Climbing for a cure
Thirteen years ago, Ketchum resident Laura Evans founded Expedition Inspiration to raise awareness of breast cancer by climbing challenging peaks around the globe. Last year, fellow breast cancer survivor Courtney Kapp (above) brought Evans’ fight home with a series of climbs in Idaho. Photos and story by Diana Kapp.
It took a week of nonstop strategizing, but we finally hatched a workable plan.
Tuck 5-week-old Emma cozily in her baby carrier, strap her to my husband, David, hike for two-and-a-half hours, breast-feed on the side of the trail and at that point send them both down out of the altitude and bright sun. Then, in the four hours before Emma needs to eat again, hightail it through the talus fields to the 12,009-foot summit of Hyndman Peak, book back down and race back to our Ketchum home to feed her.
Foregoing the second climb in Expedition Inspiration’s Five Peaks in Five Years series was not an option.
Expedition Inspiration was born 13 years ago, three years after Ketchum resident Laura Evans, an avid hiker and outdoorswoman, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not one to sit back and fret, she decided to form a team of breast cancer survivors who would climb a mountain in order to raise awareness and financial support to fight the disease. It would be a visible tribute to the courage of breast cancer survivors everywhere.
In 1995, EI sent its first team of survivors to the summit of Aconcagua in Argentina, which, at 22,841 feet, is the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Mt. Rainier and Mt. Whitney in the Pacific Northwest, Mt. Vinson in Russia and Mt. Aspiring in New Zealand followed over the next seven years. Today, EI has raised more than $3.5 million to fund breast cancer research and facilitate scientific dialogue about the disease.
In 2002, 43-year-old Courtney Kapp, an EI board member and breast cancer survivor, came up with a slightly more practical solution for continuing the valuable awareness-raising mission: Bring Evans’ vision back home to Idaho. “Why go far away and raise a little money when we can do this right here and raise a lot more?” posed Courtney, who lives in Philadelphia and spends two months a year in Idaho. “Plus, I don’t know many people who can take a week out of life right now to participate in one of our climbs.” Courtney was speaking from experience as a mother of three and busy residential architect. Then, she seized on the idea to develop the Five Peaks in Five Years concept, the aim of which is to climb the highest peak in each of the major mountain ranges surrounding Sun Valley, one hike per year for five years. The first of the five climbs tackled the Sawtooth’s Thompson Peak in 2004 and then, last summer, it was Hyndman’s turn. The three remaining hikes are Ryan Peak in the Boulder Mountains, planned for this summer, Castle Peak in the White Clouds in 2007, and finally the Lost River Range’s Mt. Borah completes the series in 2008.
Courtney’s personal magnetism and courageous breast cancer story is at the heart of the success of Five Peaks in Five Years—and my own determination to participate. Just as my fit, healthy, glowing sister-in-law turned 40, she found the lump in her breast. Seeing cancer appear out of the blue in someone so vibrant and with no history of the disease and then watching Courtney’s upbeat attitude as she steamed forward in her fight against it, I found it impossible not to become an active participant in the fight against cancer.
Thirty-one climbers, 21 of whom made it to the top, joined in the Hyndman hike last August, the largest group EI has ever sent on a climb. Every climber had to donate or raise at least $1,000 to participate. Among the hikers was Nancy Knoble, who was on her 10th anniversary climb. More than a decade ago, she was one of three breast cancer survivors to stand beside Laura Evans atop Aconcagua. She is the only one of that summit group still alive. The others have lost their battles with cancer. In their memory, Knoble wore her 10-years-ragged Aconcagua climb T-shirt and flew a red flag with the names of the other women who made that inaugural ascent.
Of that 31 accompanying Courtney and I through the quaking aspen trees, at just after 6:30 a.m. on a warm, blue-banner Idaho day, were all six of Courtney’s sisters and sisters-in-law, four other family members and most of her friends from the Wood River Valley. Three generations of the Kapp family were represented, from Courtney’s remarkably fit 68-year-old mother-in-law, Jean, right down to the newest member, my 5-month-old daughter, Emma.
The Kapp family, which Courtney joined when she married my oldest brother, Steve, has a longtime connection to Sun Valley. They have enjoyed the recreational pursuits in the area for more than three decades and are now part-time residents.
Although too young to attempt the eight-hour climb, which includes several hours scrambling through boulder fields, the rocks shifting nerve-rackingly under foot, Courtney’s 10-year-old daughter, Natalie, was eager to participate in some way. First, she and a group of her cousins hosted a lemonade and chocolate chip cookie stand, with all proceeds going to the climb. Then, on ascent day, they greeted the weary hikers half a mile from the bottom with hugs and a giant banner strung across the trail. “Breast cancer is totally part of Natalie’s vocabulary,” said Courtney of her only daughter, who was in kindergarten when Courtney was diagnosed.
It is with Natalie in mind that Courtney hikes and ropes in all those close to her to do the same. “It all comes down to having one person who’s willing to call their sisters and friends and say, ‘Get your behind out here,’” laughed Courtney, as she reflected on the climb’s success. “They’ll do it if they know it means a lot to you.”
Striving to aid the advance of breast cancer research is how she believes she can best help her daughter and the next generation of women. “This organization now is about the nuts and bolts of research,” said Courtney, noting that when Evans founded EI, breast cancer was a silent killer. Evans’ mission was to bring the disease out of the closet, empowering the women facing the challenge of breast cancer. Today, pink bows, the symbol of support for research into the disease, are everywhere. Yet, despite extensive awareness and incredible scientific advances, the disease continues to claim the lives of 40,000 American women every year, affecting 212,000 more. “The goal is a cure,” said Katie Powell, EI’s director of programs. “The hope is this organization puts itself out of business.”
Adding the money raised on the Thompson Peak climb to that raised on our Hyndman trek, the Five Peaks effort has brought in $60,000 in just two years. The money goes to breast cancer research and education. Each year, EI awards grants to chosen researchers around the country. A panel of expert scientific advisors determines how to allocate funds to have the biggest impact. In addition to these grants, EI’s “crown jewel,” according to Courtney, is the annual Laura Evans Memorial Breast Cancer Symposium. Top breast cancer researchers from across the country gather in Sun Valley to share new findings and exchange scientific ideas. The 10th annual symposium, Translating Science into Clinical Care for Breast Cancer, was held in March of this year.
Perched at 12,000 feet, atop Hyndman’s rocky summit, we searched for comfy perches on which to stretch our legs and take in the spectacular view. Looking out, surrounded by the other climbers, I thought about Courtney, my own daughters and nieces, and all the women who every year have to drip chemotherapy drugs into their bodies, lose their hair and feel terrified about their future. At the same time, I felt inspired and hopeful, enlivened by the energy of this group coming together around a common cause. Mt. Borah, Idaho’s highest peak, was visible in the distance. Borah is the final climb of Five Peaks in 2008. Courtney envisions her daughter and 11-year-old niece Josephine among those attempting that climb. “They may not make the summit, but they’ll be there, I’m sure.”
While eating a well-deserved lunch, the climbers pulled colorful prayer flags out of their packs. Each flag had a name written on it; some were breast cancer survivors—close friends and family members of the climbers—others, such as Laura Evans, are no longer living. Evans died of brain cancer six years ago. This past year, her husband, Roger Evans, also died of cancer.
Courtney’s flag was purple and held the names of her parents, Joanne and Bill. In the last two years, both have been diagnosed with cancer.
The climbers attached their flags to a line and secured it under a rock, leaving the flags to flap in the breeze. Courtney was asked if she wanted to speak. She didn’t. Later, however, she said, “For me, it’s all said in the silent understanding of everybody on top.” Then, after a long pause, “There’s never been a peak when I don’t say to myself, ‘Holy shit. I made it. I haven’t had a recurrence.’ When I’m at the top, it’s pretty resonant how lucky I was.”
Peak number three