Climbing the Walls of Suicide Prevention
By Jon Winkler
TOWNSEND -- Todd Spinney is surrounded by dozens of Sterilite Corp. containers, all equally capable of carrying something for a long distance. Not that he’d want anymore baggage to lug around for 43 miles when he attempts to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in September. Regardless of the weight, Spinney is doing it all to raise funds and awareness for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I woke up one Sunday morning and it was all I could think about,” Spinney said last Wednesday. “I started to research and discovered that you don’t need climbing experience, you don’t need to use ropes or ladders. There’s very low injury and death rate. I’ve never been to Africa and it seems like one of those bucket-list items that a lot of people have.”
A year ago, Spinney actually began planning to climb the highest point in Africa, located three degrees below the equator in northern Tanzania. He’s no stranger to grueling physical endeavors after previously participating in two Tough Mudder runs and one Spartan Race, both endurance races where participants run through obstacle courses that range in distance from three miles to marathon length. His Tough Mudders were in Gilford, N.H., in 2013 and then in Dover, Vt., in 2017, while his Spartan Race took place in Killington, Vt. in 2014.
“It’s a lot of fun despite what the photos might tell you,” Spinney said, referring to the exhausted looks of the runners in both events. “It’s a lot of teamwork and a day of challenging yourself. You get this tremendous rush of accomplishment that you’ve been preparing for a year or more.”
He’s also done less extreme measures of training. Spinney starts with the simple act of walking around the Sterilite office in Townsend, where he works as the EDI Administrator, in the morning when he arrives and during his breaks throughout the day. He also runs through the basics of any kind of physical training: dieting, exercise, yoga and cold therapy. The latter involves a method of shocking one’s immune system through cold showers and sitting in a bathtub full of ice to react defensively to extremely cold conditions one would find on Kilimanjaro. There’s also his “preferred method” of training that involves the tranquility of hiking various mountains alone throughout New England, including Mount Wachusett. But all the exercise he does is for the goal of Kilimanjaro.
“If I don’t have an event coming up, I have no motivation,” he said. “It’s not enough to just be in shape because I’ll always put it off. I’ll think, ‘Well I have to get ready, otherwise I’ll fail out at my tough mudder or my ride or my climb.’ I don’t have any other discipline otherwise.”
Trip is personal
What Spinney didn’t realize a year ago was how his trip could mean so much more to him personally. Things hit close to home for him four years ago when a friend from his high school days in New Jersey, Eddie Griffin, committed suicide. Griffin was close friends with Todd’s brother, Mark Spinney, who was in the Navy at the time and couldn’t come home to honor his departed friend. Though he took his own life, Todd said that Griffin dedicated time to help prevent suicide by being an operator for suicide hotlines and helping form a suicide prevention organization called Eddie Griffin’s A Step at a Time. That group organized an annual local Out of the Darkness Community Walk to benefit the AFSP in Belmar, New Jersey, where Spinney participated in the walk four years ago with fellow high school classmates. This was not the first time someone Spinney knew would take his own life and it wouldn’t be the last. He said that a neighbor, who he would only refer to as Scott, drank himself to death over nine years ago and then a childhood neighbor, who he only referred to as Brian, died last December from kidney failure due to excessive amounts of alcohol in his system.
While Spinney said that Scott’s passing impacted him gradually rather than right away, he added that Griffin’s death made him realize how suicide was happening to more people his age and had him look into what the AFSP offers. Spinney said that Brian’s death made him realize an important thing to do would be turning his bucket list trip into a charitable effort by calling the AFSP and asking how he could help with his hike. Further tying the hike together with the cause, Mr. Spinney’s fundraising goal is $19,340, the same number in feet as the elevation of Kilimanjaro’s highest summit. He added that while he’s been spreading the word about his trip, things get difficult when the topic of suicide is brought up.
“I think people are uncomfortable with the subject,” Spinney said. “It’s such a polarizing thing because people say, ‘You have no right to take your own life,’ and there’s a stigma attached. I think people think that it’s the coward’s way out. The real tragedy is the people who are depressed and they don’t seek help, mostly because they don’t know that there’s foundations, friends and family that will listen to them.”
Before he flies out of Boston on Aug. 29, Spinney said he still has plenty of training to do and gear to collect for his journey. Though he’ll have a guide, porters and a chef to help carry additional supplies, Spinney will have to carry three liters of his own water each day along with extra layers of clothing, trekking poles, rain gear and sunscreen. He’s also adding some decorations to his hiking gear: a flag to carry and a patch on his coat, both sporting the logo of the AFSP. He said that he’s looking forward to seeing the varying environments in the five zones on the Lemosho route he’s undertaking, including a rainforest zone, a desert zone and an arctic zone. On the day he reaches the summit, he’ll face temperatures around zero degrees Fahrenheit and a wind chill of -20 degree Fahrenheit while making a 4,000-foot ascent. So aside from freezing temperatures and possible hints of exhaustion, what does Spinney expect to happen.
“Relief,” he said, chuckling to himself. “I’m hoping I’ll find a couple of answers when it’s all over. I think there’s a calling, a reason why I woke up one morning and couldn’t think about anything else.”