Almost Dead

By the winter of 2004 I was almost dead. My daughter was in college; my older son was in his mid-teens and getting into the teenager thing; my younger son was 12 and starting a rock band. The US had made a full-scale invasion, which they called a "liberation", of Iraq. I was in the depths of my despair and cared little about anything besides getting through my day as painlessly as possible.
My wife had taken up racquetball. She and her friend Joanne played several times a week and we're passionate about the game. She worked hard at her racquetball game but, to her chagrin, she could not hold a candle to either me or our 12-year-old son on the racquetball court. We played frequently throughout the winter. It was good exercise and a great calorie burn. During the months of January and February the fingers in my left hand started tingling. I wasn't sure what to make of this. Perhaps it was just cold, and my circulation was poor. I continued my wretched eating, drinking and smoking habits with gusto. Despite all my bad habits I felt healthy and physically able until the middle of March. On St. Patrick’s Day of that year I played my usual gigs for the Peekskill Irish Mafia. As usual I drank myself blind. I played Muff in racquetball two days later on the 19th and had a nearly fatal heart attack.
It had been coming for a long time. I weighed 300 pounds and had a cavalier attitude toward my health: regularly eating triple cheeseburgers at Wendy’s, always getting a chocolate shake to wash it down. I joked that my 3 basic food groups were sugar, carbohydrates and grease. For gusto, I added excessive drinking, and atrial fibrillation to the mix.
It was a Friday evening and I played six games of racquetball with my wife. I won every game. I smoked a victory cigar in the parking lot, went back into the gym to relax in the hot tub then the steam room. Things got weird when I got into the shower and started to feel a strange tingling up and down my left arm. My chest felt heavy and I couldn’t get all the air I needed. By this time my wife had been working in an emergency room for several years. In the car, I told her I felt “kinda funny”. Without skipping a beat, she asked me if I wanted to go to the ER. Oddly enough, she was just about to change her place of employment from a big hospital across the river, with a big-time cardiology department, to a small-potatoes hospital across the street from where we were. She made the snap decision to drive 45 minutes to the hospital across the river.
That was okay. I really didn’t feel all that bad. I was feeling hungry; maybe we could stop at a diner along the way. She nixed the diner idea and took me straight to the ER. They totally freak out in those places when a 300 pound, 49-year-old man shows up complaining of chest pain, shortness of breath, and tingling down the left arm. I went right to the front of the line. The nurse made me ride in a wheelchair. “I just played six games of racquetball” I protested. They weren’t having it. The cardiologist was just about to go home and didn’t think he needed to stick around for a guy who just played six games of racquetball. My wife, who knew him from working in the ER, persuaded him to check me out. After a half hour of tests, the cardiologist came back into the exam room to report the news. “Congratulations you have just given birth to a brand-new heart attack. Your life is about to change.”
I responded by saying: “Wow that’s weird. I wasn’t expecting that. I guess I’m going to be here for a while. I’m starved. Can we order some pizza?” He told me they can bring me a plate of hospital food. “Your pizza days are over.”
I hit a reset button. I went back to square one and slowly constructed a lifestyle that was healthy and sustainable for decades to come. I became a vegetarian, ran 5 miles a day, lost one hundred pounds, and became an avid mountaineer. This led me to climb all of the 4000 foot and above peaks in the Adirondacks and eventually all of the 3500 peaks and above in the Catskills. I climbed six of the Colorado 14er’s and then I climbed Mount Whitney the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States at 14 1/2 thousand feet in California. Then on to Kilimanjaro, the Andes, Alps, Pyrenees, and Himalayas.
What follows is a collection of journals that describe my middle-aged (and older) wanderings though the mountains of the world. Of course, I don’t forget to mention the drop-dead beauty of these places; or the extraordinary interactions with people I met along the way. But beyond the adventure of being in dangerous, exotic places is the is the exasperating undertaking of getting there and back safely. When all is said and done, some of the most invigorating experiences take place in taxis, airports, passport control, security checks, dirty lodgings, unsanitary restaurants, death-defying roadways, and primitive camping areas. Perhaps I’m unusual, but often the mishaps of getting there and back are just as memorable as the destinations themselves. It’s not unusual for these misadventures happen as soon as I walk out the front door of my home in the Hudson Valley. The good, the bad, the beautiful and the despicable will be presented here. When it’s all over, I remember even the worst of it fondly.
August 2001
At the age of 47 I decided to hike all 46 4000ft Adirondack peaks in Upstate New York. Since my weight was nearly 300 pounds and my health habits were deplorable this was, in retrospect, just another one of a long sequence of bad decisions. With my usual cavalier attitude, I decided to start with the highest peak and work my way down. With this in mind, I set out with my teenage son Luke to climb Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State at 5344 feet. Luke and I were not early risers and we didn’t manage to get on the trail until almost 10 AM. We started from the Adirondack Loj, where so many people do, and worked slowly up the wide, worn “Van Hovenberg Expressway”: the shortest trial to the Marcy summit. It ended up being about a 14.8-mile round trip with the added thrill of a 3,166 ft. ascent. Despite otherwise poor health habits, I had been running regularly and managed to stay on pace with Luke for the first couple of miles until we got to the Marcy Dam where he bounded like a gazelle into the woods and wasn’t seen again until I reached the summit about 45 minutes behind him. The climb was agony: long, and grueling. My clothes were soaked with sweat and it took me about 5 hours to get to the top. I was passed at one point by a group of ten-year-olds on their way to Phelps mountain which looked a lot easier than Marcy. I envied them. They probably had a good snicker watching me struggling my way up the rocky trail.
The weather was clear, and the views were vast and stunning. The trip down did not present the cardiovascular challenges that the ascent did. It did however present orthopedic challenges which became more apparent in my crippled state over the next week. My quads were stiff as a board and I had to walk down stairs backward for a few days. By the time I reached the Marcy Dam on the way back down I was dehydrated (I went through 4 sweat soaked t-shirts) and my legs felt like stubs. Against all better judgment I drank nearly a liter of water from the dam. I had brought along 2 liters of
Gatorade, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Luckily, I never got giardia. Luke waited in the parking lot for about an hour and was just heading back up the trail when I came stumbling out of the woods minutes before dark. Back at the motel we ate giant subs with chips. After dinner I had 6 cans of beer and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. Luke soaked in the tub and read Harry Potter for hours.
Not one to be deterred from pure foolishness, a month later Luke and I set out again (closer to 10:30 this time) to ascend the second highest peak. Since the hike up Algonquin was shorter in terms of miles (8.5) I thought it would be easier than Marcy. The ascent was 2936 ft. from the Adirondack loj. The steepness of the climb was strenuous for 300 pounds of middle-aged man. Again, Luke left me in the dust after the first turnoff. I lumbered, grunted, huffed and wheezed until I reached the bald summit. The last mile consisted of steep rock scrambles that made me wish I had suction cups. I thought for sure my life was coming to an end. My legs were like rubber and my lungs felt like they were stuffed with cotton. Luke passed me on his way back down. He was too cold and couldn’t wait on the summit any longer. I was so fatigued at the summit that I thought I would code. But after a nap and a few power bars, the color came back to my face and my heart stopped pounding. I started to notice things again: the beauty of the view, the attractiveness of the 25-year-old summit stewardess, the guy talking on his cell phone (the summit of Algonquin is one of the few places where they would work in the high peaks back then), and the affluent looking couple in their forties arguing about money. I had an excellent chat with the summit stewardess about the arctic, alpine vegetation and then proceeded to glissade down the steep rock face. Sliding on my butt seemed to save some wear and tear on my knees but it also tore up the back side of my pants. My muddy boxers were plainly visible to anyone who cared to look. The descent seemed like an endless succession of rocky creek beds that made me want to buy some
real hiking boots that would better protect my aching feet from the rocks and the mud. Speaking of which: there was a thick layer of mud stuck to the backs of my calves. Other hikers must have been impressed by my ripped shorts and my grimy appearance. One asked me quite excitedly “Wow did you just climb Algonquin?” Indeed, I had. The walk was only 9 1⁄2 hours instead of the 10 it took me to hike Marcy. Back in the parking lot Luke complained that it was too easy. We ate ravenously on the way back to the Econo Lodge where we soaked for a long time in the hot tub. Again, I couldn’t walk comfortably for a week afterward.


  1. Congratulations, Richard! This is really compelling, really admirable. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Thank you for sharing your journey and stories along the way. I will never be able to picture you as an unfit 40-something, but I will certainly continue to be inspired by your accomplishments, enthusiasm, and energy. You're my hero!

  3. Great work doc! Keep sharing your story!

  4. We miss you PaPA! You are one of the indelible characters forever etched in our hearts from all our travels. -Kilimanjaro Crew


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