High-altitude altruism: Seeking cures at 17,600 feet

Fred Hutch scientist, senior leader will hike the Himalayas to raise money for cancer research
Drs. Jen Adair and Niki Robinson hiking on a trail
Drs. Jen Adair (left) and Niki Robinson hit a local trail as they train for a trek to Everest base camp. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Drs. Jennifer Adair and Niki Robinson both originally hail from Ohio — a state that, if not quite as flat as a pancake, doesn’t have a single hill that reaches 1,500 feet.

So they’ll be a long way from home when they arrive at the highest mountain in the world.

In October, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Adair and Robinson will trek to base camp at Mount Everest, some 17,600 feet above sea level. They will hike as part of Fred Hutch Climb to Fight Cancer. For more than two decades, climbers from around the country have summited some of the world’s highest peaks and raised nearly $11 million to support cancer research.

Along with raingear and puffy down layers, Robinson and Adair will carry motivation that extends far beyond the professional.

“No matter how hard we work, it’s still heartbreaking for me when we come across people who have tragic cancer stories,” said Adair, an expert in gene editing. “My dad was one of them, and his story ended in 2013 with cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). One of my friends from graduate school was another that ended, about three years ago, from a brain tumor. And earlier this month, one of our Boys and Girls Club families lost their 14-year-old son to a sarcoma in just under eight months.”

Climb a mountain. Save a life. Adventure awaits with Climb to Fight Cancer.

For everyone on the trek, the urgency of Fred Hutch’s mission will supply just as much fuel as fried Snickers bars. The expedition is being organized by Luke Timmerman, a Seattle biotech writer who spearheaded previous fundraising climbs to Mount Kilimanjaro and the summit of Everest. The current team aims to raise $1 million for Fred Hutch.

Adair and Robinson have seen firsthand the power of philanthropy to advance research. Adair just received the Fleischauer Family Endowed Chair in Gene Therapy Translation. That gift will support her efforts to bring promising new gene therapies to patients around the world, including in resource-poor areas like where she’ll be trekking.

Robinson, who oversees all business development efforts at Fred Hutch, has been raising money for cancer research ever since she arrived here in 2015. She and her husband, Bryce, have participated in Obliteride, the Hutch’s annual fundraising bike ride and 5K walk/run, as part of Team Fizards Forever. (Fizard = fish wizard.) To date, the team has raised roughly $140,000 for research. Both Robinsons will hit the trail in Nepal to add to that total.  

“We love being together, we love being out and about, and we love raising money for cancer research,” Robinson said. “It’s so cool to do all this on a team with a bunch of friends and colleagues.”

Doodles of the Team Fizards Forever mascot
While Niki and Bryce Robinson do the pedaling on Team Fizards Forever, their children support the effort by sketching the mascot for websites and stickers. Courtesy Niki Robinson

For now, Adair and Robinson are busy getting in peak trekking shape. Adair has been jogging and hiking in a training mask that restricts air flow, mimicking conditions at high altitudes. She understands how it looks.

“It’s been a fascinating social experiment,” Adair said. “Dogs bark at you, and people and kids make fun of you right away. A couple of Stars Wars fans were having a simulated lightsaber battle and thought I was Darth Vader!”

No mask for Robinson — “I’m a different flavor of crazy” — but she and her husband log plenty of hiking miles with 25-plus pounds on their backs and make weekly trips up and down Seattle’s Howe Street stairs.

They are also working hard to raise money. On Feb. 18, they will hold a bake sale at Fred Hutch. (For Hutch employees: The sale will take place outside Pelton Auditorium 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.) Adair concedes Robinson will likely rake in more dough with her legendary brownies: “I prefer to make healthy stuff without butter.”

Once the hard work of fundraising wraps up, both transplanted Midwesterners are eager to hit the trail in Nepal. There will be sweat and laughter and sports jelly beans and probably an Ohio State cheer or two.

And there will always be the knowledge of why they climb.

“My research has benefitted from philanthropy, but I can’t take on every research project that every cancer needs to have better treatments options or better outcomes,” said Adair, who plans to honor the people she’s lost to cancer during the trek. “What I can do is heal my own heart by honoring those who lost their lives to cancer, bring awareness to these cancers with still poor outcomes, and raise funds to support my colleagues and the patients they are trying to help.”

Say yes to adventure and hike above the clouds with Climb to Fight Cancer. Pick one of our fully supported peaks and join the quest for cures.

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the expedition has been rescheduled for October 2020. 

Jake Siegel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, he covered health topics at UW Medicine and technology at Microsoft. He has an M.A. from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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