For Figur, it's always an adventure
Monday, January 31, 2011
Posted by: Kerri McCabe
For Figur, it's always an adventure
Dr. Arthur Figur, who is the medical director at Mount Sinai Hospital, poses at his home in New Rochelle. In the past few years, he swam around Manhattan, spent a month kayaking and exploring a remote area of Greenland, and competed in the Hawaii Ironman. (Joe Larese/The Journal News)
NEW ROCHELLE — The stamps that adorn the pages of Arthur Figur's passport tell his story better than a biography ever could.
Sitting in his dining room one winter evening, Figur, who turns 80 next month, lays the newest volume of his life's journey on the table and begins to thumb through it. Every so often, he stops. His eyes widen, a peaceful smile brightens his face. The memories from three decades of adventures rush back, and he tries to recount his tale — a tale he has every intention of adding to, even as a senior citizen.
A visa from India? "I went rafting down the Brahmaputra River," he says. Greenland? "Just kayaking around the glaciers."
Mali? "That one? Well, that one was just for fun."
Moments later, a stamp decorating a rare unused corner near the back of the book catches his eye. It explains that Figur recently filled his passport to the brim, and he needed a stack of new pages.
Figur starts to laugh.
"They didn't give me enough," he says, his voice a mixture of pride and unbridled happiness.
Figur will cover the blank sheets soon enough, as he always does. He'll clog them with the marks of exotic locales straight out of the Saturday morning television serials and Indiana Jones flicks .
For almost 30 years, Figur, the associate medical director at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, has embarked on an annual pilgrimage to destinations in far-flung corners of the globe. Each time, he chooses another challenge to conquer in an effort not just to see the world but to tackle it.
"I'm always telling my patients they need to exercise," Figur says with a mischievous smirk. "I figure I have to set a good example."
When Figur was around 50, he was invited by a patient to go on his first trip: a trek around Annapurna in Nepal. At 60, Figur climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Seven years later, he biked from Seattle to Washington, D.C.
He has visited the North Pole and Antarctica, kayaked in Alaska three times, rafted through the Grand Canyon and down the Colorado River. And that barely scratches the surface.
Figur can't remember the exact years and dates of every expedition. He takes photos but rarely brings back souvenirs. "Too difficult to travel with," he says. His passport serves as his greatest travelogue.
He always travels with organized tour groups, starting the search for the next adventure immediately after returning from the last. He is almost always the oldest person there these days, but that never deters him.
"Most people I know would rather check into a hotel, sleep in a nice bed, lie on the beach, read and relax," Figur says. "My relaxing is being active. You find you get a really good night's sleep when you're active."
Figur always loved traveling, loved adventure, loved the outdoors. His responsibilities to his job and his five children prevented him from undertaking the challenges as a younger man. One of his daughters, Amy Figur, remembers her father working 70-hour weeks at the hospital, where he served as director for 20 years.
But he always found time for athletics. He taught his kids how to ski, to surf, to sail, to windsurf. His son Chuck says Figur was the first in the neighborhood to buy his family skateboards and set up an obstacle course. Whether the new toys were for his children or himself is up for debate.
In his 40s, Figur started running marathons, competing in "seven or eight" until the age of 60. That led to triathlons and eventually ironman competitions.
During that time, the Figurs traveled often. Figur's wife, June, who died 18 years ago, hailed from England, so they would visit relatives and use the trip as an excuse to tour continental Europe.
The adventures started when the kids moved out and Figur started working less.
"He gave all of us a curiosity about the world and interest in seeing as much of it as possible," Chuck Figur says. "He teaches us to enjoy the outdoors no matter where you are, because there's so much to see out there."
Figur doesn't train much for his excursions these days. In fact, Chuck says he often calls his dad a day or two before his trips, and Figur would not even have started packing.
He does, however, go to the doctor before departing to receive the proper vaccinations and medications.
"I'm very careful about whom I select," Figur says of his doctors. "I have to make sure they don't stop me from doing what I want to do."
To this point, nobody has tried, even as Figur started trying more treacherous challenges. He says he never does anything too dangerous, but admits, "I've gotten pretty good at denial."
For example, on one rafting trip off the Alaskan coast, the group saw packs of bears lurking nearby. Figur often woke up to giant paw-prints frighteningly close to the campsite.
"I just convinced myself, what kind of bear would want to eat a tough person like me?" Figur says. "They'll pick on somebody younger, juicier."
Likewise, his kids say they do not worry about their father, even when he goes out of touch for weeks at a time. They have grown accustomed to his lifestyle and know Figur thrives on it.
Simply put, they want their dad to remain happy and vibrant.
"If this turns out to be where problems start that bring him to an end, we'll all miss him terribly, but he has to keep doing this as long as he can," Chuck Figur says. "This is what he loves to do more than anything in the world."
In some ways, Figur's age has started to become a factor. Due to a lung condition, Figur can no longer hike up mountains fast enough to keep up with a group. As a result, he would need to hire a private guide to complete one challenge that has thus far eluded him — watching the sunrise at Machu Picchu in Peru. Instead, he sticks with mostly aquatic adventures these days.
Figur also fears heights and will not walk along the edge of a cliff unless he has at least four feet of space. He once turned back during a hike along the Colorado River because of a particularly scary ledge. He also panicked a bit while coming down a 1,500-foot wet staircase with no rails after visiting a sixth century monastery in Ireland.
"There was one ledge I negotiated in Namibia," he says with a chuckle, "but at least they gave you something to hold on to."
When their schedules align, Figur likes to travel with his children. It seems they all cherish their own individual memories of time spent with their father.
Leny Figur talks about the day when his dad, in his late 60s at the time, boldly announced he wanted to try snowboarding for the first time. "He took a little lesson and snowboarded away for a couple days," he recalls.
Chuck remembers a special trip during which he and his father trekked around Patagonia, a remote region of Argentina and Chile.
Amy still can't believe when, on a bet for a bottle of brandy with another traveler, Figur plunged into the icy waters of the North Pole and swam far enough to touch a boat many yards away. The punch line? Figur is far from a heavy drinker.
"People were supposed to just jump in and jump out," she says. "They even had the defibrillators there in case anybody's heart went."
Figur's heart is doing just fine, and he says he will continue going on adventures "as long as he possibly can." The trips keep him young and energetic. They bring him bliss.
In fact, he recently planned his next excursion. He will return to India in September to traverse the Zanskar River. He also hinted that he is considering hitting the Gobi Desert in Malaysia for the first time. Or perhaps traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway and stopping in various countries along the way.
For now, he will settle for preparing for a trip in June to California's Napa Valley, where he will celebrate a friend's 80th birthday. He figures he will stop in Yellowstone National Park. He hasn't been there since the 1950s.
"Just to go see it," he says, "And maybe I'll take along my hiking boots."