Lou Gehrigs Disease cant stop Israeli from tackling El Capitan

When Felix Slamovics announced to Congregation Rodef Sholom that he was going to climb Yosemite’s mighty El Capitan, congregant David Horton was pretty surprised. After all, the Israeli had just required a couple of men to help him two steps up to the bimah.

It wasn’t always the case.

Slamovics, 44, was once one of Israel’s top rock climbers. But three years ago, he discovered the involuntary contractions he was feeling in his limbs were an early symptom of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the condition leads to the slow degeneration of the brain’s motor neurons, resulting in paralysis and, invariably, death (though never a loss of cognition). Many know it as the disease that afflicted Morrie in the bestselling memoir, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

A rock climber doesn’t get to Slamovics’ level without a certain degree of tenacity, however, and after coming down with his disease he launched his most ambitious project yet: An ascent of “The Big Stone” where modern big-wall climbing was invented and Slamovics always dreamed of going.

Slamovics and his team were in the Bay Area before heading north to Yosemite, and were hosted by a Mill Valley Jewish family. The climbers hit the mountain this week along with an Israeli documentary film team and are raising money for ALS research with the effort.

Climbing straight up a mountain wall is no picnic, however. Rock climbing literature refers to an ascent of “El Cap” in fewer than 24 hours as a “speed climb,” and that’s for incredibly fit climbers without Slamovics’ ailment.

Slamovics is far from dead weight, however. Other climbers ascend ahead and leave rope for him, and he “pedals” his way up the mountain in a device that resembles an exercise bike with wheels affixed to its side. In his speech during Congregation Rodef Sholom’s Sukkot dinner, in San Rafael, he estimated it’d take him 50,000 cranks to get up El Cap.

Slamovics’ message resonated with Horton, who lost his father to ALS a decade ago. He also used to work as a firefighter in Yosemite and knows the terrain. He offered to lend a hand, and Slamovics’ crew quickly took him up on it.

Along with his 14-year-old son, André Longtin-Horton, he traveled from San Rafael to Yosemite in mid-week and helped the climbers carry their heavy equipment — and Slamovics — down the mountain after climbing up its sheer wall. That, incidentally, would be a five-hour hike for a healthy, unencumbered walker.

But Horton is happy to help.

“I want him to accomplish his dream and his goal to raise money to [fight] Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” he said. “I feel like I can do something to help.”

To donate or learn more about Slamovics’ efforts, visit www.felixproject.org.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.