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Ain't no mountain

By NAN BIALEK

 

Tom Sabourin has raised about $25,000 for Parkinsonís and Alzheimerís research.


Tom Sabourin climbs mountains, and not just because, as mountaineer George Mallory said, "Theyíre there." Sabourin climbs mountains because Parkinsonís disease and Alzheimerís disease are still here.

Since 2004, Sabourin has raised upwards of $25,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Alzheimerís Association by running marathons and scaling some of the most exhilarating peaks on Earth, including Mount McKinley in Alaskaís Denali National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

The Kilimanjaro climb in July 2009 is chronicled in the documentary feature film "10 Mountains 10 Years," narrated by Anne Hathaway. Produced, written and directed by Jennifer Yee, the film focuses on an international team organized by Enzo Simone, who is determined to climb 10 of the worldís greatest peaks in 10 years to raise awareness and money for Alzheimerís and Parkinsonís research.

For Sabourin, the challenge is personal.

Sabourin says what he misses most about his maternal grandmother is her wry sense of humor. He also misses her homemade pierogi, and the way she used to scold him in Polish. She lived with his family in Milwaukee from the time he was a little boy. He was just starting high school when she was diagnosed with Parkinsonís. "We werenít really informed about what that meant," Sabourin recalls.

Parkinsonís is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system affecting movement, and usually develops gradually. Debilitating tremors in the hands, face, feet and legs are the most recognizable symptoms.

Sabourin watched his grandmother try to cope with the side effects of medications, and he felt her self-consciousness at holiday gatherings when the shaking became too pronounced to ignore. He saw his mom become her motherís caregiver as the disease moved through its final stages.

Parkinsonís touched Sabourinís life again when a high school math teacher, the one who inspired him to become an engineer, was diagnosed with the disease.

Sabourinís engineering career took him to Seattle, where the views are dominated by the Cascade Mountains, particularly Mount Rainier. When a friend from the Sierra Club asked him to come along on a winter camping trip on the mountain, Sabourin took a giant step outside of his comfort zone. It would be the first of many exciting climbs.

"Every time I climb I learn something new about myself ó about what level of discomfort or endurance you can get through," Sabourin says. "It makes you push yourself further."

Sabourin had been planning a climb on Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, when he moved back to Milwaukee to take a position at GE Healthcare. He decided to make his 2004 McKinley climb a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He called it StellaTrek, to honor his grandmother.

In 2006 and 2007, Sabourin continued to raise money for the foundation by running in the New York Marathon as part of "Team Fox."

Meanwhile, Simone had been leading his "10 Mountains 10 Years" team to the top of Franceís Mont Blanc, Cotopaxi in Ecuador and Mount Hood in Oregon. The team is called "The Regulars," because it consists of climbers from everyday walks of life. Most are also caregivers for people with Alzheimerís or Parkinsonís. In 2008, Simone found Sabourinís photos of the Mount McKinley climb on a social media site, and invited him to join The Regulars for the Kilimanjaro trek. Simone didnít have to ask twice.

The climb of 19,340 feet to the peak of Kilimanjaro took six days. In addition to their gear, The Regulars were carrying letters from caregivers, which they read aloud when they stopped at camps along the route. The movie includes shots of the people who wrote those letters.

"We tried to think about why we were there," Sabourin says. "I always thought about my grandmother."

On Summit Day, two climbers from the 11-member team stayed behind at camp. One was ill, says Sabourin, and the other was simply exhausted.

"The last 4,000 feet we did the last day were extremely difficult," Sabourin says. "Itís always overwhelming, the last few steps to the summit, because youíve been training for six months to a year for these climbs. And thereís the symbolism of your doing it as a fundraiser and youíve achieved that part of the plan."

Sabourin had the chance to relive that moment at the premiere of "10 Mountains 10 Years" at the Connecticut Film Festival last May. The film received a standing ovation and won best documentary honors. He says it had been entered in the Milwaukee Film Festival (Sep. 23-Oct. 3) as well.

Soon after the screening, Sabourin took a trip with his parents to their cottage in Northern Michigan. He noticed that his mother was repeating herself a bit and seemed to be having difficulty with short-term memory. He wasnít sure what was going on, until he started to help her unpack her things and made an accidental discovery. "Sheís on two medications for Alzheimerís," Sabourin says.

Now there is one more mountain to climb.

To view a movie trailer of "10 Mountains 10 Years," go to www.backlightproductions.com/project.htm