A.J. Jacobs Asks Francis Slakey: Why Climb? And Other Questions.
Our thanks to A.J. Jacobs (Drop Dead Healthy) for taking time to interview Francis Slakey about his great new book, To The Last Breath, the fascinating story of Slakey's quest to climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean--and, along the way, learning how to live. To The Last Breath was an Amazon Best Book of the Month selection for May. (Drop Dead Healthy was a top pick for April.)
Jacobs: When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he famously responded: “Because it’s there.” What do you think of that answer? Is that why you wanted to climb it as well?
Slakey: Mallory’s answer was memorable, iconic—it has more than a million hits on Google. But my answer is different. As a scientist I press my intellectual limits, and I took up climbing as a way to press my physical limits. Some readers of To The Last Breath may think I pressed things too far. I don’t think so, but I admit I played it close to the line. I like to find out just how far I can go, using science to help me plan. Still, there were unexpected events along the way—calamities and acts of selflessness and heroism—that I could never prepare for.
Jacobs: You talk a lot about how the lack of oxygen affects the brain. How would you describe hypoxia to someone who has never had it (i.e. me)?
Slakey: Hypoxia is the oxygen-depleted state that occurs when you go up in altitude and the air gets thin. I’ll tell you exactly what it’s like. Go run ten windsprints at top speed. Then, while you’re bent over, with your hands on your knees gasping for air, try breathing out of a cocktail straw. The world will get hazy and you’ll forget why you’re breathing out of a straw–that’s hypoxia.
Slakey: Climbing and surfing are the Yin and Yang of sports. Climbing is a battle against nature. Gravity tugs down on your boots, resisting their pull out of the snow. It drags at you, taunts you, whispers in your ear that you should turn around and go home. And in the meantime the storm blinds your vision whips at your skin. But with surfing, the storm is your companion – it creates the perfect wave. Gravity is your ally as it collapses the wave, creates the curl, and pulls you down and forward; you literally drop into the trough of the wave and synch with nature.
So, each sport delivers a unique buzz. But, there are unanticipated highs as well. For example, I met my wife while climbing Everest--there’s no high quite like that.
Jacobs: As someone who just wrote about fitness, I’m interested to know your fitness routine.
Slakey: I’m a science geek so I couldn’t help but come up with a fitness formula: max number of pull-ups I can do multiplied by max pounds I can leg press divided by resting heart rate > 400. That delivers enough muscle mass to get up the mountain and a low enough heart rate to make it back alive.
Those factors typically all work against each other. If I bulk up my legs to press more, then my heart rate goes up and my total number sinks. Or if I drop weight to increase my pull-up count, then I sacrifice the amount I can leg press, and my total sinks again. So, to maintain the total above 400, I have to keep all the things in balance. I work the hardest on resting heart rate-–my workouts have driven it down to 39.
Jacobs: What’s next? Would you consider going the other way and visiting the deepest ocean trenches in the world?
Jacobs: When you first met your future wife, you told her you thought her hobby--taking photos of pets--was a waste of time. Are you still opposed to photos of pets? I know you’ve come around on pets. Though you swore you’d never get one, you adopted a dog from the Humane Society.
Slakey: I swore to a lot of things. At one time I had three rules: I would never marry, never have kids, never get a house. Then, I spent twelve years criss-crossing a world of mountains and oceans and it changed me. I don’t think anyone could have come out of it the same–-seeing a climber sit down in the snow to die, getting an amulet etched with “life’s meaning”, befriending the survivor of an ambush that could have been aimed at me, gliding down a wave in the Arctic Circle–-those were transformative experiences. Now I’ve broken all those rules I had for myself and I’m better for it. I even tolerate pet photography: there’s a picture of our dog in the book.
Jacobs: This is a book about physical adventure, but it's an emotional journey, too. How has this quest changed the way you look at life?
Slakey: I used to look at a map and see places to conquer: mountains to climb, oceans to surf. Now, I look at that map and see a world of global challenges, and I have classrooms full of students who I require to get out there and do something about it. I’ve learned that there is always a way to participate in the world, to restore a torn page, to shape the story, and, if necessary, with enough will, we can turn that story toward something better.