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Climbers venture into Alaska's unknown for cancer research

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK - As the pilot guided the single-engine Piper Cherokee closer to an unclimbed mountain known as 8290, passenger Kevin Mahoney's smile grew.

Mike Kane / Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Mike Kane / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Mahoney gazed at the sharp, snowcapped peak, sizing it up for an attempt he and three partners will make to be the first to stand on its summit.

Even if they don't reach the top, they will achieve their other goal during the three-week expedition into unknown territory: helping a cancer research center raise awareness about what's needed to fight the disease that recently claimed Mahoney's mother.

"There's a correlation between the research and the climb and it lies with the internal optimism required to keep going in the research or the climb," Mahoney said. "You're meeting failures along with way, but keeping the optimism. You don't want to quit."

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle is sponsoring the June climb in the Fairweather Mountains of Southeast Alaska.

The climb is not a fundraiser, but is designed to bring awareness to the need for continuous research.

The center, which will track the adventure on its Web site, has been doing fundraising climbs for breast cancer for 10 years and decided to cast a wider net with next month's climb, spokeswoman Linda Gainer said.

"Cancer is everybody's problem," she said. "We have an affinity with the idea of the challenges of mountain climbing, so we decided we would use this base and go for an effort that is more ambitious."

Joining Mahoney, of Madison, N.H., will be Matt Farmer of Seattle; Dawn Glanc of Bellingham, Wash.; and Bayard Russell of North Conway, N.H.

All are professional guides with international experience that includes tackling mountains in India, France and Canada, as well as Alaska.

"It's been intense having my mom pass, planning this and seeing the direct impact of cancer on someone I love," said Mahoney, whose mother died of pancreatic cancer last month.

"In some ways, I can't get too personal with it and allow the climb to weigh too heavy with my own personal needs," he said. "That puts too much pressure on the success of the climb."

The journey will begin with a flight to Juneau, on June 12, then continue with a daylong boat trip to one of the park's glacier inlets.

From there, the climbers will embark on a 16-mile trek over a series of glaciers to reach the mountain's base. They will be hauling about 100-120 pounds of gear per person on their backs and on sleds.

In Mahoney's case, a 180-pound man will be hauling 120 pounds of food, cooking fuel and climbing gear.

Mahoney said getting to the base is what separates this expedition from others that use planes or helicopters to bring climbers to a mountain.

"The more exploring you have to do to get somewhere else, the fewer people who are going to go there," Mahoney said. "Being the one who gets to unfold the mystery of getting there and of the mountain itself is what's thrilling."

The mountain's name reflects its altitude of 8,290 feet. It is among a few dozen peaks, a handful of them don't have formal names, that dot the Fairweather Range in Glacier Bay National Park, a region of fjords, glaciers and straits.

They may not be embarking on a high-profile expedition to Mount Everest, K2 or Mount McKinley, but their climb remains daunting, said Randy Larson, the park's chief ranger.

"It's one of the more remote, least-climbed mountain ranges in all of North America," he said.

"Typically 50 percent of the climbing expeditions going in there get weathered out and they aren't able to complete their climb," Larson said. "It all makes for a tenuous setting and exciting climb."

The foursome was assembled by the research center's climbing committee, which sought a group with geographic diversity and experience climbing together.

Mahoney and Russell have partnered before, as have Glanc and Farmer, but the four have never climbed as a group. So they'll do a warm-up climb on Washington's Mount Rainier on May 20.

Among the four, only the 39-year-old Mahoney has scouted peak 8290, having flown over the mountain range two months ago.

As the plane banked around several peaks and flanked the glacier along Reid Inlet, Mahoney felt at home where many would see an isolated and hostile landscape.

"It feels a bit like a playground to me when I get there," he said. "There are endless things to do once you're there. It's plain adventure; it feeds my soul."

Mahoney had help with his research from longtime climber and Seattle attorney Jim Wickwire.

Wickwire is noted for being the first American to reach the top of K2, the world's second highest mountain, located on the Pakistan-China border.

Wickwire has also climbed in the Fairweather Range, and knows the risks as well as anyone. Thirty years ago, he reached two summits in the range, but during the expedition two climbers fell to their deaths.

"I wouldn't use that as a cautionary tale for these particular mountains," Wickwire said. "There are always inherent risks (in climbing mountains).

"They'll need to pick a route that has minimum amount of what we call objective danger, like the possibility of a snow avalanche or rock fall."

Should they reach the top, Wickwire said the group would almost surely be the first to do so. It's rare that expeditions don't get recorded, he said, especially in a public park that requires a permit.

Larson, the park ranger, said there are no records of anyone climbing that peak and is confident a successful climb would be the first.

"Now there could be some party who comes out of the woodwork and says they climbed it back in the 1960s," Larson said. "But nobody I've talked to has any record or recollection of that peak having been climbed."

That's what attracted Mahoney to the secluded peak. It's the ideal climb, he says, to link the daily challenges researchers face to unlock mysteries of cancer.

"Anything that is unclimbed always has some unknown aspects," Mahoney said. "Everything we do, we'll be making climbing history.

"Until it gets climbed, there is still lot of mystery - the quality of rock, the snow, the components outside of our control that could turn us around."



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