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Top of the World
Francis Slakey Is a Physicist With the Soul of an Adventurer and a Passion for High Places.
FRANCIS SLAKEY IS A "HIGH" HUNTER. THE 38-YEAR-OLD ROCK climber and mountaineer has climbed the highest mountain on six of the world's seven continents, including Vinson Massif in Antarctica and Everest in Nepal. Fewer than 70 people have ever climbed all seven. In 2000, Slakey became the 28th American to reach the top of Everest, helping to cart down tons of trash from the littered mountain. For Slakey, life is about enjoying a moment of euphoria, then taking off for the next rush.
"Imagine seeing a play at the Shakespeare Theatre and afterward feeling how intense and gripping it was," he says. "Say it was so intense it stays with you for a week. Well, when you're 2,000 feet off the ground, dangling from a rope with nothing but air below your feet, there's no better drama on the planet."
When he's not suspended in air or hugging the face of a mountain, Slakey usually can be found behind a white curved desk in a sunny office at the American Physical Society, a group that represents physicists. He wears a tie. Tufts of black curls frame rectangular eyeglasses. A model rocket stands on his desk, an emblem of his other passion—physics. A dry-erase board lists senators he needs to bring on board a bill he's lobbying for.
But Slakey is telling stories of a recent climb at Yosemite National Park, where he scaled El Capitan, a 3,000-foot granite cliff. It took three days to get to the top. Two nights were spent sleeping with a partner on a four-by-six-foot portable platform hanging off the stone wall at elevations higher than the Sears Tower.
"It's the best night of sleep you'll ever have," he says. "You'd be surprised how still you sleep."
SLAKEY'S PASSION FOR HIGH PLACES HAS TAKEN HIM TO SOME of the world's most exotic locales. And he doesn't just go to climb—he wants to learn about the people who live in the terrain he surveys from the summit.
When he went to Tanzania in 1997 to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, he pushed up the 19,340-foot mountain, finishing the ascent in a week rather than the three he and his climbing partner had allotted. Back in town, he struck up a conversation with a man in a coffeehouse and within a few hours was on his way to a Masai village, where he was invited by the tribal elder to live for a week. For breakfast he drank cow's blood and milk. In the afternoons he went on walkabouts in the African savanna alongside men with spears.
Though Slakey recounts his travels with the perspective of an anthropologist, he earned his undergraduate degree in physics at Georgetown University and his PhD at the University of Illinois. He says it was living in the flat Midwest that made him crave mountains. In addition to his lobbying job, he teaches physics one night a week at Georgetown.
After climbing the 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus near Eastern Europe's Russian border, Slakey decided to hitchhike across Asia for six weeks. When he got to Uzbekistan, he stopped in a pub where he drank shots of vodka with an Uzbek Muslim who talked in broken English.
"I asked him how he could drink as a Muslim and still be holy in the eyes of Allah," says Slakey. "He told me, 'I am a Muslim in my heart, not a political Muslim.' "
SLAKEY'S FATHER, ROGER, A PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH WHO REtired from Georgetown in 2000, loves listening to his son's stories. But Francis, who carried the Olympic torch through the District in recognition of his climbing accomplishments, suspects his passion worries his father. He is the only adventure-seeking member of his family—his mother died of cancer when he was nine, and he has two older brothers, one a manager for American Airlines, the other an orthopedic surgeon with the US Navy.
Slakey lives in a bachelor apartment in DC's Adams Morgan. He doesn't climb much locally, he says, but admits that he has secretly scaled one of Washington's tallest landmarks. In August he will hike up the seventh of the world's highest peaks, Indonesia's Carstensz Pyramid.
He stays in touch with climbing buddies all over the world via e-mail. "One once told me, 'The summit is just a place to turn around,' " he says. That was after his first try at climbing Mount McKinley, a 20,320-foot challenge in Alaska's Denali National Park, was foiled 500 feet from the summit when blizzard conditions closed in. The pair succeeded the next year in perfect weather; from the summit they peered down on mountains of white rolling into valleys of green as far as the eye could see.
Turning back, Slakey says, is one of the hardest aspects of climbing. Avoiding this decision is why so many who have attempted Everest's peak have perished. When Slakey was climbing Everest in 2000, a blizzard hit just as he reached the summit. Atop the highest mountain in the world, there was zero visibility—all Slakey could see was white.
Climbing a mountain isn't about gaining a great view, he says—that's an added bonus. It's about the challenge that the elements thrust upon you. It's about surviving. It's about discovering who you are.
"There's no better mirror into the self," Slakey says, "than below-zero temperatures and a broken stove." *
One of Washington's tallest landmarks (we're not supposed to say where thispicture was taken) makes for anirresistible climb.