Climbing mountains is not for the faint of heart. Just ask Gerard Simonette, who looks for a new peak to scale every year.
"The higher the challenge, the greater the payoff," says the 71-year-old Smithtown resident. Each spring, Simonette, a retired mental health professional who specialized in recreational therapy, leaves home to conquer another mountain. This year, he checked off Mount Olympus, in Greece, from his bucket list after climbing the 9,573-foot summit in May.
Next April, Simonette plans a three-week trek to Mera Peak, Nepal. At 21,000-plus feet, it would be a personal best for highest ascent.
Every climb is an adventure, and Simonette understands that as much as he prepares for his trips, some things are not within his control. Last year, he had planned to hike what would have been his highest peak — Aconcagua in Chile, which rises to nearly 23,000 feet. But at 18,000 feet, the guide started having seizures, so Simonette and his group had to retreat.
An ascending passion
What started as a fun way to spend time with daughters Nicole and Erica back in the late '70s, hiking peaks in New England, gradually morphed into a decades-long passion and desire for ever higher conquests. However, "If you want to go higher," he says, "you have to go out west." And so he has, mastering one by one mountains of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and California.
On climbs that don't require ropes or special gear, such as Mount Whitney in California's Sierra Nevada range, Simonette typically sets out alone. Though still spry going up, he explains, these days he moves more cautiously than younger folks on the descent, where injuries can happen quickly, and he doesn't want to inhibit others.
On more technical peaks, like Mount Hood, Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, he makes the journey with a professional mountain guide service so ropes, equipment and a helping hand are at the ready. To date, he's reached the summit of about 30 mountains, including the 19,341-foot apex of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania six years ago, his highest climb so far.
Simonette, a literature and history buff, targets mountains imbued with cultural resonance, such as Mount Olympus, for its place in Greek mythology; or in Turkey, where the Bible states that Noah's ark landed on the mountains of Ararat. "Being there in person helps you relate to the history and culture surrounding these landmarks," he says.
Brian Murphy, a friend who has taken on a couple of peaks with him, marveled at Simonette's consistent drive. "He just seems to thrive on it, climbing these mountains," says Murphy, 68, of Riverhead. "I get a kick out of just talking to him; how he does it and plans it. He's extraordinarily well-planned."
Despite good planning and reaching 95 percent of the summits he targets, Simonette has had his share of setbacks. He won't soon forget the frigid air atop Kilimanjaro in 2008, when his hands ached because of nearly unbearable numbness from the cold.
On his first try to reach the top of Mount Whitney in 2003, Simonette hadn't realized how vital it is to acclimate gradually to the altitude, where the air is thinner. At about 13,000 feet, he says, he felt like he was going to die. He was constantly nauseated and unable to take in any much-needed nourishment for the descent. "The hard part was that I couldn't go any further, but I'd already come up nine miles, and I knew I had nine miles to go to get back."
He wanted to lie down and rest, but he knew he had to keep moving to get back before nightfall. Simonette says he rested for a couple of 10-minute stretches, and then walked back down slowly. After reaching the motel, he napped and felt much better — and quite famished.
This spring, Simonette was prepared when he encountered snow on Mount Olympus, only to get caught in a hailstorm days later on Mount Musala in Bulgaria, where he was forced to turn back.
Every peak "takes you out of your comfort zone in some way," he says. "When you get on a mountain, every move you make, it better be the right move. It forces you to rely on your resources. You have to make the right choices. You've got to keep to the trail, know when to stop if the weather's getting bad. There are a lot of things that become more critical than if you were living your daily life."
Simonette says he knows his limits, and there are mountains he's apt to avoid, like Mount McKinley in Alaska, where it's extremely cold and considerably dangerous.
Climbing is hard work and Simonette relishes the effort, especially when he reaches the summit, high above the tree line. "You feel like you're literally on top of the world," he says. "It's just a feeling of accomplishment. And there's a lot of surprises along the way. You find waterfalls, you encounter wildlife — that's always exciting — foxes, deer, elk."
Simonette and his wife, Grace, have been married for 47 years, and she worries if she doesn't hear from him for a couple of weeks when he's away. But she accepts his need to explore. "I know how important mountain climbing is to him and being able to go out and experience nature in a different way than I would," she says. "So I respect that, and I want him to be able to enjoy that for as long as he possibly can, and as long as we can afford it."
Simonette relies on research and instinct to get the most out of his trips. Climbing Mount Whitney, for instance, he set out in the middle of the night to avoid late afternoon electrical storms. It started with an almost eerie quiet, he says, but soon became "a beautiful sensory experience, with the stars, the rocks almost luminescent, and the moonshine."
At times, the seasoned climber loses his way. On Mount Olympus, he found himself off the trail and was badly cut up in bramble. "You have to really be cautious and keyed up to try to figure out what you're doing so you get up and down as safe as you can. And you are a little extrasensory at the time, because you need it."
Enticing the grandkids
In recent years, Simonette has introduced grandkids Natalie Jones, 14, and her brother, Andrew, 11, of Bloomington, Illinois, to his favorite sport. In 2008, on their first climb as a threesome, they took on 3,166-foot Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. When they got above the tree line, Andrew, who was 5, took in the majestic 360-degree vista and exclaimed, "Wowwww!" Simonette says it's a moment they won't soon forget.
He stays in shape through a mixed bag of sports — jogging, spinning (speed bicycling in place), Zumba, kickboxing, swimming, tennis and weight training. Locally, he notes, there's not much you can do in the way of altitude training. Still, he enjoys various hikes along the Long Island Greenbelt Trail and, last year, completed the entire 32-mile course from the Sound to the Great South Bay in one day. Frequently, he can be found ambling up bluffs along the North Shore with a weight-filled backpack, turning his walks into a workout.
His daughter Erica, 39, of Agawam, Massachusetts, calls her dad "inspirational," saying he gave her a love of the outdoors. "Being active and adventurous is so ingrained in his everyday life that I don't think he truly realizes how exceptional he is," she says. "I hope when I'm his age, I will have been able to see as much of the world as he has — albeit a bit closer to sea level."
However, the view from above suits Simonette just fine. "As long as I'm feeling good," he says, "I'll keep going."
A CLIMBER'S PEAK PEAKS
BY GERARD SIMONETTE
Every mountain has its own particular challenges and rewards, but of the more than 30 peaks I've climbed, these are the ones that stand out (in no particular order):
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania At 19,341 feet, it is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world and the highest mountain I've climbed to date. It took seven days and was my first multiday trek with guides. I also had a wonderful post-climb experience: a Jeep safari to the Ngorongoro Crater, with its teeming wildlife.
Mount Hood, Oregon It was my only technical climb (i.e., requiring rope, harness, crampons, ice ax). Most thrilling experience was during the training day before the climb, when the instructor, in order to teach us how to to arrest a fall using an ice ax, had me lay on my back — head pointing down on the snowy slope — and then he let go of my ankles, hoping I remembered the lesson on what to do next. The trick is to rapidly turn over onto your chest and dig the ax into the snow to act as a brake.
Mount Whitney, California At 14,505 feet, this is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. It was my first time climbing at night (2 a.m. start), and I was a bit apprehensive about setting off alone into the dark, but it proved to be quite an exciting and safe sensory experience under a brilliant star-packed sky. Even though I was alone, it was reassuring to see the lights of other climbers snaking up the slope above and below. What I should have been more concerned about was the fact that I had come up from sea level the day before and didn't adequately acclimatize to the altitude. The nausea struck at 13,500 feet and I was unable to proceed to the summit. Then I had to drag myself back down nine miles to the trailhead. I thought that would be my last attempt for such a height, but I did get to return two years later. After two preparatory climbs for acclimatization, I was able to reach the summit with no sickness.
Mount Washington, New Hampshire This 6,137-foot climb was special — it was with my daughter Nicole, then age 9, and my niece Hilary Tolan, age 8. It took 11 hours, but the kids were up to the challenge.
Mount Monadnock, New Hampshire Only 3,166 feet, but special because I did it with my grandchild Natalie Jones when she was 5. When she was 8, we hiked the mountain again, with her brother, Andrew, who was 5.
Kings Peak, Utah The state's highest point at 13,547 feet. This was notable for the distance — 32 miles, round-trip, 4,101 feet vertical rise. In August 2012, it took 23½ hours, from 2 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. the following day. Unlike on Mount Whitney, I saw no other lights on the trail during the night hours; it was a little creepy. Creepier still was the afternoon lightning bolt that I saw strike about a quarter-mile away when I was just short of the summit on exposed rocks. This was my most physically demanding climb.