On the weekend of July 25-27, 2014, the “Pink Fireballs” set out to enjoy the sweetness of climbing the 10,781 foot peak. I was truly looking forward to being a part of this group of climbers who had come together for the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer.
Filled with excitement and anticipation, we gathered at Schreibers Meadow trailhead. Thankfully, our Alpine Ascents International climbing guides (“the Nicks, Kyle and Tom) gave us a leisurely meeting time of 9am! Introductions were made, and a quick briefing was given on what to expect for the day. Our group was actually divided into two climbing teams, five per team. One team would head up the Easton route and one team would ascend the Squak route. As we set off, I was convinced someone had come during the night and filled my pack with lead!
The morning was meant for hiking. Sunny, but not too warm…yet. We fell into line and made our way through the trees, crossing the river, and onto the knife-edge known as the Railroad Grade. It’s a narrow trail that drops a few hundred feet on either side. Rocky meadow on one side, snow and rocks on the other.
As we hiked our way up to the climbers’ camp, we encountered marmots sunning themselves and no doubt enjoying the view as much as we were. Within a few hours, we were at our destination, setting up tents and readying our gear. The guides made us dinner and we talked about what was in store for us the next day.
The morning was clear and warm. Our guides made coffee and offered us breakfast, and before we knew it, we were gearing up for snow school. This is where the guides teach (or in some cases, refresh) climbing techniques, ice axe arrest and how to use crampons. As we wrapped up, the guides brought up the idea of trying a sunset summit.
When climbing, there is the traditional summit, where the team gets going around 1am. The idea is to climb when the snow is solid, and the summit happens in the early morning hours. With the sunset summit, climbers leave in the afternoon, and summit in the early evening. After bringing it up to the teams, the Nicks’, Tom and Kyle discussed the idea. Finally a decision was made: we would try a sunset summit.
In no time, our two teams were geared up and ready to go. The sparkling white snow against the backdrop of the azure blue sky was a sight to behold. Each time the teams rested in the snow, we took in the breathtaking views of the North Cascade mountains. Peaks as far as the eyes could see. As the day wore on, various injuries and other issues had some of our climbers turn back. Eventually, after hours on the glacier, five of us summited.
Views from the summit were stunning! You could turn 360 degrees and see for miles. It was quite windy at the top, so we quickly took our summit photo and began our descent.
We made it back to camp safely, ate dinner and settled in for a much deserved night of sleep. The next day, we packed up and headed back to the parking lot where fresh clothes were welcomed and cold drinks and lots of hugs were shared.
Marina Rockinger is an anchor, reporter, voice talent and Lifebeat host on KOMO Newsradio, Talk 570 KVI and Star 101.5 in Seattle. She is an outdoor enthusiast, adventurer and longtime supporter of the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer. Thank you Marina for your endless gusto, great humor and contagious zest for life.
It was that time of the year again. I was about to embark on my annual Climb to Fight Breast Cancer, benefitting Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Bachelor Party. This year my team chose Mt. Adams (12,276 ft) on the southern end of beautiful Washington state. It was a reunion of last year’s Mt. Olympus summit team. The team included Marybeth Dingledy, David “Mangler” Kendall, Jeff Hazeltine, Steve Bley and soon-to-be-groom Chris Awad. Chris benefitted greatly from the team’s valuable advice on “How to Propose” in previous years’ climbs. A high altitude bachelor party was on the menu!
Chris Cleaver, Chris Dillard and Kris Rietmann also joined us. Yes, there were four people with acoustically indistinguishable names. I kept thinking, why can’t parents name their kids something unique like Satnam (that’s me)? Kris happened to be the very charming intellectual, Kristina.
The Beginning. This was to be a challenging weekend for me. First, I tore my calf muscles while bending down for a dropped glazed doughnut. This incident severely abbreviated my training routine. Then, the flight to Seattle from my home state of Colorado was marked with a 4-hour delay; two hours were spent inside the plane sitting on the tarmac. Seattle climber Steve Bley was kind enough to come pick me up and take me to his home.
The night before our ascent began, we lodged at the lovely Trout Lake Valley Inn. The drive from Seattle turns scenic as one turns on highway 84 along the gorgeous Columbia River, which divides Washington state from Oregon. The Oregon side of the drive is lined with many waterfalls. I highly recommend stopping at Multnomah Falls. Our team got together for some pre-climb libations and carbo-loading in Hood River, Oregon.
The Adventure Begins. The next day, after a leisurely start to gear check at the Trout Lake Ranger station, we were told by our guides with Timberline Mountain Guides that the trailhead was under and hour away. After driving 45 minutes down a dirt road, we had to turn around and take a new road. The adventure began!
When we finally arrived at the trailhead we put on our backpacks and we were on our way. The first part of the trail passes through a dense forest, which was burned in a fire recently. We were chugging along. Due to the late start, our guides decided that the pace was a little below par and decided to take a direct short-cut by bush-whacking.
We followed and two hours later ended up in a large gulch with snow at the base. It was lined with over 20 ft of straight scree on both sides. Apparently this gulch is usually snow-filled to the brim and crossing it is easy. Not this day. After finding a part of the scree that seemed negotiable on one side, everyone crossed over and we made it to our base camp at 7 pm.
The route was remote, wild and beautiful. We were climbing the less traveled Avalanche Glacier Route. Most climbers on Mt. Adams opt for the South Spur route, which does not require a rope or technical skills. Our route sees fewer climbers and offers a full mountaineering experience. Our team was 9 climbers and 3 professional guides.
It was a wind-wind situation. The night wind was howling and the fluttering sound of the tent fly was really loud. Our guides came around in the morning to wake us for breakfast after we’d all had a restless night.
Snow skills school was the first order of business after food and some hot drinks. Snow school was a lot more elaborate than anything I have done in the past and I personally thought it was pretty good. After snow school, rope teams were divided and we geared up with crampons. In spite of the challenging weather forecast and consistent winds we were giving the summit a shot.
A matter of degree. A somewhat gentle slope turned soon into a relentless 40-degree slope and the real climb was on. It didn’t matter how much distance we covered, every time I looked up, the destination seemed to be the same distance as before.
As we got higher the wind picked up. It brought frozen moisture, which hit us like little stones. We hunkered down with ice axes dug in a few times. We were still a good 1500 ft below the summit when we decided to call it off and return to base camp.
Turning around is always a difficult decision. Weather and conditions dictate a summit day, and on this day, the conditions were just too precarious to continue. We carefully descended the way we came, and made our way back down the mountain. Unbeknownst to us, the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer Mt. Rainier team was also turning around.
And in the end, a quote. On the last day, we all got down the mountain safely. We returned to Hood River together. We shared stories from the past and our laughter rose from the bottom of our souls. Climb to Fight Breast Cancer teams always have the cause in the forefront of our minds, and the summit is a nice bonus when it happens. We will be back to climb another peak next year and continue to provide private support for life-saving research.
Chris Awad had the best and most unusual of bachelor parties. Much of it is not printable for family reading. Next year, we’ll be back to celebrate his nuptials.
There are a few reasons why we do this. Primary reason is that we want to raise money for breast cancer research. Second reason is that we want to spend time climbing a mountain with people whose company we really enjoy. And after that, if we can reach the summit sometimes, then that is good too. – Climber Steve Bley
Editor’s note: Thank you Satnam Doad for this excellent trip summary. Congratulations to Chris Awad and his bride. The bachelor party was a first for the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer, we hope you started a trend!
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Dr. Christopher Li thanks Climb to Fight Breast Cancer climbers and donors.
The 2014 Mt. Shasta Climb to Fight Breast Cancer team made the summit at noon on June 29th after a challenging journey to get there. Having climbed Mt Shasta twice before via the Avalanche Gulch (south side) route I was excited to try a new approach and see a different route to the top. I was quickly reminded that the mountain is never the same year to year and was surprised at how different an experience you can have on the same mountain. Mt Shasta sure put up a good fight for us this time around!
Day 1: Our group of climbers departed from the Bunny Flats trailhead (6,683 ft) to begin our trip up to base camp. We were met with sunny skies and a noticeable lack of snow on the mountain due to the drought in California this year, making the typical Avalanche Gulch route not an option any longer. Our group spent several hours hiking past Horse Camp and continuing on to the
West side of the mountain to our base camp in Hidden Valley at 9,200 ft. We were met with beautiful wild flowers and impressive views of the West Face, Lake Siskiyou and Shastina as we hiked. At Hidden Valley we had snow school to practice our skills and enjoyed a macaroni and cheese dinner before an early bedtime.
Day 2: After our 2:00 am wakeup call and a hot oatmeal breakfast we hit the “trail” in the dark, headed for the summit. With the lack of snow on the route we spent a few hours climbing on volcanic rock and shale until we finally reached the snow line. We geared up with our crampons and ice axes and continued up the snow slopes. Finally, as we began to approach to the steeper slopes we roped our team together and continued up the long, and sometimes icy, snow chutes with our eyes on the top of the West Face. We saw the mountain shadow over the valley as the sun rose.
Finally we reached the top of the West Face (13,400 ft) and took a long break. We then continued on to the well named Misery Hill, across the summit plateau, and then on to the summit pyramid at 14,179 ft.
We spent a few minutes taking photos, signing the summit log, and reflecting on the months of training and fundraising that brought us to the top of Mt. Shasta with our Climb to Fight Breast Cancer team. After climbing back to the West Face and then enjoying some glissading down the snow chutes on the way down the West Face we all had a good appetite for burritos back at camp.
Day 3: Everyone slept well and with the hard work over we packed up camp and walked back out of the Mt Shasta Wilderness. We were greeted with cold beers in the town of Mt Shasta at the Goat Tavern and soaked our sore feet at Lake Siskiyou before heading
back to our home towns.
Whether you are climbing a mountain for the first time or the tenth time, each experience comes with its own rewards and challenges. While the route on Shasta this year was more challenging than usual we were all rewarded with the knowledge our journey was bigger than just us. We appreciate all of our donors who supported breast cancer research at Fred Hutch to put us there.
Breast cancer survivors, loved ones climb to raise funds and help find a cure
June 26, 2014
By Diane Mapes
It was during the first hour of her climb that the fear hit.
Until then, Kari Darnell had been excited about summiting Mount Hood as part of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s annual Climb to Fight Breast Cancer. But now that she was out on the ice, in the dark, out of breath and teetering on the precipice of a mountain — and a panic attack — things felt quite different.
“When you climb, you look down at the ground, at the person’s feet in front of you,” said the 39-year-old breast cancer survivor from Kirkland, Washington. “But at one point, I looked down and saw how steep the mountain was. That’s when I started to panic. I’m afraid of heights and I had to talk myself off the ledge, basically. I thought, ‘Trust the tools you’re given. Trust your boots, your crampons, the techniques they taught you. Slow down if you have to.’ I used every mental tool that I had to get through that moment.”
The Survivor Summit
Anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer has most certainly felt the same overwhelming, heart-pounding sense of fear. And like Darnell, they’ve had to trust the tools offered by their cancer care providers, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But more tools are needed to eradicate the disease and the untold suffering it causes, which is where The Climb to Fight Breast Cancer comes in.
Since 1997, the organization has raised awareness and vital funds—more than $7 million so far — toward finding a cure for breast cancer. It’s also provided survivors, their friends and family and others who want to support the cause a chance to climb a mountain and save a life, perhaps even their own.
Although the program offers more than a dozen climbs, Mount Hood is the Survivor Summit, a sky-high gathering of women who’ve all heard the chilling words, “You have cancer,” then gone on to sacrifice their breasts, their hair and in some instances, their ability to have children, all in order to beat back the disease. Some of these women make the summit mere weeks out of treatment, chests tender from radiation, scalps prickling with new growth. Others are years past their diagnosis and treatment, but still determined to show themselves – and cancer – the dizzying heights a person can reach by continuing to put one foot in front of the other.
Each woman’s route through breast cancer is a little different, but the goal for these women is the same: the celebration and satisfaction that comes with conquering a mountain, both literal and metaphorical.
Kari Darnell’s path through cancer began in November of 2012 when a tiny bit of nipple discharge quickly led to her first mammogram, followed by her first biopsy, followed by her first surgery: a mastectomy. While she was able to dodge the treatment bullet, she still feels the isolation a cancer diagnosis can bring. Girlfriends may empathize – and Darnell is quick to acknowledge her friends’ unequivocal support – but they don’t have the same concerns: fears of recurrence, worries about fertility, not to mention trying to figure out how to return to the carefree dating scene after dealing with cancer, mastectomy and reconstruction.
An outside sales rep for a fitness equipment company, Darnell, 39, has always been somewhat athletic, hiking, biking and running in races, including a half marathon. But the Colorado native had never climbed a mountain, something that appealed to her post-diagnosis.
“I wanted to know what it would be like to be on top of a mountain,” she said shortly before traveling to Oregon for the Survivor Summit of Mount Hood on June 15. “I look at it as a celebration, an outward sign of inner victory.”
After a Christmas party conversation with two past Climb participants, Darnell and two friends decided to form Team GEM14 (named after their bimonthly “girl empowerment meetings”), setting up a rigorous spring training schedule. During the week, the trio would jog up and down “huge flights of stairs on Capitol Hill” with progressively heavier backpacks; weekends were spent hiking to the top of Poo Poo Point, Mt. Si and other local peaks.
And while she did experience that brief moment of panic out on the ice, Darnell said the weeks of training and mental preparation definitely paid off. Her team traveled to the mountain on a warm Friday night in mid-June, spent Saturday training on the snow, then after a few hours of sleep, got up at midnight and made the grueling, five-hour hike to the top.
“It was a really, really incredible experience – on so many levels,” Darnell said in an interview a few days after her climb. “We definitely had some tears when we hit the summit. It was extremely challenging and extremely rewarding.”
Part of that reward was the fact Darnell was finally able to connect with other breast cancer survivors her age. Although their time was fleeting (Climb participants have to follow a strict timetable dictated by safety and weather conditions), Darnell said she appreciated being able to have conversations with women who completely understood the world she’d been living in for the past year.
“Our experiences were different because of the different stages but I was able to ask them questions, like ‘What did your doctor say about this or that?’ or ‘Oh, were you ER positive?’ and they’d totally know what I was talking about,” she said.
But the bonding was bittersweet.
“I had mixed emotions about it,” she said. “It was neat to connect but at the same time, it brought up a lot of questions for me, like why is this happening to so many women?”
A 43-year-old third grade teacher from Auburn, Washington, Alaura Keith started down the cancer path when she discovered a painful lump in one of her breasts at the age of 37. A biopsy and diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer came next, along with a sobering warning from one of the oncologists she consulted: she needed to seek treatment right away — or as she put it “I needed to get started yesterday.” Shortly thereafter, Keith began the first of 13 weekly chemotherapy infusions which shrunk her golf ball-sized tumor down to the size of a marble. A lumpectomy and 17 more weekly rounds of chemo followed. After that, it was time for radiation: 30 daily doses of the stuff.
An avid runner and amateur athlete up until her treatment (she either coached or played softball, volleyball and basketball), Keith suddenly found herself barely able to climb out of bed for months on end. But thanks to the encouragement of friend and long-time Hutch supporter Denise Whitaker, a few years later, she decided to climb a mountain.
Keith trained for a year – a combination of hiking, spinning, running stairs, mountain bike riding and strength training – then did the Survivor Summit of Mount Hood last year with the Pink Fireballs, as a way to mark her five-year cancerversary. The climb, she admits, was grueling — “I kept thinking if I could go through all that treatment, I can climb this mountain” — but it was also inspiring in many ways.
Keith’s mother had died unexpectedly two years earlier and along with her gear, Keith brought some of her mother’s ashes to bury at the top of the mountain.
“My mother had never done any hiking but she loved the beauty of the world and I thought she would like it,” she said. “She lived in Oregon and always felt bad that she couldn’t be there for me while I was going through treatment. Bringing her up there with me was like telling her, ‘I made it, Mom.’”
Keith also loved the connection she felt with nature and with the other survivors and those who climbed in honor of loved ones they’d lost — or were trying to save — by raising crucial funds toward cancer research.
“The camaraderie was amazing,” she said. “And being that high and able to see all the other mountains was beautiful. I don’t know how to explain it but it made me feel like I was back to normal, back to myself. Like I’d reclaimed my life.”
And although she told herself the mountain climbing was a one-time experience, she soon changed her mind.
“When I got off the mountain, I swore I would never, ever put on another crampon again in my entire life,” she said. “But about two weeks later, I said, ‘Sign me up, I’ll do the next one.’ It’s like childbirth.”
Keith is currently training for a summit of 10,781-foot Mount Baker, which will take place the last weekend in July. Once again, she’ll be climbing with Denise Whitaker and the Pink Fireballs; this time, she’ll also be joined by her husband and a neighbor.
Climbing toward a cure
Climbing a mountain – and spitting in cancer’s eye – isn’t the only way these two survivors have embraced their new normal. Both Darnell and Keith give back in other ways.
Darnell has become a member of the UW Medicine volunteer outpatient advisory council and said she’s thrilled to raise funds for the Hutch. She and her teammates were especially excited to make their $9,000 fundraising goal.
“I feel very strongly about raising money for Fred Hutch,” she said. “I know firsthand the treatment and the care and feel so good about supporting this. Cancer was always something that scared the heck out of me and when this happened, I wanted to make sure the things I got involved in were things I could wrap my head and my heart around. ”
Keith tutors children in her school district who’ve been diagnosed with cancer and also advocates for breast cancer survivors, including two colleagues who are currently in treatment. She’s also dedicated to raising funds for new treatments, including a vaccine for triple negative breast cancer that’s currently in the works.
And although she modestly claims she has no “great thoughts” about her cancer experience, she sums things up with a profound piece of advice that applies to everything from mountain climbing to dealing with diagnosis to the slow scientific slog that comes with any cancer breakthrough.
“When I climbed last year, I kept telling myself to put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “And that applies to treatment or anything else you’re trying to work through. You can’t do anything more than that. Instead of thinking about reaching the peak or getting to the end of treatment, just concentrate on the moment that you’re in and on taking that next step. That’s going to get you to wherever you need to be.”
Are you interested in reprinting or republishing this story? Be our guests! We want to help connect people with the information they need. We just ask that you link back to the original article, preserve the author’s byline and refrain from making edits that alter the original context. Questions? Email editor Linda Dahlstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Mount Hood Survivor Summit brought together climbers, guides, family members and loved ones to celebrate anniversaries, reflect on milestones and hope for a future without cancer. Survivors at all different stages in their journeys are the heart of this climb. Their presence makes the rest of us stronger. Special thanks to Lynn, Devin, Alyssa and Kari for sharing your personal stories.
Climbers traveled from the great Pacific Northwest, North Carolina, Kentucky, Washington, DC, New York, Utah, California and many towns in-between. Watching bonds form over a common supportive goal is a unique component of Climb to Fight Breast Cancer teams. Even seventeen summers later, it’s remarkable to experience.
The weather forecast driving into Oregon on Friday, June 13 was a little dicey. There was a chance that climbers would face precipitation or wind. As the weekend progressed, and climbers grew more confident in their gear, surroundings and skills, the skies brought sun and excellent crampon conditions.
On summit day, climbers awoke to the aroma of eggs and waffles at midnight and boarded snowcats in full mountaineering gear at 1 am and 1:45 am. Their ride took them to 8,500 ft where they began climbing. They kicked steps up Mt. Hood’s steep flanks for hours, before arriving at the Hogsback (10,500 ft) just after 5 am. From here they roped up with their professional mountain guides to ascend the last 700 ft to Mt. Hood’s summit – the tallest peak in Oregon (11,237 ft).
The group included a team of girlfriends (Team GEM = Girl Empowerment Meeting) who select an outdoors adventure annually. This year they chose Mt. Hood to mark Kari’s journey through breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 2012. They called it their “Goodbye” cancer and “Hello” Mt. Hood. This motto was fitting for everyone.
Climber Michael Heathfield was on our 2009 Mt. Hood Climb to Fight Breast Cancer summit team. He’s gone on to also climb Rainier, Shasta and Denali with us. This year, he was back with his 16-year-old son, Hunter, and nephew, Andrew. Seeing Michael share his love of the mountains with his son, nephew and wife Lora (from base camp at Timberline Lodge) was a wonderful cap to an already special weekend. Especially since summit day was on Father’s Day.
Gratitude also to Sal, Tiffany, Mohammed, Theresa, Greg, John, Adam, Scott, Andrea and Lauren for your love of mountains, dedication to raising funds for life-saving breast cancer research and your adventurous spirits.
Editor’s note: You can read more about all these climbers on the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer website.