• This Is Why

    Summit of Achievement

    A physical therapist hits the heights.

    • By Peter Spagnoli, PT, MS, SCS
    • October 2012
    This Is Why Author  

    Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why' 

    I started climbing big mountains about 10 years ago. My first experience was hiking in the winter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My first glaciated climb was Mt Rainier in Washington state, a starting point for many mountaineering hopefuls. I've since climbed many other major mountains, among them Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

    Last June, on my second attempt, I reached the 20,320-foot summit of North America's highest peak—Mt McKinley, or Denali ("the high one") in the Koyukon Athabaskan tongue. It's about the size of a living-room rug. There's a marker and a prayer flag up there among the clouds. I was freezing and exhausted, but euphoric.

    In a very real sense, I can't help but think, my 30-year career as a physical therapist (PT) brought me to that rarified space.

    I chose the profession of physical therapy because I always was interested in sports and physical activity, and because I wanted to be able to make a difference in people's lives. But I couldn't have known at the time just how much of an impact my being a PT would have on my future avocation in both of those regards—on facilitating my own progress and on my being at the right place at the right time to help others.

    Knowledge of physical therapy has provided me with the tools I've needed to train for climbs and to rehabilitate myself when injuries have occurred. On many occasions, too, my physical therapy skills have afforded opportunities to counsel and treat fellow climbers. I've been able to use my training to assist injured individuals, to treat a variety of ailments that tend to occur on the mountains, and to educate climbers on how best to prepare, condition, and position their bodies.

    One of my most memorable climbing experiences related to my profession occurred a few years ago during my ascent of Aconcagua in Argentina—the highest mountain in the Americas, at 22,841 feet. I was one of 6 men from all over the world climbing that peak with a guide service. People kept exclaiming, "Wow, you're a physio!" They'd all had good experiences with physical therapy. As it turned out, I'd literally be in position to deepen their respect and admiration for our profession.

    After several days of trekking, we reached base camp, at 15,000 feet. This would be our home for a week or so. Base camps are like small cities, where teams acclimatize to the high elevation, sort their gear, interact with one another, eat, and sleep. People from different countries and all walks of life are represented. Everyone has a job to do: fixing or bartering for gear, maintaining camp by clearing snow, boiling water for drinking, and cooking. On Aconcagua, my job was to be the expert who could answer everyone's questions about training and injuries.

    It was my particular privilege and joy to be able to reassure climbers in my group that injuries they'd sustained along the way were not serious and would not prevent them from reaching their cherished goal of attaining this magnificent mountain's summit.

    Having maintained a successful private practice for the past 28 years has given me the financial freedom to pursue these adventures. So, it's clear to me that there are many parallels between my career as a PT and my ability to have reached high summits on several continents. What it's all been about is setting lofty goals, working hard to attain them, and being rewarded with a depth of fulfillment I couldn't even have imagined when I was starting out.

    Peter Spagnoli, PT, MS, SCS, is a principle owner of Spagnoli Physical Therapy & Manual and Sports Physical Therapy, with 6 locations in eastern Long Island, New York. 

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