Striving for the summit of Kilimanjaro

How 20 biotech leaders — and two Fred Hutch faculty members — are tackling a mountain and cancer at the same time
Luke Timmerman and two member of the Kilimanjaro climb team
Luke Timmerman, Kamal Puri and Dr. Jeff Leek, Fred Hutch VP and chief data officer (left to right), train on Mount Si, near North Bend, Wash., in December for their February 2023 ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. They are raising money for Fred Hutch cancer research. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jeff Leek

Climbing a mountain takes vision. It takes dedication and commitment. But above all else, achieving such an ambitious goal takes teamwork and mutual support.

Just like curing cancer does.

This week, a team of nearly 20 philanthropically minded biotech leaders — as well as two Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center researchers — will combine both of those pursuits when they set out to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro. Regardless of whether they summit Africa’s tallest peak, though, the group of driven entrepreneurs has already succeeded in raising $1 million to fuel scientific discovery at Fred Hutch.

The seven-day expedition is part of Fred Hutch’s Climb to Fight Cancer, a fundraising program built on the twin ideals of honoring loved ones diagnosed with cancer and raising awareness and vital funds for Fred Hutch. Launched in 1997, Climb — as it’s known to regular participants — has raised more than $13 million.

Dr. Jonathan Bricker trains for a climb by running steps.
Fred Hutch public health scientist Dr. Jonathan Bricker trains for his Kilimanjaro ascent by climbing stairs on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Bricker

Luke Timmerman, the Seattle-based biotech journalist who is leading Team Kilimanjaro, has a longstanding relationship with Fred Hutch. His first Climb came in 2018, when he summited Mount Everest and raised $340,000. “When I came home, I started thinking, I can’t climb a higher mountain, but I can continue raising money for cancer research at Fred Hutch,” said Timmerman.

Since then he’s tapped an international network of biotech executives and investors to join him on three more climbs, including the one that launches today. Each time, team members have committed to raising $50,000 and collectively inspiring their communities to donate more than $1 million.

All told, Luke and his teams have raised more than $4.5 million for Fred Hutch. “We are living in a moment of tremendous possibility for cancer research and development,” Timmerman said. “Our support today will pay dividends for generations.”

Once again, Timmerman and crew will be joined by two Fred Hutch faculty members: Jeff Leek, PhD, chief data officer and holder of the J. Orin Edson Foundation Endowed Chair, along with cancer prevention expert, Jonathan Bricker, PhD. Both will climb to honor family members who have died of cancer. Leek lost his mother when he was just 8 years old. Bricker’s mother also died of cancer, and his father is currently being treated for stage 3 melanoma.

Taking on the responsibility of fundraising in addition to their day jobs might seem like pulling double duty. But after years of leading lab teams, the concept of inspiring others to join in came naturally to them. “I’ve had old friends from college donate, people I haven’t heard from in years,” Leek said. “It’s been pretty cool to see it happen organically.”

“The climbers on Team Kilimanjaro are an inspiration to all of us at Fred Hutch,” said Kelly O’Brien, vice president of Philanthropy at Fred Hutch. “Their passion and commitment are mobilizing supporters around the world. The funds they raise go right to work in our labs and will help to accelerate breakthroughs that give more people more time to do the things they love.”

Funds from Climb to Fight Cancer fuel some of the fundamental scientific pillars of Fred Hutch’s mission: advancing immunotherapy, integrating data and science, and reducing health disparities — projects that are important to the climbers, as well as the tech community donors who are supporting them. In fact, the philanthropic support from local tech and biotech firms — four of whom are sponsors of Team Kilimanjaro — is just another example of a dedication to cancer research that Leek has observed over the last year. “The level of excitement and commitment we’ve gotten from our tech partners is really high,” he said. “They want to do something good for the world, and they see Fred Hutch as a way to do that good.”

That’s what makes Climb to Fight Cancer and its fundraising model ideal for rallying this engaged community. Its peer-to-peer approach connects and empowers participants who want to channel their passion and do something to raise funds to end cancer. Advocates for cancer research and care galvanize their friends, families and coworkers through Obliteride, Swim Across America – Seattle, Base2Space and Twitch to provide much needed support throughout the year.

Mountain climbing isn’t exactly a passion for Bricker. In fact, he’s never done it before. So when he was invited to participate, he considered declining. He has a young family at home, after all, and he was hesitant to leave them for two weeks. But then he thought a little more about the opportunities the trip presented — not just to honor the family members he’d lost to cancer, though that was certainly important.

After nearly 25 years at Fred Hutch, Bricker also saw a chance to give back to the organization, inspire his children and support the next chapter in immunotherapy research — all while pushing himself further physically than he ever had before. “I realized I was being asked to meet a rare moment in my life,” he said. After all, it’s not every day that you can attempt to tackle two obstacles, one literal and one figurative, at once.

Want to follow along as the team makes their ascent? Starting Feb. 11, visit Alpine Ascents International for up-to-the-minute updates on the ascent from the Seattle-based mountaineering company that has partnered with Fred Hutch for years to lead its Climb fundraising efforts.

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