially after seeing how simply, but fully some of the people in Nepal live their lives,” Kedrowski says. “It was cool to see how super humble, kind, and grateful Mike was when people in villages we passed through recognized him. He’s just really happy with how life is for him.”
Posner started preparing for Everest almost immediately after completing a 2,851-mile, seven-month walk from New Jersey to California in October 2019. He had decided to embark on the cross-country trek for several reasons, one being his newfound consciousness of life’s fleeting nature, prompted by the death of his father, Jon, in 2017 and the 2018 suicide of friend Tim Bergling, a Swedish DJ better known as Avicii.
Posner had also become disillusioned with the way Island Records was promoting his album A Real Good Kid, which was released in January 2019. The walk had also been on Posner’s bucket list since he heard about someone else doing it while he was living in Los Angeles a few years earlier. Along the way, Posner spent 20 days in a Colorado hospital after being bitten by a rattlesnake.
From the beginning of his walk in the spring of 2019 until returning from Everest, Posner’s life was a constant whirlwind. He had more than earned the right to decompress, but that was not going to be easy given his exuberant personality and high energy level.
On June 12, he began three weeks off the grid at a monastery in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
“I’ve basically been gone for nearly three years, and I’m just going to take some time to do nothing,” Posner says three days before departing. “It’s going to be hard, but I need to do it. I’m going to reflect on this whole experience. How can you not grow from it? I don’t know of anyone else who walked across America, climbed Everest, and been nominated for a Grammy. That perspective is going to help me in every future creative thing I do.”
Clearly, the magnitude of what he accomplished is not lost on Posner, whose 2015 smash, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” earned a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year and reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Nearly 70 years after it was first climbed, fewer than 6,000 people have stood atop Everest and returned safely. Posner is only the fourth metro Detroiter who’s done it in the past decade, joining University of Michigan doctor Rock Patel, Grosse Pointe Woods native Vanessa O’Brien, and Birmingham native Sam Elias.
While standing atop Mount Everest was an almost indescribable feeling for Posner, what he experienced on the journey to get there is equally special to him. Those memories include his first glacier climb, on Washington state’s Mount Rainier; trekking in Poland; climbing above 20,000 feet for the first time on a dormant volcano in Ecuador; a winter ascent of Mount Elbert (14,440 feet), Colorado’s highest peak; and daring to sit in a frigid Montana stream surrounded by snow.
Last winter, Posner and Kedrowski made the arduous, 56-mile journey over glaciers to base camp at K2 in Pakistan, the world’s second-highest mountain (28,251 feet), and were there when a 10-person Nepalese team pulled off the first-ever winter ascent of K2 on Jan. 16. Posner used the trip to further prepare for Everest while Kedrowski, who climbed as far as Camp 2 (22,000 feet) assisted other climbing teams there who ultimately were unsuccessful in their quest to reach the summit.
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The pair also climbed many of Colorado’s 55 peaks of 14,000 feet and above.
“I love training. Without the struggle, the goal would mean nothing. KEEP GOING,” Posner exclaimed in an Instagram video from Colorado’s 14,265-foot Quandary Peak.
During the eight-day, 80-mile trek to Everest base camp, Posner gave several impromptu performances.The most memorable was a set with renowned Nepalese singer Raju Lama after running into him at the world’s highest coffee cafe (15,400 feet). “This was a moment I won’t soon forget,” Posner posted on Instagram. “We were passing the guitar back and forth. This was truly a great honor to sing with this great artist in this great country.”
Posner frequently broke into song while at base camp as well, playing some guitars provided by the camp.
“I have so many great little memories — just of playing games like Ludo [similar to Sorry] with local guides on our phones and learning some funny things to say in their language,” Posner says. “It was like touring, where you get these inside jokes based on other inside jokes that would not make sense to anyone else.”
Posner’s most harrowing memory is of the night a nearby avalanche triggered a powerful air blast that ripped a hole in his tent while the group was stopped at Camp 2 during their eight-day final summit push. “You hear avalanches nearly every day, so they become background noise, but this one and the air blast scared me to death, and I thought that might be the end for me right there, honestly,” he says. “It was shaking my tent so much and destroyed the camp next to us.”
‘My next big thing’
As with his walk across the U.S., Posner’s motivation for thrusting himself into an undertaking as extreme as climbing Mount Everest was about more than simply testing his limits.
As soon as he decided to do the climb, he began looking for a cause he could help in the process. He found that in the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that describes its mission as “working alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities.” Posner felt helping the DJC was also the perfect tribute to his father, a criminal defense attorney for more than 40 years. As of July 6, the GoFundMe page Posner set up had attracted more than $252,000 in donations, surpassing its $250,000 goal.
“I’m honored they wanted to be part of this wacky idea I had to raise funds for their organization and honor my dad’s legacy,” he says.
Posner’s passion for endurance sports was ignited by climbing Colorado’s 14,321-foot Uncompahgre Peak at age 14 and lettering in cross-country and track at Birmingham’s Groves High School. It only makes sense, then, that Posner began pondering Everest as he passed through the Rocky Mountains during his cross-country walk.
Soon after the walk ended, Posner shared those thoughts with O’Brady as the two climbed Oregon’s Mount Hood. Among other achievements, O’Brady holds the record for reaching the high points of all 50 states in the shortest amount of time (21 days). O’Brady suggested that if Posner was truly serious, he should contact Kedrowski, who could prepare him for such a monumental task. Kedrowski could immediately tell that Posner was all-in and agreed to train him.
In addition to rigorous conditioning and ascents of 71 peaks of at least 13,000 feet, the training included rope and ladder courses as well as indoor gym climbing.
“I had a good feeling after we first met and told Mike I would create the right training program for him,” Kedrowski says. “I also told him we won’t go if I have the slightest doubt about his readiness.”
It’s clear from the enthusiasm in Kedrowski’s voice that he’s also thankful the two have formed a lifelong friendship as a result of their experience. They plan to collaborate in other ways in the future, he says, including on a “secret project I have to be quiet about.”
What could possibly be next for a guy who’s been nominated for a Grammy, walked across the country, and stood on top of the world? For now, it’s spending some time back home. Posner planned to return to Michigan following his monastery retreat to reconnect with family while pondering his next big move.
“I want to do a lot of things in my life, probably more things than I can fit into one life,” he says. “My next big thing might be athletic, but could also be intellectual, artistic, or musical. Whatever it is, I will go straight at it with a single-minded focus. Doing one major thing at a time has been working out pretty well for me.”
This story is featured in the August 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.