Despite his longstanding interest in polio eradication, polio was not on Joe Pratt's mind as he prepared for a mid-April 2012 climb of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth. But that changed in late 2011, when the resident of Nottingham, New Hampshire, USA, participated in a polio immunization project in Pakistan with fellow Rotary member Steve Puderbaugh.
Moved by the efforts of the Pakistanis to battle the crippling disease, and by the vulnerability of the young victims, Pratt reset the focus of his climbing adventure. Pakistan is one of three countries where polio has never been stopped (the others are Afghanistan and Nigeria).
Pratt considered wearing a polio patch on his climbing outfit, as a tribute to those who had had polio. But Puderbaugh had other ideas.
"My point was, 'Who's going to see that patch?'" recalls Puderbaugh.
Instead, he suggested that Pratt dedicate the climb to raising funds for polio eradication. Pratt, a tall, lean 59-year-old Delta Airlines pilot who has been a member of the Rotary Club of Raymond Area for 28 years, says he "recognized it as a great idea" right away, and mentioned it to their Pakistani hosts at dinner.
"It was immediately embraced by the Pakistanis," says Pratt, who had also climbed Mount McKinley and Mount Kilimanjaro among others.
At first, the planners set a fundraising goal of $10,000, but later increased it to $29,030 -- a dollar for each foot of Mount Everest's height. And since Pratt's successful climb, his efforts have raised more than $40,000, not including matching funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
His ascent, accomplished as part of a team of 23 Russians and one American, took five weeks. The climbers braved high winds and subzero temperatures, and occasionally passed the bodies of climbers who'd perished weeks or months earlier -- grim reminders of the perils of the adventure. In the end, only 12 members of the expedition reached the summit, the others having turned back.
Pratt says he had a lot of motivation to keep going.
"One of the many images in my mind was that of the little Pakistani kids -- kids who were healthy and hopefully will stay healthy," he says. "I would think, I want to quit, but these kids are depending on me."
It took a little over a year to reach the $29,030 goal, with contributions picking up significantly last fall, after Pratt spoke to Rotarians from six Montana clubs. For them, Pratt's story had special meaning.
"He's a mountain climber and we're in the mountains of northwest Montana," says Michael Hayes, a businessman and 19-year member of the Rotary Club of Daybreak Kalispell. "Several people are into mountaineering here."
Hayes was also impressed with Pratt's selflessness, noting that he'd borne the entire $50,000 cost of his Mount Everest climb, never seeking any funding help.
"We were also impressed that Joe Pratt, on his own time and his own dime, came out to speak to us," Hayes adds. "His trip didn't cost our club anything."
Pratt gave two talks during his mid-October visit to Montana, attracting about $11,000 in donations from club members and area residents and $23,000 in matching funds from the Gates Foundation.
"It was very heartening," says Pratt, a former naval aviator, husband of 34 years, and father of two. "I have given talks in libraries and other places. In one worst-case scenario, only one person showed up."