At 37, Francis Slakey lived a life with no commitments and no permanent attachments. His primary goal was to travel the world, no strings attached.
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Slakey’s job as a physics lecturer at Georgetown allowed him to take off lengthy stretches of time to climb while also serving as the means to fund his travel. Teaching was “mechanical” to Slakey, nothing more. There were no houses, no serious girlfriends—and certainly no marriage or kids—in the professor’s future. And he was content with that.
Until he started his quest.
Slakey decided to do something that no one else had before—climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean. What started as a purely physical goal—to set a world record—became something much more as Slakey became personally involved with the people and places he encountered on his adventure.
Along the way, he not only met his future wife, Gina, but also one of the most important people who would influence his life’s work going forward—a brave survivor of a brutal attack in Indonesia, Patsy Spier, who inspired Slakey to use his classroom for a higher purpose by having his students identify and tackle some of the world’s largest problems.
Here, Slakey talks about his incredible journey, both inside and out, in To the Last Breath, a book that is part adventure travel, part call to action for anyone who cares about making a better world.
You wrote an article about this for Slate in 2009. Was that the impetus for book?
When I got back from Vestvagoy [Island, Norway] and finished off this whole record, by this time the record didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Gina said if you can’t download something on the Internet, then it didn’t really happen…Somebody else will come along. So I decided to write something up, and I knew someone at Slate…The article was the impetus [for the book].
You begin your quest at age 37, you write more out of vanity and keeping connections at bay. Yet climbing is such a buddy sport, and this journey relies on the help and trust of so many, your life literally depends on another person’s at all times. Wasn’t it almost impossible to remain disconnected from so many people?
The connection you need with another climbing partner is almost machine-like—you gotta be in sync and mesh, but not in way an emotional relationship is. It’s really a physical relationship, like gears locking together.
I was so in sync with one of my partners that we could do simul climbing [climbing at same time]; on the move, our pace was so cleanly matched, we can move as one…So I would say it’s more rhythm and meshing of gears when it comes to a climbing partner.
Yet there were those moments, like being on Everest, with those two guys in life-and-death situations that demanded an emotional shift?
Yep, that will stay with me for the rest of my life—moments like that that started to make me bend. Seeing what [climbing partner] Jim [Williams] did [giving another climber his oxygen tank]. God, I aspire now to pass my oxygen tank now.
I think, in a way, that’s what I’m doing now in the classroom. I’m doing things in way to make students excel and have those achievements. I don’t need to have those achievements myself now.
One thing about climbing—it sets up such extreme conditions that you are stripped raw and really do find out who you are.
After Tanzania, you wrote the story of the Masai tribe’s cultural traditions vs. modern education and science, favoring science. You are a scientist, so what made you want to turn to writing?
It started as an outlet to reach people and share my point of view more broadly. If I wanted to share my point of view, at the time, my only outlets were chronicles of higher education. I thought I had something to say, that’s why I turned to writing, and writing in particular, at that point, wasn’t for the op-ed page of a major newspaper. It was still an academic press and was familiar territory.
Then there was the response to that article calling you “cold and broken…”
I wasn’t prepared for that. I thought people would agree with me.
If there was ever a true breaking point where you started diverting from your past behavior of detachment and wanting to seek human connection it seemed to be the vast aloneness of Antarctica—was that the game-changer?
Yeah, I can’t say there was any one single moment, but that was a huge moment. I describe in the book there are several moments where everyone’s life can bend, nobody’s on this clean trajectory. But that was a huge moment. I had no books, I was just sitting there, day after day—what am I gonna do but reflect on things? I didn’t like the direction I was going. It was a quiet epiphany. Incidents in life can cause those bends and not necessarily be dramatic—there was no burning bush.
You faced some truly life-threatening situations—but it seems the man-made one, being held at gunpoint, in Indonesia was the worst. Can you talk a little more about how that experience helped change your perceptions?
I’d say the moment made me realize I gotta be different. The moment in Indonesia, how that evolved told me what I should do with my life. So much is due to [ambush survivor] Patsy Spier, meeting her, talking it all through, seeing what she was able to accomplish. She is a determined woman who was seeking justice and seeing what she was able to do with that.
Her story is so influential, it inspired the way I teach. Seeing her story made me understand what I could do with my own life. It wasn’t so much being surrounded by soldiers, it was more meeting Patsy, the survivor of the ambush, recognizing it could have been me and seeing what she had done with life.
While you were held at gunpoint, you were let go. Later, Patsy’s group was viciously attacked and withstood heavy gunfire. The re-creations of that attack are amazingly real—how did you do that?
It came from two sources. The hardest moment writing the book was sitting down with Patsy Spier, and she talked me through the ambush, moment by moment. We just talked it through. Other survivors of that ambush don’t talk much at all. There were other bits and pieces out there, I got comments through other sources. The few scenes that aren’t first-person Patsy are coming from other sources, and I had the police report.
In all years I have known her [Patsy], I had never seen her choke up—that was first and only time. Going through bullet by bullet, I felt like I was in it while she was describing it, and she felt like she was in it. It was tough on me and tough on her. She’s been very supportive of the book, we’re close friends, but she placed very close attention to that section, because I wanted to get it right.
You’ve integrated your worldviews into your classes at Georgetown now, where students are to work on projects to improve something, somewhere in the world. What are some outstanding new projects you’ve seen lately?
I have students in India right now, as we’re talking [interview held in March 2012]. They came up with this idea last semester, a really interesting idea, on how to confront diarrheal disease in India. They realized a number of ideas had been tried and failed, among kids in particular, and it got them really curious, why are these various interventions failing?
So what they decided to do is do surveys out in Calcutta and in the countryside, too…They got funding, developed the focus-group questions, hired locals to help, and they’re spending two weeks there collecting data and will come back and analyze all the data. It’s their project, their idea, and they did it.
What I’ve learned is partly I can’t set the bar high enough. I had trouble myself at school. I suffered under constraints of how education was. Once I liberate them, allow the independence, they can accomplish anything.
Molly Brown is the features editor for Kirkus.