By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago  Jewish News

As a kid, Alex Pancoe learned much about giving back from his grandfather, a North Shore Congregation Israel founder and contributor to Northwestern University.

Arthur Pancoe, however, never would have imagined that his grandson would take philanthropy to such extremes. Pancoe, a 32-year-old expert-level climber, is on a rocky path to raising $1 million for Lurie Children’s Hospital by completing the Explorers Grand Slam—climbing the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents. Along the way, he is also journeying to the North and South poles carrying 70 pounds of gear and food on sleds behind him.

This week he leaves for Mt. Everest and will climb Denali after that. He has raised $400,000 for brain cancer research and young patients at Lurie Children’s Hospital, where he was treated successfully for a benign brain tumor when he was 18 and a student at Northwestern.

“I’m combining my passion with something I’m passionate about,” said Pancoe, a Chicago financial advisor who serves on the board of the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation. He has spread his climbing feats and polar trips over years. “I’ve been training like mad to be mentally prepared and physically prepared,” he said.

He started the Grand Slam “because I wanted a challenge.” Pancoe will be the 15th American and first Chicagoan to achieve a feat accomplished by fewer than 70 people worldwide. “I learned it’s a great platform to advocate.” All his donations go to Lurie. Pancoe pays the expenses for his training and ascents.

His connection to Lurie is personal and he frequently visits patients there bringing gifts. “I had a brain tumor at Lurie. It’s a terrible disease. You don’t treat patients, you treat whole families. Children face incredible odds and they have such a positive attitude facing dire circumstances.”

Pancoe said he has always defined success in work and in financial terms. “But people have forgotten there’s a lot more in life. I’m pushing myself in different directions. It’s not just about mountaineering. It’s about not getting complacent and comfortable even when things are going well. It’s always important to challenge yourself, experience things. You never know what you’re capable of unless you’re on that line between failure and success.”

He is not afraid of failure and recently severed his leg on a rock when he took a fall. “I’ve failed, done things wrong,” he said, “and I’ve learned a lot. As long as I come back alive.”

Johanna Wheaton, senior major gifts officer for the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation, said she is so “inspired by all his efforts to complete the Explorers Grand Slam.”

Pancoe has also been a “wonderful advocate and supporter of the hospital,” Wheaton said. “Witnessing him meet some of the children here at Lurie, I can tell he connects with them and wants to keep fighting for different outcomes for children with brain disease.”

Donations for Pancoe’s efforts can be made at


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