Ten years after reaching the top of the Western Hemisphere, Expedition Inspiration is still rising.
On August 20, the renowned breast cancer fund-raising organization, based out of Ketchum, led a group of 31 climbers to a staggering 10,800-foot vista in the Pioneer Mountains outside of Sun Valley. Another 21 brave souls-including several breast cancer survivors-made the extra 1,200-foot scramble to the summit of Hyndman Peak, Idaho's ninth-tallest mountain.
In 1995, the organization was born when three breast cancer survivors, Laura Evans, Nancy Knoble and Sandy Eiler, set foot on the 22,835-foot summit of Aconcagua, the Argentinian peak that is the world's tallest outside of the Himalayas. The climb was the subject of a PBS documentary, a book and led to similar climbs of Mount Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc in the Alps and the Grand Teton. Today, while still represented by breast cancer survivors on each climb (including Knoble on Hyndman), EI has focused its climbs solely on the rugged-if slightly smaller-the ranges of Central Idaho.
"It means less time in airplanes, and more time raising community support," said Courtney Kapp, a cancer survivor and member of EI's advisory board. Kapp came out of treatment in 2002, and said she gravitated toward EI because of both its singularity in purpose, and its effectiveness. Case in point: Since coming back to Idaho, the Hyndman summit team was the largest in the group's history, and its participants have raised over $25,000 so far.
Evans, EI's founder and the imagination behind its famed climbs, passed away in 2000. Still, Kapp said, "Laura is always with us," both in spirit an on numerous colorful prayer flags carried by climbers to represent their friends and family affected by cancer. EI Program Manager Carol O'Laughlin estimated that among the 31 hikers, over 75 flags made their way to Idaho's rooftop. My sister and I carried 14 just between the two of us (well, OK, she carried them) for our close ones afflicted with breast cancer, including our mother, Mary Ellen Collias, who succumbed in 1997 after a five-year battle.
But this climb was more than a memorial. Through fund-raising at this and smaller hikes in locations ranging from Boston to the Appalacian Trail to Seattle, EI raises over $400,000 annually to help fund research at over 20 institutions. At some, like the Fred Hutchinson, Wistar, USC and UCLA cancer research centers, EI funds help to study the genetic and environmental causes of breast cancer. At others like Duke and the Universities of Washington and Wisconsin, EI supports cutting-edge treatments, both medical and natural, for women suffering from all phases of breast cancer-including an ambitious vaccine treatment. But for the benefit of all those large and small facilities outside of the grants, EI also presents an annual Laura Evans Memorial Breast Cancer Symposium in Sun Valley, where specialists can hear the panel discussions of the latest developments and judge for themselves.
But on August 20, the intricacies of medical research took a momentary backseat to simply putting one heavy, booted foot in front of another and seeing if the weeks of training undertaken by the Collias siblings had paid off. I had taken up running and an embarrassingly awkward regimen of squat thrusts in preparation of the climb. My sister, along with her legion of smaller hikes, had given up alcohol and all non-healthy foods with such aplomb, I termed our trek "Expedition Lent." But the training worked.
After settling-gladly-into the "let's soak it all in and take as long as we want" group behind the more experienced mountaineers, we proceeded up toward the 10,000-foot Hyndman Basin at a pace best described as a wonderfully grueling stroll. We hopped from rock to rock like goats, progressing up a lush green meadow and boulder field, and listened as the first team reached the zenith with a barrage of cheers and waving flags. After a brief stop for air and snacks at the high saddle between Hyndman and its neighbor Old Hyndman Peak, we drank water straight out of a mountain spring so cold, it hurt cavities I didn't even know I had (dentist visit forthcoming; prognosis painful) and turned downhill.
Another six miles, a sit in the shade and the most satisfying beers of our lives later, we headed home on legs that my sister termed "jellylicious." But the organizers and supporters of EI weren't done at the trail's end; they'll keep raising funds from this climb for several more weeks before heading to New Hampshire for the next hike, on October 15.
Any conscientious climbing fans-or, for that matter, daring supporters of breast cancer research-who missed this year's climb needn't feel down in the dumps. Aside from continuing to accept belated support, EI will bag a daunting Idaho peak each summer for the next three years to finish their "Five Peaks in Five Years" fund-raising cycle. Following last year's weather-beaten climb of Thompson Peak in the Sawtooths, the next three climbs are Ryan Peak in the Boulder Range in 2006, the White Cloud behemoth Castle Peak in 2007 and Borah Peak, Idaho's tallest, in 2008. Sure, these climbs don't exceed 20,000 feet anymore, and the press coverage is not quite so national as it once was, but the resolve of this visionary organization has stayed firm from those haughty days when Evans, fresh off of Aconcagua, described the parallels of mountaineering and cancer treatment to the Los Angeles Times.
"You have to take one small step at a time," she said. "You have fears as you come face to face with death. And survivng calls for a strong support group."
To learn more about Expedition Inspriation, visit www.expeditioninspiration.org or call 866-319-6456. Copies of Laura Evans' book The Climb of My Life are available at EI's office, at 640 N. Main St. in Ketchum.