It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.
– Sir Edmund Hillary
In September, Angel Santos Burres, a breast cancer survivor, participated in New England Peaks for Prevention, a fundraising hike supporting our work to prevent breast cancer by eliminating toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease. Burres was diagnosed with cancer at age 38. She had two children ages 4 and 2, and no family history of the disease. Here is a guest post about her inspiring journey on Mt. Washington in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire:
I’ve been thinking about this hike for nine long months. I’ve vacillated between uber confident and crippling anxiety. Arriving at Joe Dodge Lodge, my feelings surprised me. I felt oddly tearful and vulnerable about to meet a large group of people that I would spend the next two days with. They would undoubtedly see me at my worst. Would they see me at my best?
As we introduced ourselves and shared our connection to the hike, there were gut wrenching stories of personal battles and those of loved ones. Each one hit harder than the last and I often found myself crying in front of these 40 some odd strangers. This sadness stirred my resolve and I felt that in that moment I could conquer that damn mountain in my flip flops.
As I sat over breakfast, I felt ready to jump out of my skin. Enough of the worrying. Enough of the anxiety. Enough of the preparation. Let’s go climb that damn mountain. Everyone seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace and the clock slowed to a crawl. Finally, we stood at the base of the trail, ready for what ever lay ahead.
The first 2.5 miles were relatively easy (especially when compared to the last two). We stayed together as a group, lapsing in and out of conversations both serious and banal, rested, refueled, and plowed forward.
I don’t think any of us were prepared for Lion’s Head trail and the final two miles. The ascent was punishing, and the sun and heat intense. The “trail” was all rock, a narrow ledge or two, and several places where hands were required to hoist oneself up. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.
I was most surprised by the top of Mt. Washington. The final 4/10 of a mile was all rocks. It was like a massive gravel pile, except the gravel was huge. There was a trail, marked by cairns, but you could just scamper up the rocks from any point moving endlessly up, up, up.
I stopped at the last cairn. My teammates and I gathered and held hands to reach the summit together. As I glanced back to see if everyone was ready, the dam broke and my biggest fear was realized. I started to cry. I cried for all of the things I could not, did not cry for over the past 3 3/4 years. Fear, anger, sorrow, joy, worry, rage, pride, loss, elation and release leaked out. We all embraced and cried together.
As I sat alone on a rock, overlooking the mountains and the trail that had just been conquered, I cried mostly for the loss of innocence. The one thought on repeat was that I wish I could unlearn all that I have learned. I wish I could unlearn all that I have learned. It is human nature to qualify a statement like that. In truth, I have been given so much more than I have given to others. And the experience of having cancer has provided many true gifts. But as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.
At breakfast, I sat with a woman in her 50s and her 26 year old son.
She was the mother of three boys, a hearty New Englander, and she had never hiked prior to this event. And here she is, having summited Mt. Washington. Total bad ass. Cancer will push you harder than anything I have yet to experience.
Despite steady 26 MPH winds and gusts of up to 60 MPH, we bundled up and went outside for the prayer flag ceremony. Standing around the lake, we individually read the names of 200+ people, some we read “in honor of”, others “in memory”. The sun briefly peaked out through the clouds and we said in unison “The wind carries our prayers of love, healing and remembrance. May we all be well.” followed by silence. I thought of my loved ones who have battled or are battling cancer, of the support of my friends and family. I felt peace in my heart.
The climb down began with a half-mile up. My legs screamed in protest. It was slow going as the narrowness of the trail forced several of us to hike in a line. I was glad that I had been so focused on the summit, I hadn’t worried about climbing down the head wall of Tuckerman’s Ravine. Wow!! Nature is both wondrous and formidable. We slowly picked our way down a trail that was close to straight down, along a beautiful waterfall with bright yellow and purple flowers.
There was some anxiety about the steepness of the trail and the wet rocks, but mostly the need to be done with these physically and emotionally grueling days overrode my fear. I descended the mountain as quickly as my body would allow, my trail mates making the task at hand lighter. And in the end, my fears were replaced by pride, closure, and the desire to keep hiking.