They spend their work hours in offices, classrooms, clinics and emergency rooms and their free time in the mountains around Los Angeles searching for missing hikers, extricating crash victims from vehicles and belaying down cliffs to rescue people literally clinging to life by their fingernails.
What do these hearty souls do for fun? They strap on 50-pound backpacks and hike up mountains in pitch blackness to save an equally imperiled group: cancer patients.
Since 2007, a core group of intrepid volunteers from the Montrose Search and Rescue Team has participated in Climb to Fight Cancer, scaling a handful of peaks and raising a hefty $129,000 for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Since 1997, volunteers like the six participants who scaled Mount Rainier Aug. 14 have brought in nearly $8 million to Fred Hutch to help eradicate cancer and allow others to, as one member put it, “keep having sunrises.”
Saving lives is second nature to this gritty group, which stopped at Fred Hutch earlier this month to talk rescue — scientific and otherwise — on its way to climb Mount Rainier via the aptly named Disappointment Cleaver route.
“There’s such commitment and passion at Fred Hutch,” said Robert Sheedy, 67, who recently stepped down from a 45-year career in banking. “Doing the tour just brought it all together. I’m fully invested. Mike and I have already signed up for Mount Hood next year. And we’re hoping to bring our sons.”
“Mike” is Michael Leum, the 54-year-old L.A. County Sheriff’s Department civilian administrator and 25-year search-and-rescue, or SAR, veteran who helped establish the longstanding relationship between the two nonprofits. In 2006, Leum saw an ad for Climb to Fight Cancer in Outside Magazine and persuaded search-and-rescue colleagues Dr. John Rodarte, Ken Wiseman and Sheedy to join him for the 2007 Mount Rainier climb via the Emmons route.
Leum and his buddies were instantly hooked, not just by the thrill of climbing a magnificent peak but by using it as a vehicle for helping others.
“To a certain degree, if you get really into mountain climbing and bagging peaks, it can be a somewhat selfish pursuit,” he said via phone, just days after summiting Rainier (he’s climbed Mount Hood twice, as well). “But the idea that we can climb these mountains and then help Fred Hutch — that takes it to another level. Cancer has touched all of us in many different ways. My mom died from pancreatic cancer in 2005. I have a sister who had breast cancer; she’s in remission now. My wife had melanoma and a few guys in search and rescue who worked on the helicopters developed melanomas and died. Unfortunately, it’s all around.”
Sheedy knows that only too well.
A few years after he started participating in the fundraiser (formerly known as Climb to Fight Breast Cancer), his wife of 47 years, Suzy, was diagnosed with the disease. Today, nearly five years after her lumpectomy and radiation, she is NED (no evidence of disease).
“At first, it was more about the challenge,” said Sheedy, regarding his early climbs. “I was doing it, but I hadn’t been touched by it. I was kind of detached. But then Suzy was diagnosed in the summer of 2011. Ironic, right? Now I’m engaged and involved and invested in what Fred Hutch is doing. Now I’m doing it for a bunch of people. I took prayer flags up not only for Suzy, but others touched by cancer. That’s additional motivation to get to the top.”
The wilderness warrior, who has done search and rescue for more than 20 years, said initially, he and his best friend Leum were hoping to tackle Alaska’s Denali and the pair trained accordingly.
“When you do Denali, you have to carry a backpack and tow a sled,” Sheedy said. “So Mike devised a regimen that simulated pulling a sled in snow and ice conditions. He went out and got railroad ties and we attached them to our harness and then hiked up in the mountains around our homes. People would stop and say, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ We were pulling about 45 pounds apiece.”
Training is essential for both search and rescue and for Fred Hutch climbs, Sheedy said, a lesson that was hammered home when he fell into a crevasse after summiting Rainier his first year.
“I fell about 10 feet but it could have been much worse,” he said. “Mike acted quickly, arrested my fall and held the load while the guide navigated to the lip of the crevasse. Between me pulling on my ice axe and she pulling me up, I was able to ascend out of the crevasse. I never felt in danger, it happened quickly and the actions that were taken immediately after were textbook.”
“That’s the stuff we train for,” he said. “And it paid off.”
Sheedy said the fall — which could have ended much differently — was par for the course for the world of search and rescue, where just as in medicine, hours of intensive preparation and split-second decisions can save lives.
“Mike and I have been in some gnarly situations,” he said. “Situations where his life and my life were totally dependent upon each other. What we do is kind of unique, kind of special. It’s not for everybody.”
These days, Leum refers to his buddy’s close call as a “good story.”
“And I love a good story,” he said, laughing.
Leum also loves helping others, recently racking up his 1,000th search and rescue with the Montrose all-volunteer team. Over the years, this hometown hero has pulled countless men, women and children from mangled automobiles, braved forest fires to save people trapped within and even pulled his car over and darted onto a busy freeway — while on a trip to the beach with his family — to help a bloodied, suicidal man. He’s not only trained the Incredible Hulk in search-and-rescue techniques, he’s helped rescue a 16-million-year-old whale fossil.
But he’s saved lives in much less dramatic ways, too.
In the early ‘90s, he signed up for a bone marrow registry and a few years later discovered he was the perfect match for a then 57-year-old mother from Indiana who was dying of leukemia.
“To me, it was like winning the biological lottery,” he said. “How many people get a chance to do that? I jumped at the chance.”
During the recent tour of Fred Hutch, Leum was delighted to learn that researcher Dr. E. Donnall Thomas actually pioneered bone marrow transplantation at the Hutch. For him, donating his stem cells was a no-brainer. In fact, when people ask him about all the rescues he’s participated in over the years, he points to his bone marrow donation as his all-time “best rescue.”
“We’re saving people in blinding snowstorms but this was one of the easiest,” he said. “I didn’t have to train for it, just lay on a table.”
Leum said he and his marrow recipient, Elaine Gregory, are like family now. In fact, after a mandatory year of anonymity, he flew back to Indiana for a surprise meeting arranged by the recipient's children. A year after that, Leum donated additional stem cells from his bloodstream in order to give the same woman, whose health had begun to falter, what he termed a “booster shot.”
“To me, it was like a long day of donating blood,” he said. “Now she’s had grandkids and great grandkids. In these last 17 years, she’s been able to experience a lot of life and it’s all good.”
Helping in tangible ways is what it’s all about for Leum.
“I’m a tactile kind of guy,” he said. “That’s why I like search and rescue. You can reach out and save someone. That’s why I like bone marrow donation. And that’s why I like Fred Hutch climbs. You’re actively doing something for the benefit of someone else.”
He’s also a guy who regularly recruits new climbers, particularly those with an appreciation for the fragility of life. This year, he brought along Lisa Lampkin, a 40-year-old critical care nurse who volunteers with Orange County Search and Rescue.
“I work in the ER one night a week,” Lampkin said. “I’m trauma and critical care, taking care of the sickest of the sick. And it does have an impact. We’re all just moments in life. We’re all here on this Earth for just a blink of an eye. You have to do what you can do to make this life better for others.”
Despite the warm weather, which made for a grueling climb ("I think I got heat exhaustion," she said), Lampkin was the first member of the Montrose SAR team to set foot on the summit. And, like so many others, she now wants to come back and climb again.
“If [somebody] gets a cancer diagnosis, there’s nothing you can do or say to make it better,” she said. “But I know that if I’m climbing for Fred Hutch and raising money, I’m actually doing something tangible and concrete. The research is helping people live longer lives and better lives.”
“It’s hard to find anybody who hasn’t been touched by cancer,” said Dr. John Rodarte, 48, a pediatrician and 13-year Montrose SAR volunteer who’s climbed for the Hutch five times (Mount Rainier and Mount Hood twice and Mount Baker once).
“I have friends, coworkers and relatives who’ve battled or passed away from different cancers,” he said. “I know what it means to utilize funds for research and all the good it brings to patients.”
Rodarte, whose accomplishments include everything from establishing free medical clinics in Tijuana to rubbing elbows with baseball stars as a staff doctor for the Los Angeles Dodgers, said he was blown away by the research being conducted at Fred Hutch.
“It really brought it home to each of us the true result that comes out of the fundraising that we do,” he said. “To go there and see what they’re doing with those dollars is really special.”
During the tour, Rodarte and his teammates learned about Dr. Jim Olson’s discoveries regarding scorpion venom and its ability to work as a molecular flashlight to light up cancer cells during surgery.
“If they can take that to the next stage and have the venom target the cancer cells and attach chemo directly to it?” he said. “That possibility is just amazing. But who knows how long it will take to get there.”
Much like mountain climbing, curing cancer is a slog.
But Rodarte is determined to help as much as he can through fundraising, which, during the five years he’s participated in the Climb program, has totaled nearly $37,000.
“I kind of have a captive audience [at my clinic],” he said. “I put up flyers and a lot of times, it’s the patients’ parents who donate. They’ll say, ‘I battled breast cancer or I lost someone.’ I learn so much more about my patients' families that way.”
His favorite donation, though, came from a little girl.
“When she heard what I was doing, she reached into her pocket and said, ‘Let me see what I have,’” he said. “She had $1.50 and she gave it all to me. That meant more to me than a $100 donation. Obviously, I love the big donations, but to get something like that? It really came from the heart.”
Rodarte, who is just now starting to “walk a little better” after his Aug. 14 climb, said he did not summit Rainier this year — he and two others turned back at Disappointment Cleaver — but the endeavor was still well worth it.
“I love all the people that come in for this,” he said. “I love going with my teammates and I also love going on my own and meeting people on the climb. Everybody has a story to tell as to why they’re there. It’s why I keep coming back every year.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com.