Climbers conquer more than mountains
Every summer, a group of women tackles the world’s most challenging mountains.
They’ve dodged rocks, missed avalanches, leaped crevasses, trudged over glaciers and tiptoed through ice falls on Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, Mount Whitney, Mount Denali and Mount Fuji for a decade now, literally risking their lives for the goal ahead.
These women know what it means to battle for their lives: Many of them are breast cancer survivors.
At 7:45 a.m. on July 21, Chris Kozlowski of South Shore topped out on Mount Rainier with 17 breast cancer survivors and supporters for the 10th anniversary of the first Climb Against the Odds, organized by the Breast Cancer Fund.
The climbers ranged in age from 25 to 65, and raised $365,000. Ninety percent of the money will be spent to advocate for the elimination of environmental links to breast cancer.
Mount Rainier is a 14,411-foot volcano, and requires technical mountaineering skills and several days to reach the top.
The team hired guides, who trained them in glacier travel, breathing, the efficient “rest step,” as well as the essentials of roping up and arresting a fall with their ice axes.
Kozlowski is a physical therapist who has never had cancer. But she was inspired by patients, family and friends who have been diagnosed.
It started in the fall of 2002, when Kozlowski was getting a hair cut. That’s when she met Linda Kaczmar, a seven-year breast cancer survivor.
Kaczmar was revved up about her climb on Mount Shasta the next spring and when she found out Kozlowski had mountaineering experience, she asked for help training.
They took weekend trips into Desolation Wilderness, becoming closer friends and stronger climbers.
After Kaczmar climbed 14,162-foot Shasta in 2003, the women stayed in touch. When word came the fund was taking applications for the Rainier climb, Kozlowski jumped at the chance. Kaczmar drove her to Washington and cheered her on from base camp.
The day of the summit attempt, Kozlowski was filled with hope – and dread. She had tried to summit three times before.
In her bag, she had several prayer flags, emblazoned with the names of those who had passed away. She hoped to place them at the summit.
Three hours after leaving base camp, her team reached a dangerous, rocky section at 12,000 feet, ominously dubbed Disappointment Cleaver. Kozlowski was overtaken by the same debilitating nausea that hit her three times before. Her heart sunk. She couldn’t go further.
Then her guide reminded her of the “pressure breath,” a technique of huffing, where you force air quickly out of the lungs, allowing oxygen to rush back in. Focusing on that, she kept going.
After the Cleaver, the route takes a turn straight up the mountain. A sea of blinding white snow lies ahead. The air gets thinner, and the summit seems none the closer with each step.
“When I got passed the Cleaver, I called on those named (in the prayer flags) and they really carried me up,” Kozlowski said. “Their spirits surrounded me.”
Andrea Martin, founder of the Breast Cancer Fund, was the first to draw a metaphor between mountaineering and breast cancer. You take it one step at a time, she said, that’s all you can do.
Martin died in 2003.
“Just as the climber leaves the security of base camp, the cancer patient leaves behind the person she was and the life she knew prior to her diagnosis,” writes Mary Papenfuss in the book “Climb Against the Odds: Celebrating Survival on the Mountain.”
“In facing the unknown, each of these heroic women wrestled with demons of weakness, doubt and fear that threatened her progress. The mountain taught that success lies in the journey, not just the summit.”
Kozlowski admits before the climb, her goal was selfish: She wanted to summit and she wanted it badly. But meeting and climbing with dozens of women who had faced the formidable odds of cancer – and then scaled that inner mountain – transformed her.
Now Kozlowski doesn’t remember what the summit looked like.
“Once I stood there, none of it mattered,” she said. “It was all about making sure the prayer flags got up and hugging the next people that were coming up to reach the summit.”
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