Some time after 1 am Sunday morning, following a bouncing, turning ride on the giant red cat machine I stepped onto the snow. The full moon minus one day reflecting off the snow added to the glow of headlamps. My stomach tightened and I moved in slow motion. The other climbers were already sitting on their packs or against a small embankment of snow strapping crampons to their mountaineering boots. My limbs felt heavy and communication between my mind and body was delayed as if the signal was being forced through lines too crowded or restricted. I wasn’t cold but I felt frozen.
On Friday I met the first of the other 17 climbers when I picked her up for the drive up to Timberline Lodge. Like me she is a breast cancer survivor. Like me she is young, under 40. She flew out from Washington DC and we chatted about survivor friends we have in common, our diagnosis stats and about the challenge that was quickly unfolding before us. We stopped at a grocery store so she could get food for the climb and despite the fact that I had already packed enough food for a week of lunches and snacks, I compulsively bought a few more items. Time had run out for training and conditioning but I still had time to scour the itinerary and packing list and tweak the small and large items.
Friday was a fairly typical overcast day in Portland with Mt. Hood’s peak hidden by the gray sky. The closer we got to Timberline Lodge, the more miserable the weather. The lodge sits on the south slope of Mt. Hood at an elevation of 6,000 feet. While it is common for Mt. Hood’s iconic 10,250 foot peak to be under cloud cover and hidden for days and even weeks from those looking for it from sea level; from the lodge, the rest of the steep 5,250 feet to the summit is hard to miss. Except when the weather is bad. And Friday, it was ugly. Icy rain fell and visibility was nil.
That night the climbers, organizers and lead guide gathered at the Ram’s Head Bar in the lodge for introductions and a rundown of Saturday’s itinerary. The group of climbers totaled 18 but some had wives and friends with them for support. As names and backgrounds and reasons for the climb were shared, I learned I was one of only four cancer survivors making the climb and in a small minority of first-time climbers. People came from all across the country and their ages and relationship with cancer varied but what impressed me was their dedication. Many of the climbers return year after year for the climb and to raise money for breast cancer research. A few raise tens of thousands of dollars each year. I was humbled. And intimidated.
As the lead guide spoke, I found myself getting nervous and expressed this rising emotion and everyone reassured me about the safety and accessibility of the climb. But what I did not say, because I hadn’t yet realized it, was that my fear was not of the mountain, the snow, the ice, the climb, the steepness, the weather or the cold. My fear stemmed from a fundamental mistrust of my own body – my body’s unpredictability and finicky sleep requirements. I feared the peripheral neuropathy that manifests in my feet with numbing and tingling turning to searing pain. I feared fatigue, that bastard of a side effect that I have slowly pushed away with time, coping mechanisms and a better balance of medications. Three years ago I knew what my body needed and how it responded to challenges. Now? I struggle to refrain from viewing my body as something foreign and unpredictable. Three years of being treated as a science project and fed chemicals, radiation and drug after drug combination in an attempt to return me to some state of post-cancer normalcy has left me detached from my physical body, often resenting the limitations and premature signs of age. On Friday, I battled the fear that all my focus and training was just not enough since building strength, balance and endurance have proven far more difficult than pre-cancer.
But that night I managed to push it all down, accept tips and advice from the more experienced and went to bed relatively early to give myself as much sleep as possible.
After a restless sleep and breakfast buffet at the lodge, I checked out of my room and headed to 8 am gear check with the guides. After all the rental gear was passed out, waivers signed and introductions were repeated for the benefit of the guides (and me), we divided into two groups of 9 with a couple of guides in each group and made our way to the snow. The sun came out resulting in a blue sky and brilliant views of the peak. But the sun also caused mushy snow and constant peeling off and swapping out of layers as we went from standing and observing to practicing new techniques up the hillside. It was challenging learning how to sidestep and duck walk up and down the hill with crampons, kicking snow to find the right purchase then adding an ice axe to the mix.
I was in good spirits all through snow school but it was harder than I expected and I had to keep settling my mind to avoid panicking about the climb. I was the last one back to the lodge after snow school and I could feel the weight of the coming challenge increasing each time the guides referred to “tonight”. The tentative trust in myself I had been nurturing over the last few was slipping.
At 3 pm we boarded the Cat machine and headed up the mountain to the Silcox Hut, about 1,000 vertical feet above the main lodge. I knew what I needed to do to pull myself together: calm my mind, pack my gear and rest. Unfortunately I only half-listened. After picking a bunk room to share, I re-packed my pack, filled my water bottles and set aside what I planned to wear for the climb. The bunk rooms were small and cramped which made it difficult to impossible to sort through everything in the room and the common area in the middle of the bunk rooms was overcrowded with other climbers doing the same sort and pack routine. But as I was waiting for a shower I discovered a little nook with shelves and hooks where I was able to stack and hang everything I would need in the middle of the night for quick layering. I overheard a guide advising someone to stash snacks in the pockets of their puffy jacket for easy access during rest breaks when the puffy would be pulled on over all other layers to stay warm when stationary. I put fresh batteries in my headlamp and attached it to my helmet.
My gear was set but my anxiety was still fluttering around in my stomach so I claimed a somewhat clear spot on the floor and focused on my breath. Despite the chaos of other climbers and guides checking gear and chatting and stepping over and around me, I turned myself over to pranayama. I inhaled my arms up over head and exhaled them back to the floor. I moved through a short series of easy stretches tied to long, steady breathing which brought me back into the moment and away from fearing what may or may not happen in the middle of the night.
I wanted a nap. I needed a nap. A voice in my head told me to lie down on my bunk and rest, even if I didn’t sleep. But I didn’t listen. I wanted to be part of the group so I went to the dining area and sat in front of the fire and listened to various conversations and tried to get to know a few more people. But the energy of excitement and anticipation was overwhelming and by the time everyone was eating dinner sometime after 6 pm I was paralyzed. I felt ostracized and alone, separate form everyone else. I knew the culprit was that mean girl Depression who whispers lies to make me feel less than but sitting alone at the table with conversations bouncing excitedly all around me, I could not shake off the loneliness. I was on the verge of being swamped by Anxiety and Depression as they teamed up to tell me not only was I unprepared and not fit enough but no one liked me or even cared if I did the climb or not. Lies, damn lies.
As the others waited for dessert I cleared my plate and returned to my bunk where I let tears spill. I voiced my fears briefly with one of the organizers but felt numb to her reassurances. I appreciated her kind words then and even more so now but what I needed was sleep. My half of the group was scheduled to be on the first Cat at 1 am, breakfast at midnight. It was after 7 pm so I took two xanax to settle my nerves and soothe me into rest. I put headphones in my ears and blocked out the light with an eye mask and before I knew it people were moving about readying for the climb.
I wasn’t hungry but I knew food was important. Nothing looked good and I was disappointed there wasn’t any oatmeal, my go to gentle breakfast. I made a waffle and piled berries and yogurt on top and ate a little more than half. By the time I pulled on all my gear, my group was loading into the Cat and I felt behind. I was waiting for adrenaline and excitement to kick in. It never came.
Under the brightness of the nearly full moon, I fumbled my way into my crampons and extended my trekking poles to the length advised by the guides and before I had a chance to think about it we were off. One of the survivors, actually a three-time breast cancer survivor, is a superstar climber and fundraiser. I believe she does two climbs a year and has a running total of money raised in the six figures. During those first steps in the middle of the night I kept thinking about her words of advice “the first 30 minutes always feels terrible.” With my stomach in knots, I kept her words in my head and concentrated on one step at a time. The plan was to climb for 45 minutes at a time then rest for 10 minutes or so to refuel and hydrate. Before the first break I knew I was in trouble.
It did not take long for me to fall to the back of the group. My steps were slower and my breathing faster but it wasn’t the physical exertion that was causing this, it was something else. Something undefined. I had trained enough at altitude that the pace the guides set should not have been a challenge. I felt unsteady. Not dizzy but not firmly centered in my body. I knew it was the lack of sleep. Each step forward required my full concentration. I spoke with one of the guides and he stayed with me, setting a pattern of steps I could follow. Each time the group stopped, I was further behind. I sat on my pack, pulled my puffy coat on over everything and tried to eat but my stomach refused, threatening to reject everything if I added anything new to the mix. I sipped at my water and questioned myself.
Why do I insist on doing crazy things like this? Why did I think my body was ready for something this demanding? Shouldn’t I have given myself one more year of recovery before trying this? Why did I eat that waffle?
Then we were stuffing our coats and water bottles back into our packs, shouldering the burden and spreading out into a line zig zagging our way up the steep snowfield. I had no concept of time or space and dreaded the moment when I fell so far behind I would be left, abandoned, told to turn back. I remembered all those times when I was charging up a mountain at the front of the pack. I thought about how just three months after my last round of chemotherapy I was hiking in Patagonia battling neuropathy and fatigue but still keeping up with the group. I longed for that reserve I always took for granted, the one that kicked in when all other resources failed. I knew my reserve was still too shallow to compensate for whatever was weighing me down.
As we approached a steeper slope of snow and the blackness of night turned to pre-dawn navy then blue, one of the guides talked to me about how I was doing. He roped me to him and I followed him one slow step at a time as the temperature dropped, the wind picked up and the sun spread blue and pink beyond the peak above us. When we joined the rest of our group just below Hogsback, we were at an elevation over 10,000 feet sometime close to 5 am. A sea of clouds spread out below us with the moon growing dimmer in the early morning sky. The mountain kept us shadowed from the sun but the horizon beyond the clouds glowed pink. An exposed, steaming stretch of rock called Devil’s Kitchen stood as a reminder that we were standing on top of a volcano and though dormant, it still issued a foul sulfurous odor of geothermal activity.
I switched off my headlamp and struggled to make my fingers work to undo the locking carabiners that tethered me to the guide. The familiar ache in my joints – a side effect of one of my medications – inhibiting my dexterity. The wind blew colder despite the growing light and I shivered under all my layers knowing my climb was reaching an end. Had to reach an end. As other climbers talked and admired the view and reached for snacks, I watched the guides huddled a few feet away knowing I was being discussed. We had reached the point where the group would be broken down further into groups of three roped up to a guide for the beginning of the more technical part of the climb. A guide approached and asked how I was feeling and if I needed to go back. Tears slipped down my face as I told him I would do whatever he thought best knowing his answer before he confirmed that yes, he wanted me to go back down. He said he wanted me to be strong enough for a safe descent. I agreed.
In that moment I felt terrible. I could taste the bitter tinge of failure as I attempted to smile as the tears slid faster down my cheeks. I felt disappointment in myself as well as the crushing burden of having to confess to others that no, I did not summit. I felt weak.
And yet, there I was, after four plus hours of climbing approximately 2,000 vertical feet of one plodding step after another standing on Mt. Hood looking down at the clouds and up at the last set of cliffs before the summit. This peak I have admired from every which way since moving to Portland a year ago and I am standing on it. Yes, on the peak. Not at the summit, but pretty damn close. Other climbers congratulated me on getting that far and pointed out the times they had made it this close and were forced to turn around due to weather. The organizer told me I could come back next year. I should come back next year. I wanted to throw up when she suggested doing it again but by the time I got down, I knew I would be back. I took photos of the view, photos of the group, photos of me, photos of me with the pink bandana I had tied to my pack with the goal of photographing it at the summit. The pink bandana my sister gave me during chemo when I decided to run the Red Rock Relay, the one I wore to the Komen 5k in NYC when I was three days post-chemo and walking around Central Park took every ounce of my strength. Thursday night I used a sharpie to write the names of my family, my donors and every cancer fighter/survivor I have met during this long three-year journey of post-cancer life. One of the other climbers offered to take it to the top for me but I needed my cancer family and supporters close. Next year I will take it to the top.
Despite the spreading light, standing around taking photos and waiting for further instructions got colder and colder. Other climbers roped up and took out their ice axes and forged onward and upward and I waited for a guide to take me down the mountain. Lucky for me, there was a guide from the same company was just above us and turning back with a private client so I didn’t have to take any of the climbers in my group back down before the summit.
Instead of waiting for my descent team, the guide suggested we start climbing the steep slope in front of us to warm up. I happily obliged for the warmth and also so I could use my ice axe. And half-way up the last slope to the Hogsback, I was taken off the ascending team’s rope and locked in with the descent crew. We didn’t talk much as we side-stepped our way down the mountain toward the shortening shadow of the peak behind us as the sun rose higher into the morning sky. I stayed tethered to the guide for most of the descent and focused less on each step than I had in the morning and kept my eyes on the goal – the ski lift. My eyes weren’t familiar enough with the mountain to pick out the Silcox Hut’s roof but I knew it was somewhere below the Palmer lift.
When we had finally hiked low enough to be in the sun we stopped for a break and were soon joined by others from my group who also had to turn back before the summit. To my great relief the guide informed us that we could ride the Palmer Lift down to Silcox. I tried to keep pace with them as they zeroed in on the top of the lift but found myself slipping further and further behind as my legs struggled to stay firm. At the lift we removed our crampons and collapsed our poles and despite my caution, I slipped on the slick icy snow packed hard by skiers coming off the lift. Once off the lift we had a short walk through soft snow to the lodge and without my poles I fell again. Rest was in sight so my body was giving out.
The Silcox host repeatedly informed us that the ride down on the lift was a one time deal and to never expect it again. When the guide said it was needed for all our injuries I told the host he had played the Cancer Card, it was warranted.
Another Cat ride down to the main lodge and I collapsed in a heap with my belongings in front of the lobby fire. I needed to return my rental gear, I wanted a hot drink, a hot shower. But mostly, I didn’t want to move. I took my time removing layers and sorting out what to return to the guide’s office in the lower lodge. Eventually I managed to see to all my needs and even got my gear out to my car and made my way back to the Ram’s Head Bar by 11 for the celebratory lunch. Some friends came up from Portland and greeted me with flowers. As summiting climbers returned I congratulated them but had little energy left for socializing.
However, before I left I made a point to hug and say goodbye to each climber and as I did so the magnitude of what each had done individually and what was accomplished as a group hit me. And when one climber softly said “until there’s a cure” as he hugged me, I knew he was right. Until there is a cure, I will continue to climb mountains.