“I’ve always liked adventure. I’ve always liked challenge.” My father, Don Schwartz, is talking to me; it’s May of last year and we’re in a suite in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My mother is quietly reading in the adjoining room. It’s one day before my younger brother’s wedding and I’m listening to my father describe the nine-day African odyssey that took him to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, just three months prior.
His friend Neal, a good buddy and fellow psychologist, had asked my dad to join him at the invitation of Neal’s brother, who was turning 60 and wanted to celebrate by climbing the biggest peak in Africa. Hiking has always been special to our family: we used to trek around the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and my parents told me that I myself came into existence on a backpacking trip in the Wind River region of Wyoming.
“The unit of measure for me has always been my experience while in the Marines and going through Parris Island boot camp. That was what I kept thinking about when I was climbing up Kilimanjaro.” My dad was nine years old when he lost his father to lung cancer, and nobody told him about it until he returned home because he was away at summer camp in Maine.
The experience of losing a father at such a young age had a profound effect on my dad. It motivated him to study hard to get into a good college and out of the small town in Virginia where he was raised; to continue on to graduate school; to get a career and buy a nice house in the suburbs of Chicago in pursuit of the stable and serene family life he never knew.
At 20, my dad left Dartmouth College for a year. During that time he joined the Marine Corps Reserve and for six months did his active duty with special training in amphibious reconnaissance. After firing a bazooka on a cold morning during basic training, he damaged his hearing enough that a couple of years later a sympathetic Navy doctor saved him from being recalled and sent to Vietnam.
As we sat in the hotel room reminiscing about his climb up Kilimanjaro, my dad explained the training that went into preparing for the trip. “I was already in good shape a year before the trip, but I started to get really serious about it a few months before departure. Unfortunately, I overdid it by running in my hiking boots up and down stairs and wound up getting plantar fasciitis.”
My father explained to me that in the Marines he had practically lived in his boots, running in them all day. But he was younger then, and his foot no longer has the same fat pad that serves to cushion the heel bone. He had started his conditioning on an elliptical trainer, which wasn’t rigorous enough, and then went to the stair stepper where he said he felt his heart really working. When the fasciitis set in, he resorted to swimming. A trainer at his gym, who himself had climbed Kilimanjaro, told my father to skip the crawl and instead swim underwater as long as possible to expand his lungs. Amphibious reconnaissance, all over again.
It made me think of when my brother and I were kids and we used to play a game with my dad at hotel pools; he’d go underwater, swimming around for extended periods of time pretending to be a sea monster. He’d be under so long, we’d never anticipate the sudden grabbing of our legs. “Did I tell you who, as a group, has the greatest success rate in getting to the top of Kilimanjaro?” my dad asked. “Smokers. It’s counter intuitive. Their lungs are so constricted that they’re used to getting by on much less oxygen.” Given my father’s history, he’s always had a major aversion to smoking, even telling my mother that he wouldn’t marry her unless she quit her habit.
There were 20 people who went on the trip and many others from the outfitter, serving as guides, porters, cooks and medical staff. You go through five eco-zones to reach the 19,400 foot summit in seven days. The guides called the 10 younger hikers (in their 40s and 50s) “the elephants” and my dad’s group “the camels.” But then in mid-journey, the trip leader renamed my dad’s group wazee, which in Swahili means elders.
His group was mostly in their 60s – plus one 71-year-old – and they all agreed that the satisfaction of the trip was found in the anticipation and reflection, certainly not in the execution. They hiked an average of seven hours a day, except on the day they summited, trekking 13 straight hours to ascend and then descend the final 4,000 feet, with a 20-minute break for exhausted reflection at the top.
“That’s where that confidence that I’ve had from boot camp came in. It just never occurred to me I wasn’t going to make it.” My dad explained that it takes three factors to determine if you’ll experience altitude sickness: your training, genetics (some people in the best of shape still can’t handle the thin air) and mental attitude.
My father is a stubborn man who hates failure and will do whatever is required to accomplish his goals. I remember procrastinating on homework assignments in school and him instructing me to sit my butt at my desk and get going. Simple as that.
As a kid I tried to accompany my dad on his morning runs and was usually left in the dust after five blocks. It was amazing on that day when I could keep up with him for the full 45 minutes; running with him on suburban sidewalks and taking that turn down to the beach on Lake Michigan to fly along the sand with the sun rising from the east over a watery horizon. We’d enter Gilson Park to pound the concrete steps of the Wallace Bowl amphitheater: up and down, over and over again – doing drills – before resuming the run with that final four block sprint back to the house.
“The nature of being a male lion is you’re allowed to stay in the pride until you’re two,” my Dad explained. “Then your father kicks you out. And you have to eventually get strong enough and tough enough to form your own pride. But until that point comes, you’re pretty much on your own.” My father had to start acting like a lion at nine years of age, left to take care of his mother emotionally, as his 22-year-old brother was already out of the house.
The guests for my brother’s wedding were arriving at the hotel. The hospitality room needed to be stocked with snacks and beer. A trip was planned later that August for myself, my dad, my brother and his new wife, for eight days of rafting in the Grand Canyon. Another adven- ture that began at four in the morning in darkness at the rim, loaded up with backpacks and illuminated headlamps. We descended 4,000 feet on the Bright Angel Trail to the canyon floor, an eight-mile hike that ended in sun-baked exhaustion. At the Colorado River, we found a calm eddy and jumped into the icy waters, just beyond reach of the surging current. A moment of relaxation for my dad - but a brief one - because the siren song of rapids kept calling.