Reaching For Summit of Charity

2-22-13_mavenThings didn’t go exactly as planned during what a Chicago attorney and his two sons call Operation Climb MDA, but Howard Zavell says the boys nevertheless learned a valuable lesson: Things don’t always go exactly as planned.

The adventure still raised close to $30,000 for Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross.

The plan, in the works for 18 months, was for Highland Park MDA supporter Zavell and his sons, Benjamin, 12, and Max, 15, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, in December.

“Climbing Kilimanjaro was something I had wanted to do for a very long time, but it never seemed like the right time to do it,” Zavell said in a recent phone conversation. “I thought this would be a good time before I get much older and before everybody goes off to college.”

The Zavells are experienced climbers and high-altitude backpackers, and Howard Zavell says that Kilimanjaro, while one of the tallest mountains in the world, is not a difficult “technical climb.”

“It’s not as hard to climb as Everest,” he says. “On Kilimanjaro, your life is not in danger unless you do something stupid. For that kind of experience, it’s relatively safe.” He thought climbing it would be a natural progression for his boys from the outdoor activities they had enjoyed together.

“It’s a huge, magnificent mountain and a unique place that has so many different ecosystems you climb through,” he says. “You walk through rainforest, high alpine desert, lava flows, then areas like the arctic. You experience all that in one place, and I wanted to give my sons that opportunity and let them have that experience.”

The family, which also includes Zavell’s wife Anne, was already familiar with MDA since son Max participated in a program with the organization. He raised money for the service and, while in Israel for his bar mitzvah, visited an MDA emergency response station.

Howard Zavell enlisted a group of friends, created a website and Operation Climb MDA was formed. The Zavells paid all expenses for the trip themselves so all funds raised went directly to the organization, Zavell explains.

“I wanted to expose more people to MDA. I’m 45, and a lot of Jewish people in my age group don’t know much about it. It’s like, ‘that was my grandfather’s charity.’ Just to get exposure for it was part of our goal,” he says.

The trip itself was eventful, but not exactly in the way the climbers would have hoped. First, on the day before they were to summit, a cousin, James Milin, who was accompanying them, became ill at around 13,000 feet, developing dehydration and altitude sickness. Along with a guide, he descended, but the Zavells pressed on.

“We continued to climb, but the night before the summit, I was not feeling well,” Zavell says. “We had to take malaria pills, and I had felt poorly from the day I started taking them.” On this night, he was having chest pains and nausea. In addition, a blizzard was brewing.

“I had to make a very difficult decision,” he says. “It crossed my mind that if you have a heart attack, you are not getting off this mountain” since above 12,000 feet there is no ranger station nor any chance for medical help. Zavell decided that it was necessary to descend.

A pair of guides offered to continue to the summit with the boys, “but I promised my wife I wouldn’t separate from them,” Zavell says. “So at 9 at night, we broke camp and walked into a blizzard down the mountain.” They had to walk for more than four hours to reach a waiting emergency vehicle, then several more hours to get to a hospital. There physicians told Zavell that his symptoms were from the malaria pills.

“I was perplexed and annoyed,” he says. “It was not a highlight. We had prepared for this for 18 months. My sons were very happy I was OK but it was a huge letdown for all of us, a real emotional low. In retrospect, though, it was the right thing to do with the information we had.”

After the initial disappointment, Zavell says he realized the adventure was still a valuable experience for all three of them.

“It was a good life lesson that things don’t always go the way you want,” he says. “And it was really about this journey together, preparing for it and working together.” They raised nearly $30,000 for MDA as well. (Supporters can still donate to Operation Climb MDA at or on its Facebook page.)

Now, Zavell says they are considering trying again, probably next December, considered the best time to climb the mountain.

What does Anne Zavell think of the plan?

“She is definitely outside of her comfort zone, but she was our number one supporter,” Zavell says of his wife of 19 years. “It’s not something she would ever want to do but she sees how good these kinds of activities are for the boys, how much confidence it gives them. She recognizes it is an opportunity to continue to instill the values of being prepared, working hard for a goal, standing for something and doing your best.”

Zavell says that he, in turn, was impressed with the trust his wife placed in him. “Was she nervous? Yes. Communication wasn’t great, but she trusted me that I wouldn’t split up from the boys and wouldn’t take any risks. If I felt danger I would take a cautious route, and that’s what I did,” he says. “The first thing she said to me was, so when are you boys going back? That’s an incredible statement.”

The family will be in Israel again in June for Ben’s bar mitzvah and plan to “build momentum” for a future trip, Zavell says. “My feeling is, if we didn’t get to the summit because I just couldn’t do it, I could probably walk away from it easier. But the way it happened, it leaves a taste of unfinished business.”

And this time, he’ll probably skip the malaria pills.

Chicago Jewish News 2/22/2013

Leave a comment