A Woman of Courage

by Katherine Martin

LAURA EVANS' COURAGEOUS CLIMB

"I was in a hallway, walking slowly toward what I knew would be my death or my salvation and knowing that either way, what I was about to undergo would be horrible."

At age forty, former fashion designer Laura Evans was diagnosed with breast cancer and given a fifteen percent chance of surviving three to five years. That was ten years ago. After fighting back, she founded Expedition Inspiration with the dual mission of taking other survivors of breast cancer with her to the mountains she loved to climb and of raising money for breast cancer research. In January of 1995, she co-led a team of forty-three people that included seventeen survivors - who ranged in age from twenty-two to sixty-two - up Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. Her experience is intimately captured in her book, The Climb of My Life (1996), which illustrates the parallels between surviving a life-threatening illness and climbing mountains. Her story is being developed as a television movie by Barbara Streisand's production company, Barwood Films.

As a mountaineer, I'm often asked, "When were you the most afraid?" Those who have lived on the edge probably have a lot of answers to that question: times when their hearts beat faster, when they prayed hard to God, maybe even when they wished they could turn back time. For me, only one moment stands out, so completely etched in my mind that even now, many years later, I can still taste the fear, can feel its tendrils wrap around my very being, tightening its grasp. I wasn't hanging off the side of a mountain. Instead, I was in a hallway, walking slowly toward what I knew would be my death or my salvation and knowing that either way, what I was about to undergo would be horrible.

Although I started climbing in 1983, it wasn't until 1989 that I thought of mountaineering as more than an occasional diversion. I recently had returned from Nepal and an arduous two-hundred-and-fifty-mile trek as part of the support team of Lou Whittaker's successful American Expedition on Kangchenjunga. This was my first trip into the "big" mountains, to the base camp and on up to 18,000 feet, and I was hooked. But my climbing "career" suddenly ended before it really began. Six months after my return from the Himalayas, I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer that had metastasized to my lymph system. In a matter of months, I went from feeling stronger than I'd ever felt to being ravaged by a disease that could very quickly claim my life. I sought opinion after opinion and mountains of advice from doctors. The consensus was that I participate in a clinical trial. The treatment would include two surgeries, three months of outpatient chemotherapy, seven weeks of radiation, and a two-month stay in a bacteria-free isolation room where I would undergo intensive chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. I would be one of the first people in the country to go through this particular medical protocol. There were no statistics on how many people might be cured by it, only the certainty that not everyone who entered the therapy would survive the massive doses of drugs. I put away my hiking boots, backpack, tent, and dreams of climbing. A different challenge lay ahead, one that would require every ounce of physical and emotional strength that I possessed. On March 28, 1990, I walked down the hallway that led to the bacteria-free room where I would reside, alone, until either I or the cancer won out. I walked more slowly than I ever had, measuring each step, savoring my last moments of freedom. What would it be like in there? Would I ever come out? And if I did, what would my life be like? The only thing I knew for certain was that I would miss the outdoors, desperately. I could barely remember a day that had passed without my being outside, if only briefly, to inhale the sweet aroma of fresh air. I spent seven weeks, twenty-three and a half hours each day, in bed on my back. The other half hour of each day I spent throwing up or sitting on the port-a-potty emptying my aggravated bowels. I was kept alive, barely, by a catheter that protruded from my chest, through which drugs and food were dispensed into my system. I thought only of surviving. I'd stare for hours upon hours out my window at the lush green park across the way, bringing all my focus to the memory of wind through my hair, the warmth of sun on my body, the satisfaction of muscles and lungs that burned from good, honest physical exertion. And then I'd collapse back on my pillow and pray that if nothing more, I would walk again, out of this hospital, through that park. On occasion, I would dream about climbing again and would fantasize scenarios where, after a tough but successful climb, I would stand on the top of one of the world's highest continental summits. In my dreams, I would climb them all. But, in reality, I was very sick. One day, all incoming calls to my room were stopped. I was put on oxygen, morphine, and three types of antibiotics in an almost futile effort to combat the pneumonia that had invaded my lungs. The doctors came to my room more often. My husband prayed. And I stood at death's door, for the first time in my life unafraid of the deep, dark void that stretched out beyond it. But also certain, for no defined reason, that it wasn't yet my time. Before long, I was out of danger. My immune system built back to the point where I was able to be moved out of the isolation room to a nonsterile room. Shortly after, I was released. That very day, I walked through the park that I'd been staring at morning, noon, and night for seven weeks. With my husband, Roger, at my side, I walked four blocks, willing my atrophied muscles to take one more step, then another, into the warm embrace of that garden. At the top of the steps, I raised my fists into the air. Behind me, at the base of the hill, was Pacific Presbyterian Hospital and the closet of a room where I had endured for almost two months. That was a summit I will never forget.

It was inevitable, as I built my body back, that my mind would return to the unfinished business of climbing. After six months of light hiking, I pulled my backpack out of storage and thought seriously about the mountains. Two years after my painful yet exhilarating walk through that San Francisco park, I stood atop Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro, running the last twenty feet to the crest. Statistically, I should have died or been severely debilitated by the harsh treatment and agonizing side effects of my cancer treatment. But, instead, there I was, standing at 19,000 feet with a renewed appreciation for the human spirit and the body's ability to heal itself.

It was shortly after my Kilimanjaro trek that I made a personal commitment to the millions of women suffering from breast cancer and to a Higher Power that spared my life. The result was Expedition Inspiration, a climb up Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes in 1995, the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas. Lou Whittaker's son, Peter, who owns Summits Adventure Travel in Eatonville, Washington, became my partner in Expedition Inspiration. With the help of Peter, who would lead the climb, I put together a team made up of seventeen breast cancer survivors. The goals of our climb were to raise awareness, much needed research funds, and hope. The average person, if asked to give a synonym for cancer, would without hesitation say "death." Cancer is one of the scariest things one can ever face. Another of the objectives of Expedition Inspiration was to demonstrate that not only is the disease survivable, but one can go on to achieve goals that were otherwise seen as unthinkable.

We spent twelve hard days of scrambling over rocks, scree, ice, and snow often in cruel weather, to reach the top. The most emotional part of the climb was shortly before the summit when we radioed down to the trek team at base camp 8,000 feet below us, telling them that we were going to make it. Hearing their elated screams of joy from so far below pushed us on toward the top. At the summit, we radioed down again. It was a wonderful moment knowing that all of the effort that had gone into the project, and all that we were trying to do for the cause, was going to be a success. I know it was equally emotional for everyone at base camp. Some of the women had not gone as high as they'd hoped, but we were no less a team - I and the two other women who stood on the top represented all that we were doing as a group. Whether on the summit team or the trek team, none of us lost sight of why we were there and the fact that we were climbing for so many other women.

Aconcagua is a big mountain, but I would climb it again any day, rather than walk down that hospital hallway again. With the support of my husband, Roger, and of Peter Whittaker and our team of breast cancer survivors, I stood at twenty-three thousand feet, battered lungs and all, to honor the will and determination that exists in each of us and to pay homage to the thousands of individuals who have drawn on that strength in an effort to stay alive. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.


The Aconcagua climb was made into a PBS documentary, "Expedition Inspiration." Expedition Inspiration annually conducts numerous climbs and other outdoor adventures, including bicycle tours, treks, and climbs up Mt. Whitney, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Kilimanjaro. With the support of her board of directors, Laura also runs a program called Help Breast Cancer Take-a-Hike, which she started "to involve the many people who believe in our mission: to support, educate, and honor the thousands of women going through this illness, and to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health and welfare by getting outside and doing something good for themselves." Take-a-Hike is a two-hour trek with just enough vertical ground to give people a feeling of what it would be like to go on a climb. Half of the pledge money raised is donated to a local hospital or breast cancer center. Take-a-Hikes have been held in Boise, Salt Lake, Maine, Tucson, Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles. The Aconcagua climb was made into a PBS documentary, "Expedition Inspiration." Expedition Inspiration annually conducts numerous climbs and other outdoor adventures, including bicycle tours, treks, and climbs up Mt. Whitney, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Kilimanjaro. With the support of her board of directors, Laura also runs a program called Help Breast Cancer Take-a-Hike, which she started "to involve the many people who believe in our mission: to support, educate, and honor the thousands of women going through this illness, and to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health and welfare by getting outside and doing something good for themselves." Take-a-Hike is a two-hour trek with just enough vertical ground to give people a feeling of what it would be like to go on a climb. Half of the pledge money raised is donated to a local hospital or breast cancer center. Take-a-Hikes have been held in Boise, Salt Lake, Maine, Tucson, Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles.

From Women of Courage, by Katherine Martin. Copyright 1999 by Katherine Martin. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, Ext. 52 or click here.