For some climbers, like Eileen Colon, “Because it is there” just isn’t good enough. This time-honored rationale for the inordinate commitment to training, time, and danger was originally uttered by Englishman George Mallory, who died in 1924 on his third attempt to summit Mount Everest. It has since become the credo for many mountaineers, but not all.
For a special few, like Colon, mother of five and second-degree black belt in karate, high peak ascents are a means to a loftier goal. Colon plans to continue fighting her way up mountains to help defeat the egregiously expanding diseases of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. As part of a similarly motivated group called “The Regulars,” she is training for a June 28 assault on Mount Kilimanjaro — the highest peak in Africa, just a bit shy of 20,000 feet elevation. She does this not because she has a parent, friend, or relative afflicted with either disease. Colon holds a high level degree black belt in the under-lauded skill of caregiving.
This becomes evident the moment you enter the modest ranch house that is home to her, husband Angel, and sons David, Stephen, and Miguel, who still live at home. Five cribs engulf most of the small living room, extending from couch to the dining room table that doubles as her office. This is the Colon daycare center, involving infants as young as three weeks. Parents seeking the care required for the very youngest of children entrust them to her each morning, starting about 7 a.m. Shortly after the boys go off to school, Angel backs his pickup truck out to service the clients of his landscaping business, and Eileen is left alone to tend her charges until the final pickup, usually around 4:45 p.m., just before Angel returns from his second job at Firmenich International.
Colon, 51, radiates to these parents a kind of solid, warm capability that sets them at ease. She sports a broad, knowing grin, and a gentle, practical resolution of manner. It bespeaks that which we, romantically perhaps, attribute to farm women who seem ever calm, wise, and have always seen — and casually brushed aside — problems worse than the current one. Besides, the achievement of whipping her boys into successful shape makes for an impressive resume indeed.
Yet if you are looking for a truly worthy individual to tend your most precious infant during your working hours, you might be disappointed. Eileen Colon Bencivengo does not appear in either the white or yellow pages of the phone book. “When I first began in this business, the calls flooded in,” she says. “Parents were obsessing about their kids. They became irritatingly pushy — always checking, demanding, calling. So I keep my phone unlisted.”
Nor does Colon’s daycare advertise. In fact, the business has no official name. After registering with the state as a home care giver, several years ago, Colon briefly listed her services with a few agencies. That lifted the gate on the steady stream of clients, who pass on praise by word of mouth and keep Colon’s cribs always filled. In this way, she operates an entrepreneur’s envy — a chance to continually work on the service, without worrying about new customers.
A native of the Trenton area, Colon is the cousin of Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo. Her mother worked in a blouse factory and her father was a manager in the luggage department at the defunct E.J. Korvette’s department store in Trenton. “They are definitely where I get my strength from,” Colon says. “My mom always looked adversity in the face. My dad always encouraged me. I pull my strength from the two of them. I don’t think they would have climbed mountains but my passion and my compassion derives from them, especially my mom.”
Colon’s passion to raise the flag and don the hiking boot against both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s sprung out of her own parental concern. “You’ve got kids flipping around on MySpace, and you just want to get a little bit of an understanding of what they are getting into. So I signed on,” she recalls.
It was this same kind of hands-on child rearing that led her into the karate ghia that she now fastens with a black belt. “All the boys loved karate from as early as age four,” says Colon. “And one day, while watching the lessons, another mother and I decided to get involved and take a class.”
That was more than 10 years ago. The other mother soon dropped out, but Colon became passionate and stayed on. In fact, when we caught her amid all the Kilimanjaro training and preparation, she was planning a three day “vacation” to karate camp to shoot for her third degree black belt. The boys have almost gotten over their embarrassment of having mother on the mat.
But Colon’s just-to-monitor entry into MySpace was to expand her life in ways never imagined. Grabbing those few moments of relative calm during her daycare days, she went online and began meeting friends. One of them was Jim Brenner from the New York area. In 2006 Colon was preparing for participation in the three-day “Sixty Mile Walk for Breast Cancer.” At that time, she learned that Brenner, at the young age of 37, had been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s. Completing the breast cancer 60-miler, she began scouring the net and found New York’s annual Parkinson’s Unity Walk. With some hard browsing on MySpace, she formed a 27-person team calling themselves “Jim’s Gems,” complete with T-shirts.
The compassion snowballed. “All of the sudden a light went off in my head,” recalls Colon. Soon she had assembled a 300-person support team for Brenner. Through a friend of a friend of an Internet friend, Colon became introduced to Vincent “Enzo” Simone, founder of the Regulars. She fell in love with the sheer magnitude of his plan.
The Regulars, Simone explained to Colon in online chats, were a group that has undertaken the immense challenge of climbing 10 of the world’s highest peaks in 10 years, beginning with France’s famed Mont Blanc and graduating, naturally, to the summit of Mount Everest. In addition to raising awareness and funds for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s cures, the Regulars hold a more individualistic goal. “You are your ultimate challenge.” It is the tattoo on Simone’s back, and he was reciting it to her. “We are a team, striving for a team goal — but climbing is very much individual.”
The Regulars insist that attaining new personal summits for a cause is not a proactive approach reserved for those rare, lifelong mountaineers. It could be achieved by regular folks. The team has already attempted Mont Blanc and summitted Cotopaxi in the Ecuadoran Andes. Why not, Simone asked Colon, join us for the eight remaining climbs beginning with the then-upcoming Mount Hood?
She signed onto the Regulars, adopting the team motto, “Together is One,” and was honored with her official team nickname — Strong Feather.
Since his youth Simone belonged to those elite legions of romantic adventurists who make regular pilgrimages to the tops of the Adirondack and White mountains of New England. Spare days from his Westchester, NY, architectural practice would invariably find him in his truck, heading for New Hampshire’s Mount Washington or Mount Marcy for quick scrambles up the trail. “Washington is like my first girlfriend,” Simone says. “The one who always stays in your head.”
In 2003 Simone learned of the jungled-over peak of “Wild Ali” (Kauai Island’s Alealau Mountain in Hawaii) whose pathless summit was dubbed the world’s highest rainforest. “When I read that its top had not been reached in 30 years,” says Simone, “that was all I needed to hear.” He spent three years making map, GPS, and helicopter reconnaissance, and in 2005 assembled an assault team of his climbing buddies who traditionally bore the name “Regulars.”
Just prior to his expedition preparation Simone’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, as her mother had been stricken years earlier. Then, shortly after, Simone’s father-in-law became stricken with Parkinson’s. “I right then decided to marry what I liked to do with what I needed to do,” says Simone.
The Regulars, having dwindled from nine to two, set out for Alealau Mountain’s summit in August 2005. The GPS produced an image like spaghetti, which represented the muck, mud, and primeval brush through which they fought. Finally the two climbers were forced to descend. Then, almost near safety, the two climbers heard voices:
“Are you the two guys climbing for Alzheimer’s?”
Two more had heard of their efforts and come to join in the fun. In the end Simone and his partner passed on their findings and descended. But the others, armed with their forerunners’ knowledge, did stagger to the top, breaking the unsummittable spell that had lasted three decades.
Quickly the team re-expanded and prepared for Mont Blanc, and then the Andes, which brought more members and publicity. The tight network of cyber space bonded the group daily through constant streams of E-mails, social networking, and cell phone calls.
All of this energy aided Colon as she put herself in training for this totally unknown adventure. Colon was a disciplined, passionate person, with an amazing instinct for caregiving. When her mother and father began to fail, she took them out of the nursing home and brought them to live with her husband and young children for five years.
It was only natural. Colon’s mother had done the same for her mother a generation prior. In the most practical, sensible manner, Eileen Colon just wants to help. But if a challenge is involved, so much the better.
Mountain climbing was a leap, though. Colon was a city girl, Trenton-area born and raised. “I had never seen a mountain except in pictures,” she says. “And then, in 2008, when I stood at the base of Mount Hood in Oregon, I looked at all that snow and height — I just said, ‘Wow! Do they really think I am going to climb that?’”
Strong Feather grew overwhelmed.
She had devoutly dedicated herself to her physical training, walking four, six, seven hours at a stint around the flat, horizontal lanes of Hamilton. Her legs were strong and her limbs were ready. Mentally, she brought the immense experience of karate’s ability to focus and drive on toward the achievement at hand. She was certainly excited and passionate about conquering the diseases.
But mountains stand strange, fierce, and amorphous. On the snows of 11,249-foot Mount Hood there exist no formulized responses to threat or challenge. What you can do must be blended and bartered against what may safely be done. Wthin a minute, conditions change and all bets are off.
She began the Mount Hood climbing school feeling bewildered. “They gave me this ice axe and told me to make a series of quick side steps down the slope, wearing this 65-pound pack,” says Colon. “I tried. It wasn’t right, and I just sat down, clinging into the snow, petrified.”
It took the instructor a half hour to talk Colon down off the slope. The next day, the remaining members of the team attempted a summit climb and were forced down by bad weather. In the end, everyone triumphed. A new personal achievement, not the summit, was the goal. It always had been.
Colon’s mountainside freezing response, actually, is quite typical for the totally uninitiated. But Strong Feather had gotten that far up the slope, and today heads for a new challenge completely undeterred.
On Sunday, June 28, Strong Feather and 11 other Regulars will shoulder their packs and head for Kilimanjaro. At just over three vertical miles, “Kili” takes its name from the Swahili meaning “little hill.” The group will take the Marango Route, which involves no technical climbing and affords the climbers nightly huts, but involves vast altitude changes and agonizingly steep slopes. This is where professional mountaineers preparing for Everest and K-2 come to train.
In mountaineering lure, the Seven Summits refer to the highest peak on each continent. Those whos set out to conquer them usually start with Australia’s 7,000-foot stump, Mount Kosciusko, then move onto Kilimanjaro because it is, compared to the remaining five summits, the easiest to summit. Just remember — that’s relative to peaks like Mont Blanc and Everest.
“No mountain is easy,” Colon says. “It doesn’t care who you are, or how experienced you may be, or how well you trained. If a mountain wants to open up on you it will. The best mountain climbers have had to descend Kilimanjaro due to altitude. I am going because I am able to, not because it is easy.”
Having experienced the terror that froze her in place on Mount Hood, Colon decided to steel her nerve and simply not acquiesce to fear in the face of Africa’s “little hill.”
“What’s different this time as opposed to Mt. Hood is that I got a taste of what it is like to stand on a mountain that I have never done before,” she says. “The fear factor was intense. I trained in November on Mt. Washington, which built my confidence, and I overcame that fear.” Having learned through her martial arts background that mental fitness is as important as the physical, Colon set her mind to Kili and is certain she will not change it now. “You always have to develop your mind no matter what endeavor you wish to accomplish,” she says.
She also says she is better prepared this year because her involvement with the Regulars and her desire to shed light on the diseases the group hopes to bring down have intensified her desire to summit Kilimanjaro
Juggling a business, a family, and a training regimen for Kili takes a lot of effort, Colon says. And a lot of time management. “I train after work, in the gym on the treadmill, fully elevated, and on elliptical and bike,” she says. “I used the machines to strengthen my legs and arms also; had a personal trainer last year who formulated a training plan for me and I stuck with it this year.”
Colon’s training plan involves walking or hiking with her daypack for as many as five hours at a time, usually on weekends, she says. She’s also trained by climbing bleachers and, of course, through karate.
“Everything is tricky when you work and are a mom but my boys are older and understand the importance of what I am doing,” she says. “They encouraged me alot to get out there on days I was feeling sluggish. “
Colon’s road to from Mount Hood’s fear to Kilimanjaro’s promise took her to New England first. Back in November Simone took the Kilimanjaro team on a mid-winter, midnight training climb up Mount Washington. The renowned Washington winds howled, hurling 17 inches of snow across the trail, and leaving the team to break through huge dunes of alternating powder and half-packed slush. Temperatures ranged from bitter to worse, and Colon cinched her balaclava (a hood with a large hole for vision) down so only the narrowest slit of eyes and nose lay exposed to the stabbing blast.
There is no easy route up Washington’s 6,288 feet, but Colon and the team made it up and down, in the dark, after a full day of driving to New Hampshire. Meanwhile, back at home, the endless walks, karate, and gym workouts continue. She bristles with justified confidence.
And an aspiration. “I would hope to see my boys come along with me next year when we climb Mt. Washington,” she says. “It is a dream of mine.”
Ten days prior to her trip to Kilimanjaro Colon’s Street Team hosted its expedition kickoff fundraiser cocktail party, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” at the Hamilton Manor Cellar. The goal — to raise $10,000 from the expected 200 guests and to provide Eileen Colon with some much needed adrenaline.
All the money goes to the Alzheimer’s and the Parkinson’s foundations. Not one penny of these funds goes to the Regulars, nor to Colon. The $7,000 for the trip, plus all her equipment expenses come wholly from her own pocket.
Like many Regulars climbers, Colon has collected a coterie of supporters — also considered part of the Regulars’ team. These angels help raise funds and bring the climbs and climbers further into public light. Colon originally asked her cousin, Karen Gibson, who owns the YKiKi Cafe in the Hamilton Area YMCA. She brought aboard her niece, Kathryn Hart, account director for ScopeMedical; Kathy Clemency, former owner of Route 130 South Restaurant; Hal English, vice-president of First Choice Bank in Robbinsville; and Karen Tunney, who works at Hamilton Manor.
“Each of these people has enormous networks throughout the community,” says Gibson. “Hal English has worked long and hard with (former Hamilton Mayor Glen) Gilmore. You would be amazed at how anxious people from everywhere are willing to help.”
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was also not without a certain celebrity sparkle. Famed country singer Loretta Hagen played live music at the festivities. Following her mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, Hagen turned, as so many have, to the Internet for support and connection. “Several of our group met her on the MySpace site,” says Gibson. Hagen has advocated for curative funding in several benefit concerts, including one on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
And the outreach goes on. The concept of fighting two diseases with 10 climbs totaling 44.5 vertical miles, in seven countries, in six continents, truly holds widescreen cinematic appeal. Backlight Productions has seen Simone’s and the Regulars’ epic struggle and is currently interviewing the team for a documentary that will be released in 2010. Global film distributor Tribecca Films has already contacted the group seeking development rights. Actress Lisa Gibbons, star of “Silent Witness” and “Bug Off!”, after losing her mother to Alzheimer’s, founded a fund raising foundation, and has agreed to take on the narration role. “There are 30 million families around this country suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. You cannot believe the outpouring of support we have all gotten. Everyone is so generous — they just need a place to focus that generosity,” says Colon.
Throughout the planning stages, Colon is constantly calculating how many people will become aware of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s threats. How much money can be raised to find cures and treatments? “When I get there, I will reach my hands up and touch God. And my mother.” she says.
Beyond “because the disease is there,” Colon’s reasons for her climbs and disease-battling passion remain a bit vaguely expressed. Like many instinctive caregivers and people of action, she probably spends little time analyzing the whys, and more time planning the hows. The motivating rationale with which Colon seems at ease is, “I do it for my kids, so they don’t have to face the danger of these diseases.”