On Top of the World
He made history as the youngest person to summit the world’s seven highest mountains, has traveled to far-off lands to help those many deem “untouchable” and yet, to the little patients whose lives he is saving, he’s simply Dr. Boo
It’s known as the death zone, the last 3,000 feet of the climb to reach the top of Everest, the merciless mountain whose unpredictable mix of avalanches, rockslides and blizzards have killed hundreds. By reaching the more than 29,000-foot summit in 2004, Greenwich-native Britton Keeshan, at twenty-two, became the youngest person to climb not just Everest, but the tallest mountains on all seven continents. “The last bit of Everest is very challenging,” he says of the 300 feet of the near-vertical wall of rock and ice known as the Hillary Step. A slip off the razor-sharp edge and it would have meant a 6,000-foot drop into China on one side, a 9,000-foot plunge into Nepal on the other. But taking ten breaths for each step, Keeshan made it to the top of the world.
Once at the summit, he buried a treasured artifact: a picture of himself and his recently-deceased grandfather, Bob Keeshan. Otherwise known as Captain Kangaroo.
Keeshan, now thirty-two, is not only an acclaimed mountaineer, but a pediatric cardiologist and philanthropist who humbly demurs when reminded of his achievements. He laughs when asked if his next adventure might be skydiving.
“I hope to never jump out of a perfectly good airplane. I’m kinda scared of heights.”
Scared. Of. Heights.
“I’m serious. Huge exposure is not something that I’m thrilled with, but I think that it’s something you have to combat.” He admits tackling Everest was “a pretty scary thing to be doing, but I think that’s part of the enjoyment, to combat your own personal fears and put one foot in front of the other.”
Big Mountains to Climb
Keeshan took his first steps in Greenwich. He grew up in Riverside and Cos Cob where he enjoyed running, kayaking and going to the beach. He says he loved attending Greenwich Country Day, but felt “sheltered” and needed to “get out and explore,” a desire nurtured by an inspiring teacher who took Keeshan and his classmates to Botswana, Africa.
His wanderlust ignited, Keeshan signed up for a four-week Colorado River backpacking trip through the teen travel program Road Less Traveled. “It was really just bombing around in a van in the West—Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.” But the trip ended with a rigorous climb of the 13,770-foot Grand Teton. Unlike others for whom altitude is kryptonite, Keeshan fed off of the adrenaline. “As we kept climbing, I seemed to get stronger and stronger. It was one of the first times I felt physically in charge of my body, truly independent. I loved that sensation.”
Tackling the Tetons was just the start. A year later, at just fifteen, Keeshan toured the Alaska wilderness, where he spied the 20,320-foot-high Denali/Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, a mountain so large it generates its own weather. Keeshan remembers visiting Denali National Park on a rare clear day when, even though fifty miles away, the majestic mountain peered through the tundra, seemingly standing right before him. “To then drive four hours on a bus into the park and still not feel like we gained any ground I think was what got me.” Humbled by the powerful peak, Keeshan decided he had to climb it. “I believe it is the sheer immensity of these things that help us to realize how small we are in a very big world,” he explains.
And so he dedicated the next two years of his life to the physically grueling and mentally taxing training to scale the daunting Denali. “Mountains are full of lessons and they are always pushing you.” Food conservation was the lesson learned while on a monthlong expedition in British Columbia. Keeshan and his fellow climbers were on a range so remote, they received only one food drop, by helicopter. This meant carrying hundred-pound packs containing fifteen days’ worth of food. Eager to lighten their loads, the climbers ate their way through their food supply—finishing it four days before their scheduled pick-up by plane. “A camp manager took pity on us and fed us a steak dinner,” Keeshan recalls. “I don’t think food ever tasted so good.”
The arduous training paid off and Keeshan scaled Denali. Thinking back to those last steps before the summit, Keeshan says, “This is always the best part for me because it’s then that you know you are going to make it.” And in a largely solitary sport, with team members separated by thirty feet of rope and only one’s thoughts for company, he says “reaching the top is great because you get to be there together.” He felt he was part of a group of individuals all connected by a common goal. “After Denali, it really came down to, where next?” So at seventeen, he set out to become the youngest person ever to scale the Seven Summits: Carstensz Pyramid (Australia), Vinson (Antarctica), Elbrus (Europe), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Denali (North America), Aconcagua (South America) and Everest (Asia).
“Each mountain has its own culture and its own essence,” he says, speaking about his awe of Kilimanjaro. “You’re climbing up the mountains with giraffes and elephants on the trail and then you’re standing on top of the mountain watching the sun rise above the Serengeti.” After tackling Russia’s Elbrus, Keeshan’s group got to sample the local vodka and stay at one of Boris Yeltsin’s dachas; during the ascent of Aconcagua he indulged in the Latin American culture, sampling smoked oysters and wine from Mendoza transported to base camp via mules. “We would climb during the day, but then take our afternoon siesta, literally take a nap at the side of a mountain.”
“I always like to have a little levity,” Keeshan adds, telling the story of cajoling an exhausted teammate up Aconcagua’s last few hundred feet. “I promised her that if she kept going I would do the chicken dance on the summit and make a fool of myself.” She did and he did. The funky flapping became a ritual at the top of every mountain. “I don’t think many people can claim they did the chicken dance on the top of Mount Everest.”
Everest was Keeshan’s most emotionally significant climb and not just because it made him the youngest person at that time to have scaled the Seven Summits. When he reached the summit on May 24, 2004, he buried a picture of his grandfather who had died just four months before. Keeshan says he might have never explored that icy mountain peak if it weren’t for the man who had helped generations of children explore—his grandfather, Bob Keeshan.
Becoming Dr. Boo
Earning six Emmys during its run from 1955 through 1984 on CBS (altered re-runs later ran on PBS until 1992), Captain Kangaroo—featuring the Captain and his sidekicks Mister Green Jeans, Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock and Mr. Moose—transported young viewers to a calm, comfortable place, teaching them about animals and showing them how to grow plants from seeds.
The elder Keeshan’s profession was kept a secret from his own children and grandchildren for a time. To wit: a Captain Kangaroo performance at Carnegie Hall. “My grandmother took my father and his siblings and they were upset that their father wasn’t there because they had no idea what their father did!” The Captain was able to deceive his family because of his character’s grandfatherly disguise of gray bangs and bush brows. “He was young but he was smart in that he dressed up like a sixty-year-old man. He had longevity there,” laughs Keehsan. And, similarly, when he accompanied his grandfather to a clown parade in Milwaukee, he was mystified when everyone in the airport was stopping them to say hello to his grandfather.
But even after he learned of his grandfather’s alter ego, Keeshan would watch the show and marvel. “The person you saw on TV was really who he was in real life.” And the Captain who encouraged his viewers to dream, dared Keeshan to climb. “When my parents had trepidations about my going off and climbing, he was the first one to convince them to let me go.” When Keeshan decided he too wanted to work with children, albeit as a doctor, he says his grandfather never prescribed a career path. He simply told him, “I support you. Go out and do your best.”
Educated at Middlebury and Dartmouth and the University of Vermont College of Medicine, Keeshan is now an attending physician in the cardiology division of the esteemed Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Unaware of those impeccable credentials, to his little charges he is “Dr. Boo.” Keeshan explains that one of his patients suffered from an abnormality that results in a heart rate that’s too fast. Non-medication treatment included literally startling the child. So whenever the toddler’s heart went into an abnormal rhythm, Keeshan ran into his room and scared him with a big “boo.” The name stuck and the inventive valor was not forgotten. Keeshan says the patient’s father recently thanked him again, bringing platters of food to the cardiology floor at Christmas, and informing him his son has been free of abnormal rhythms for the last two years.
Another part of being a pediatrician is guiding families into healthy habits. Keeshan tells of a six-year-old who weighed more than 100 pounds and had become anti-social, depressed and a target for teasing. Instead of bombarding the family with recommendations and making them feel more helpless, Keeshan suggested eliminating one soda a day as a start. Three years later, the child has lost weight, become active and has made friends. “It’s so simple but he feels like he has options he never had before. These types of stories are by far the favorite part of my job.” Those stories, and the spontaneous moments when a patient spots Keeshan in the hall and gives him a hug.
You might wonder what challenges are left for Keeshan to embrace. While scaling the Seven Summits and attending Middlebury with a double major, he also visited Ethiopia, where he volunteered at a Mother Teresa AIDS clinic, and donated time at a leprosy clinic in the Himalayas. When asked how the experience changed him, he answers, “The question is, how can it not change you?” At Mother Teresa’s, he observed the more able-bodied sick taking care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. “Here, we take for granted the luxuries of our medical system and we feel entitled. There, it would not be uncommon for a family to have traveled for days to the clinic and then sit patiently outside the gates waiting until hopefully someone had time to see them—never any complaints.” Keeshan says the experience has made him more patient. “I’m better equipped to be happy about the things we can do, and patients we can help, as opposed to dwell on what we can’t.”
Keeshan has no current plans to continue his philanthropy overseas because of his professional schedule; yet having just completed his residency, he is looking for new challenges at home. One of them will be moving, along with his dermatologist husband, Campbell Stewart, to Seattle in July so Keeshan can begin a cardiology fellowship. “It would have been easy for us to stay here in Philadelphia, but I decided to go to Seattle because it’s comfortable here now. I think you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone.”
Though he won’t be jumping out of a plane in Seattle, in June, he’ll be hopping on a bike—something he had never done until about a year ago—to ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles with his brother to raise money for an AIDS foundation. It’s also a way to honor his father, the late Michael Keeshan, a Saatchi & Saatchi vice president and biking enthusiast. (Keeshan’s mother, Lynn, still lives in Old Greenwich.)
As for the future of his career, Keeshan says he’d like to take his medical skills around the world, to help kids with heart defects. He says the research component of his profession has made him aware that “we have a finite amount of health resources in this country.” The difficulty is meeting the needs of “all the underserved populations of children.”
Keeshan does have other mountains to scale, literally. It’s been five or six years since he’s climbed one, and yes, he’d love to go back to Alaska, especially since he’ll be living in Seattle, which he notes, is more of a climbing community than Philadelphia. Or Greenwich.
Reflecting upon his childhood, he says, “I am not a natural athlete by any stretch of the imagination.” In fact, he was often third or fourth string on the hockey team and never participated in any travel sports. “I’m just an average guy,” he says with utter sincerity. An average guy who’s at the top of his field, and who’s climbed to the top of the world to honor the grandfather who made him believe he could. “It was,” says Keeshan, “just a small recognition of the fact that we only achieve what we achieve because of the people who helped get us there.”