While planning a climb of Oregon’s Mt. Hood with his sons, Brian and Kevin, in 2008, Mark Kell saw the perfect opportunity to fulfill another lifelong ambition – learning to breathe fire.
“There’s a place in San Francisco that teaches fire-eating,” says Kell, a Towson tax attorney whose practice includes some family law, business law, and personal injury matters. However, the “time and expense” of attending a six-week class on the west coast had never been viable in the context of a busy law practice – that was, until he started plotting the Mt. Hood trip.
“I was looking at the map, and it occurred to me: hey, we’re on the same side of the country as San Francisco – and it’s only 700 miles [away],” he laughs. The only potential problem – aside from residual sunburn and snow-blindness following the climb – would be convincing the instructor to condense six weeks of training into a single day (not to mention overcoming the teacher’s initial reluctance, due to potential liability, to teach Kell and his boys the art of actually breathing fire in such a condensed time span).
Nevertheless, Kell prevailed upon the school to accommodate his abbreviated schedule.
Back home, Kell told his sons never to divulge the secrets of their newfound incendiary skills, or even make others aware of them. “At parties, wait until after midnight, when everybody’s on their third drink,” he says. “Then just start doing it.”
“The coolest is when we’re actually blowing fire like a dragon,” he adds. “People really get a kick out of that.”
But fire-breathing and mountain-climbing are but two relatively recent installments in a life spent in active pursuit of action, adventure, and spontaneity. Indeed, Kell’s initial interest in mountain-climbing, dating back to the 1970s, was placed on hiatus when a sudden interest in learning to sail (after reading Dove, Robin Lee Graham’s 1972 account of his solo circumnavigation of the earth aboard a 24-foot sloop at age 16) led him to impulsively take a job as a crew member aboard the original Pride of Baltimore in 1978.
“The mystery and the romance – it was thrilling,” Kell says of his earliest days aboard the Pride. “I had no idea where we were going; I’d just started sailing the month before.”
Kell spent the next two years aboard the vessel (which tragically sank in 1986, killing a third of its 12-member crew), sailing from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake, from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean, and sundry points in between. (The experience would later serve him well when, in the late 1990s, Kell made a series of long-range yacht deliveries along the east coast of North America.)
In 2000, Kell’s interests took a more terrestrial tack when his sons accompanied him on a climb of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. “I was 45-years-old,” he recalls, “and I figured, I’m not getting any younger.”
Indeed, the family enjoyed the trek so much that they repeated it the following year, following a different trail. In August 2004, they journeyed west to ascend Mt. Whitney, in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Two years later, they climbed Washington’s Mt. Ranier.
“Sailing makes me feel young, [but] climbing makes me feel old,” chuckles Kell. “When you’re on a sailboat, the only time it’s really bad is when you’re in a storm. The rest of the time it’s beautiful; you’re sitting in the cockpit drinking a beer, steering with your foot and telling old war stories.” Climbing, on the other hand, is “onerous.”
“Before we climbed Mt. Ranier, I worked out in the gym five days a week, two-and-a-half hours a day, for 14-and-a-half months,” he notes. “My sons and I would fill our packs with two-liter bottles of water and hike Oregon Ridge [in Baltimore County]. In the beginning, it’s pretty tough.” Nevertheless, Kell calls the experience the “best time of my life.”
“The best thing about all these things is I get to hang out with my boys,” he says. “It’s not just the week spent on the mountain; it’s the year spent working out at the gym with my sons. Above everything, the time I spend with my boys is what I value the most.”
Whether furling the Pride’s topsail in a full gale or ascending a snow-capped mountain in the pre-dawn hours, Kell admits that, when it comes to the first time out in such “thrill sports,” he was “as scared as anybody was.”
Nevertheless, he continues, “I’ve found that, no matter how scary something is, if you do it enough times, you get used to it.”
“To practice law, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to have some amount of nerve,” he adds. “All lawyers have it.”
Looking ahead, Kell hopes to one day climb Washington’s Mt. Baker – or even Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro – with his sons, now 22 and 28. In the meantime, he laments the challenge of coordinating his schedule with those of two college-age children.
“The only people I can find to [climb with me] are my sons,” Kell laughs. “My boys are awesome. They are fire-eating mountain-climbers. They will do anything.”