Cause Climbing

Alan Arnette at Everest base camp. Photo: Courtesy Alan Arnette.

I confess when a PR person contacted me and wanted me to cover a Colorado man climbing Everest to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s, I almost deleted the email immediately. It’s not that I don’t think climbing Everest is a worthy achievement. It’s not that I don’t realize that Alzheimer’s is an absolutely horrific disease, a slow painful killer that sucks the dignity out of a person and affects whole families.

It’s simply that I have become so jaded when it comes to cause-based climbs. I know it’s not just me. There are climbs for every type of cancer and disorder you can imagine. There are runs, paddles, whole non-profits built on connecting outdoor achievement to a truly worthy cause—for epilepsy, leprosy, cerebral palsy, AIDS, breast cancer. So many, in fact, they have become white noise to me and others lucky enough to work in the outdoor industry. And then I realized, I had become far too cynical.

So I decided to talk to Alan Arnette, who is climbing not just Everest but the Seven Summits, the highest eight (yes, eight) peaks on each continent to raise money and awareness for the disease. I was immediately drawn in by him and the cause. Someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 70 seconds in the U.S., affecting over 5 million people. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. yet for every dollar the U.S. spends on health care, less than one cent goes to research on the disease. I have personally seen loved ones destroyed by it and many people associated with this magazine have family members struck by it.

Arnette made me remember all this and impressed me with his simple will to get out there and do something. The former employee at Hewlett Packard took early retirement to care for his mother who was dying of Alzheimer’s. After her death in 2009, he dedicated himself to raising $1 million and climbing the summits (since topping out on Everest in May he has four to go). But he has just begun the real climb.

He has raised $100,000 so far (just 10 percent of his goal) and asks donors to pledge a penny for each vertical foot he climbs—$131 for Denali, which he is climbing as of press time; $807 for all eight peaks—with 100 percent of the profits going to research (donate and learn more at climbforad.com and alanarnette.com). He is funded by The Alzheimer’s Immunotherapy Program of Janssen Alzheimer Immunotherapy and Pfizer Inc. When he talked to outdoor industry companies, they gave him nothing. No surprise, just another cause-based climber right?

Talking to Arnette also made me remember that people climb for many reasons. It’s not just to prove our athletic prowess and live a privileged leisure class life as outdoor junkies. Those who control the purse strings in the outdoor industry might blow off some 50-something retiree from Fort Collins on another cause-based climb in favor of high-profile über-athletes on expeditions to break speed records on obscure peaks, but if they do, are they missing the point? Arnette went through a painful loss and decided to do something to change the future. Since he was a climber, he saw the sport as a way to do it.

I find myself not as concerned about his topping out on all eight summits as I am about his raising $1 million. But mountains, despite all the danger to them, have the ability to heal, to put us in the moment and away from death, disease, politics. So the summits represent something important in Arnette’s larger quest—the possibility of reaching seemingly impossible goals. I hope I can be less cynical and see the person behind these cause-based climbs in the future. They may have something to teach me.

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