Mount Agassiz in reflection at sunset
Conquering More than a Mountain
– In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods –
Note: Click on any image to view a larger-size version.
Some of you know that my wife, Kathy, was diagnosed with lung cancer. That was almost a year ago, and the outcome was grim.
Although Kathy is unlucky to have contracted lung cancer, she is lucky her cancer, which spread rapidly through her body, had a particularly rare genetic mutation. That means her cancer can be treated with a drug (taken as a pill each day) which, unlike chemotherapy, attacks only the cancer, and has minimal side effects.
Self portrait below Chocolate Peak
There's some sort of crazy symmetry with her good and bad luck. If she had to have cancer, then it was only fair that there's a drug to help defeat her cancer. But her drug, Tarceva, has only been around for a few years. So people who had the same mutation with their lung cancer before Tarceva was invented had only bad luck.
Saddle Rock Lake, near our campsite
For Kathy, the turn-around was dramatic; she's been cancer-free – or as they say, NED (no evidence of disease) – since early this year. We don't know how long the medicine will work, we're just glad it's working now. And if it stops working, there are new medications in the works that she can try.
Finding out about Kathy's cancer started, for me, one night, as we sat together on the couch: Kathy coughed. Kathy thought it was caused by an allergic reaction to the mice she worked with in a laboratory at USC; she'd been coughing for a couple of months, although until that night, I hadn't heard it.
That first cough I did notice happened last mid-August. I worried about it, and suggested, since we were supposed to go camping at 10,500 feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in a week and a half, that Kathy see her doctor. The next day, while I was out on a pleasant bike ride, I remember thinking, "What if it's lung cancer?" Then I thought that couldn't be. Kathy didn't smoke, she ate healthy foods, and she exercised.
When she did visit the doctor, I think we were both relieved to learn that she was diagnosed walking pneumonia. She started taking drugs, and finished them the day before we left for our trip, which was a Sierra Club mule pack; we would walk about seven miles up to our campsite, with our gear carried up on the backs of mules.
Note the distended belly, full of my blood
That was a tough hike for Kathy. Her medication hadn't cleared up her cough. As she started to hike, with just a light daypack on her back, she thought, "Oh, oh, am I going to be able to make this hike?"
She did, and then she spent the rest of the trip staying close to camp. We didn't realize that half of her left lung was already crushed flat by cancerous fluid. Her cough didn't improve. I was worried about her all during the trip.
Moonrise and stars over Aperture Peak, with a tent lit by lamplight in the foreground
After our return from the mountains, Kathy took another week to visit her doctor, and this time, we learned what I already suspected, that there was some sort of mass in her lung, a mass which was a tumor. And her cancer spread in the next few months to her brain, her liver and her spine.
If, over the past few years, I've felt elation and I've felt sadness, if I laughed or cried, it was nothing compared to what I felt when I learned how sick Kathy was. While I was an emotional wreck, though, Kathy remained strong, her spirit indomitable, and with her training as a scientist, she was able to calmly help direct her treatment. She also carried out the normal day to day activities, taking care of the house (and me), and working in her garden. I was and am in awe of her.
It didn't seem likely that she would make another mule pack trip into the Sierras. Chemotherapy wasn't working. She started developing blood clots throughout her body.
We made our way down the slopes of Mount Goode
Then came Tarceva. Without it, Kathy would have died by last January, about four months after learning she had cancer. As it was, by November, when she started taking Tarceva, she was seriously ill. By January, though, it was obvious the medication was working. Her blood clots cleared up and the fluid surrounding her left lung – which unfortunately killed most of the lung – was drying up, and there one only one, tiny visible spot of cancer that showed up on her CT scan.
By March, when our daughter, Rebecca, married her wonderful husband, Lee, Kathy's cancer was in obvious and full retreat. Day by day by day, Kathy gained strength. And we signed up for another mule pack.
And then I suffered a nearly fatal heart attack three days after Rebecca's wedding.
Full disclosure: I had stopped taking the one medication – aspirin – once a day, which kept my blood running thin, and so kept me from having a heart attack. Perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, I thought, with Kathy on the mend, and my daughter married, that my work, my worth, was at an end. Or maybe I just needed, for whatever reason, to challenge my mortality to feel fully alive.
Sky Pilot at 12,000 feet
Death almost won. Apparently there was a tiny imperfection in one of the little stents placed inside my left coronary artery to unclog the build-up of some plaque. As long as my blood ran thin, my red blood cells couldn't create a clot around that imperfection. When I stopped the aspirin, a clot eventually formed, and I had the heart attack.
It took less than an hour for me to make it to the hospital. Half of patients treated within the first hour do not yet have permanent damage to their hearts.The morning after my heart attack, though, one of the doctors who'd cleared out the clot told me I might – "worst case scenario" – need a pacemaker. My heart, the doctor told me, had suffered some serious damage, and was beating erratically and weakly.
My cardiologist told me the damage was severe enough that I'd most likely never ride my bike hard up a hill again. It looked like there might not be anymore mule packs for me, either.
Preparing a meal on our stove
That was then. A week after my heart attack, feeling better than I though I should, I climbed back on my bike for a short and easy ride around the block. Every few days I rode farther. Two and a half weeks after my heart attack, I conducted a photo trip to Death Valley, where I didn't seem to have any trouble carrying my camera bag as I walked over the desert or uphills into the badlands.
The last time I saw my cardiologist, a couple of months ago, I asked him what specifically was the damage to my heart.
Kathy at 11,300 feet
"You're lucky, just a little scarring."
To put herself into shape for our mule pack, Kathy started walking up hills. Although she rode a horse to camp, which was at 11,300 feet, she felt good, far better than she had the year before, even on just one lung; she explored the high country around her on foot without difficulty. And she walked down the mountains on her own.
Your Blogger Purifying Water
As the trip came closer, I worked as hard or harder while riding my bike than I had before my heart attack. With blood, bones, muscle and sinew, I pushed down on the pedals and pulled up on the handlebars. Most likely, as long as I take my daily aspirin, I won't die on my bike; I'll die in bed (or under the wheels of a car). One way or the other, I have to die someday, and if death comes while I'm on my bike, it will be an honest way to go.
About 13,000 feet on Mt. Agassiz, with our campsite somewhere along
the shore of the upper, center lake.
I realize stopping my medication, for whatever reason, was a selfish thing to do to my family, and anyway, I had a full schedule of photography tours to conduct, lined up through the end of this year (including one this weekend, to the central coast of California).
Kathy has been on several mule pack trips, and she dearly loves them. This was my second mule pack trip, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We were 11 mule packers in all, and we camped a few miles above and beyond South Lake, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Bishop Pass, where the trail led to the west side of the range, lay a few miles and several hundred feet above us, and we were surrounded by magnificent peaks.
With a wet and long winter, the colorful flower displays – of Indian Paintbrush, Columbines, Shooting Stars, Ranger Buttons, Penny Royal, Mountain Asters and countless more – along the trails were the best I've seen over my decades of tramping through the Sierras.
We set up our tent on a little rise, set back from a beautiful lake. The people in our group were great, we shared a lot of terrific food, and I climbed a couple of peaks.
Although I could definitely feel the altitude – it took me a while to warm up on each of the hikes we made – my bike rides paid off. I had no difficulty climbing up to almost 14,000 feet one day, on the steep, textured, granite slopes of Mt. Agassiz. On our last morning, after five days at altitude, my heart rate held at a steady 44 beats per minute.
Kathy and I had conquered more than a mountain. We had conquered our own frailties, physical and mental. We had lived by blood, bone, muscle and sinew, and will. And next summer we will make another trip into the throne room of the gods.
Homer atop Mt. Agassiz, with the Palisade crest
and the Palisade Glacier to the south
Note: Photographs made with a Panasonic Lumix LX5. Click on any image to see a larger-resolution version.