Author Discusses What He Learned While Climbing Seven Summits
Thursday, June 11, 2009
What compels a person to leave their comfy job on Wall Street so they can risk their life climbing seven of the tallest mountains on earth? We speak to Bo Parfet, author of Die Trying: One Man's Quest to Conquer Seven Summits, about why he climbed the tallest mountains on seven continents, and what he's learned from the experience.
DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): You're listening to These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland. What compels a person to leave their job on Wall Street so they can take on the life-threatening challenge of climbing seven of the tallest mountains on earth? Our guest is Bo Parfet. He's the author of "Die Trying: One Man's Quest to Conquer Seven Summits," and we want to talk about how and why he climbed the tallest mountains and, more importantly maybe, what he learned from the experience. And, Bo, thanks for being here.
BO PARFET (Author): Thanks for having me, Doug.
MYRLAND: Now I want to make sure to say this up front, we'll say it again. Tonight, Bo is going to be sharing his stories about climbing the seven summits at 6:30 p.m. at the Natural History Museum, you know that's in Balboa Park. The event does cost $25.00 to attend but the good news is that everybody gets an autographed copy of Bo's book. So I'm sure you'll have a big crowd there tonight.
PARFET: Yeah, I hope so.
MYRLAND: I want to start with the very first part of your book. And it must have been difficult for you to decide how much of your early childhood to share, and you shared a lot of it.
PARFET: How I decided?
MYRLAND: Well, I'm thinking that, you know, you could easily have kind of glossed over some the difficulties that you faced but it seems like, in the book, that was an important way for you to help people understand how you came to make the decisions you did later in life. Is that right?
PARFET: Yeah, absolutely.
MYRLAND: And maybe you can tell our listeners who haven't had a chance to read the book a couple of the difficulties, challenges, that you faced when you were a child.
PARFET: Sure, and it's a good question because, you know, I'm from a small town in Michigan and, you know, when you kind of mentioned, hey, here's my family background, you know, my family would say, hey, we're small town folks. Hey, let's just go right to the mountain. But people do want to hear about, hey, what makes you tick or why are you the way – you know, why are you this way or that way. So, you know, for me, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, had severe dyslexia in the first grade, could not learn the alphabet. I would get teased, you know, fifteen, thirty times a day. Every day going to school was torture. I also had a speech impediment. I couldn't say s's or r's so if someone's name was Sarah, here's how it – it came out (phonetically) Tha-wah. Tha-wah, that'th tho funny. You know, and then I had dyslexia, so I really got teased. And if there's anyone in the audience listening to this who grew up with either some form of a handicap or a disability or a speech impediment, it's a real fight, a real struggle. And then I had my second grade teacher tell me I'd never graduate from high school. And, basically, that really had an effect on me and it took me a lot of years to figure out what that meant. But even as I'm speaking to you now, Doug, those moments have – I have a fire in my belly. I feel it right now. And it – when you have those types of experiences, it can be either a debilitating obstacle or a tremendous motivator.
MYRLAND: When I was reading the book, I was thinking that, in a way, you were lucky that you held on to some of that anger because you could easily have shut down. You could easily have felt defeated. But even as a child, you held onto that desire to succeed.
PARFET: Yeah, I did. I did. I'm not quite sure where it came from but, you know, some of it is, you know, wanting to prove people wrong and, you know, I still – every mountain I climb or, you know, every kind of graduate degree or, you know, accomplishment, I think – a part of me thinks, hey, I remember that teacher and I remember those kids that said I wouldn't be anything. And so it has been a motivator for me and, in a way, I need to thank them because, you know, there's a great saying out there, and that's 'The hungry dog pulls harder' and, you know, it made me hungry.
MYRLAND: You moved through a couple of different schools and then in high school went to a couple of different schools. But there was kind of a common theme and that was basketball and athletics. And then later—I don't want to jump too far ahead here—but later, part of your story in climbing the first mountain that you climbed was that you – you didn’t feel you – you weren't in terribly good physical condition so – But when you were in high school, you were in great shape and that was really kind of a focus for you, right?
PARFET: It was, it was an outlet. You know, I think folks that have been dealt some adversity at a young age, they need an outlet. And some people may be – it's art or maybe it's acting out. If someone's listening and they have a parent that got into trouble or, you know, maybe experimented with drugs or, you know, decided to join the Peace Corps or do the military, something extreme, there's usually some form of unhappiness there. And, for me, that outlet I chose was basketball. I really loved it and, you know, when I get my eyes set on something, you know, I kind of attack it with a laser focus.
MYRLAND: I think the other thing that you talked about in the book that may have been something to overcome, oddly enough, is that you came from a prominent, well known, wealthy parts of the family, and that kind of caused people to jump to conclusions about you. How did you deal with that when you were a young man?
PARFET: Well, like I said before, we grew up in a small town and, you know, there was a kind of a healthcare company in town and every – you know, people knew. And, you know, I remember – I remember, you know, teachers giving me a hard time so I had to deal with that. And, you know, some people said, hey, so you grew up with some money, how hard can it be? And, you know, I really like to talk to those people because, you know, it can be hard. It doesn't matter. You know, one of the great things about mountaineering is, it doesn't matter your background; it's you versus the mountain. You know, life is – it doesn't matter, you know, what your background is, you know, where you come from, it's you, it's you against the mountain, it's you against, you know, the world, if you will, you against – You know, what are you going to be? It's up to you. And, you know, so those folks, you know, that say those types of things, hey, you know, they can say them and I guess they continue to motivate me.
MYRLAND: Now you had not only a successful mountain climbing career, if you will, you've had several other successful careers at the same time. Talk about the balance in your life between taking on the challenge of once you decided to do the seven summits and, at the same time, being successful on another track.
PARFET: Yeah, let me – I – As you're asking me this question, I wanted to just dovetail off the last question quickly.
PARFET: And that's, you know, when I went to college, you know, my parents could've paid for my college but I had such a chip on my shoulder that I paid for my own college. I worked at – I had two jobs in college for my first year and then I just – I worked full time at a restaurant. I was a busboy and, you know, I worked my butt off. I paid my own way. And, you know, if somebody says, you know, I'd like to, you know – if somebody says to me, you know, hey, why'd you do that? Well, I wanted to. I've got something to prove. So to go back to that saying, 'The hungry dog pulls harder,' you know, I've got this fire in my belly and, you know, that's kind of why I embarked on this seven summit project and wrote this book and, you know, so I wanted to add that piece in.
MYRLAND: Well, and since you brought up college, you also had a couple of difficult experiences when you first went to college where your grades were not good and you had to find some special help for yourself as well in order to get yourself back on track.
PARFET: Absolutely. And, you know, this book "Die Trying" is filled with mistakes. It's filled with – I made – Sometimes I made the same mistake, you know, five or ten times in a row. But, you know, if you keep pulling, you'll come through. And, for me, if you have a learning disability or you have, you know, a speech impediment or just if something is not going the right way for you, don't be discouraged because there's, you know, roughly 35 to 45 different ways people learn, how we take in information, and, unfortunately, school only teaches about two of them. So if you're out there and you're not getting the best grades, you just have to find the way you learn. And, for me, that's what I discovered in college. You know, I really struggled my first year. I tried to take on too much, I was working those two jobs. But I figured out a way that I learn and I got really creative on how I learn and, you know, I could learn a whole semester's – a course, one course, a whole semester, I could learn it in about four hours.
MYRLAND: So, and you were in college, you were – you moved from basketball to skiing, you did some climbing, but when did you make the decision to climb that first summit?
PARFET: Well, at – I needed a change in my life. And the first summit for me was Mt. Kilimanjaro, was the first one of the seven summits, the tallest mountains on each continent. And it goes to this point of change. Let's just talk about this a second. You know, there's three ways people change. You know, the first way people can change is time. If somebody's 20 years old and now they're 80, they're going to be a different person. With time, people change. The second way people change is something traumatic happens to them. An example would be, hey, Joe Smith's father died from lung cancer. Well, Joe Smith had been smoking cigarettes for 20 years, he quit cold turkey. You know, those types of things.
PARFET: You know, we know people that just – they get on a health kick, you know, something, boom, they just change because of a traumatic event. The third way people change is they're unhappy. They're – Something isn't right, for some reason, inside them, and it manifests a way – it manifests itself in many different ways but I basically talk about you go to this cliff of change. You're unhappy at work, in your relationship or family or friends, something, you're unhappy, and you go to this cliff of change and you go I want to change, I want a new job, I want a new life. And you're on that cliff and you want to jump off but you don't. And then six months goes by, a year goes by, and you go, I'm unhappy. And you go back to that cliff, you look over, you kind of (raps on table), you know, you kind of tap your feet, you look and you go back. And I kept doing that. And I was working at J.P. Morgan, I was – a hundred hours a week. And it – I finally said – I finally just jumped off this cliff of change. And it's less painful, Doug, it's less painful to jump off that cliff of change than it is to stand on that cliff and debate whether or not to do it because that's painful. Debating's painful.
MYRLAND: And I think that's a powerful thing for you to say because you went through a lot of pain after you jumped off that cliff.
MYRLAND: It was not only painful to decide but it was life-threatening painful to succeed. And I'd like to have you talk a little bit about the experience you went through, you know, facing your own physical limitations and then overcoming those.
PARFET: Sure. You know, some of my – the physical limitations for me on the mountain?
PARFET: I was, as I said before and I'll expand upon it a little bit, is, you know, when you work on Wall Street for J.P. Morgan or, you know, Goldman Sachs, and you're doing mergers and acquisitions, these deals you read about in the Journal, you're working a hundred hours a week. A hundred hours a week. And when you -- You know, when you miss, oh, gosh, that – some people may say, oh, the weekend flew by. God, where'd Saturday go? Well, I had where'd this season go? I missed summer. You know, you just – you're not in – I was inside. I didn't see any light; I never went outside. So that, therefore, caused me not to be able to – I couldn't work out, so the physical limitations were, you know, I added 60, 70 pounds. I was 60 or 70 pounds overweight. If I looked down at my shoes, I couldn't see my feet because my belly got in the way. And so when I first went to Kilimanjaro, the first mountain of the seven summits, my limitations were that I couldn't train properly and, you know, I also probably didn't have time to do enough research and I – and I just went for it. You know, part…
MYRLAND: You just jumped off the cliff.
PARFET: Yeah, part of jumping off the cliff is you can't prepare for everything. You gotta just go.
MYRLAND: There's a photo of you in the book, I think it's from Kilimanjaro, and you really look bad.
MYRLAND: You look sick.
PARFET: I do. I do.
MYRLAND: Yeah, I mean, and I think, if I'm remembering the caption right, you said it was hard for you even to sit up to get your picture taken.
PARFET: Yeah. And it is – Kilimanjaro, for me – and it was – Up until that point, it was the – physically the hardest thing I've ever done. You know, you – if anyone here's ever gone to Colorado and, you know, you've been to Denver or you've gone up to, you know, the mountains in California, for example, you've been up to eight or ten thousand feet, and you feel that lack of oxygen. So I had been to 14,000 feet before but when you go to sixteen – You know, everybody has their max altitude. Everybody's physiology's different. So when I hit 15,000 feet, I said, wow, this – am I going to make it? You know, what happens at sixteen? What happens at seventeen? Am I going to get altitude sickness? So, you know – And then, you know, I got food poisoning on Kilimanjaro. You know, just – it was just a lot of adversity you face. You face.
MYRLAND: And does that take a – did you go through a lot of recovery after this? I mean, you look fine sitting here in the studio but this has got to take a toll on your body.
PARFET: It does. What really takes a toll -- You know, I want to encourage everyone who's listening to this to – I think Kilimanjaro is a prerequisite. It's a great – It'll change your life if you do it. And if people are free, can make it to the San Diego Natural History Museum tonight, I'm going to hopefully change some people's lives and get them to jump off that cliff of change. But it – what the – some real physical I guess call it damage that you receive is when you climb the taller mountains. You know, the ones that are above 26,000 feet or 8,000 meters. And that's where you really – your body starts to – it switches over from anabolic to catabolic and maybe I've – maybe I need to reverse those two words? But your body basically starts to consume itself.
PARFET: So it's eating its muscle tissue to get fuel. You can't digest food, it's just your body shutting down. You come back and you have minor brain damage. They've done CAT scans. Guys like Ed Viesturs, they come back and they have – everyone has some minor brain damage. Now the good news is—if you're listening to this thing—hey, what – what's happening? Well, it does – it's not permanent. It's about two weeks and, you know, it, you know, your body's a wonderful machine and it repairs itself. But you do, you – it beats up your joints, your body, your mind – if you lift weights, you're going to come back from Mt. Everest, a seventy-day expedition, and you're going to be, you know, 40 pounds underweight.
MYRLAND: Our guest is Bo Parfet. He's the author of "Die Trying: One Man's Quest to Conquer Seven Summits." We want to invite you to join the conversation. You can give us a call, 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. How are you feeling now that you've gone very public with this book and shared your story with a whole lot of people? And the reason I ask this question is I went on amazon.com and just looked at your book on amazon.com and usually there are reader reviews on there. And oftentimes, they're quite mixed or a lot of people enjoyed the book but a few people didn't but people were just raving about your book. They – Your reviews were through the roof. And it seems to me that you've gone from being a relatively private person, you know, struggling and doing your own, you know, jumping off the cliff and going through those changes to now being quite a public person, giving lectures at places like the Natural History Museum. Can you talk to us a little bit about that shift in your life and how that's going?
PARFET: Sure. You know, I – It's a great question. Yeah, I was – I was private for a long time and, you know, I just had – there's this real underdog approach and, you know, I've seen – I sit on the board of an organization that helps out dyslexic kids and when I – it just took me a moment, you know, when I just – I see a five year old or a six year old, or seven years old, who's in a wheelchair or, you know, they have a speech impediment or they're dyslexic and they're struggling, just hearing their struggles, I mean, it just – that fire in my belly gets lit really quickly. And I guess I'm – I feel that I'm kind of guided towards doing this, getting outside of my comfort zone. And if I can – if I can just help one person, you know, realize, hey, they can do anything—and you really can—then I guess that's why I'm doing it, you know, is that if there's someone out there that just needs that extra push, hopefully this gives it.
MYRLAND: So you're feeling totally comfortable with sharing your own jumps off the cliff.
PARFET: I'm getting more comfortable. I'm not totally comfortable yet.
PARFET: Yeah, it's a process.
MYRLAND: Let's take a minute and talk about a couple of the other mountains. Kilimanjaro's pretty famous. Before I'd looked at your book, I didn't realize there was a little controversy about the seven summits and the one in Australia is replaced with one in China, and can you talk a little bit about the different mountains and the challenges involved and the two lists?
PARFET: Sure. It's a great question. There are two lists and people, if you're listening, well, wait a minute, there's the seven summits, it's the seven tallest mountains on each continent. There's seven continents. What's the problem? Well, the seventh mountain on one list is Australia's tallest mountain and that's called Kosciuszko. It's a little bit higher than a molehill. It's only about 7,000 feet and you could do it in flipflops and, you know, a six pack of Sprite and it'd take you about three hours. So another list was created saying, hey, wait a minute. Actually, Australia and parts of Indonesia and Papua, New Guinea are on the same tectonic plate so, therefore, that's, you know, quote, unquote, a continent. And there's a mountain in the western – eastern part of Indonesia where half of the island's Papua, New Guinea and the other half's Indonesian. The island's called Irian Jaya. There's a mountain there called Carstensz Pyramid, and that's the seventh mountain on the other list, created by, I believe, Reinhold Messner, who's a very famous climber. And that's the most technical and most exotic of the seven summits.
PARFET: It's a pure rock climb. It's a really, really lively climb.
MYRLAND: So I suppose you could have two different attitudes. You could say it's great to have the first list because there's at least one climb that…
PARFET: Yeah, definitely.
MYRLAND: …you can take it easy on. Or you could take the other attitude and say I really want a challenge so I'm going to go for the second one. And you didn't – you didn't even choose. You did both.
PARFET: I did do both. And, you know what? It's whatever makes that – you feel good. You know, there's no right or wrong answer and, you know, if someone doesn't want to do Carstensz, they don't have to.
MYRLAND: We have about eight minutes left. I want to make sure to get to a couple of callers and we have David in Mira Mesa, who'd like to join the conversation. David, welcome to the program.
DAVID (Caller, Mira Mesa): Hello.
DAVID: Hi. Good morning. Hey, first of all, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to bring this subject up. It's really great. And also, I got to thank you so much for the positive words of encouragement on the learning disability side. But to get to my question, you had spoken about what the body – what happens mentally and physically to the body on altitude and I just actually got finished reading Ed's book and are you worried about the short term and long term implications of climbing above 26,000 feet or up in the twenty thousand, eighteen thousand, not using supplemental oxygen? Because understanding what it does to your brain, what's your take on that?
PARFET: Well, what I – If I go above 8,000 meters, I do use oxygen. Guys like Ed Viesturs are – you know, are kind of the Lance Armstrongs or the Michael Jordans of the world. I'm kind of more of a, you know, of a – of a water boy on a college team. But, you know, my approach is the research I've seen is that it is – it's not permanent, that, you know, when I do come back from Everest, even being on supplemental oxygen, you know, it takes – my memory's slower. I, you know, I tried to write an e-mail when I first came back and I said I'm just trying to write a paragraph e-mail, why is this taking me a half hour? But I – what I've – and maybe, you know, if you have some new research, let me know, but what I've heard is that it's nothing is permanent. So…
PARFET: …you know, you're going to have to suck it up for, you know, three weeks or a month until things recover. But, you know, it's a great excuse if – you know, when my girlfriend asks me, you know, hey, why didn't you take me to dinner. Oh, hey, I'm sorry, I forgot, it's the altitude.
MYRLAND: David, thanks for joining the conversation. Bo, before you and I run out of time, I want to give you a chance to talk about some of your nonprofit work. I know that's really important to you and it's something that you've been involved in for a while, so I want to make sure you get a chance to share it on the radio.
PARFET: Sure. So for each -- You know, how do we -- You know, the world needs help and how do – how does, you know, someone like us, like me, how does a normal person make change? And we hear about these grandiose folks that win Nobel Peace Prizes and they're fantastic, they're wonderful people. But for everyday folks like me, how do we do it? So, you know, I just decided for each mountain I'd set up an educational scholarship. And I, you know – One of them for Africa, for example, there were – for $14,000.00 in total -- $14,000.00, that's it, there were two Africans that could go to medical school and become doctors. And it didn't take long. I was working at J.P. Morgan and I got an old baseball hat and I put a Power Point presentation together and I went around the office and I went around different divisions, I'd go to another building, and I kind of started telling my story and people loved it. And, you know, I was able to raise the money and – and these two students who were the beneficiaries of this scholarship are – I'm still dear friends with them today. And one other quick side story is a friend -- You know, what's another example of that. So I don't want to talk about me the whole time, is one other friend of mine, she wanted to do something in Africa, too. So she created the – a toy library in Africa. I think it's the first toy library on the continent of Africa.
PARFET: And she was working for Abbott at the time and she just sent out an e-mail and said, hey, I'm going to go to Africa and create the – you know, a toy library. Send me your old toys or buy some new ones. So she shipped – she shipped over, you know, 3,000 toys and went to an orphanage and they created a toy library, the first one ever on the continent. So it doesn't take much. And she tries to go back every two years and check in or send new toys. So it's – it's just kind of neat when you give back a little bit.
MYRLAND: Now you have published this successful book, you're doing presentations like the one you're doing at the Natural History Museum. One of the things that it said in the publicity material that they sent about you is that when you talk about your presentation, it's not just a slide show.
MYRLAND: So what is it other than a slide show?
PARFET: Well, we tried to bring an element of depth to the lecture. And what I can promise people is, you know, it's not, hey, this is – it's not a slide show, this is a presentation that's provocative. We talk about fear and the role of fear and how it affects all our lives. And, you know, the goal is for someone – is for at least one person in the audience to say, hey, I'm going to jump of that cliff of change. And we, you know, we gave a lecture in New York City this week…
MYRLAND: Oh, you were at the Explorers Club, right?
PARFET: Yeah, right, I was at the Explorers Club in New York.
MYRLAND: That's got to feel pretty special.
PARFET: It is.
MYRLAND: You know, you and Sir Edmund Hillary and, you know, all those other famous folks.
PARFET: Yeah, Perry, the first – the first person to the North Pole, an American. You know, his sled was in the room that I was speaking -- and, you know, Teddy Roosevelt's, you know, River of Doubt expedition, a lot of that gear is there. And it was humbling to be in – in their presence. And so we gave a – gave a nice lecture there and, you know, one woman came up to me after and she said, you know, I'm 55 years old, I've always wanted to go to medical school, and, she goes, I'm going to apply this year because of you.
MYRLAND: Well, Bo Parfet, thank you very much for joining us and I hope a lot of folks show up tonight at the Natural History Museum tonight. It's been a pleasure.
PARFET: Thanks, Doug. Thank you.
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