Sportsman, 67, approaches career peak with his attempt to scale Mount Everest

May 12, 1991|By Bill Jauss | Bill Jauss,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Football, baseball, wrestling and chopping down trees as a lumberjack. Those were some of Vic Mesco's activities during his pre- and post-World War II years at Tilden Tech, Michigan State, the U.S. Navy and Illinois Tech.

As a senior citizen in training, Mesco furiously rode his $700 bike around a course he set up in St. Xavier Cemetary near his home in Evergreen Park, Ill. Thus prepared, he ran, swam and biked his way to national and international age group Triathlon titles.

In a triathlon, by the way, a senior citizen rides a bike for 25 miles, swims nine-tenths of a mile, and runs 6.2 miles. Sorry, no rests in between events.

Knowing Mesco's fierce competitive urges and his fitness, you surely can guess how this 67-year old financial planner responded when he was offered a chance to climb Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain.

World-famed mountain climber Gary Scott invited Mesco to join the 20-member team that has assembled in Nepal. They now are eyeballing the ice-capped 29,028-foot mount where 127 climbers already have died in failed attempts to conquer it.

"I answered, 'Geez, it sounds great; I'd like to try,'" recalled Mesco before he left April 19 for Nepal. "They always said a man climbs a mountain 'Because it's there.'

"I'm an average guy," Mesco said. "Like George Plimpton, I like to take a shot at an opportunity like this. I just thank the Lord I have the energy."

Mesco likened his decision to accept Everest's challenge to one he made 45 years ago when he was returning on a troopship from World War II. Then, he though he was headed on a direct route back to his final semester in college and then into an "orderly" postwar life.

"Somebody asked if I wanted to be a lumberjack," recalled Mesco. "It was a whim. Crazy. A couple days later, we were sleeping six guys in a log cabin, in Burney, Calif., getting up at 3 a.m. and cutting down trees."

This background explains why Mesco, though he never has climbed a mountain, arose at 5 a.m. April 19 and took off to join Scott's team half a world away.

Mesco flew to Seattle, to Bangkok, and to the Lukla, Nepal, airstrip 9,000 feet above sea level. Next on the team's itinerary was a 14-day trek to and up Everest. It is to climax May 11 when Scott, shunning oxygen aid, will make a solo try at breaking the 22 1/2 -hour record for scaling the final 8,000 feet.

Mesco's target is more modest. He has prepared his body and his will in weeks of rigorous training to become the oldest human to climb to the 21,325-foot level of Everest's Island Peak Camp.

Charlie Kittrell, a retired oil peroleum executive from Philadelphia, climbed to this point last year at 64. Mesco not only is older. He also plans to go a bit "higher."

"Just 18 inches," Mesco cracked. "When I get 21,325 feet up Mount Everest to Island Peak, I'll try to jump 18 inches off the ground. I don't know if I'll have that much vertical leap. Maybe I should have taken lessons from Michael Jordan."

Once Mesco turns his one small hop into his giant leap into the record book, he will turn into a high altitude version of a couch potato. He'll become a spectator like most people his age.

"I'll have my binoculars, and we'll have radio contact," Mesco said. "We'll watch Gary Scott go for the world's record.

"We'll have a telescope and be able to see the expressions on his face," Mesco said. "It will be like having a 50-yard line seat for the Super Bowl ... watching an historic event before your eyes."

Chicago-area friends of Mesco's or athletes who have competed against him in the past half century suspect he'll tire of being a fan. Mesco might even be planning his next adventure even before Scott becomes the 265th person to reach the summit since Sir Edmund Hillary first got there in 1953.

Mesco has been a doer, rather than a watcher, since he grew up as Vic Mieszkowski, near Russell Square Park in a South Side steel mill neighborhood.

Mesco was a football-baseball star and Public League wrestling champ at Tilden. He competed in sports in college. He played tennis and ran marathons in his middle years and survived two knee operations at 56.

In 1983, Mesco first heard about triathlons. When his application was too late for one event, he tried to slip into the swim race and was ejected. "I got so mad," he said, "I went home and rode my bike 25 miles and ran 6.2 miles, so I could finish my own triathlon."

Mesco's daughter Susen introduced her dad to Scott in 1989 when Mesco was competing for the championship U.S. team in the world senior triathlon championships in Avignon, France. Scott knew Mesco never had tried mountain climbing, yet invited him to join the team. Mesco gave his "Geez, yes!" reply.

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