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Scaling Great Heights with Parkinson's: The Carlsons Tackle Mount Everest

Scaling Great Heights with Parkinson's: The Carlsons Tackle Mount Everest

Jerry and Barbara hiking Taylor Mountain in Grand Teton National Park

Jerry Carlson is literally not the kind of person who lets something like Parkinson's disease get him down. The 77-year-old and his wife, Barbara, are planning to hike to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal this April while fundraising for Team Fox. Both Barbara and Jerry are experienced mountaineers ­­­-- between the two of them they have scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the Matterhorn, and the Grand Tetons.

Not surprisingly, their children are also avid climbers. When daughter Kim and grandson Max decided to summit Mount Everest, the highest spot on earth, Max urged his grandparents to attempt the trek to the base camp, explaining that they were the ones who instilled in him a love of mountains and climbing.

This is the Carlsons' first fundraiser with Team Fox -- they were inspired by a friend who had raised money for The Michael J. Fox Foundation and who encouraged them to use the adventure to do the same. So far, their team has raised $15,000, and gifts are still coming in. "I cannot tell you how motivated we have been by the generosity of so many," said Barbara.

The Himalayas aren't new to the couple. Jerry and Barbara took a similar trip in 2003 when they hiked in Bhutan, on the other side of the range, but they didn't plan on going back. However, it's hard to resist when grandchildren plead. "We never would have guessed we would be doing this at this stage of our lives," Barbara said. "It will be a challenge, but it is also a privilege. We feel incredibly blessed to be participating in this adventure."

The trip to the Everest Base Camp takes ten days; it covers 38 miles and climbs in altitude from 9,000 feet to 17,700 feet. Yaks carry equipment, food and supplies, and the hikers sleep in traditional teahouses in shared rooms. Once they reach the base camp, Kim and Max will continue the ascent for another five weeks.

In terms of preparation, it helps that Jerry was in excellent physical shape before his diagnosis four years ago, and that they both exercise vigorously every day. Since their Texas home doesn't boast any mountains, they're climbing stairs in a nearby college football stadium, a routine they similarly used to prepare for Kilimanjaro. They're also doing plenty of 10-mile walks to build endurance.

Although Jerry isn't changing his Parkinson's medications for the trip, they will need to time them carefully, a feat made trickier by the multiple time zones. And Barbara admits that she has more jitters than Jerry. "It's probably because of my feelings as a caregiver. I want him to stay healthy, and sometimes I can be an over-caregiver. I have to remind myself that he's doing fine and I need to back off."

Jerry's longtime friend and climbing partner, Roger Kimball, will also be joining them and Barbara is counting on him to set their pace and ignite Jerry's competitive spirit. Max's sister and another granddaughter will also be on hand to encourage on their grandfather.

"The support system is wonderful," says Barbara. "The money we've raised is so inspiring and motivating. The possibility of finding a cure is so much bigger than our trek."

To read more about the Carlsons' journey, or to donate, click here.

Inspired by this pursuit of a cure? Find your own Team Fox athletic adventure and help us climb closer to a world without Parkinson's.

Editor’s note: After the time of publication, the Carlson family had to postpone their trip due to a skiing injury. Jerry, Barbara, Kim and Max will pick up the challenge again in 2018.


Laura Amann is an award-winning freelance writer who contributes personal stories about living with Parkinson's to the MJFF blog.

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