After a chaotic year, a Forest Lake family faces a different kind of uphill journey in 2013
The Forster family of Forest Lake endured more heartache in 2012 than most families have to deal with over the course of a decade or longer. The luckiest and healthiest of people may never be faced with such challenges in an entire lifetime.
In the first week of the year, Annette Forster was injured in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. Her husband, Dennis, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in February.
Their two children were not spared from the string of hardships. In July, 15-year-old Christian suffered a gruesome injury in which he fractured a femur and tore an ACL and MCL. The youngest Forster, 12-year-old Dawson, lost his hair this fall due to alopecia areata. He was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition in 2009.
It’s enough to make many families succumb to bitterness, anger or doubt. The Forsters, though, are far from typical.
In the face of these incredible obstacles, the family spent 2012 doing what it always has: making happy memories while exploring the country’s forests, mountains and rivers. This year’s adventures included elk hunting and climbing on Oregon’s Mount Hood, skiing on the North Shore, and a trip to Yellowstone National Park that featured flyfishing, ziplining, horseback riding, hiking and whitewater rafting.
“It’s the duck – You never see it below the surface paddling so dang hard, but it just kind of coasts along,” Dennis says. “I think we’ve just gotten used to it.”
A Mountain Awaits
As the calendar turns over to a new year, another mountain of a challenge awaits. This time, however, it’s one a Forster is anxious to climb.
Three weeks from today, Dennis will leave the country for the first time in his life. The 45-year-old, along with his 70-year-old father, Frank, will fly to Amsterdam, then on from the Netherlands to Tanzania, on the eastern coast of Africa.
Nine days later, if all goes according to plan, the father-son team will stand atop Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest free-standing peak. While half a globe away, their thoughts and focus will be close to home. The climb is a fundraiser to aid the fight against cystic fibrosis (CF), the lung disease Christian has battled since birth.
It’s another example of the Forster way of turning lemons into lemonade: Add up the family’s deep connections with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, its passion for the outdoors and the catalyst of Dennis’s MS diagnosis, and the sum – climbing a massive mountain on a distant continent – suddenly seems reasonable.
Dawson and Christian say their dad has been talking about climbing Kilimanjaro for years. And not just Kilimanjaro, Dennis clarifies.
“Kilimanjaro is going to be by far the most extreme thing I’ve ever done, but I hope it’s just the start, to tell you the truth,” he says.
His ultimate goal is to conquer the “Seven Summits,” a group consisting of the highest peak on each continent. (Of course, getting Annette’s blessing would be a feat in and of itself. “No [Mount] Everest,” she says, plain and simple.)
For now, Dennis has plenty on his plate anyway. Kilimanjaro does not require any technical climbing; the six-day ascent is all on-foot hiking. Still, the mountain’s extreme conditions and elevations require its guests to be in top shape physically.
The Forsters and their group numbering about 60, consisting mostly of porters, will start in a jungle. The climb will wind through a layer resembling a desert, then over fields of rock and gravel and eventually ice and snow to a peak featuring a temperature of -40 degrees.
“They say you have to have shorts at the bottom and you won’t be able to buy warm enough clothes for the summit,” Dennis says.
He hopes the family trips out west this year provided some degree of comparison for what the thin atmosphere will be like. An avid biker, his preferred conditioning regimen is to pedal around the entire shoreline of Forest Lake.
MS has left the Grand Rapids native with limited feeling in one foot, and he knows his condition is the driving force behind his father’s decision to join the quest. But Dennis is confident his autoimmune disease will be more of a motivation than a hindrance. His diagnosis is what prompted him to stop dreaming and start planning.
“It was just one of those things, ‘Ah, I’ll do it someday. I’ll get to it,’” he says. “MS popped up, and I’m like ‘I’m doing it now.’”
Climbing for a Cause
For Dennis, the climb is not about satisfying his hunger for adventure or overcoming his own physical hurdle. It’s about helping his firstborn son live as normally as possible.
Already in Christian’s young life, technological developments regarding the treatment of CF have eased his rigorous therapy schedule. When Christian became a teenager, he estimated that one full year of his life had been spent hooked up to machines.
To donate toward Dennis’s cause, visit www.cff.org/Chapters/minnesota, scroll down to “Chapter Events” and click on the “Kilimanjaro” link. All donations will go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, with 90 percent of funds being applied directly to research in search of a cure.
Pills, a feeding tube and twice-a-day therapy are still his reality, but he once needed 20 injections per day. Recent medical advances have the Forsters hopeful that Christian’s genetic mutation will eventually be fixed. In the meantime, he remains as active as any kid. The Century Junior High ninth-grader’s leg injury happened during a soccer game, and he looks forward to recovering in time for the lacrosse season in the spring.
Initially, Dennis hoped to raise one dollar for each of Kilimanjaro’s 19,341 feet. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation latched on to his campaign at a national level, though, and the goal is now to raise $100,000.
Dennis is packing a climbing jersey bearing the name of sponsors. He hopes to send the donors a picture from the top of the continent.
Another goal for the summit, besides calling home on a satellite phone, is to leave behind a picture of his boys.
The gesture would be symbolic of the family’s resolve, and a triumphant way to start a year for which the Forsters have high hopes.
“We’re definitely looking forward to 2013,” says Dennis. “We’ve had enough of 2012.”
But his wife and sons are quick to chime in with fun memories from the past 12 months: the trips out west, Boy Scout camp, Dawson’s alopecia camp where he got to surf off the Carolina coast.
It seems the Forsters are happy to be ducks coasting over scary currents, so long as they are floating together. When a wave comes, they simply go with the flow.
“Just part of the routine,” Annette says.
“One more thing to get used to,” Christian adds.
“Everybody’s going to have something, right?” Dennis says. “We’ve talked a lot about that…Even if we’re supposed to slow down, we probably never will.”