It had been a lovely dinner party. The Slachmans, Frank and Joan, had a few couples over to their Sacramento, Calif., home for good food and good talk, an evening for them to slough off the white coats of responsibility as doctors — he a cardiac surgeon, she a pediatrician — and unwind.
Then the phone rang.
Now, a ringing phone at a doctor’s house sometimes carries a certain foreboding. But Frank answered, talked for a few minutes, then returned to the party his old affable self. Joan gave him a quizzical look.
“That was Mike Roberts,” he told her. “He’s putting together a [Mount] Everest team next year.”
Nothing more was said. The subject of Frank’s mountain climbing exploits — he had, by this time in 2006, climbed three of the world’s famous Seven Summits — was dropped in favor of other conversational threads. A half-hour later, out of nowhere, Joan turned to him across the table.
“You’re thinking of doing that, right?”
“No,” Frank answered. “I’ve already decided to do it.”
“No, you aren’t.”
Avoiding a scene, they waited until later, after the guests had left, to hash things out. They had been married a long time, knew each other well, loved their differences as much as their similarities.
Joan had an inkling that Frank hadn’t gotten mountain climbing out of his system, that he might try to summit the tallest peak on each continent, with Everest being the pinnacle. She also knew that when he took up an activity, he went all-out. The lion hunting in Africa, the bear hunting in Russia, the 1,000-pound marlin fishing off the Great Barrier Reef, the car racing, the marathon running and, now, the mountain climbing.
And Frank knew Joan, too. She is the tough, independent New Yorker who spoke her mind, took charge of the household and brooked no spousal foolishness.
“She told me, ‘You know, Frank, we’ve got three kids to put through college, and you have no business climbing Everest, because you aren’t a climber,’” Frank recalled. “It turned into a big argument.”
Followed by a truce.
A week later, at a dinner party at a friend’s house, mountain climbing came up again.
Joan announced to the table, “He is not a mountain climber! There’s Shasta right up the hill! There’s Half Dome right down the hill! He never goes and climbs those. Those aren’t big enough named mountains for him. He just goes and does the biggest ones. He has no business going to Everest. People who go to Everest have been mountain climbers their whole lives.”
Frank was stung. True, he had stumbled into the pursuit around his 50th birthday, climbing Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) with his son on a whim, scaling Aconcagua in Argentina (22,841 feet) on a dare and making the frigid ascent of Denali (20,320 feet) in Alaska, still naive to the dangers. Call him The Accidental Mountaineer, if you will, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t acquired knowledge and confidence along the way.
To have his wife dismiss him as something of a climbing dilettante seemed to diminish his accomplishments.
When the couple returned home that night, Frank turned to Joan.
“Set the alarm for 2 a.m.,” he said.
“I’m going to climb Half Dome tomorrow.”
“I’m going to shut you up.”
The next day, he drove to Yosemite, climbed one of the world’s most famous geologic extrusions and made it back in time to be at work at Mercy General Hospital the next day. A week later, he drove north and climbed Mount Shasta.
Point proven, apparently.
As Joan recalled, with a chuckle, “I was [ticked] off, let me put it that way. But at some point, something in me clicked that he’s going to do this no matter what. People ask me, ‘How do you let him do it?’ What do you mean, let him? The others (mountains) were annoying, but this (Everest) was the biggie. I finally realized he needed my full support. We didn’t want to lose him.”
In 2007, Slachman put his family life on hold, had his partners pick up his cardiac surgery load and, for 10 weeks, attempted Everest, at 29,035 feet, the world’s largest metaphor for striving. He made it as far as the final base camp at 24,000 feet before a major bout of dysentery left him too weak to summit.
Joan, concerned, flew halfway around the world to Kathmandu, Nepal, to meet him afterward. When she walked through customs and into the terminal where her husband, thinner and a little peaked, awaited, she froze.
Her first words?
“You son of a bitch, you’re going to go back, aren’t you?”
Well, of course he was. He’s Frank Slachman, dog-with-a-bone focused once he fixes his mind on something. “Some of us are adventurous; Frank’s an adventurer,” said his cardiac practice partner, John Dein.
Slachman conquered Everest in 2009, though not without complications. And, along the way, he scaled Elbrus in Russia (18,510 feet) and Kosciuszko in Australia (7,310 feet). Which brings him now to Mount Vinson, an icy 16,061-foot peak in Antarctica — his last of the Seven Summits.
Ask Slachman how it will feel to be one of only 275 mountaineers (at last count) to have ascended all seven, and he rubbed his temples and smiled.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll tell you if I do it.”
If, not when.
For a man who has bagged big game on the savannas, reeled in fish that weigh more than three sumo wrestlers and endured sheer cliff faces under harsh conditions, he doesn’t seem at all the macho mountain man type. Tall, trim and fit, his thinning hair more salt than pepper, he speaks in a mellow baritone and even slouches a little.
Don’t let his placid demeanor deceive, though. Slachman is nothing if not focused and relentless, whether it’s cracking open a patient’s chest and deftly wielding a scalpel or negotiating the knife edge of a Alpine ridge through a howling wind.
“He’s driven,” said climber Ron Cloud, a pharmacist in Redding who teamed with Slachman on Aconcagua and Denali. “You don’t do residencies at Stanford and then become a cardiovascular surgeon without having that drive. You must be incredibly headstrong and mentally tough in very uncomfortable situations, and Frank’s got that in aces.”
Joan had seen that in him, as well, but she initially thought it only extended to medicine. What she soon learned was that Frank threw himself into everything with such intensity.
“When I married him, I never figured it,” Joan said. “I mean, what nice Jewish boy from the Midwest hunts, you know? Although he’s a Catholic, his father was Jewish and he and his grandfather, they taught him how to hunt. And then there’s the cars. And now the mountain climbing.
“He’s so high-energy. These [surgeons] work long hours. He’d come home at 10 at night and go directly out in the garage to work on a car. How could you possibly have the energy? But once he’s got something in his head, he’s driven. It’s what makes him a good heart surgeon.”
A slight blush came to Frank’s cheeks when asked how his various passions play out at home. He acknowledged missing family time. Daughter Kelly, 25, and son Kip, 22, were still at home during his first few expeditions, and his youngest daughter, Katie, is 14.
“I’ve always done crazy, stupid things my whole life, and [Joan] knows that,” he said. “She says I’m narcissistic and all that.”
He shrugged. Later, he added, “She’s a very tolerant wife.”
Then he paused.
“I can’t really say that,” he continued. “I have to say that to a reporter, but she really isn’t. She yells at me about it. She’s a fiercely independent woman. She runs the house. If you ask me how much is in our bank account, I couldn’t even tell you. She’s far and away tougher, stronger and more outgoing than I am.”
Joan seems to take it all in stride.
“There’s the yin and yang in life, and that’s how we do it,” she said. “In the end, we both lasted 27 years together. We’re both Type A and like control. I’m not namby-pamby in terms of personality, not ‘Oh yes dear, whatever you want.’ That’s not me. I’ll speak up.
“Do I run the house? Somebody has to do it if [Frank] is gone [in Nepal] for 10 weeks every two years. Our kids worry about him, and [I] have to be there for them. But we’re pretty confident in him. He’s not a stupid guy. He’s not reckless.”
Clearly, he has acumen. Early on — after Kilimanjaro in 2002 but before Aconcagua in late 2003 — he and Dein climbed Mount Rainier in Washington state, spur of the moment. Neither had trained.
“We made it all the way to the top,” Dein said. “I was getting sorer and sorer, but Frank was like a little kid, almost skipping down the mountain. I think he was forming this [Seven Summits quest] in his mind even then.”
Not so, Slachman maintains. Kilimanjaro was just father-son bonding time after the hunting safari in Tanzania. The idea for Aconcagua came from an intensive-care unit nurse who gave Slachman Dick Bass’ seminal book about the Seven Summits. Scaling Denali in 2006 was Cloud’s idea. The two had met on Aconcagua and bonded.
Recalling his early days in climbing, Slachman said, “I didn’t read Alpinist magazine; I just wasn’t into that. I didn’t really know the gear. I’d go to REI and say, ‘I need the best boots I can buy.’ I didn’t know from Adam.”
With experience came a measure of confidence. After Denali, Slachman conceded that “Maybe I am sort of a mountaineer. … I thought, now I’ve really done something in my life.”
One reason, perhaps, that Slachman has been reluctant to accept the mantle of “mountaineer” is this ironic fact: He’s afraid of heights.
“A mortal fear of heights,” he amended. “I can’t look down. I can’t go on a ladder and change a light bulb in the ceiling of my house. I can’t go clean gutters and hang Christmas lights. I’m dead serious.”
So, was climbing a mountain a way to confront and overcome acrophobia?
“No, I just don’t look down,” he said.
Then he proceeds to tell riveting tales of high-altitude exploits that belie his phobic claim.
On Denali he scaled a nasty ice sheet called the Headwall, a 60-degree slope. Had he looked down from the top, he would’ve seen a 4,000-foot expanse of nothingness below.
Two years later, on his successful ascent of Everest, he found himself in even more dire straits. The group was resting at 26,000 feet, when climbing legend Vernon Tejas, the team leader, warned of a severe storm coming. If they wanted to summit, Tejas said, they needed to leave immediately and trudge all night, racing the weather.
It was risky and, before leaving, Slachman used a satellite phone to call Joan, telling her: “I feel absolutely perfect. If I don’t make the summit, I still feel like I’ve given it my best shot.”
Joan was worried, naturally. But what could she say at that point?
“It’s funny,” she said. “I tried to get more life insurance on him when he went [to Everest] the first time, and the only agent that would insure him was Lloyd’s of London. They said they’d give me a million-dollar policy just for 10 weeks. The cost was $250,000. I said, ‘Well, you guys aren’t giving him very good odds, are you?’”
He made the summit, stayed only long enough to get photos taken, then hustled back down. The storm tore through their base camp, but he made it safely off the mountain.
Next month’s Vinson ascent figures not to be nearly as harrowing. But, as Frank said, you never know. Joan, for her part, is more worried about the post-Seven Summit Frank.
“I’m not sure what he’s going to try next,” she said, sounding both wary and weary.
Whatever it is, she’ll endure.
“He is who he is,” she said.