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.”
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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.
Climbing a mountain is not like climbing a hill in your neighborhood. It takes strength, endurance, as well as the mental ability to overcome stray thoughts going through your mind asking if you can truly do this (yes, you can!). Thus, one needs to train. And that means consistent exercise with backpacks and hiking boots. The more you train, the more you will enjoy your climb. A common phrase heard coming down from Mt Rainier from various climbers is “I wish I had trained more.”
I’m very lucky to live in the Pacific NW with Mt Rainier at my (sort of) doorstep. About 2.5 hours away from my home I have a fantastic training hike, going to Camp Muir. Camp Muir is a midpoint for summit hopefuls, around 10,000 feet elevation and 4.5 miles from the parking lot at Paradise on Mt Rainier. It is an excellent training ground with many folks hiking up to Camp Muir on sunny days.
Things to think about and do on your training hikes:
- What type of snacks will I want on my climb? This is THE time to try out all those snacks from your local outdoor shop or grocery store. You should aim for 300-400 calories with each break; carbohydrates are best for quick energy, some protein for lasting energy. Don’t worry about eating too many calories…you will balance that with your energy output.
- Practice the “Rest Step”. On a recent training hike to Camp Muir, I passed folks who would take 2 steps then stop, 2 steps, then stop. Been there, done that, not fun. Learning and practicing the Rest Step will give you the endurance and stamina you need for climbing a mountain.
- Learn to pace yourself. The Sherpa staff on a trek once told me ‘never over walk your breathing.” Essentially, this means if you are out of breath while walking, you are walking too fast. Slow down, set a regular pace with comfortable breathing and you will find energy. Your breathing will be faster in general and perhaps with a bit more effort, but it should be comfortable.
- Learn and practice “pressure breathing.” This is a manner of breathing in which by pursing your lips, you create a sort of “back-pressure” into the lungs. This pressure actually forces what oxygen there is at altitude from your lungs into your bloodstream. The net effect raises the oxygen level in your blood, and you have more energy.
I have a goal of doing one hike every week before my climb in August. If you don’t have trails or mountains in your area, put on that backpack and hiking boots, and go find hills or stairs to climb. You can still practice all of the tips and not be in a forest or on the slopes of a mountain.
Then you won’t be saying: “I wish I had trained more”.
There is still time to climb this season! http://www.fredhutch.org/climb
We all remember special days and dates: The birth of a baby, the date of an engagement and hopefully one remembers the date of one’s marriage! We also remember the day our life suddenly came to a halt and forever changed. For me, it was April 23rd, 2004. “It’s nothing; they think it’s just a cyst. Don’t take the day off work, I’ll be fine.” Then the phone call came at 4:30 pm when I was at work: “Your mother has ovarian cancer.” Going to the hospital to meet up with my father and mom, I overheard my father telling my mother she had ovarian cancer, and her response: “Well, that’s not good.”
No, it wasn’t. And life came to a halt, and changed forever. Chemotherapy and an amazing 3.5 years of remission with happy times, Hawaii trips, lunch with friends. Relapse 2008, more chemotherapy, surgery, and its toll was taken. My mother passed away January 1st, 2011 from ovarian cancer. Nasty disease as any cancer is. Thirty percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will be alive 10 years after diagnosis. In other words, 70% will die within 10 years of diagnosis. Downright nasty.
Which is why I climb. Yes, my mother had ovarian cancer; and the Climb is all about funding research for breast cancer. However, as my mom used to say: “Cancer is Cancer.” Funding research for breast cancer is bound to help others with other types of cancer; it all spills from one research bench to another. I have two friends with metastatic breast cancer who are alive today because of research.
At least I can help them…..
Climb a Mountain, Save a Life. I’m climbing Mt Rainier in August, which mountain are you climbing?
~ Karen Kilian