He Takes His Mountains One at a Time

by Bill Norman on Sun, 2008-06-01 17:00

Most people, upon learning they have ALS, begin to take life slower. Felix Slamovics climbed mountains and skyscrapers.

Slamovics in his hybrid climbing equipment
Slamovics uses a hybrid climbing apparatus incorporating bicycle parts and mountain rescue equipment. A climbing buddy, on his own rig, checks Slamovics’ condition.

Climbing wasn’t new to the 45-year-old Israeli citizen and resident of Tel Aviv. He was one of that country’s foremost rock climbers for more than 25 years. The difference was climbing with ALS.

When Slamovics received his ALS diagnosis in 2002, he reacted to it with the same aggressive embrace he bestowed on vertical rock walls.

“I climbed in many European countries. Straight walls, preferably with an overhang, were my favorite,” he said in a telephone interview.

And he preferred to climb unbelayed, that is, without a safety rope to catch him if he fell. “You have to know what you can and can’t do,” he wryly observed. “People who don’t know that don’t grow old.”

Visit www.speedclimb.com/Felix.html to see photos of Slamovics climbing. The site opens with the question, “What is stronger? Fear? Or hope?” Climbing, according to Slamovics, is “a meditative state in which man unites both with himself and the mountain above him [and] the fear disappears.”

Slamovics knew he wanted to continue climbing as long as he could, but as ALS sapped his strength and dexterity he had to improvise.

Enter the ‘Harley Felixson’

In 2005, Slamovics made a partial ascent of El Capitan, a forbidding bastion of stone in Yosemite Park in California. In 2007, he climbed the 614-foot Azrieli Tower building in Tel Aviv.

In both cases, he used a homemade contraption dubbed the “Harley Felixson” that incorporates bicycle parts and mountain rescue equipment. With a ventilator strapped to his face, suspended in a harness, feet dangling, “pedaling” with his hands, he propelled himself up a rope, scant millimeters at a time. A clamping device prevented backsliding, while two bicycle wheels affixed to a horizontal axle behind him kept him from banging into the climbing surface. His climbing buddies accompanied him on their own ropes, to keep an eye on his condition.

“That building [Azrieli Tower] is all mirrored windows, and it was a hot day. I felt like I was in a toaster,” he recalled. “My lung capacity at that time was only 11 percent, and my ventilator was blowing really, really warm air into my nose.”

That laborious haul took him nearly six hours to complete. Even the iron-willed Slamovics said he would not have made it except for one thing: Television crews followed his ascent, enabling him to call public attention to ALS and the importance of finding a cure.

Travel via voice control

Slamovics ascending building
With a ventilator strapped to his face, Slamovics patiently inches up the face of a high-rise building.

Slamovics, who often lectures about what it has meant for him to live with ALS, travels in a power wheelchair and an adapted van, most of whose controls (for headlights, windshield wipers and gear changes) are voice activated.

“The voice control for the gears is the only one that makes me confirm that I really want to shift gears. Sometimes I get impatient and slam the thing into gear myself,” he said.

That dogged determination is what motivated him to set up a caving trip this summer, in one of Israel’s deepest caves, about 250 feet underground. He’ll be going “piggyback” in a cave rescue rig carried by friends who are experienced cavers. TV cameras again will follow their progress, as part of the Israeli ALS Research Association’s public awareness efforts (Slamovics is an executive member of the association).

“I asked some other people with ALS to join me, but they’re afraid, I think. I can’t understand why.” In the telephone interview for this article, from halfway around the world, it certainly sounded as if Felix’ face was wreathed in a mischievous grin.

Still the same inside

Slamovics teaches climbing techniques to kids — him in his chair, them on an artificial climbing wall. “When they first see me, knowing how many years I was a top climber, I can read their minds,” he said. “They think, ‘he must be sad and depressed.’ But then they hear me talk and they realize I’m the same guy I was before. What’s inside of me is the exact opposite of me outside.”

The tough guy now has decided he wants to wean himself off his ventilator, through a combination of exercises and yoga. Last year his lung capacity was at 11 percent; now it’s 20 percent, he said (he’s gone without wearing the vent for up to one-and-a-half hours), and he’s aiming for 100 percent. Two at-home caregivers, one daytime, one evening, help him shift positions as needed, whether during exercise or sleep.

He lays out his theory and his resolve. “As long as your brain is working, you’re not sick. I have a disability, not a disease, and this disability is going to have to work very hard to take me. I’m not going to cooperate.”

His e-mail signature quote says it all: “I can’t die; it would ruin my image.”

Bill Norman
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