As usual, Freddy Arsenault’s got a lot going on.
For starters: He’s an avid mountain climber and outdoorsman.
He also, by the way, started his own company (a nonprofit, Artists’ Financial Support Group, to help folks who’ve taken on debt to get arts degrees), he serves as a board chair, he’s toured the country as a working actor, he’s performed on Broadway (twice), he’s married to actress Gretchen Hall, whom he met during their masters program at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, he’s a father, and he’s director of major gifts at Seton Hall University.
He Skyped me from his office there, a gloriously busy space, with posters and information hung on every surface, perhaps two or three deep. I was too far away to see what any of it said, but there is the general sense it’s things like show posters, event notices, and reminders for upcoming rehearsals or board meetings. Several times, colleagues popped into ask him questions, and the overall impression is one of being the good sort of busy, and capability with things that matter.
On the day of our call, he was celebrating because he’d helped land a $50,000 donation the day before.
Freddy is a rock-climber. I’m also, theoretically, into the concept of rock-climbing, like I suppose most other people who’ve read Into Thin Air, which I think is the only non-fiction book I’ve ever re-read.
After I read it, and with each new Everest story I read, I become more and more fascinated by it, and also more convinced that I am never, really never, ever going to do that. Every single part of it sounds horrifying: the cold, the avalanches, the dead bodies, the climbing itself. Is there a training program for people who never, ever want to go to Everest? I’m guessing it involves mint juleps, Edith Wharton close reads, and learning to do brush lettering.
I’m already extremely onboard for my upcoming year of conditioning and acclimatizing my body to never climbing Mount Everest.
But the aversion I feel is also, of course, about a deep-seated interest, and I am fascinated by people who *do* want to rock-climb.
“A couple weekends ago,” Freddy says, “I was doing a multi-pitch route.”
He explained that this entails two climbers being attached to the end of the rope, traversing up hundreds of feet that way, setting anchors and continuing on up the mountain.
“You think, ‘Oh my god, I could fall,’ but you’re in such focus, moment to moment, and by the time you get to the next anchor, you don’t remember what just happened because you’re already focused on the next thing.”
It reminds me of how ancient desert caravans of merchants and such used to cross the entire Sahara by triangulating between the waypoints directly in front of them and directly behind. They couldn’t see or think about the whole route, just what was in front of them.
I love a good life-path metaphor.
“We got stuck up there the other day,” he tells me. “It was getting dark, and we didn’t have headlamps. And our ropes system got messed up.”
Climbers tie knots in their ropes for safety as they’re rappelling back down the mountain. They do that so that if something goes wrong, and someone falls, the knot will catch on an anchor above and the person won’t plummet to their death. (Contusions, yes, but death, hopefully not.)
He and his friend Ray were rappelling down the final pitch of the mountain, when they realized that there was a knot they’d missed untying on their way back down, which was now caught on one of the anchors above them.
They were trapped.
“Ray has a really cool head,” Freddy says. “He’s an engineer, and if you’re going to climb with anyone, that’s who you want to be with. He knows about kilonewtons, which is a measure of mass plus velocity.”
I was lost here, but Freddy explained that one kilonewton equals about 250 pounds in motion, and that all climbing gear—ropes, harnesses, carabiners—is rated in kilonewtons.
“So when you build an anchor,” Freddy says, “you have to calculate your kilonewtons as you go. There have to be 25 of them to each anchor. Ray does that sort of thing instantaneously, without even thinking about it.”
Ray and Freddy assessed the whole stuck-anchor deal. Climbing back up in the gathering darkness to untie the knot seemed deadly, but it would be dangerous and tenuous to set a new anchor to rappel down from, too. Plus they’d have to cut themselves free from the first rope and leave it hanging there, and those ropes are pricey.
Finally, though, they decided that since they couldn’t climb up, and they couldn’t stay put, there was no other choice but to do the last thing, and they set themselves up a new anchor point from which to rappel safely down. (Another climber picked up their rope for them the next day.)
What is it about climbing, I wonder aloud.
“Every climber is different,” he says. “Everyone has a different reason. For me there are three parts. Number one is the nature. If you’re really connected, it’s the best, you’re seeing it all. Number two, climbing is really fun. It’s physical. You get endorphin rushes all the time, mild adrenaline rushes. Though if you get too many, you’re doing it wrong. And number three, there’s a really narrow margin of error. You have a bit of closeness to death. But YOLO, right? It’s true you’re going to die someday. I think there should be a beautiful acceptance about that. Let it walk with you.”
I ask him about the phenomenon I’ve heard about that folks who do climbing can get swallowed up by it, where their entire existence becomes about climbing.
“It could easily be. Although the kids” — Freddy and Gretchen have two daughters—“dial you in pretty quick.”
I ask if he’d ever consider going to Everest. He says no, not Everest, but he’d like to try Mount Rainier or Mount Shasta someday.
“A visit to the Himalayas would be fun. But you don’t wanna be the guy who shows up not knowing how to put on crampons. And having a Sherpa drag you up the mountain. If I’m gonna do it, I’d want to go up under my own steam.”
Freddy is interested in brushing up against limit. He has been ever since I’ve known him, and probably his entire life. It’s part of what made him such a brave and successful actor. He likes to know the boundaries of what he can do, and then shift on past them. His mental strength, his capacity to work things through and to grind, to undertake impossible things, is like no one I’ve ever met.
He has gone out and run marathon-length runs before, “for fun,” but now he’s signed up for a 50-kilometer ultra-marathon that he’s planning to run in February.
“Growing up,” Freddy says, “I had enough bravado to do whatever I wanted. Even now I don’t like the idea of having limitations. I’m sign up for this 50K. Mentally, I’m there. I can finish it. But my knee might just totally go out.”
Freddy says he’s been inspired lately by endurance athletes.
He references Alex Honnold from Free Solo, who climbs 3,200 feet of sheer rock face — “an incredibly hard climb,” Freddy says. He also cites ultra-marathoner Courtney Dauwalter as an inspiration.
“She’s among a handful of really amazing people who are looking to brush up against limit.”
“When you see someone in the third week of the Tour de France, you see the look on their face. They’re sort of not-there. They’re in control, but something else is driving them.”
He saw the same look on his wife’s face during labor, and it transported him. She’d been in labor for 55 hours, and when it came time to push, there was no doctor in the room, so the nurse instructed Freddy to “grab a leg.”
What stuck with him after was the look on Gretchen’s face as she tapped into the same primal drive he’s noticed in some endurance athletes.
“I was so impressed. That’s a next level of respect for a human’s capabilities, and for nature. I don’t think I’ve been moved like that in a long time.”
Freddy Arsenault is director of major gifts at Seton Hall University. His Broadway credits include Born Yesterday and The Royal Family; he was also a member of the Blue Man Group. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Gretchen, and their daughters, Imogen and Luna.