Native Tennessean climbs 7 summits for Alzheimer’s awareness
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Alan Arnette remembers what it was like at 23,000 feet on Mount Everest as heavy snow threatened to bury his tent and hurricane-force winds added more misery.
He recalls sitting alone in a tent in New Guinea as rain poured, wondering if it was all going to be worth it.
Then he call pull from his pocket a picture of the person who inspired these adventures and know indeed it was.
Aiming for the top
Arnette, an experienced mountain climber, met the ultimate challenge last year. He climbed the 7 Summits, which are the tallest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents — Everest in Nepal, Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Russia, Vinson in Antarctica and the Carstensz in New Guinea.
His memories are priceless.
And memories are exactly the reason he chose to make this trek. Not his own, but the ones taken away from his own mother by Alzheimer’s disease.
Ida Arnette died in 2009, her family unrecognizable to her. Arnette, who was her primary caregiver for the last three years of her life wanted to make a statement on behalf of all victims and their heroic caregivers. That’s when he decided to embark on this conquering of the 7 Summits, something only about 10 other people have even attempted.
Sharing the journey
This native of Memphis and graduate of the University of Memphis will share his personal story at the Pat Summitt Foundation’s The 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer’s: Memories are Everything. The event takes place Oct. 7 at the Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall in the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville. All money raised will go to the Pat Summitt Fund for education, support services and research to defeat Alzheimer’s.
Arnette said his mom fell victim to this disease that robs people of their memories and dignity, when she was in her early 70s.
“I remember we were at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis for our annual Christmas brunch and I noticed my mom was kind of walking around the buffet line,” he said. “She seemed to be totally lost. I put my hand on her elbow and asked her what she wanted to eat. She looked at me and I could tell she had no idea who I was.”
Arnette lives in Colorado now and took early retirement from Hewlitt-Packard. After completing his miraculous climbs, he is traveling around the country in the name of awareness and a cure. “One of the things I am trying to do is help people understand Alzheimer’s is a disease just like cancer or heart disease — it can strike anybody at any age.”
As he spent more than 200 nights during a 10-month period away from home to accomplish the summit climbs, Arnette dedicated each of the climbs to a different aspect of the disease. The first one, in Antarctica, was dedicated to the early onset individuals, he said. “I had just been told that one of my friends in Nashville was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 52.”
That first climb occurred on Dec. 9 of 2010. He completed the last of the 7 Summits in October of 2011.
Arnette is an experienced mountain climber, but described himself as a late bloomer. He didn’t start in the sport until he was 38. “I got an education, and a career and a family,” he said. “A lot of people who do these crazy mountain climbs start off as 18-year-olds living out of their cars.”
Mental and physical challenges
To prepare himself both mentally and physically, Arnette took 2010 to train in the tall peaks of Colorado. He climbed three of the mountains there that are 14,000 feet high, carrying a 30-pound backpack.
“I would get up at midnight and leave the house and go to the mountain,” he said. “I would go as high as I could. I was doing this in winter when the wind blows so hard you can’t reach the summit. My goal was to get knocked down three times before I could turn around. I did that to get stronger physically and mentally. To train myself beyond what I wanted to do or what I though I could do.”
He established a website during his climbing adventures to raise money for various nonprofits serving Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. He set a goal to raise $1 million and continues to get closer to that amount.
He had asked people to donate a penny for every foot he climbed. He ran into some difficulty and wasn’t able to stand at the summit of McKinley (Denali), but his donors gave all they had promised anyway.
Through all of the dangers, surprises, near disasters and triumphs, Arnette said his mom was with him. He carried her photo as a constant reminder of his reasons for being there.
He had a speech already prepared for when he reached the summit of Everest, but once there, he was too overwhelmed to get it out. “I got one sentence in and fell apart,” Arnette said.
It was a challenge some said he couldn’t do. Maybe they didn’t understand the stakes.
A loud voice
“Once you actually summit, there is a whole mixture of emotions, from incredible satisfaction to the recognition that you still have to come all the way back down,” he explained. “There is a saying in mountain climbing that reaching the summit is only half way. I didn’t think I was going to do anybody any good at all in terms of bringing awareness to Alzheimer’s if I died out there.”
This adventure seeker, speaker and advocate for Alzheimer’s said he is looking forward to his visit to Maryville. He used to come to Cades Cove for vacations with his parents. He also applauds Pat Summitt for having the courage to make such a private battle a public call to action. The former Lady Vols basketball coach came out last year to reveal she has the disease. She has since lent herself unselfishly to the cause of finding a cure and helping families in the trenches of battle.
“I am so impressed by Pat Summitt for having the courage to go public and raise awareness and help erase the stigma,” Arnette said. “I am honored to be a part of this event.”