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Breast Cancer Survivor Summits Denali

June 27, 2013
Ascending the summit ridge of Denali, June 15. Photo by Nikki Milonas.

Ascending the summit ridge, June 15. Photo by Nikki Milonas.

Helping the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer to benefit cancer research is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.  The brave women and men who volunteer to climb each year step outside their everyday lives and show immense spirit, tenacity and courage to meet their climbing and fundraising goals.

For example, almost 3 years ago I met Chris and Nikki Milonas.  Chris called about joining a future Denali team, alongside his wife.  Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska stands 20,320 feet, is the tallest peak in North America, and one of the “Seven Summits.” Only the most serious mountaineers attempt it, expertly guided by Alpine Ascents International.

What makes this story jump off the page is that Nikki Milonas is a breast cancer survivor. She was treated at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  She was diagnosed in 2005 and spent all of the next year undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss and anemia.  Nikki said, “After the initial treatment, I slowly rebounded physically, though mentally both Chris and I were forever changed.” She was 35.

In one of our early conversations, Nikki told me she wanted climb Denali as a part of CLIMB so she could “give back.”  Chris and Nikki have raised over $40K to date, funding the life-saving research that will prevent future women from hearing the words, “you have cancer.”

As a part of CLIMB’s 2012 team, they descended the mountain early, when another climber fell ill.  Their summit dreams dashed, they continued training with the hope of trying again.  Nikki told me at the time that while her disappointment was heart-wrenching, she wouldn’t trade a summit for the thousands of dollars she and Chris had raised for Fred Hutch.  That stuck with me.  I knew it was the kind of grounded observation made by someone who has faced the heaviest of obstacles.

As a part of CLIMB’s 2013 team, after more than 2 weeks of ascending with loads as heavy as 65 pounds (while dragging a sled), their dream was realized on June 15 at 6 PM.  They stood higher at that moment than anyone else in North America.  They stared down on the Alaskan amphitheater, and the continent beyond.

Hutch climbers sled up Denali

Hutch climbers sled up Denali. Photo by Nikki Milonas.

In the years since meeting them, I sometimes refer to Nikki as  “cancer survivor Nikki Milonas,” but it’s hard to think about cancer when I see Nikki.  I see life, lived at full tilt.  She’s fun and sassy, with a quick smile, and a devilish sense of humor.  She has many friends and fans, hundreds of whom donated to the CLIMB on her behalf. At 5’3, 115 pounds, her training regime would make even a Navy Seal break a heavy sweat.

She sums up the summit experience by saying, “we had near perfect daily weather with clear skies and temperatures never getting below -10F.  In addition, our guides from Alpine Ascents were superbly knowledgeable, supportive and fun.  This could not have been a better expedition and we feel very fortunate.”

Chris and Nikki are the kind of people who make me better just for knowing them.

The Roof of North America. Photo courtesy of Nikki Milonas.

Chris & Nikki on the Roof of North America. Photo courtesy of Nikki Milonas.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 24, 2014 3:40 pm

    What’s up, just wanted to tell you, I loved this post.
    It was practical. Keep on posting!

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