Reaching The Summit Of The Mountain In The Hallway

It's been two years of since I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. The beginning of treatments came with an inspirational moment when I saw a photo of the Grand Teton in the hallway of my cancer center. Little did I know that would be the beginning of an obsession that would motivate and torment me for two long years.

I'm happy to say that on Monday, August 20th with a crew of close friends, I reached the summit of the Grand Teton and finally conquered the "Mountain In The Hallway"! I'd been planning on going for my second attempt in the end of August for a long time, but this particular story actually starts ten days earlier (August 8th) when I went to the emergency room because I was having double vision. A few months earlier I'd jumped off chemo and decided to try a very promising immunotherapy (training my immune system to fight the cancer) starting in early July. An MRI done in the emergency room that day showed four new lesions had developed in my brain with something possibly pushing against the fourth nerve that controls certain eye movements causing the double vision.

On Monday, August 13th, my radiologist ordered a full PET CT scan that discovered the current tumors had grown and a few more showed up as well, mostly around my lungs. Obviously this came as a shock to everyone and the obvious decision on Tuesday was to get off the immunotherapy trial and back on chemo as soon as possible. This decision made my summit date seem impossible. I could feel the dream of the Grand fading as I accepted the fact that I may never actually see this come to fruition. 

As soon as possible, was the next morning. Weds. August 15th I was once again crying in an infusion chair. This was a huge step in the wrong direction and a major setback in my treatments. I couldn't figure out how this could possibly happen. I left the infusion center with my chemo pump which I have to wear for 48 hours. At this point I'd known that my vision had been deteriorating and that over the next few weeks the chemo would begin to stack up and make me feel worse and worse over time. The snow would begin to fall on The Tetons within weeks bringing my climbing season to a screeching halt. The window would be closed for nine months and who knows what life will be like and what challenges will lie ahead. It just wasn't fair; I'd been working towards this goal for two years and I'd been training all summer for this. Aside from the double vision and the mental beatdown of the current prognosis, I was fully capable of climbing a mountain. There was also the death of my friend Gerhard Gross on the same day that I came off the trial that was weighing heavily on my mind. He'd died following a tough year and a half long push to overcome stomach cancer and we'd communicated with each other throughout that time. His death was a huge motivating factor as I desperately wanted to stick it to cancer, just once! I knew that it was now or never. So, I threw on the pirate patch and with Lora's help, started reworking the plan.
Greg Miles, Dave Hudacsko, Aaron Hamby, Tate MacDowell
I'd started calling the crew to see who would be around on short notice, starting with my friend, who was lined up to guide Chris Figenshau. It turns out that Chris was dealing with a nasty foot infection and wasn't convinced it would clear up in time. I'd been speaking with long time Jackson Hole local,  climbing legend and friend Greg Miles about coming along for the climb. At 59 years young, Greg is a well seasoned vet of The Tetons. He's also known for not only opening up much of Rodeo Wall, but also managing the upkeep of the routes by resetting the bolts. In Chris' absence, Greg was more than willing to join the mission. Also on the trip were Dave Hudacsko and Aaron Hamby. Both amazing friends that I'd met as soon as I moved to Jackson back in 2003. We'd all worked at Teton Gravity Research together and both of them had some climbing experience. The four of us would be the primary crew.

On Friday August 17th,  I was detached from my chemo pump in the morning. Hours later Lora and I boarded a last minute flight to Jackson, while our son stayed home with family. I rallied the the team (Greg Miles, Aaron Hamby, and Dave Hudacksco) and began getting everything in order. With permits in hand, gear organized and bags packed, we weren't positive how far we would make it, but it felt good to be back in Jackson and doing something productive with my friends. My main goal was to simply go as far as I could and not become disappointed if we didn't summit. I'd set the first goal pretty low; just get past the rock where I'd turned around last year. I'd claimed that everything after that point was gravy, so the rock eventually became known as "Gravy Rock." I kept reminding myself that none of this is about the summit, it was just about trying and if I didn't summit, that was perfectly fine. Just go as far as I can, enjoy the experience and try to live in the moment. 
One last hug from Lora, the captain of my support team!

On Sunday August 19th, we said our good byes, packed up the truck and headed toward the mountain. As I hugged Lora and climbed into a truck headed towards the mountain, everything really began to sink in. No more talking about it, blogging about it, dreaming about it or working towards it. This is it!

Petzold Caves sits atop the waterfall
Like walking though a picture frame
From Lupine Meadows parking lot there is a rather long and well manicured path that crosses a rushing river which leads to Gravy Rock. We all stopped and ceremoniously celebrated the accomplishment of the very first goal! In the first day we'd hiked for about 4+ hours to our campsite in the Petzoldt Caves. The caves were an amazing place to spend the night. They sit atop a wooded rock bench adorned by wildflowers, a glacier on one side and cold fresh stream on the other.

We setup camp for the night, to eat, fill water bottles, and practice our knots and belay techniques in preparation for the next day. Hamby setup his sleeping bag in a cave, Miles in a bevy sack on the ground and Dave and I shared a two person tent. Needless to say, I couldn't sleep much with the anticipation brewing by the minute. Staring at the stars in the sky as the milky way lit up the valley put me at ease as the towering rock formations silhouetted the edges of my one-eyed vision.   

Monday August 20th began with a 2am wake up call, some granola bars and instant coffee then we were off. After getting a little lost in the moraine, we finally made it to the lower saddle at about sunrise. Without a cloud in the sky, it seemed as though we'd have a clear day to summit. As we tip-toed closer to the beginning of the Owen-Spalding Route and began organizing our gear, Greg (our leader) looked at me and said, "How are you feeling Tate? Ya know, this is pretty damn far and no one would ever blame you for stopping here. But once we start, we're in it. So be honest. Can you do this?" I think I gave him a little bit of a blank stare and thought about it for a minute. I guess I was waiting for an excuse to appear. A good one. One that I'd be able to walk back down the mountain with and live with for the rest of my life. But it didn't present itself. So I answered, "Yeah, let's do this!"

The climb was exciting, terrifying, fun and everything that I'd hoped it would be! We'd moved diligently through the Belly Roll that traverses across the face with an over-hanging ledge that forces you to stay low on one side and the other side drops directly off thousands of feet into the abyss to the left. Luckily that's the side the eye patch is on, so I wasn't tempted to look down too much. After that we'd made our way up the vertical scramble Owen Chimney.
Entrance to Owen Chimney
Once at the top you are presented with an opportunity to take a catwalk over to the rappel and get out or you keep going up through Sargent's Chimney and from there you're in striking distance to the summit. As we began Sargent's Chimney, we encounter other teams coming off the mountain rather quickly. As I get halfway into the chute I begin to hear Greg yelling, "Tate! What the hell are you doing in there! Hurry up! We gotta go!" I'm struggling to get my footing and start scratching at the walls trying to find a handhold. I'm probably relying on the rope more than I should be. This is the moment. The one where I finally say to myself, "I'm 48 hours out of chemo. I have one eye, I'm wearing a damn eye patch and It's snowing. This was a REALLY bad idea!" and no sooner did that thought finish when my hand finds a good hold and I quickly arrive with my friends. We're really close now! We scramble up to a ridge with the wind whipping up the face and arrive at the summit.

Dave's zipper broke so he duct taped the jacket shut.

Here we pull out our cameras and try our best to capture the moment as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there before it gets worse.  With one mission accomplished, there's one last thing that has to be done. I reach into my backpack and pull out a small jar containing Erik Roner's ashes and say a few words. Then I poured him into the air where he mixed with the first falling snow of the season and let him fly off of one last mountain top. This is the moment I'd dreamt of for years and its significance wasn't lost on me.

Here lies Erik Roner

Needless to say the descent was just as exciting as the way up, and down climbing rocks without depth perception wasn't that easy. It was also an extremely emotional descent. I couldn't help but look back at the mountain in amazement in what we'd just accomplished. The clouds quickly seemed to clear leaving me to believe that the winter storms only purpose was to pick up Erik.

When we finally got to the bottom of the lower saddle, we were all pretty exhausted and that was made worse by the thought of how far we had left to go. The conversations quickly changed to what we were excited to get home to. Things like warm pizza, wives, beer and cushy carseats became hot topics of conversation. But I kept looking back and thinking about how this exact view looked on the way up. How many questions were in my mind at that point in time and how daunting and impossible all of this seemed less that 24 hours earlier. I thought back to sitting in the infusion chair at sea level days earlier and how far away that seemed. A year earlier, how impossible it all seemed. There are a lot of metaphors for cancer and a lot of them are battle terms. Euphemisms for war where people fight and die. There are winners and losers and if you die you're deemed the latter. That metaphor never worked for me. Whether it's cancer or just life in general, I find it more appropriate to see it as a climb. We all begin at a trailhead and we embark on our journey with a full understanding of the challenges that lay ahead and the potential consequences. We'll get blistered, beaten, hungry, snowed on, tired, happy, sad and we might not necessarily make it to the summit. Sometimes we find ourselves at the end of our rope and don't think that we can possibly go on and in that moment you feel the tug of a hip belay and know that someone who cares an awful lot about you is pulling on the other end. But the bottom line is that you go as far as you possibly can and try to enjoy the climb for all of the happiness and hardships that come with it. 

We packed up camp late in the day and continued down past Gravy Rock one last time. Dave and I quickly mentioned that we'd easily put that goal to shame. However, we didn't slow down to take in that particular moment. We reached the trailhead at about 10pm greeted by our wives who were awaiting our arrival with pizza and beer. They took our backpacks off our shoulders and the hugs and celebration felt as amazing as ever and much needed. The day consisted of 20+ straight hours of hiking and climbing. We were exhausted, but our stoke level stayed high throughout the trip and only wavered when we lost the trail and had to do some route finding.
A motley crew

Wednesday August 22nd and I find myself back in San Diego where I'm heading back into radiation to zap the brain lesions in hopes that we can stabilize this life threatening disease. My radiation team of the last two years congratulates me and gives me a card as I prepare to lay under the machine once again. I undergo thirty minutes of lasers and lights while the machine moves over my head. I can't remember what music is playing. They must have forgotten to set my Pandora station to The Rolling Stones again. I've spent years using The Grand as meditation in these situations. I'd imagine the journey from the trailhead to the summit as I understood it from a guide book, but now I replay this story as it actually happened. The people I was with, the jokes we shared and the challenges we'd overcome on both climbs that I've endured. I leave the radiation room in the basement and read the card in the elevator. One of the nurses wrote "I can't believe you actually did it...I thought you were joking!" As the elevator dings three floors up, the doors part and once again reveal The Mountain In The Hallway. 


  1. Tate - This just made me cry and laugh and smile. I hope so many more people get to read this. Thank you!!!


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