In 2018 we are going to look briefly at inspiring stories, quotes and people…

But before we start, what does Inspiration mean for you?   For me I don’t find Inspiration from simply hearing about “success”, but rather the personal battle that people may go through, as part of being who they are. It can take many forms: lessons learnt, discovery, empowerment, passions, making the world a better place (even in small ways), following their own authentic path, and so forth.

Inspiring stories are usually inclusive, and gain connection to others. I remember reading an autobiography of Arnold Swarztnegger. He was a personality, almost larger than life character, who had many passions, one of which was health and exercise, yet he also contradicted this with a passion for smoking cigars. I garnered from this, that being human wasn’t black & white, but that we can have contradictions.

I’ve just finished reading an inspiring book, “To The last Breath: A Memoir of going to Extremes” by Francis Slakey.

“At some point, in all our lives, we will all fall. The question is: What kind of a person are we going to become when we get back up?” This is what Slakey told an audience during a talk at AAAS organized by the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. 

Francis Slakey, a University physics professor, set out to surf the 4 great oceans, and climb the 7 highest peaks in every continent. Over a 12 year period he achieved his goal. At the end the success of achieving his goal meant nothing, compared to what he discovered along the way, that was far more profound…

At the start of his journey Francis described himself as analytical and detached, scribbling on the chalk board presenting his physics . He had misinterpreted his dying mother’s message as “Be strong” in the wrong way.

He made it solo to the top of Everest, and when descending he encountered and survived a blizzard. He discovered a sherpa sitting down in the snow, left by 2 others. The sherpa buddhist was prepared to just stay there and die. He and his climbing partner could not accept this: one must fight “to the last breath”, and so hiding some drug in tea, they gave it to the sherpa to encourage him to get up & go back down. Also in this same situation Francis witnessed his climbing partner “give up” his own oxygen to help another climber who was hallucinating & stuck on the mountain.

Many times through the memoir Francis describes how his encounters with others began to change him from someone disconnected with others to one concerned for the welfare of others.

Once, while returning from a climb in Indonesia, he was accosted by bandits, held up at gunpoint, and realised how helpless he felt in this situation. Though he had confronted danger & life threatening situations often, he always had choices in these situations, but not now. Through bribery he was able to get away, but a week later later while in Bali he heard in the same area how just a week later, US teachers were attacked and shot dead in the same spot. There were survivors, especially one lady, who went on to fight a cause: to get the perpetrators caught, so this couldn’t happen to others. Francis who at one time would have walked away from this situation, instead wrote an article for The Washington Post, and became involved in the cause.

On his climb to Everest he was given an amulet by a Buddhist Lama etched with writing he could not translate, and would only understand at the end of his endeavours. He went all over to find out what the writing on the amulet said. In the end he discovered its meaning whilst in Norway, whilst surfing the Arctic, his last activity in his quest. The letters on the amulet didn’t matter. “What mattered was the world of stories that would eventually surround the amulet. The universe is clothed in formulas, but it speaks in stories,” said Slakey. He says you don’t need to take his word, rather follow the advice of Lama Kinle who he met in Bhutan:

“Do not believe because it is written in a book.  Do not believe because it has been handed down by generations.  If after observation and analysis, if it agrees with reason and can benefit one & all, then accept it and live up to it”.

Slakey went on to establish the “Program for Science in the Public Interest” which teaches students to use science to tackle social issues via policy. “When a scientist is inspired by a sense of social purpose, then science becomes the most powerful tool we have to build a better world,” Slakey said. Cynthia Robinson, director reminded he also said, “It takes interdisciplinary approaches to address the challenges in the world. Crossing boundaries and cultures helps effect change.”  Francis Slakey is now involved in innovative ways for midsize cities to slash energy use.

When asked in 2012 by journalist Emily Babay “ What advice do you have for some one who wants to start climbing & surfing?” he replied, “Don’t ever borrow a wet suit  from a Norwegian (joke related in the book). And keep your balance on the board, on the mountain and in life…”


• “To The last Breath” A Memoir of going to Extremes. A book by Francis Slakey. Simon & Schuster 2012. A good read if you like autobiographies, but don’t be confused. This not a climbing or surfing book, though it touches on these things. It is a story about Francis & his discoveries.

• The 3 minute interview: Francis Slakey by Emily Babay Apr 30 2012 Washington Examiner

• Physicist Francis Slakey: How a World Record Quest Led to a New Career in Policy June 2012 Kathleen O’Neil AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science)