Part 14 – A Look Back on my Cancer Journey – Longs Peak

(Adapted from notes and journal entries from August 7, 2006.)

Sometimes God shows up in subtle ways and it takes awhile for us to comprehend His presence. Other times He’s so obvious the rocks cry out. This was the case on August 7, 2006.  We were scheduled to climb Long’s Peak with a group of friends.

This date had been put on our calendars months ahead of time after much research. We talked to veteran climbers, read Forest Ranger updates, watched a video of the route and poured over online trip reports. Because of the heavy crowds, it was best to climb during a week day. No sense being slowed down by hundreds of people all trying to navigate a narrow stretch of trail if you can avoid it. August was reportedly the most weather-friendly month to hike above tree line. We picked Monday the 7th and penciled it into our books. Every hike and climb this year would be geared to getting us fully ready for our attempt at summiting Colorado’s 15th highest peak. We looked forward to it with great anticipation and a healthy dose of fear and respect. Pictures alone of the route gave me the willies.

Unprepared and unfortunate people die on Longs Peak every year. It’s proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park make it a natural attraction for amateur hikers. Even seasoned climbers sometimes have to make multiple attempts to get to the top. Due to time and expense, we wanted to avoid this if at all possible. Successful hikers start between 2 and 4 a.m. to get the lower part of the mountain done in the dark, leaving more daylight to navigate the technical parts of the route. This made sense from every aspect – except a good night’s sleep.

Rated Class 3, parts of this hike would require un-roped scrambling, using your hands to hold on, maneuver around an obstacle and navigate the route. Steepness and rough, dangerous terrain were to be expected. Exposure was a given – no place for those prone to acrophobia. Snow could fall any month of the year, despite the forecast. Afternoon thunderstorms were a common event. This was no hike for sissies, but we felt we were up to the task…in our more confident moments. After all, we’d already climbed over 20 other mountains in Colorado.

Despite all the warnings and dire news reports we’d read, we continued to run into people on other 14ers who had already done Longs Peak. Sometimes it was the first mountain they’d climbed. Once in awhile, the individual was a senior citizen. Kids as young as 6 or 8 had done the climb with a parent’s help. Some were nonchalant about the peak. No big deal. They had done other mountains they thought were harder or more impressive. It was difficult to sift through the facts and realistically gauge our own abilities and expectations. If these folks could do it, surely we could be successful, right?

When I got my cancer diagnosis in early April, the plans for August 7th eventually came to mind.  Would this hike still be possible? Would I even be alive? Able to walk? Still in treatment? Have to sit this one out? I had no idea, but wanted to hang on to the possibility and hope for the best . As the summer wore on, I stayed active hiking and walking (running was uncomfortable due to the placement of my port near my shoulder). I didn’t cover great distances, but was consistent.

What slowed me down most was the accumulated effect of the radiation. Walking like a normal person became almost impossible and quite painful. The multiple treatments had produced third degree burns on the insides of my upper thighs and groin area, front to back. I could not sit, but rather propped myself up on a hip to slightly recline on a couch. Or, I tucked a foot underneath my bum to keep from touching my tender areas on a chair. Even the donut pillow I’d bought was eventually useless. I typed email updates to my siblings while kneeling on couch cushions. Burn ointment and pain relieving gels kept me somewhat comfortable, but I’d lost a full layer of burned top skin and the pink stuff underneath was now extremely tender. My husband remarked that it looked like someone took a blowtorch to my crotch. He wasn’t exaggerating. To avoid any chafing while walking, I maintained a wide stance and rotated my hips to navigate forward. It wasn’t pretty. One day, in this pathetic condition, I suggested a trip to Wal Mart. My daughter cheerfully offered to go herself and get whatever was on the list. I immediately suspected her reluctance to be seen with me and my new “toddler with a full diaper” gait.

“But I’d like to get out of the house and do something besides go to treatment.”

“Mom, you walk like this!” Tess proceeded to do a really bad John Wayne swagger/waddle and we all cracked up.

“Oh come on. I’m that bad?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, well then I’ll push a cart and walk slow with lots of stops. No one will notice. I promise not to walk too close to you.”

I won that battle, but it made my goal of hiking a mountain in the near future even more doubtful. Here it is June and I’m a bald, burned up mess who needs a nap every day. How will I hike 14 miles and climb over 5,000 feet in a single day…in just a couple months? I had painful, unpredictable bowel movements and couldn’t tolerate underwear next to my skin. What’s that going to look like above tree line? I still had a port under my skin that rubbed on every bra strap. How am I going to wear a backpack? Those were questions I just had to put aside and pray about. Surely, God knew all my limitations and my job was to trust Him with the outcome, good or bad.

My last radiation appointment was Monday, June 12, exactly eight weeks away from the Longs Peak ascent date. I had made it through the grueling 28 treatments without a break, earned an “angel wings” pin and a certificate of completion from the radiation therapists. With hugs to the staff, I waddled out of the cancer center, slightly emotional and extremely thankful to have my life back – or, what was left of it. The next couple of days, I really expected to see some rebounding in my energy and noticeable healing. Hey, no more frying my insides – this is a good thing! It was just the opposite. The cumulative effect of radiation peaks after the last zapping, kind of like a delayed tsunami of pain. Yes, I was told I’d feel worse before things got better, but thought I was healthier and stronger than the average patient and would be the exception. Not so. It was like getting to the top of a mountain, only to learn you were on a false summit and still had another half mile to go on dead legs and a crushed spirit.

Miraculously, within a week I was able to do hour long hikes and walks. Ten days later, I hiked the Manitou Incline…a one mile vertical trek that covers 2000 feet in elevation. Picture railroad ties going up the side of the mountain – and you have our popular, local outdoor Stairmaster. I wasn’t breaking any records, but I drew more than one curious look with my buzzed head under a baseball cap.

I continued to get in as much training as my body allowed and Tim and I took a morning to walk the upper two miles of Mt. Evans to get some altitude acclimation. Unfortunately, my “chemo brain” was in full force on this hike and I led us in the wrong direction from the Summit lake parking lot. Normally, I can read a topographical map and follow printed directions, but my inner GPS was malfunctioning big time that day. When I realized my error, we were already half way up the side of the mountain, wondering what happened to the trail. I was also struggling to catch my breath and maintain my balance on teetering rocks. This was not the easy walk I’d imagined. Tim was ever so patient and helped get us back on course. Once at the top, we took pictures with a large, friendly marmot nearby, eying our trail mix. It felt great to stand on top and I didn’t have the usual sweaty hair to make me cold. Nice perk! A herd of mountain goats hanging around the summit entertained us on the way down and posed for multiple pictures. It was my first mountain climbed as a cancer survivor – it gave me hope.

I returned to work part time and timidly asked to have Monday, the 7th of August off (just in case the weather was perfect and I was able to hike with our group). Thank the Lord for an understanding boss who knew my desire to regain an active lifestyle. By this time, I could sit normally and wear underwear again. Woo-hoo, it’s the little things we celebrate! The main irritant was my wig. I’d only worn it for brief outings before and the four hour shifts were unbearable. Tired of scratching, I began to slip my hair off and lay it on my desk while I typed away in my cubicle. I brought baseball hats to trade out with the wig and coworkers adjusted to the ever-changing head gear – or lack thereof. One day, I got up to go to the bathroom and halfway there, realized my head was naked. I hadn’t left the confines of the department up until then with this new look, and I was more worried about who I would run into and scare half to death. It was no secret that I was bald, but knowing that and actually seeing my white, nubby dome pop out from behind a corner was a different thing altogether. Eventually, I got bolder, the double-takes decreased and no one really cared.

Finally, the time for our long-anticipated adventure had arrived. The weather forecast was good, so we packed our bags and headed for Estes Park on Sunday night. We checked into our hotel, went out for Italian food and spent the balance of the evening organizing our packs and communicating with the rest of our hiking party. We’d meet them at the trailhead at 4 am. Our bodies were in bed by 10 pm, but just knowing we had to get up five hours later made it difficult to fall asleep.

Tim slept lightly, but my mind would not shut off. Oh, I can’t forget my anti-diarrheal tablets…gotta remember to ask Roger if he’ll carry my Goretex jacket once we get there. Did I put my camera in my pack? Should I bring extra underwear? Did I put my tissues and toilet paper in there? Two types of gloves or just one? Ear warmer or baseball cap? Both? Bandaids for blisters? Extra car key in case we get separated and I have to turn back? Oh, I hope I make it. Lord, you’ve brought me this far. Please give us the strength to all finish. We’ve put so much into this trip. You know I’m not in the best shape and have all these other issues to worry about. Keep us safe. Help us to enjoy the journey. Where did I put my Advil? God, can you please help me get a little sleep? What if I fall and die up there? And become another statistic? Have I told my kids I love them lately?

11 pm. The inner blathering continues…my longest hike since treatment has only been six miles and what we’re attempting is more than twice that long, and much harder. What are we getting ourselves into?! Oh, Jesus, help me to have faith in Your goodness and peace and strength. Go before us, Lord. Give us supernatural endurance. Make our path straight and keep our feet steady on the rocks. I really don’t want to fall off those cliffs or slip on those narrow ledges in the pictures. Help us to pack enough water and snacks. I really want to rest in Your arms now, God. Can you help me relax and surrender to some ZZZs? I’ll be content with whatever Your will is tomorrow, but I have enough odds against me without adding a sleepless night. I can barely function at work with a few hours sleep, let alone scale some bad ole’ mountain.

This is not good. It’s after midnight and I’m still awake. Tim is stirring a bit and the tiny bed keeps shaking. I have earplugs in, but can still hear people and cars going by outside our room. Good grief, can’t we get some peace around here? 2 am. Hm. Well, God, I guess we just needed to catch up with each other tonight. No sleep for this camper. Who else can I pray for while I’m lying here resting? Okay, I’ll start with my parents and work my way down through my nine siblings, then their kids….Did I pack my Propel water packets? I hope the batteries don’t die in our cameras, ‘cause I have a feeling we’re going to take massive amounts of pictures tomorrow. I mean today. Sheesh. Quit worrying! Do brains have an off switch? I can’t believe I just wasted what little time I had to recharge my own batteries. Well, Lord, there’s the alarm. Ready or not, it’s time to climb a mountain.

Tim and I try to make coffee in our room while we bump into each other going back and forth between bathroom, bed, packs and suitcases. Somehow, we make three noisy trips to the car, paying back all those late arriving hotel dwellers who had the nerve to rattle our walls when we were wishing for quiet. The drive to the trailhead takes about 20 minutes and we verify via cell phone that Roger, Jo and Eric are all moving in the same direction. The parking lot is almost full, as we expected. We’re like kids on Christmas day, nervously anticipating the surprises that await us.

4 am. We start our stopwatches and single file, head up the trail. It’s surreal; quiet, except for our footsteps, the steady breathing, and the soft clink of hiking poles digging into the dirt. Tall pine trees surround us and we occasionally glimpse the headlamps of other hikers above or below as we ascend a set of switchbacks. I say another silent prayer, asking for safety and thanking God for the opportunity to experience the wonder of His creation. I’m also hoping most of His creatures are sleeping and not stalking us. It doesn’t help that we pass a sign for “Goblin’s Forest.”

We get above the trees and can see the eastern plains and the glow from the city lights in the distance. It’s awesome. Time to put away the headlamps and shed a layer or two. We maintain a steady pace and keep looking around as a new day dawns. Thank you, God, for the beautiful sunrise, and for getting us this far. The slope gets easier and the views unfold with every turn. Chasm Lake, Mt. Lady Washington, Storm Peak, Granite Pass all get identified, thanks to other avid map readers. I see a sign for a porta-pot and we all decide to take a break. Not knowing better, I waltz right by some crude, square, power-box thing that looks like a covering for a fire hydrant or phone cables. Seems like an odd place for it. Five more minutes down the path, I just squat in the rocks and do my business. They should mark those porta-pots better. On the way back to the group, I see a person emerge from the square box – it’s a well-disguised toilet! Duh! Well, now that I know what to look for…! These structures have no roof, just walls off the ground, enough to cover you from the chest down. You disappear from view when you sit. I’m impressed, and bummed I missed the opportunity to try it out. My patient group knows how important potty stops are for me. I take a picture of the potty-not-pooped-in and we move on.

We get to the Boulder Field and find a trail to follow most of the time. Cairns, or stacks or rocks, help guide us. I spy another porta-pot in the distance and thank the Lord again for His provision. Our next goal is to get up and through the Keyhole, a narrow notch providing passage to the other side of the mountain. We get to use some of our scrambling skills and each one takes their time finding the safest route. About 20 other hikers are around us now, and it begins to be a more social climb. We encourage one another and help point out the best route. As I get to the Keyhole, and finally look up, I almost pass out. I’ve crossed over a ridge and am on a very narrow, rocky area, trying to take it all in. I can see about 50 miles in the distance and very little up close. People are tucked into the rocks here and there and the ground just disappears in front of me. I know I uttered something along the lines of “Holy crap!” There is fear in my throat and terror in my eyes. Tim motions for me to come down a step or two and get out of the way of people behind me. I remember reading that this is as far as many people get before they turn around. I can see why. This is “exposure” in all its grandness. Glacier Gorge is down to the right, but who wants a closer look?! I’ll take their word and stay put.

After bravely sitting a bit and taking a few pictures, we clearly need to move on. More and more folks are coming through the Keyhole and we need to free up our cozy but precipitous real estate. Our route is now marked by bull’s-eyes…red circles with yellow centers painted on the rocks. This trail section is the Ledges. Between watching for those targets and watching where we place our feet, our minds are distracted from the slope we’re actually on. We proceed to the next section, called the Trough. It looks like a pile of boulders going up to another notch. Once in this steep gully, it’s kind of fun to see how hikers in front of us navigate the terrain. At the top of the Trough, I totally need help. There is a large slab of sloping rock without nifty niches or places to grab hold or put your feet. I have really short legs and can picture myself getting stuck, or worse, sliding off the rock and taking some other person with me. With the help of Tim and other hikers, we push, pull and drag my quivering carcass up the rock. With a sigh of relief, I’m already dreading getting back down that darn thing in a few hours!

HPIM1101

MJ Longs

Next challenge – the Narrows, an exposed ledge that dips down a bit before heading back up. I’m thankful it’s dry and concentrate heavily on good boot placement, using my hiking pole as balance. We’re feeling a bit more confident and anxious to get to the top, now that it’s so close we can taste it. Our group has also spread out. We are in the lead with Eric behind us. Jo and Roger are taking their time and we can see glimpses of them on the terrain below.

The Home Stretch. I love the name of this section, but I’m dumbfounded at the pitch. We can see the top – it’s straight up where the rock stops and the blue sky begins. In between here and there is a rock slab with just enough notches and ledges to look like a ladder leaned against a mountain. You’ve got to be kidding! After all the terrain we’ve balked at and bumbled through, I really thought this part would be a tad easier, an opportunity to coast a bit into the finish line. People are trying to come down and go up, and the best path is littered with bodies jockeying for footholds. They look like a group of ants crawling around one another in a carefully orchestrated line dance. We join the melee and do our own version of the Longs Peak tango to the top. Tim scoots on ahead of me and I take it inch by inch, handhold over handhold. The hikers coming down are cheering us on. “You’re almost there – it’s beautiful at the top.” “No false summit – that’s really it!”

Soon, there’s no more “up” and the view is horizontal. It’s a massive rocky football field up here and I see Tim off to the side unpacking his lunch and getting the camera ready. In a moment of sheer joy and relief, I pose with my hands raised and yell “We made it!!!” Words can’t describe the emotion and I quickly have to sit down and call someone. I think of my coworkers who are praying for us and dial Holly to let her know we’re on top. Gotta love technology. Other hiking parties are having their own form of celebration. We learn that a young guy and girl just rope-climbed up the really steep face and got married before rappelling back down. We missed a wedding at 14,000 feet!? I don’t even want to look over that edge, and wonder where they found a preacher to make the trip with them.

MJ on Longs

Eric joins us and we are all grinning and chatting, trying to shove food in before heading back down.  Despite the glory of the view and the adrenaline of accomplishment, we know we’re sitting ducks if a random storm stirs up — lightning targets of the finest kind. I’m also vividly aware that if nature called up here, a woman would just have to politely ask everyone to turn the other way. Guys have it so easy. We’re at least a couple of hours away from the last porta-pot and I consciously try to limit my fluid intake to avoid such a situation. Although…there probably aren’t too many folks who could claim they mooned a crowd at 14,000 feet. ;>) Pardon my weird sense of humor…

Top of Longs

As we unwind our steps and do every section in reverse, it goes much faster and smoother than the way up. We pass Jo and Roger on the Home Stretch and agree to meet at the car, not wait for them on the trail. I keep checking the sky for clouds or even the slightest hint of rain or wind. It truly is a spectacular day. Despite our creeping fatigue, we know we have to stay alert and watch our steps even more carefully. One stumble could mean a sprained ankle, broken limb or concussion. There is no soft landing until we descend back into the shelter of the trees. Fortunately, the rock slab that gave me fits on the way up isn’t too bad. Except now my bladder is really feeling pressure and I need to discreetly leave a bit of my DNA in the Trough. No one notices, but Tim later remarks that he thought I disappeared for a bit.

Our food is dwindling and water supply getting thin, but we don’t need as many calories on the way down. Sunscreen and sweat has mingled, dried and formed a salty, white powder on my face. My feet and legs hurt and I’m craving a long nap, feeling the effects of my sleepless night. Our pace is slowing, but we press on, knowing the car isn’t going to get any closer if we dawdle. We’re grateful for the safe hike and looking forward to a long, hot shower or bath, and a good meal. We’ve earned it. The parking lot comes into view and we punch our stopwatches. Ten hours, 40 minutes. Not bad for a recent cancer survivor with a stupid port in her chest. Thank you, Jesus.

(Above mini-poster compliments of Scott J, photographer & possessor of many other mad skills.)

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