Goal: Scale Seven Summits before graduating high school

Goal: Scale Seven Summits before graduating high school
Joey Szalkiewicz, a 15-year-old Carlsbad High School student, has set himself a lofty goal: To scale the Seven Summits before he graduates. From left to right: Szalkiewicz's sister Brittany, his father Joe, and Joey smile at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in June 2010. Photo courtesy of Kurt Wedberg

CARLSBAD — It took some elbowing before Joey Szalkiewicz convinced his dad to let him come along for a hike up Mount Whitney.

It was September 2008. Joey was 10 years old and had no serious mountain climbing experience.

So his father, Joe Szalkiewicz, needed some convincing before bringing Joey along for the hike up to the 14,494-foot summit of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

“Me, being the adventurous little 10-year-old I was, I begged him to let me come along,” said Joey, now 15.

Worn down by his son’s persistence, Joe agreed to let him come along and the two hit the trailhead with their group by 4:15 a.m.

Joe said he had no expectations, and just planned to go as far as his son could make it.

“We were just hiking milestone to milestone,” he said.

But once they reached the mountain’s notorious 97 switchbacks near the summit, he began to wonder if his son could actually make it to the summit.

“The first section (of the hike), everybody thought it was cute that he was on the mountain,” Joe said. “When people started seeing him get to the top of the 97 switchbacks, it went from cute to amazing.”

As they got closer to the top, Joey was slowing down and experiencing altitude sickness.

Not wanting to push his son, Joe said, “It literally was a 100-foot-by-100-foot decision process for the last hour.”

Then the summit was in sight, and there was no turning back. With a new burst of energy, Joey pushed to the top with his father right behind him.

Joey said that reaching the top was, “Probably one of the greatest experiences in my life. It was the first time I had ever been on a mountain that big.”

After Mount Whitney, Joey was hooked. He wasn’t going to let that feeling of reaching the summit be a one-time memory.

He told his dad that he wanted to climb the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents, known as the Seven Summits.

Seeing his young son’s determination, Joe said that was that.

They began researching mountain climbing and just months after climbing Mount Whitney, they met professional mountain guide Kurt Wedberg of Sierra Mountaineering International.

Joey said they attended Wedberg’s talk about how he climbed Mount Everest for the second time and approached him afterwards.

Joey said he asked Wedberg if he would help them climb the Seven Summits and, “(Wedberg) kinda just looked at me, looked at my dad to make sure I’m not joking, laughed and said, ‘Alright, let’s do this.’”

With the help of Wedberg, the two climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in June 2010 and Mount Elbrus in August 2012. Joey’s younger sister Brittany joined them for Kilimanjaro and, at 10 years old, is one of the youngest climbers to reach the summit.

Now a sophomore at Carlsbad High School, Joey aspires to reach the remaining five summits before he graduates high school.

He and his father plan to climb Aconcagua in January 2014, Carstensz Pyramid in October 2014, Mount McKinley in July 2015, Mount Vinson in December 2015, and Mount Everest in May 2016.

“He has to be back for graduation,” said his mother, Kym Szalkiewicz, sitting with her son as he scarfed down a chicken potpie after a day of school and rock climbing.

“I don’t care if you’ve climbed Everest, you have to wear your cap and gown in purple just like your mom did,” she teased. Kym is also a graduate of Carlsbad High School.

With Joe training and climbing each peak, and Kym along for each excursion to wait at the mountain base, Joey’s parents have been supportive of their son’s aspirations. But from the start of his adventures, they insisted that he had to make his treks meaningful.

“If he was going to climb, he had to have some kind of purpose,” explained Kym.

Joey raised money for impoverished schools in the areas of the first two summits he climbed, but he has taken on a new charitable goal to incorporate into his upcoming climb of Aconcagua in Argentina.

Through his nonprofit Share the View, Joey is working on raising money for eye examinations and 6,960 pairs of glasses — one pair for every meter up to Aconcagua’s summit — for South Americans who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Joey, who has had vision problems since he hit his head from a fall when he was young, said that he often takes for granted how easily he can access eye care and that his family can afford to correct his sight issues.

“I’ve taken for granted the views I’ve gotten from hiking…All these amazing views, I didn’t realize I couldn’t have without living in the United States,” he said of his inspiration for Share the View.

Thanks to private donations and backing from sponsors, he has raised about $1,700 so far, but plans on pushing for more sponsors in the months leading up to his climb.

With his fundraising on top of his physical training, Kym said of her son, “He’s shown us that he’s serious about (climbing the Seven Summits). He’s shown us that he wants to do it for more than his own glory.”

Currently, Joey and his father are training daily to build their endurance.

In between school and homework, Joey surfs, plays volleyball and rock climbs, while Joe hikes before work. The two hike nearby mountains on the weekend to bolster their mountaineering skills.

Joey said he’s not concerned about the tasks that lie ahead.

“I’ve pushed through enough walls that physically, if I keep the schedule my dad has set for me, I’m getting stronger and stronger every day,” he said.

Joe readily admits that most likely he wouldn’t pursue climbing the Seven Summits if it weren’t for his son.

“I’m praying every day that he says he’s done,” he said, laughing.

But that determination from when he first climbed Mount Whitney has stayed with Joey.

“I fear turning around more than I fear death,” Joey said.

For more information about Joey’s nonprofit, visit sharetheview.org or his fundraising site fundly.com/share-the-view-argentina.

Joey Szalkiewicz enjoys the view from Mount Elbrus in Russia during his climb to the 18,510-foot summit in August 2012. Photo courtesy of Kurt Wedberg

Joey Szalkiewicz enjoys the view from Mount Elbrus in Russia during his climb to the 18,510-foot summit in August 2012. Photo courtesy of Kurt Wedberg

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