Life is a Journey, Not a Destination: The Bob Boardman Memorial Climb for Prostate Awareness

Relentless! That was the word climbers used repeatedly in camp, with varying degrees of exasperation, to describe what it was like to climb California’s largest and tallest volcano. At 14,169 feet tall Mt. Shasta dominates its surroundings like few mountains on earth. In this way it is much like Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro. But that’s where the similarity ends. Those of us who climbed Kilimanjaro with the Prostate Awareness Foundation (PAF) in 2003 agreed that climbing Shasta was exponentially harder, despite Africa’s tallest peak being a full mile higher.

First, a hearty thank you is in order for the hard-working support team who helped the climbers prepare for their journey, fed and nurtured us in the days before and after the ascent, and created order out of the chaos that arises from 20 people camping together. Laura Beach, Petra Boardman, Ron McConnell, Tom Lennon and Tim Englert were absolutely essential members of the team. They helped us carry our gear to base camp, transported us reliably and often, and smoothed many scheduling wrinkles. Tim even hiked the 2500 vertical feet to base camp on the day after the climb to help us greet the day with a special treat. When the weary climbers awoke for breakfast, there was Tim – with several pounds of freshly-prepared fruit salad!

The climb began with a pleasant four mile hike through pine forest from 6950 foot Bunny Camp, a short drive from the picturesque town of Mt. Shasta. Two hours later we set-up our base camp at Hidden Valley, an area whose name belies its desolate reality. Hidden Valley is base camp for one reason only: it is the last flat area before the 4800 foot wall of Mt. Shasta’s west face, a treeless and blustery place that rarely invited communal gathering during the two days we were there.

We began our ascent at three in the morning, a routine our guides told us was to take advantage of the firm snow and better weather conditions. Many of us believe the real reason was so we couldn’t see the absurd steepness of the slope as we climbed. We set out in four groups, the members of each roped together and to their guide. Our snow school the day before had exposed us to skills new to all but a few. Now we were put into action using them.

Mt. Shasta’s west face is 4800 ft of snow covered rock with 3 levels of climbing difficulty: steep, steeper, and “dearly beloved, we are gathered here to . . . “. It is 4800 feet of crampons and ice axes, of thinking only about that next difficult step, of trying not to look up and see how little progress we had made.  Thirteen climbers started out. Four reached the summit. All succeeded.

Equipment failure stymied Ed Raels almost immediately, a broken crampon ending his climb. The rest of us took between two-and-a-half and three hours of constant exertion to climb to 11,000 feet. At this point Jackie Cacace, hiking for only her third day ever, and Shana Malik, a veteran of previous climbs now hobbled by sciatica, decided to turn back. One of the guides went down with them, and we reorganized our climbing groups by relative speed to increase the chance of some of us getting to the top.

The mountain’s perpetual steepness gave little opportunity for feeling a sense of accomplishment along the way. It was, simply, relentless. But no one stopped until they felt they had no choice. By 12,000 feet above sea level many of us had already been working hard for five continuous hours! Jeanette Lebell, Jan Zlotnick and Rick Mohovich, all veteran high altitude climbers, had long realized they weren’t going to summit, but had decided to push on as long as they could. This was as long as they could. Then, at 13,000 feet Seth Russell and Nate Miller, long time friends and admirers of Bob Boardman, realized they were in danger of not being able to make the trek back down if they pushed on any farther. Wanting to continue, but fearing he might hold the others back, Ken Malik, PAF’s founder and climb organizer, also turned back.

Now, thighs on fire, triceps aching from thousands of plunges of ice axes into snow, and feeling the high altitude in the form of headaches, nausea, and weakness, the four remaining climbers and their guide consulted with each other often as to whether to go any higher. It was a moment-to-moment decision. Finally, after ten hours of increasingly difficult physical effort and mental endurance, they stood on Mt. Shasta’s summit: Ian Boardman, Rob Boardman, John Loesing and Quincy Zlotnick. Ian and Rob fulfilled their dream of scattering their father’s ashes at the top. It is their dad Bob Boardman, a dear friend of PAF who died from prostate cancer last November, for whom this climb was dedicated. At 59, John was by far the oldest member of the summiting group. It’s not the first time John has humbly demonstrated that age is not necessarily a limiting factor. And fifteen-year-old Quincy, the youngest PAF climber ever, became its youngest to summit.

There is much about the five days the climbers and support group members shared that is wonderful and intangible. The sheer amount of human effort made it hard not to appreciate everybody there. The shared goals, the cheering each other on, the desire to demonstrate that a diagnosis of prostate cancer is not the end of life. Everyone did their best, and everyone succeeded. Life is a journey, not a destination.  And we are all still on that journey.