John Zeckendorf may not be a name familiar to many Tasmanians, but the Hobart-based businessman and father-of-four has made a very successful name for himself in the world of International property management, with a company that boasts clients such as the Australian Government, Prince Jefri of Brunei, and the Tata Group in India. Business success such as he’s achieved may be a dream for many of us, but still John had a different vision, a dream that wouldn’t die.
Says John, “As part of my midlife crises (plural) I took up mountaineering, with the specific goal of climbing the highest peak on each continent.” So far, since he began climbing in 2010, he’s climbed Mt Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and has recently returned from a three-week expedition in Antarctica, where he was part of a twelve-person expedition to climb Vinson Massif.
The Air Up There
It’s easy for us who haven’t done such things to underestimate both the difficulty of the climb, and also the reward. John explains, “There’s a real purity about climbing. You need to focus on the absolute basics, the need to breathe, the need to eat, to drink, to go to the toilet, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When you forget the basics, things start falling apart, especially at altitude when you need more oxygen than normal breathing can provide; you need to breathe in a particular way. If you forget to breathe properly you get dizzy and disorientated, and you are more likely to fall. However, when you’re busy concentrating on not falling off a cliff, it’s easy to forget to breathe properly.” Little mistakes can have big consequences at altitude, and a simple thing such as leaving a small amount of skin exposed between ski goggles and balaclava can lead to blackened, frostbitten skin within two to three minutes.
The Gift of Uncluttered Time
We are constantly surrounded by stimulation, by electronics, by people and by expectations. John notes that one of the best things about climbing is the isolation. The team is roped together for safety, but each person is some twenty metres from the others and the wind can make talking impossible, leaving plenty of mental space left to think. Obviously it’s important to concentrate on careful breathing and careful stepping, but John says that being in such a stunningly beautiful landscape with no other distractions it’s easy to concentrate on bigger questions like ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘What does my creator want of me?’ and to think about what the Bible says, such as how all of creation is a testimony to the glory of the creator.
“I spend up to eight hours each day on the mountain in my own space, which gives me a lot of time not only to pray, but to listen. In regular life we offer up our two-minute prayers to God and we wonder why he never speaks to us, but often it’s because we don’t take the time to listen for the answer”.
Out of all the questions John is asked regularly, the most common are the practical ones. John explains, “In Antarctica during summer, the sun doesn’t rise in the East and set in the West like it does everywhere else, but circles around the sky. It doesn’t ever get dark, so to sleep you need to bury yourself under something.” The temperature can drop to about -30 degrees C, and instantly drops 10-15 degrees if the sun disappears behind a cloud. You can go from melting to freezing in an instant. This also means that you need to avoid sweating while climbing because this can freeze solid when you take a rest.
Going to the toilet is also an interesting challenge. John explains how climbers carry a plastic bottle/bag to urinate in, which they then need to carry with them and empty out at pre-determined locations. “You can only empty it in a few places, and the challenge is to stop it from freezing solid. When I pee in the night I generally keep the bottle in the bottom of my sleeping bag, and tuck it down my jacket during the climb.” It is definitely easier for the men! As for bowel movements, there’s a system called a “Wag Bag”, a plastic bag system with a special gel in the bottom that helps kill odour. “It freezes very quickly, and you carry it out for proper disposal.”
The Greater Good
Although the mission to climb the Seven Summits has been a personal one for John, he’s also used it as a fundraiser for Tasmanian charity “Pathways”, who work with young men recovering from drug and alcohol addiction and homelessness. By auctioning off the carabiners—metal loops used for climbing he took with him – he was able to raise over $17,000 for them. John says, “I think that there are some good parallels between climbing and what Pathways do. Firstly, it is difficult to do it – few go there for that reason. Secondly, you need to break down a seemingly huge and impossible task into smaller bite sized chunks that can be tackled in stages and manageable bits. Thirdly, you need focus, dedication and determination to succeed. Finally, it is difficult but immensely rewarding in many ways.”
“I thought climbing mountains was difficult. But you look at what Pathways do and you realise how easy it is to climb a mountain. A climb is over quickly, within a few weeks. Rehabilitation is a job of real endurance, day-in, day-out, over a period of many years.”
Where To From Here?
The next goal for John is Mt Everest, which he explains is 2.5 kilometres higher than anything else he’s climbed, and a whole different type of training and preparation. “It’s the biggest physical challenge I think I’ll ever undertake. You need a lot of respect for the mountain. People die every year on Everest, but I think it’s doable, very exciting, and I look forward to the challenge”. If successful, John will be the first Tasmanian to climb Everest and to complete the 7 summits.
What’s YOUR “Mount Everest Vision?”
John Zeckendorf’s Mount Everest is actually the real Mount Everest, but for all of us there’s a big dream out there, something it’s going to take courage, planning, and a whole lot of guts to achieve. It could be starting something like a business, exercise, a new job, or giving something up like smoking. It could be mending a relationship, or discovering a new one. “It took me 6 months of reading and thinking to decide if Jesus was who He said He was”.
John’s advice is to break down the impossibly large job into smaller goals and build up capacity, experience and expertise along the way. Make your mistakes at a smaller level and don’t be daunted by the huge size of the problem. “Most people overestimate what they can do in the short term and tend to underestimate what they can achieve in the long term”. Most people give up too soon – be patient, it will take lots of time and effort but if you are prepared to put in the effort, you can get there. There is a verse from the bible that I repeat to myself over and over when the going gets tough, my legs are tired and I am gasping for air; “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Remember that your creator is interested in your life and is always free for a chat.