Q&A: Climber and Activist Alan Arnette

Not long after Alan Arnette started climbing mountains, his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. After she died, in 2009, the technology executive set out on his most ambitious climbing adventure, and hooked it to a campaign to raise awareness for Alzheimer's. His Seven Summits for Alzheimer's effort, in which he attempted to reach the top of the highest peaks on all seven continents, ended last year, and now he's on a speaking tour. He'll be at River Sports Outfitters and the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville this weekend to address the Pat Summitt Foundation.

Your interest in the Alzheimer's campaign comes from personal experience—your mother's diagnosis. But what do you see as the connection between climbing and Alzheimer's campaign?

I get that question a lot—‘I understand that your mother died, and you had two aunts die, and it's a big problem, and that you like to climb mountains. But what's the link?' Well, the link is that a lot of the challenges that you face in mountain climbing are similar to what caregivers face in dealing with a patient with Alzheimer's. When you're climbing a big mountain, it is a test of patience, especially on something like Everest. I was gone for something like nine weeks, from home to home. A lot of time was spent just sitting in a tent. On Mount McKinley I basically spent a week trapped in a tent with three other guys as we had heavy wind and snow. So that patience is really a virtue, and it's similar when you're dealing with an Alzheimer's patient who asks you the same question 15 times over the course of one hour.

But really the link was, if I called you up and said, ‘Matthew, I want you to come over, and I want to talk to you for one hour about Alzheimer's disease,' you'd probably find a polite reason not to come. But if I said, ‘Come on over and let's look at pictures of mountains all over the world, and I'll take you to the top of Mount Everest, and I'll show you video of summitting Mount Everest and the sun coming over the curvature of the Earth,' you're going to go, ‘What time, and I'll bring the beer.' I am totally open with this, that it's a complete bait and switch.

All of these peaks represent different challenges—either technical climbing, altitude, or cold. Which one was the hardest for you?

In terms of physicality, Everest is in a league of its own. When you're above 23,000 feet, or above 8,000 meters, 26,0000 feet, your body just begins to shut down. It doesn't metabolize food, you lose all your senses—clearly, you also lose your ability to think. Even with supplemental oxygen, that only makes a 3,000-foot difference. So if you're at 27,000 feet, your body still feels like it's at 24,000, even while you're using oxygen at four liters a minute. That was definitely the hardest one. The patience involved with being there—the weather is so cyclical and it's hard to get a quality forecast. There are so-called weather windows on Everest, where the jet stream moves away from the summit for a couple of weeks in the second half of May, almost every single year. During those two weeks everybody tries to go for the summit because the conditions are better. Well, I wasn't in a position to do the first window, so you sit there and wonder, wow, what if the second window doesn't emerge? And you say, well, I've been here for seven or eight weeks, and I've got all this investment in training and money and everything else, so there's a whole mental-toughness side to it as well.

Denali was also difficult from a physical perspective, because you have a 60-pound backpack and you're pulling another 50 pounds on a sled, so you've got 110 pounds that you've got to move from the airstrip at about 11,0000 feet up to about 20,000 feet. That's a very, very physical expedition. I did it last year, and I was 54, I'm not a young kid.

New Guinea was difficult because the natives threatened to kill us if we didn't use them. I mean literally, no exaggeration. They literally told us that if we didn't hire them to carry our gear they were going to shoot us with their bows and arrows. So we had to bribe them not to kill us. That played on your mind. I sprained my ankle coming down from Kilimanjaro; luckily the porters there helped me get down off the mountain safely. Every single climb had a story to it.

Speaking of Everest, it was in the news again this summer, with several deaths. What are your thoughts on the culture of Everest—the media attention, the crowds, the commercial tours?

Well, I kind of have a mantra, and that's that mountains are for everyone. I think that Everest gets an unfair rap. This is an editorial I wrote for Rock and Ice magazine, that Everest deserves respect. If you look at Everest, only 250 Americans have summitted it, and only 3,000 individuals have summitted it. It is a very, very difficult, very, very harsh climb. But because it has become a commercial endeavor, it has lost some of the romance of the early British expeditions, where you had 500 porters all carrying bags on the top of their heads, walking a straight line for two months just to get to base camp. These days you take a helicopter into a high camp and then you stay in teahouses for a week to acclimatize. People begin to discount it. That's kind of like saying, ‘Gee, you really don't understand how to live life because you have electricity.'

Also appearing at: Clayton Center for the Arts (502 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville) • Sunday, Oct. 7 • 3 p.m. • $15 • alanarnette.com