It may seem strange seeing a 79-year-old man in the early hours of the morning climbing up and down 48 flights of stairs in your New York City apartment building, especially when he’s carrying a backpack filled with 36 pounds of weights.
What’s even stranger? Seeing that same man again in the evening, repeating his climb and descent. However, this is exactly what architect Allen Kopelson’s neighbors had been seeing and continue to see as the soon-to-be octogenarian trains for his second attempt to reach the summit of the 14,410-foot-high Mt. Rainier in Washington State.
Kopelson is the founding principal of Morristown-based NK Architects, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. This past July 4th, he and seven of his closest friends – bike-riding buddies who also included his nephew Bob Penn – found themselves at the base of the volcanic mountain, staring up into what seemed to be infinity.
“I thought we were nuts,” Kopelson recently told New Jersey Business Magazine. “However, to see the massiveness of this mountain on that bright and beautiful day was incredible.”
Kopelson’s cardiologists, not to mention his concerned wife, thought he was “nuts” as well. He has stents in his heart from a 2001 procedure and has lost the vision in his right eye due to a biking accident.
Yet, Kopelson says he has always been in good shape. He bike rides with friends for two hours a few evenings during the week, and does a host of other exercises, including Pilates and weight training, every morning before making the trek from his Manhattan home to his Morristown office.
It was after one of these evening bike rides that his nephew Bob presented the idea of climbing some of the highest peaks in North America. However, the problems that presented themselves were not just the physical aspects of these trips, but the costs as well, as most of these guided ventures run between $8,000 to $10,000 per person. Far too much for the group of eight.
Fortunately, Kopelson’s niece, Emily Turner, and her boyfriend, Sit Pattison, are mountain-climbing guides. They looked into the matter and found a way in which the entire group could take the Mt. Rainier trip for the grand total of $10,000.
“Everyone was excited,” Kopelson recalls. “But I said have a good time, because I’m not going.”
However, his niece said she would not guide the group if Kopelson was not part of it. “After hearing this, my friends told me, ‘You have to go!’
“I was in no condition to make the climb, but Sid told me what to do to get in shape, which included climbing the stairs while gradually adding weights to my backpack,” he says. Additionally, Kopelson’s niece introduced him to a cardiologist who has scaled Mt. Everest and other mountains. “I gave her a list of all the drugs I take, and she listened to how I was training. She said I was fine, and if I have a problem on the trip, then simply stop [climbing].”
When the group arrived at Mt. Rainier, they spent the first day in training; undergoing exercises like learning how to fall and how to use an ice axe to stop a fall; how to climb with ropes attached to you and others; and how to walk up and down hill.
The following morning, the group of eight rose at 7:30 a.m. to start the climb. They were accompanied by four guides. “We immediately started having a ball,” Kopelson recalls. “It was beautiful going up.”
The group picked the week of July 4 for the climb because, historically, it was supposed to be the best time of the year to do so, Kopelson explained. However, when the team reached 8,000 feet, the weather began to change. The best way Kopelson described what was happening was to compare it to being in an airplane where “at one moment you’re in the clouds, then you’re in the open, then you’re back in the clouds again. … The big difference was that we weren’t in an airplane, so the wind, rain, sleet and snow was blowing all around us,” he says. “We couldn’t see anything.”
The team was able to reach its first campsite. By 12 midnight, they had to continue their climb (it is better to climb when the ice is hard, rather than soft and slushy, after being exposed to the afternoon sun).
In the dark, the rain, sleet and snow were still issues to contend with. “Our guides said they weren’t sure we would be able to continue, but we were all thinking – ‘We got this far, we have to go further!’ Once we got to an area called Disappointment Cleaver, we finally had to turn back,” Kopelson said. The team made it to 12,000 feet, and Kopelson said it would have taken them another four hours to reach the summit at 14,410 feet.
“We never made it, but I was pleased with myself, and the others were equally pleased that we made it that far,” he says.
For Kopelson, the trip was special for many reasons. It gave him a sense of fulfillment and it allowed him to bond with his niece and nephew after the death of his brother three years ago. “The trip made me feel even closer to my brother, whom I miss.”
Turning 80 this coming March, Kopelson and his friends are already planning to revisit Mt. Rainier during the last week of June. He said his age isn’t going to stop him. “As long as I am healthy, I am going to continue to do it [climb]. To me, age is just a number,” he said.
Asked if running a successful architectural firm had helped him prepare for the climb, Kopelson responded that he has always been driven: “That’s my personality. I set a goal for myself and I do whatever I have to do to achieve it. Additionally, as long as I give something the effort that I think it deserves – and I fail – I don’t mind the failure.”
NK Architects has designed thousands of buildings over the past 50 years. Visiting the firm’s website, it seems as if NK has designed structures for almost every hospital system or institution of higher education in the state. With some 85 employees, the firm has additional offices in New York City, Philadelphia, Cherry Hill, and California.
Kopelson said the firm’s third-generation partners intend on doubling the size of the firm in 10 years. “I think that’s terrific,” he added.
Things are looking up in more ways than one for this architect/mountain climber.
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