Volume 79, Number 29 | December 23 - 29, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Donald Healy climbing Denali, in Alaska, above, and at home in Greenwich Village, inset.

Senior’s hip to climb Everest, after getting hip replacement

By Albert Amateau

Donald Healy first got into mountaineering about three years ago when he turned 61. He hopes to reach the summit of Mt. Everest by the time his 65th birthday rolls around in May of next year.

Healy, who lives in the West Village with his wife, Joyce, and runs a successful sign-manufacturing business, climbed Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley), in Alaska, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet, last June as a tune-up for the assault on the Himalayan peak, the tallest on earth at 29,035 feet.

“I’ve always wanted to mountain climb, but I never even worked out much,” he told a visitor last week. When he was 10 years old, he read “The Conquest of Everest” from cover to cover — the book about the 1953 ascent to the summit of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

He remained an armchair mountaineer until May 2006 when he thought it was the now-or-never time to really do it. 

“I did research on mountain climbing, joined Chelsea Piers and got a trainer to get in shape,” he said.

Healy’s wife, a cycling enthusiast, was taken aback when he told her he wanted to climb Everest. 

“It was more than a surprise, it came out of nowhere. I said ‘You want to do WHAT?’” she told the visitor. 

“My two kids [a son, 30, and a daughter, 23,] think I’m nuts, too,” Healy said.

Nevertheless, Healy remains focused on mountaineering. In late March 2007 he joined a group making a three-day ascent (up and back) of Mt. Washington, the windswept, 6,288-foot peak in New Hampshire; and in April he went out to Washington State for a six-day ascent of the 10,781-foot Mt. Baker in the Northern Cascades.

“I realized that I needed more aerobic work and went back to the gym,” he recalled. “I was in my 60s and the average age of the other climbers was about 30. Even guides retire when they’re 45 or 50,” Healy said.

Healy signed on for a climb of Mt. Rainier, the 14,411-foot peak in Washington, to start Aug. 8, 2007 — but fate in the form of a bicycle accident intervened.

“I decided to take a three-day bike trip in New Hampshire with my wife,” Healy recalled. He was accelerating down a steep hill with Joyce following him when his helmet flew off, his bike slid down sideways with him under it and scraping his entire left side on the asphalt of a mountain road. 

“I didn’t know what happened or if anything was broken,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of the middle of the road. It was a good thing Joyce was riding behind me. She flagged down a guy who called 911.”

At the small hospital in North Conway, N.H., he learned he had fractured the ball-and-socket joint of his left hip. 

“It’s ski country and the orthopedic doctors are good,” Healy said. “They gave me a couple of options and I chose getting the leg pinned — there was a 40 percent chance that it would heal without further surgery.”

He was able to get around on crutches and went on a September cruise of the Mediterranean with Joyce. But by Sept. 23, 2007, he knew the leg wasn’t healing. When he returned home, doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital said he needed a total hip replacement. Healy researched hip surgery like he researched mountaineering. 

“Do you know that the ball-and-socket joint of the average male makes about 1 million cycles a year?” Healy asked his visitor. He decided to go to the Hospital for Special Surgery, where Dr. Thomas P. Sculco replaced the hip. Healy described the process, showing X-ray pictures of his own hip. It involves carving a new socket in the hip, lining it with ceramic and inserting a titanium pin in the femur with a ceramic ball that articulates in the new socket.

The day after his surgery, Healy said, he was walking with a cane and was ready to attend physical therapy.

“I didn’t want to let go of all that training, and the doctor said he thought I’d be able to climb again,” Healy said.

He left the hospital Oct. 19 and began two months of therapy at Fusion Physical Therapy on W. 13th St. in the Meatpacking District. It was an intense, three-day-a-week course.

Three months after the hip replacement, Healy was on a mountain again, the Gros Piton, a step rock of 2,600 feet on St. Lucia. 

“The hip worked O.K.,” he said of the Jan. 17, 2008, Caribbean climb. About 10 weeks later, he tried snow and ice, climbing the 5,799-foot Mt. Adams in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range.

Less than a year after the accident sidetracked his first attempt to scale Mt. Rainier, on June 14, 2008, he found himself climbing the 14,411-foot Washington peak.

“We got to 12,500 feet, and didn’t go to the top because of avalanche conditions,” Healy said.

A grueling test followed in the Ecuadorean Andes in November — spring in the tropic latitudes. Healy joined a party that went up Cayambe, 18,996 feet, on Nov. 14, and on Nov. 18 he and his party reached the summit of Cotopaxi, at 19,347 feet. 

“The descent of Cotopaxi was steep and you tend to lean back parallel to the slope,” Healy said. “But that’s completely wrong — the guides yell, ‘Stand up straight.’ You have to be perpendicular to the slope so your crampons bite into the ice.”

On Nov. 21, Healy’s party began climbing the 20,701-foot-high Chimborazo in the Ecuadorean Andes. 

“We turned back at 19,500 feet. It was our third climb in a week, we were tired and the weather turned bad. So we did some rock climbing at a lower level near Chimborazo,” he said. One learns to be pretty cautious regarding weather and physical condition, Healy noted.

Joyce joined him on a trek to the Kilimanjaro summit [Uhuru Peak at 19,340 feet] in Tanzania on Feb. 15 this year. 

“You don’t need mountaineering skills for Kilimanjaro, but on the last day it’s eight hours to the summit and five or six hours down to the lower camp,” Healy said.

In March of this year, Healy did some ice climbing at Mt. Washington — “Really fun,” he said.

The next big test was the June 2-22 climb of Alaska’s Denali. 

“You have to carry about 135 pounds of gear, food for 20 days — 65 pounds on your back and another 65 or 75 pounds on a sled for most of the way up the Kahiltna Glacier,” he said. The climb is in stages, with a base camp at 14,000-feet elevation and a high camp at 17,200 feet.

“You can really only do about 1,000 feet a day, and you have to take a couple of days to get used to the altitude,” he explained. “On summit day, you don’t carry much at all. It’s nine hours up and four hours down to the camp.”

Denali, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America and its ascent is required of Everest climbers.

Healy is, of course, aware of the danger of mountaineering, and he knows of the tragic death of Clifton Maloney, the husband of Congressmember Caroline Maloney, 71, who died Sept. 25 at a base camp after reaching the summit of Cho Oyu, the 27,000-foot Himalayan peak.

Mountaineering is a costly sport, even for the affluent. Everest is especially expensive. It costs about $65,000 for each member of a climbing party, of which $10,000 or more goes to the Nepalese government, and nearly another $65,000 for transportation, tips for Sherpas and other costs, Healy said. He hopes to get sponsors to help him defray the expense. 

“I think I’m the only person with a hip replacement to climb Everest,” he said, noting his intention to ask the manufacturers of the hip hardware to sponsor his Everest project. Healy will also solicit Chelsea Piers, where he has been getting into top shape for Everest’s 29,035-foot (5.5-mile elevation) climb.

Healy is putting together a Web site — www.HipHopEverest.com — which he hopes to put online in January. 

“I’m thinking of writing a piece entitled, ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Everest,’ ” he quipped.

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