Reaching New Heights
By Emily Silber
Anthony McClaren was huddled inside his tent when the weather turned sheets of snow crashed down, and winds gusted at 40 miles per hour. It was New Year’s Eve, 2017, and the next morning he intended to summit Argentina’s 22,841-foot Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside Asia.
A Los Angeles lawyer by day, McClaren didn’t even consider giving up when the conditions got treacherous. “I’m drawn to anything that’s difficult,” he says, “because the reward of success is so much more meaningful.” And this time, cold and alone on the side of a mountain in Argentina, the thrill-seeker was being driven by something else: his father, Jerry McClaren.
Jerry was a strict, stubborn man who rarely displayed emotion traits honed, perhaps, by the military. He enlisted at age 20, married young, and soon had Anthony and a daughter, Wendi. “I lived on military bases my entire childhood,” says McClaren. “My dad was always there to make sure I wasn’t screwing up too badly.”
McClaren’s sense of adventure started at a young age he was always scaling buildings (illegally), jumping fences, and climbing trees. At age 25, while McClaren was traveling through Switzerland post–low school, a Swiss man dared him to climb to the top of Schilthorn mountain instead of riding a gondola. Challenge accepted! Ten hours later, he returned worn out and bruised, but successful. “I was hooked.” His life, however, was about to change even more drastically.
After McClaren returned to the U.S., his dad started to experience minor tremors. Jerry had difficulty holding a fork, McClaren remembers, but he refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. Then, in 2009, McClaren’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died. “My mother’s death was hard on my father,” McClaren says, “but it was also a wake-up call.” Jerry finally went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“I know my father was disappointed,” says McClaren, “but he didn’t cry or let his emotions show. In fact, he just continued to live life the way he wanted to.”
Jerry didn’t alter his lifestyle to accommodate his disease. He ignored dietary recommendations, drank and smoked heavily, and rarely exercised. “I was mad at him,” says McClaren. “I wanted him to try harder.” Then, in 2012, Jerry had a terrifying accident: He fell down in his house and was unable to move for two days. “After that, he lost the capacity to fix himself.”
Over the next seven years, McClaren, with the help and support of his sister, cared for his dad and visited him as often as possible. “I did intimate things for him,” McClaren says. “I shaved him, cut his fingernails, and bathed him. He could barely talk, but sometimes he would say ‘I love you.’”
Jerry passed away on Dec. 1, 2016, at age 59. A few months later, McClaren started a unique fundraising campaign to support Parkinson’s research, dubbed Climb Above Parkinson’s. McClaren vowed to climb the seven highest summits of the world. That’s how he came to be on the side of Aconcagua in a vicious snowstorm. The next day, buoyed by the memory of his father, McClaren emerged from his tent, brushed the snow aside and didn’t stop going until he reached the summit.
McClaren conquered Africa’s Kilimanjaro in November and is scheduled to lead a team up Alaska’s Denali in June. He aims to complete the entire endeavor, with limited support, by the end of 2019 a challenging time frame even in the advanced mountaineering community.
“I’m doing this in honor of my father,” says McClaren, “and also because when you have PD it’s critical to get up and move. You’ve got to stay in motion.”
Originally printed MoreThanMotion, Spring 2018.