Arrived Safely

Hello!  This is the first post for Operation Climb: Magen David Adom – The Sequel.  Howard, Max and Ben left the house yesterday afternoon at 1:00 PM (Chicago time), arrived in Amsterdam around midnight our time and then arrived at their hotel, The African Tulip, in Arusha, Tanzania at 1:00 PM our time. So it is a full 24 hours door-to-door.  They called and I was able to talk to them for about five minutes.  It was 10:00 PM Sunday night for them and they had just ordered dinner and then were going to bed.  I expect to hear from them again tonight around 11:00 when they wake up.  Then tomorrow morning they plan to call us again between 7-8 AM to talk to Shayna.  After that, it will be hit or miss as they will begin climbing Tuesday morning.  They are 9 hours ahead of us.

They were in good spirits when they left.  They got really lucky as one of their bags broke as they were carrying it out to the car and they were able to trade it out!  This time, Grandma Dolly and I were also more prepared. We actually left about 5 minutes before they did and took Shayna straight to the American Girl store on Michigan Ave. to get her first AG doll.  Howard, Max and Ben also left us voice messages so we can hear their voices whenever we want.  Howard read about 10 chapters of the book they’ve been reading together into her iTouch so Shayna can continue the nightly ritual.

People ask me why I am “letting” them do this again.  First of all, you need to understand that they didn’t ask for my permission.  When it ended so abruptly last time, I knew they would be going back.  In fact, until Ben broke his collar bone in a soccer game, they were supposed to go last year at this time.  They’ve never stopped training so in effect, they have now been training for a total of 4 years and Howard felt that it was “unfinished business.”  He knew that while he made the right decision last time, the boys didn’t get to complete the climb and reach the summit and it was through no fault of their own.  If you know my husband, you know that nothing goes “unfinished”.  Plus, they still haven’t raised enough money for their ambulance and now it is needed in Israel more than ever.

And so here we are…a little older, a little wiser…  Last summer, Howard tried a different malaria medicine which is easier on his system.  Plus, this year, we have a 2 year relationship with their guide, Steve and his family.  In fact, Steve’s son, George, is an email pen pal of Ben’s.   George is joining them on the climb too!  In fact, Steve and George picked them up from the airport (an hour drive each way).  I like that they have global awareness and friendships with people around the world.  So it’s different this time.  Howard and I have agreed that if he has altitude sickness, Max and Ben will continue without him.  I hope and pray that doesn’t happen but as we learned two years ago, “Expect the unexpected.”   I feel confident that they will summit this time!  I will continue to keep you updated as best I can!


Update: Letter

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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

Training for Kilimanjaro

Credit Chicago Athlete

Credit Chicago Athlete

Howard Zavell had long wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, bur he got busy instead with raising a family. As his sons got older, he began to dream of climbing the mountain with them. At first, his wife, Anne, had some legitimate concerns about her husband raking their sons halfway around the world to climb an almost four mile tall mountain in Africa. At the time, Benjamin was only 11 and Max was 13. Bur after learning more about it, both agreed that it would be a tremendous opportunity for them.

At first the boys had some reservations about the challenge. Max had recently heard a story about a climbing disaster on Mount Everest and was apprehensive about the risks. Although both boys were active in sports and Boy Scours, they wanted to know more about the climb before they committed.

Howard called on a trusted former gymnastics coach, Seymour Rifkind, for help with the decision. Rifkind had climbed Kilimanjaro twenty years earlier. He met with the boys and evaluated their readiness for facing the challenges of climbing the 19,341-foor mountain. After hearing about their extensive experiences with camping, Boy Scouts and sports, he agreed that they were ready. He explained that unlike Everest, climbing Kilimanjaro was non-technical-much like a very long trail hike at altitude. It was August 2011, and the boys were now enthusiastic about taking on the Kilimanjaro challenge.

Then, they began a year and a half of hard work. Both , the boys and their dad had to get in the best shape of their lives. They starred with a strength and conditioning program. Then they found an area of steep wooded bluffs and ravines in Lake Forest lined with trails and stairways. At first, they would walk up and down the stairs a few times. After a while, they were able to run up the stairs. Gradually, they became fit enough to run up and down the stairs and hills with backpacks for a sustained period of time. They also incorporated longer hikes with packs as part of the training.

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“The boys are both in really great shape,” Howard says. “I had more work to do to get as fit as they did.” Both boys play soccer, Max is a sprinter and Ben is learning to be a slider in luge and has been invited to Lake Placid to participate in a USA luge training camp this winter.

“I see the focus in their eyes,” Howard says. “They are enjoying this because we are doing it together. They are confident and sure of themselves. The boys have learned the value of setting high goals and working hard for a long time to achieve them.” Along the way, the Zavells are strengthening family bonds.

Max is now 15 and is a freshman at Highland Park High School. Benjamin is 12 and a seventh grader at Northwood Junior High School. They are scheduled to begin climbing on Dec. 18. They will be on the mountain for nine days and will hike roughly 65 miles. You can follow their climb at and learn more about their fundraising effort for MDA, Magen David Adorn, a non-partisan emergency service for injured in Israel.

Chicago Athlete: Chris Palmquist January 2013


Climb Update

Hello Everyone!

Today the guys trekked past 14,000 feet.  Unfortunately James started to experience Altitude Sickness and eventually decided it was best for him to return to Arusha so he descended.  Max, Ben and Howard trekked onward.  Then after dinner, Howard developed high blood pressure.  He determined that he couldn’t take any chances so he decided to return and get medically checked out.  Max and Ben were feeling fine but since James was gone and Howard and I had made a pact that he would not leave them without one of the adults; when the lead guide offered to continue and summit with Max and Ben tomorrow they declined.  So they all started to descend.  At this point it was dark as they trekked downward 4 hours to a location where a recovery vehicle could reach them.  Then they went straight to the hospital.  They called me when they finally got back to the hotel at 4 AM.  James and Howard are fine.  They’re all disappointed.  Still they did an amazing feat!  It took them 5 days to get to the level they were at so they can’t go back to finish unless they do it on another trip!  I am incredibly proud of them!  They will take a couple of days to recover and then they have a safari to look forward to so I am sure they will end their adventure on a high note!  I can’t wait to see them and hear all of their stories!  They will continue to fundraise until they reach their goal of purchasing an ambulance!  So three cheers for my heros – Howard, Max, Ben and James!!!!!!  If the world had more people like them in it, it would be a much happier place!  I will have them update the blog with their stories upon their return!  Thank you all for your support!


Update from Kilimanjaro and Operation Climb


So if you count a garbled phone call where all I heard was “Hi it’s me.” before it ended, then yes I have heard from Max, Ben, Howard and James this  morning.  However, since I know Mrs. Stickler’s class is following Ben’s trek and their last day of school is tomorrow, I will use the information from the guide so everyone will know the plan which I can only assume they’re following to stay on track with the pacing.

Day 3 (yesterday):  A 3-4 hour trek from Shira 1 to Shira 2 Camp where they will camp at 3,840 M.

Day 4 (today):  Trek from Shira 2 to Moir Camp (about 3 hours) where they will camp at 4,200 M.

Day 5: (Friday):  It is a 3 hour trek to Lava Tower Camp.  They will camp at 4,600 M.

Day 6: (Saturday):  From Lava Tower Camp, trek 2 hours to Arrow Camp for rest and lunch.  Then continue on for another 3 hours to the rim of the crater for dinner and overnight at the camp on the crater rim.

Day 7: (Sunday):  Rise in to time to begin final ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro.  It’s a 1 hour hike to Uhuru Peak, followed by the descent to Mweka Camp (4 hour trek) for overnight.

Day 8: (Monday):  Trek 3-4 hours to reach the Mweka Gate to pick up your Summit Certificate before returning to Arusha.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro takes you through 4 separate eco-systems.  You start in montane forest, weaves through a rain forest, hits an alpine desert and ends in arctic conditions.



Update from Kilimanjaro 2


Today was the first day of climbing.  Arriving at the base of the Lemosho Route, they trekked 4 hours to Forest Camp.  The altitude at Forest Camp is 2,650 M. Tomorrow they will trek from Forest Camp to Shira 1 Camp (another 4-5 hours of trekking) where the altitude is 3,610 M.  It’s hard to remember that their days are our nights so try to think of it this way:  At 10 PM in Chicago they are waking up to a new day at 7 AM.  By the time we wake up at 8 AM it is 5 PM for them and they are probably making camp for the night.  So they are trekking while we are sleeping. I hope that at Shira Camp their phone will be able to work so I can get another personal update.  It was strange to celebrate Howard and my 19th Wedding Anniversary with him being out of communication range.  For all of you that are “checking up on us”, THANK YOU!  Shayna and I are feeling an abundance of love as so many of you are calling to see how we’re doing that I can barely return all the calls and Facebook messages.  More soon!

Best, Anne

Operation Climb Update

Hi Everyone

So I’ve heard from Howard, James, Max and Ben.  They are 9 hours ahead of us.  The weather is beautiful – 75 degrees and the 7 day forecast for the mountain looks good.  Unless it changes it should be around 17 degrees on the summit on Sunday – the day they plan to summit!

Their first interesting experience was that as they were coming in for a landing, the airport turned on the runway lights for their plane.  Apparently the runway lights are only turned on as needed.

Their hotel is very nice and they are eating every meal there as they feel it is the safest bet.  If you want to check out the hotel they are staying at The African Tulip.  Today they met with their guide who reassured them that he has led over 300 expeditions to the summit.  It took them about 3 hours today to unpack and repack to best meet their needs on their hike.

This afternoon they ventured into the market.  On the way in James was approached by a man who wanted him to hire him to “guide” them through the market.  Max described the market in Arusha in this way “Remember the market in Tel Aviv?  Now multiply that by 50% grossness and that is what this market was like.”  Pretty gross!  I think that this will be an eye-opening experience in so many ways for my boys!  I think they will really appreciate the lives they lead even more after seeing how others live!

Ben’s favorite discovery is that in Swahili the word hello is “Jambo.”  However, “Jamba” means fart.  Therefore here in the USA “Jamba Juice” translates into “fart juice.”  He thinks this is hysterical.  Apparently someone at that company didn’t do their homework when they were deciding what to name it.  I don’t think I’ll be visiting Jamba Juice for awhile.

Howard tells me not to expect to hear from them for a couple of days.  They have been told that their phone will work after they reach a certain elevation which is about a 2-day climb to reach.   So you can expect another update in a couple of days!


Pre-climb update

Hi Everybody!

Welcome to the Operation Climb blog!  The guys are all on their way!  James left yesterday and Howard, Max and Ben left today.  I will try to keep you updated as much as I can.  It is unsure how often this will be since until they are actually on the mountain we won’t know how well the communication technology will work.  The plan for the next two days is that they will meet up at their hotel in Arusha, Tanzania on Sunday.  For those of you in Chicago, that will be around 4:00 PM.  They will rest and on Monday meet with their guide.  On Tuesday morning they will be driven 2 hours to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and will officially start their climb!  They plan to climb between 5-6 hours a day in order to adjust slowly to the changing altitude.  The first ecosystem will be the Serengeti.

This is the first time they will be in the southern hemisphere.  Since there is no ambient light coming from anywhere; they are excited to see the stars!  For the holidays, Howard received a guide to the southern hemisphere constellations which he is really excited to be using.  This is really going to be a major education on many levels.

During this experience the guys have received some media attention (which will continue after the climb) and I have been asked “if I’m okay with this adventure.”  Today, after they left at 1:30, I’ve had a chance to reflect since the past few days have been frenetic with packing, etc.  I guess one of my guiding principles as a parent can be summed up in the phrase “roots and wings”.  It is easy to give your child roots; it is the wings that is tough.  This has been Howard’s dream since the day I met him 22 years ago.  To give him his dream with his sons and a favorite cousin is my gift.  To teach my boys how to prepare and follow through with hard work in order to achieve their dreams and to give them this opportunity to learn this first hand during their formative years is something I felt was bigger than my personal feelings of missing them.  I know when they experience hard times in their life that they will always have this experience.  No one will ever take it away from them.  They will know that they can do anything with hard work and effort.  They are sharing a lifelong experience together.  The icing on the cake is that they are also doing it for a cause close to all of their hearts – MDA!  They fully intend to fundraise until they can buy that ambulance!  What an amazing lesson!

Click on image to read.


The North Shore Weekend Dec 9, 2012