By the time you read this, Don Fallin will be somewhere far from his native Fairview, eyes cast toward the highest summit in all of the Americas — the highest, in fact, anywhere on Earth outside of Asia.
The retired Army Colonel is taking aim at Aconcagua, the 22,838-foot top of the western hemisphere that straddles Argentina’s border with Chile in the southern Andes mountains. Like his past mountain excursion to the top of Kilimanjaro in Africa, he won’t be climbing solo. Instead, he’s setting out alongside friends; ex-military members who’ve united around extreme outdoor adventures to raise awareness for a cause that Fallin says hits very close to home: Helping economically disadvantaged young people close the financial gap that separates them from a higher education.
Like Fallin’s trip last year to Peru’s Machu Picchu and his 2021 climb of Kilimanjaro, the Aconcagua quest is a fundraising flashpoint for the nationwide Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund, a scholarship nonprofit named in memory of Col. John M. McHugh (a fellow 1980s alum of Fallin’s at the United States Military Academy at West Point). McHugh died in action while serving in Afghanistan in 2010, and the fund was created in his memory in 2014.
Tallied alongside Kilimanjaro as one of the “Seven Summits” that represents the highest points on their respective continents worldwide, Aconcagua isn’t a peak you just casually saunter up to from a nearby parked car for a quick and easy selfie. “It takes three days just to move to the base camp,” says Fallin. “It takes a day to rest, to fit out the heavier equipment required for the summit — and then you leave out.”
That means bringing along the right gear to meet the many risks of the mountain’s soaring height; risks that range from frostbite to oxygen deprivation to altitude sickness. Previewing his trip late last week, Fallin said it may be summer right now in South America — but when you’re spending days on end at elevations between 8,000 and 22,000 feet, there’s never a reprieve from the weather.
“The cold can definitely get to you. Fingers and toes are the most susceptible to that, as well as your nose,” he said. “The wind chill temperature yesterday at the summit was minus 40 degrees. In seven minutes or less, in those conditions, you’re at risk for cold weather injuries. You can’t have any exposed skin, so I’ve got multiple layering options.
“The two primary reasons people are unsuccessful on these hikes are the extreme cold on summit day,” he added, “and succumbing to the effects of altitude sickness. Anytime you start pushing about 8,000 to 12,000 feet, you start feeling the effects of the reduced oxygen level. Altitude sickness is an equal opportunity discriminator that can affect even experienced climbers, where headaches, cramping, and nausea are the three big factors.”
After raising more than $17,000 last year from local sources (and much more nationwide) for his Machu Picchu outing, Fallin says he’s not seeking local donations to raise Johnny Mac funds on his current Aconcagua journey. Instead, he hopes to raise awareness for what the program can do for some aspiring child of a fallen veteran — perhaps a high schooler right here in Cullman County — who demonstrates an ability for academic achievement, but can’t afford a college opportunity.
“Success in an event like this is not just the fundraising,” says Fallin. “It’s the awareness of what this program does. If you know someone who has passed away and has children — any soldier of any era — and those children are challenged in in attaining their education, reach out and let us know.
“I’m just a boy from Fairview who never thought I’d have a chance at the career that I’ve had. So for me, this is a program that I very much relate to and support. Finding that kid out in the county, out there somewhere, who might benefit from this program … that’s really why I do this.”
To date, the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund has raised a lifetime total of more than $30 million to assist the children of fallen veterans with opportunities at higher education. To learn more about the nonprofit and its mission, including ways to donate or to inquire about scholarships — visit the program’s website at johnnymac.org.
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