Mount Everest and the Big 12 Conference have a lot in common. The mountain boasts the highest peak above sea level while the conference towers over college basketball. Reaching the summit of either one will require the climb of a lifetime.

As BYU head coach Mark Pope prepares his players for the journey, there are lessons on the mountain that can help the Cougars on the court, beginning with an understanding of just how difficult the climb will be.

“(The Big 12) is the best basketball conference in the country by miles right now,” said Pope prior to BYU’s departure for a series of exhibition games in Europe. The tallest head coach in program history has frequently used the world’s tallest peak as a metaphor for the trek ahead. “We’ve barely reached base camp on this climb up Mount Everest.”

Preparation

Long before the climb begins, hikers assemble the gear needed to be successful, including a backpack, clothing, headwear, eyewear, gloves, footwear, sleeping equipment, ice axe, climbing harness, handwarmers, sunscreen, etc. Fortunately for BYU, they have Nike standing ready to meet their needs. Hikers spent roughly $100,000 on the overall climb. The Cougars, in today’s NIL environment, are also financially invested. In addition, practice hikes are encouraged to prepare the climbers in the same way BYU’s trip to Europe was scheduled ahead of its debut season in the Big 12.

Endurance

It takes about 60 days to hike Mount Everest which is close to the length of BYU’s conference schedule. Hikers arrive at base camp 19 days in. This is where the inexperienced are stopped and only the resilient resume, much like basketball’s postseason. The 20.1 miles that stand between base camp and the peak are as gnarly as the duration of the Big Dance — a climb the Cougars have missed the last two seasons. Building endurance is the quest of BYU’s new strength and conditioning coach Michael Davie.

Resilience

Challenges of every kind await climbers pursuing their dream. Everest poses physical and mental barriers, from slippery footing and frigid temperatures to sunburns and oxygen deprivation. BYU’s nightly battles in the Big 12 will bring an unprecedented onslaught of size and strength, time zones and nostalgic arenas smoldering with overheated fans. Survival will require good footing and a lot of oxygen. Hiking guides report the No. 1 reason climbers fail to reach the top of Everest is fatigue. If not kept in check, it can derail a basketball season too.

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Teamwork

No one climbs Mount Everest without a guide. Nepal nixed solo hikes in 2018 amid safety concerns. The best chance for success is hiking with a team of climbers that can look out for each other. Creating teamwork is the concept behind BYU’s current trip to Croatia and Italy. Pope is molding together a roster that includes transfers (6-foot-11) Aly Khalifa and (6-4) Dawson Baker and the return of (6-5) Trevin Knell from a medical redshirt. The rest of the group is back from last year.

“Our season is going to be defined by how close we are. We know what we are up against. We know what we are going to face,” Pope said. “We can’t wait to get there — into the season — with everything it brings.” 

One thing the Cougars won’t be doing is hiking alone. An army of vocal support awaits in the Marriott Center, the largest basketball venue in the Big 12. 

The summit

There have been 6,338 climbers to reach the summit atop Mount Everest. Texas is the most recent team to conquer the Big 12, defeating Kansas last year 76-56 to win the conference tournament. The Longhorns and Jayhawks will be among the obstacles along the trail for BYU.

Reaching summits is something Pope has grown accustomed to. In 1992 at Washington, the lanky 6-10 forward earned honors as the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. After transferring to Kentucky, Pope ascended to co-captain of the 1996 national champion Wildcats.

During his first year as BYU’s head coach, his Cougars stunned No. 2 Gonzaga in Provo 91-78 and looked primed to make a run in the NCAA Tournament before COVID-19 shut everything down. The following year, BYU reached the Big Dance for the first time since 2015.

There is a motivating power that comes from the words, “been there, done that” if the person using them has actually “been there” and “done that.” Pope has. Now his challenge is to convince the young men on his roster that they can do it too. It might be the toughest sales job he has ever had to close.

The European trip the Cougars are on is critical to their preparation. The most challenging Mount Everest of a schedule in the history of BYU basketball lies up ahead and the climb begins Nov. 10 against last year’s national runner-up San Diego State in front of a full house at the Marriott Center.

How the season will end is anyone’s guess, but it should be quite the journey. In the spirit of the late Fred MacMurray, Pope calls to his Cougars, “Follow me boys!” as he begins the hike. Fortunately for BYU, the fifth-year head coach has reached summits before, and he is familiar with the trail.