Turning 60 – A Look Back

Alan holding a picture of Ida Arnette on the summit of Mt. Elbrus

At 6:24 am July 27, 1956, Ida and James Arnette named their new son Alan. Now on July 27, 2016, 60 years later that same human is climbing Longs Peak, the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park to fulfill his passion of climbing and his purpose of raising awareness and research funds for Alzheimer’s – which took his mother, Ida, and three aunts – Chris, Kay and Carolyn.

Oh my, what a journey! At 20, I thought how old 60 would be. Now at 60, I think how young 20 was and how much I have learned.

Alan Birth Certificate

As I reflect on my youth, I have nothing but good lessons to glean – even from bad times. Today, 2016, we remiss about a simpler time but life is often what we make of it.

Living in Memphis, my parents both worked to pay the mortgage on our home that was built in 1952. My brother was born a couple of years before me and our parents, Jim and Ida, focused their entire lives around a better life for us than they had. While this is often referred to as the ‘American Dream’, I have seen the same dreams from parents around the world.

Jim and Ida worked hard. Neither had graduated high school. Both loved their families. And their sons. They shared their values, never shied away from righting a wrong and learned right along with my brother and me. Together we were a family.

First Years: Values

My first ten years were filled with playing baseball in the front yard, hide and seek as night came on, hot and humid Memphis summers, being bored to death in elementary school and trips to Western Kentucky to see my Grandmother. There we played in the hayloft, chased my cousins in the cemetery across the dirt road from her farmhouse and generally lived a life like a kid is supposed to have.

I was a fun-loving, wild kid who was always getting into something. Mischievous might be the word, annoying another word perhaps! My mom never hesitated to bring me back in line. The fights I had with my brother were monumental!

And when I look back at pictures of those years, I was always smiling. Maybe it was the love I felt, or perhaps the gift of living in that time, oblivious to the Vietnam War, segregation, women rights and world events.

I remember having to get off the couch to change the TV channel and watching the early manned space shots – each liftoff an event.

Looking back at that time, I learned basic values of kindness and gratitude for what my parents provided.

Teenage Lessons – work, competition, and leadership

My teenage years were a time of understanding the value of work.

Ken, my brother,  discovered chemistry and almost blew up the house as a teenager. I discovered Boy Scouts and was exposed to the outdoors that lead to my climbing passion today. I became a Scout Leader, my first lessons in motivating others to strive for and achieve their maximum human potential.

As a teenager growing up in Memphis, I experienced racial integration first hand as students from Melrose High School were bussed to Overton High School, against their wishes. It was a turbulent experience where I, personally, came to understand and appreciate my fellow students. And it was a time of turmoil where others were forced to change and it felt like everyone fought against the very purpose of the action.

I have a clear and complete memory of April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated just miles from where I lived. “Will they come for us?” I asked my parents as a scared 12-year-old.

I am a manThe trash collectors had been wearing the sign ”I Am A Man” to protest low wages and poor working conditions. I only understood their meaning a decade later.

In the 1960s, Memphis had two newspapers. I began my business career at the age of 12 by delivering the afternoon paper, The Memphis Press-Scimitar. I clearly remember “throwing” papers in the deluge of hurricane Camille that dumped inches of rain hundreds of miles beyond the destruction of the Florida panhandle. A few years later my Boy Scout group would visit the devastation at Gulfport, Mississippi. It was a rare Class 5 storm but today we have many.

I learned from delivering newspapers about fiscal responsibility and with a monthly $400 bill, how to do collect payments door to door, deal with deadbeats and stop delivery of those who didn’t pay. 97% of my customers were honest but the 3% tried to cheat me out of the $2.75 a month bill. I learned about marketing. Every Christmas I added a newsletter about their Paper Boy along with their bill. Most Christmas, I received over $500 in tips!

firebirdBut working hard paid off as I bought a brand new Pontiac Firebird when I turned 16. I switched to a morning newspaper route then a driving route so I could earn more money, faster. I was bringing in $600 a month and started paying taxes.

In addition to discovering what money could, I also discovered the gentler gender. I fell deeply in love, got hurt, invented the three-date rule and enjoyed dates with dinner at Arby’s, movies at the Malco Theater, and Audubon Park late at night.

I discovered the joy of competing when I ran track in High School – my event was what was called the 440 then. I learned how to push myself hard, not give up  – even when I was far behind. I loved to win and learned from losing.

To our parent’s genuine pleasure and pride, both of their sons graduated from college; Ken with a BS in Chemistry and me with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Ken was an outstanding student, graduating Manga Cum Lade and to go on to receive Ph.D.’s in Chemistry and Psychology.

I started college as a pre-med student wanting to be a veterinarian but changed to Electrical Engineering after my freshman year. I just didn’t understand why I had to learn botany and memorize the taxonomy of living things: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species – Oh My!

But I did get electrons and the “right-hand rule” for how electricity flows and how to write software. I bought an Apple II at age 18 creating quite a stir at the bank when I took out a loan to build credit. “Why in the world would you want a computer?”, the loan officer asked. I just smiled.

I was extremely busy with my day starting at 3:00 am to deliver newspapers and selling high-end stereos at Modern Music in the afternoon. After my false start and a five-year program, I barely got my BSEE, graduating at the “Thank ya Lordy”  level as compared to my smart brother!

Looking back to those ten years, they were perhaps the most educational of my entire life. I learned about hard work, rewards, honesty, and the ugly side of humanity with assassinations, war, cheaters, liars, and thieves.

Twenties: Momentum

My twenties were truly a time of coming to age.

I went to work for Hewlett-Packard as a Sales Engineer. I did well. I sold ‘technical’ computers to Engineers for data acquisition, then ‘commercial’ computers for MRP, payroll and database applications. Technology was exploding and I rode the power curve to rise thru the ranks into Management as the youngest Sales Manager in the history of HP at that time.

Living in Dallas in the 1980s was like riding a wild horse. Everything was alive, exciting and challenging. Continuing to work as hard as I had as a teenager, I bought my first house, then moved and moved again leveraging the rising stock and real estate markets. And I got married. I was checking off the list as fast as possible, not taking time to breath – I had things to do.

These ten years were a whirlwind. If I take away anything from that time, it was that I got totally trapped by the activity trap when I often confused motion with progress. I learned about Cancer – melanoma to be precise. It attacked my wife, preventing us from starting a family. But we had the BMW, house, boat and were living the life in Dallas Texas.

Thirties: Diversity

My thirties became a time of sorrow, exploration and the beginning of a passion.

Moving from Dallas to Ft. Collins with HP, my work life continued to be a swirling maelstrom all revolved around work. I continued to rise in the management ranks and I got divorced – it hurt. My large extended family of aunts and uncles started to die in the old age. I rarely attended their funerals due to flying all around the world for my job racking up the frequent flyer points like candy – but I never ate the candy.

AmsterdamOne day in 1995, my phone rang at work – a desk phone with a cord that is :). “We want you to move to Amsterdam and open up a call center for consumer support services, and we want you to shut down all the in-country centers from Russia to South Africa, Germany and all over Europe. Are you up to it?” Under the category of ignorance is bliss, this now single American rented out his house in Ft. Collins said goodbye to his girlfriend and flew to Schiphol Airport for another amazing ride in life.

But I had forgotten something and flew back to Colorado to marry my girlfriend. We lived the next five years in Amsterdam and then moved to Geneva, Switzerland for a promotion where I began running HP’s consumer support for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Flying to a different European country each week, I saw a new world. I began to understand differences were not a problem but an opportunity to learn. I listened carefully as I worked with a Tower of Babel of cultures to solve problems. And I learned about national pride.

Shutting down operations across Europe to centralize them in Amsterdam made good business sense but it infuriated each country organization. Managing tight expenses with outstanding customer satisfaction against call volumes growing 100% a month became almost impossible. I became a target from all sides but was in my zone – work, challenge, and leadership.

I loved nothing more than standing in front of a packed room of employees telling them that together we were going to get this thing done – make a difference. We would meet all expectations and I believed in them. And we won – for a while.

One late July day, a French employee came to my desk, located in the middle of a large room – HP had no private offices. “See you in September.” She said with joy. “I’m off on holiday.” “What happened to August?” I asked perplexed. “Oh, you are an American who loves to work. We Europeans take time to breathe while also working hard.”

I pondered her comments as I flew somewhere I can’t remember now that next week. With six months of vacation accrued (in those days you could keep unused vacation with no limits), I began to explore the world. We traveled for two weeks to Italy, took a family vacation to Greenland, a week cruise down the coast of Norway … and I climbed Mont Blanc. My world changed forever that day in July 1995.

I fell in love with the snow, with the climbing tools, the brisk feeling of cold wind in my face, squinting as a harsh sun made me sweat then rushing to put on a jacket as cloud moved in. A seed planted during my time as a Boy Scout and on family vacations in Colorado was awakened. It started to grow and soon I was holding onto it’s swaying branches for the time of my life.

Yes, my thirties were an amazing time of change. I learned more about business each day in Europe than a year in the States. I learned to value the diversity of culture, race, religion, gender, and thought. And I learned how to live.

Forties: Survival

The forties brought me back to Colorado but I was like Tarzan swinging on vines in the jungle and all of a sudden I lost the next vine and fell to the jungle floor hard.

HP became a big ugly company with multiple CEOs and drifted in a sea of random strategies, fierce competition, and constant reorganizations. I had lost my US network while in Europe – a mistake. I also drifted from various jobs but landed as a General Manager in a start-up within HP. It was fun. I traveled again, pushed my team hard, and fought to keep a life of balance: work, family and myself.

Alan and JimBased in Ft. Collins, I was rarely home during the week. And on the weekends, I climbed my beloved 14,000 foot Colorado peaks aka the 14ers. My cadre’ of climbing partners grew. We loved to climb anything. One special friend, Jim, brought me under his wing to teach me about ice climbing. Another, Paul, about rock climbing. And Patrick and Robert and I ticked off the 14ers like shooting skeet discs.

The early 2000s became a time of turmoil. Fear and threats were used as motivation. Everyone was held “accountable”. Any semblance of faith, hope and love seem to be swept away in an environment of greed, hurt and hate. My life balance became skewed.

Unlike my thirties, my forties were about surviving, not living. I learned the harsh realities of big business, the greed from banks, the total cruelty that comes from disease.

And I learned to climb big mountains and what they could teach me.  I began to use climbing as a coping mechanism. I was not very good, but I was determined.

I trekked to Everest Base Camp in 1997 – it changed a critical part of my life. I attempted an 8000-meter mountain and summited a 22,000-foot technical pointy peak in Nepal called Ama Dablam. When I was on a mountain I felt alive. When fighting to live, I felt alive. While on the summit, everything came together. I had found my passion in life.

In 2002, I attempted Everest and didn’t summit, I went again in 2003 with the same result. I learned a lot but not enough and I kept on climbing – each year brought another serious climb.

Fifties: Change and Acceptance

With my work life in turmoil, I entered my fifties. And the learning and the changes continued.

JIm and Ida 20022006 was a difficult year. We built a new house and another but then 2008 came along and once again, I felt the sting of situations totally out of my control. The stock market crashed, the housing market crashed. I lost my job running digital cameras because we missed one out of five new product introductions.

And the biggest blow of all was the day my mom, Ida, looked at me over a hot cup of coffee and said “Now, who are you again.?

Ida was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the same month my dad, Jim, died.

I found myself looking for jobs, caring for my mom and fighting to keep my marriage alive. Once again, mountains provided a refuge, a safe place where I could live, place where I could think deeply about who I was, where I wanted to go – what I wanted my life to become.

Max and MimiI also discovered that cats can be man’s friend if you let them be that way.

I watched Ida slowly drift away. But I could always reach her with the values she had instilled in me – humor, kindness, and love. We sat for hours quietly together. Me remembering being in the kitchen as a teenager asking her questions about life and the world – “Mom, what is the stock market? What is the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist? Is Cancer contagious?” and a billion more.

As we sat together near the end of her life, Ida would be lost in thought then suddenly ask me if she had eaten breakfast.

It was hard, it was devastating, it was unacceptable.

HP offered early retirement in 2007 and I took it. Being over 50 in high-technology was like walking in a war zone with a target on your back. It was just a matter of time until you got a ‘window seat’, laid off or simply fired. I took their money and ran – to the mountains.

Ida died in 2009.

Alan on the summit of Everest May 21, 2011 5:00AM
Alan on the summit of Everest May 21, 2011 5:00AM

In 2011, I did my first big campaign to raise awareness and money for Alzheimer’s – The 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer’s: Memories are Everything. I was gone for 201 days, flew 116,000 miles and crossed 120 time zones that year. I summited all eight of the Seven Summits except Denali where weather won. Johnson & Johnson had sponsored the entire campaign and I am forever grateful. However, most importantly, I reached 35 million people and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Alzheimer’s non-profits.

I had found my purpose.

Now with the intersection of passion and purpose, my life began to have meaning again. But more sorrow as I got divorced. The stress of houses, jobs, money, climbing … life had taken their toll and I had dealt with some it poorly.

At age 57, I had a new thought. With my summit of Everest and the success of the Alzheimer’s campaign, why not try K2? I told one friend and he stopped dead in his tracks as simply said “Are you crazy? 1 out of every 4 who summit die on that peak, and then there is the terrorism in the area and the wars….”

Alan K2 SummitMy mind was made up, now all I needed was a sponsor. I summited Manaslu late 2013 was dreaming of K2 when I got an email from Deb at Sol Marketing in Austin. She wanted to know if I knew a climber looking for a sponsor ….

Almost a year later, on July 27, 2014 – my 58th birthday – I stood on the summit of K2 proudly holding the banner of my sponsor, Abila and a picture of my mom. We raised $70,000 in just over 4 weeks and I became the 18th and oldest American to summit K2 – and I almost died.

Sixties: Purpose and Passion

So today, I am standing on the summit of Longs Peak, 14,259 feet – where it all began. I am looking over the Colorado high plains and the surrounding Rocky Mountains. And I am grateful.

I am grateful for all the people in my life who cared enough to be my friend. I am grateful to those of loved me enough to be my wife. I am grateful to those who believed in me to share their life energy with me when I need it the most. I am grateful to have lived in a time of constant change, opportunities to learn, fall, get up again and do better.  I am grateful to those who deeply love and care about me today and the difference you make by just being part of my life.

I enter my 7th decade in a scary world. I don’t believe in hatred, I don’t believe in violence and I don’t believe in war. I believe we are all equal and have individual rights that cannot be taken away by anyone. I believe we each have the mandate to live life to the fullest, take risks and love with passion. I believe each of us can make a difference. I believe we accept what life gives, blame no one and own our choices. I believe in you, and I believe in me.

And I’m not done yet.

Alan Arnette on his 60th birthday on the summit of Longs Peak, 14259' in Colorado
Alan Arnette on his 60th birthday on the summit of Longs Peak, 14259′ in Colorado

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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14 thoughts on “Turning 60 – A Look Back

  1. Well said Alan. Off to Aconcagua late January, then maybe Cho next year. Hope you’re climbing and enjoying it all. David

  2. Alan, was glad to see that scouting was a part of your life. I am 63 and the years as a scout in rural West Virginia shaped me in ways I never knew until I was older and could look back. Thanks for this post on how you got to where you are today as now we understand where you came from.

  3. Wow! I see more than ever, why we connected. Thank you for sharing your path, your journey, ups and downs, perspective & lessons learned. So few find their true purpose in life. I’m glad you found yours. xo

  4. Happy birtday. A bit late, but never too late. Hope you will keep on writing for years!!
    The Netherlands

  5. Happy Birthday Alan!

    I have been following your adventures for many years, read about your happy and sad times, about why you do what you do and alot about your mother Ida.

    You are a true insperation to the whole world Alan, keep up the great work that you do, your muther would be so proud.

    Mount Everest Facts

  6. You are such an inspiration to so many. Love this reflection post. It’s hard to believe all our classmates are turning 60!? How is that even possible? Thank you for fighting against Alzheimer’s. Memories of conversations with my dad are eerily similar to yours… us sitting at the dinner table with plates dirtied from the spaghetti we had just eaten, my dad sighed and said “I’m hungry. Is it almost time for supper?”

    Climb on, enjoy life, and thanks for sharing your stories! (OHS Class of 74)

  7. Happy Birthday Alan.. you’re a great ambassador for all that’s good in the world.

  8. Happy Birthday Alan , Thank you for all you do . For all the great blogs and stories. Enjoy your favorite summit today! Most of all ,be safe and happy.

  9. Wishing you a very happy birthday, with many more to come. This biography was fascinating and your work makes a difference in the world. Thank you for all you do, and for your fine spirit and writing!

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