Ed. note: We posted the short film “Mountain in the Hallway” a few weeks back about Brian McDonnell and Tate MacDowell’s 2017 attempt to climb the Grand Teton in the middle of their treatments for colorectal cancer. In the film, Brian is able to summit the peak while Tate has to abandon the plan because his body just wasn’t quite ready. But Tate didn’t give up. He tried again this August and wrote an essay about his experience, presented here.
It’s been two years since I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. Back when my treatments first started I had an inspirational moment when I saw a photo of the Grand Teton in the hallway of my cancer center in San Diego, California. Little did I know that would be the beginning of an obsession that would motivate and torment me for two long years.
I’d first hoped to climb the Grand Teton back in 2017, but had to abandon my plan when I just couldn’t get my body to where it needed to be. I decided to try again for this August and picked the 20th as my summit date. But in early August I went to the emergency room because I was having double vision. An MRI revealed that four new lesions had developed in my brain and were pushing against a nerve that controls eye movements. That’s apparently what had caused the double vision.
A couple weeks later, my radiologist discovered the tumors had grown and had been joined by a few more as well, mostly around my lungs. I decided to get off the immunotherapy trial and start on chemo as soon as possible. This made my looming summit date seem impossible. I could feel the dream of climbing the Grand Teton fading fast.
I resumed chemo the next morning, and found myself at the treatment center, sitting in an infusion chair, crying. I knew that over the next few weeks the chemo would begin to make me feel worse and worse. This was on top of my deteriorating vision and the fact I had to wear an eye patch to help deal with it. Also, the snow would begin to fall on the Tetons within weeks, all of which threatened to bring my climbing season to a screeching halt. It just wasn’t fair; I’d been working toward this goal for two years and I’d been training hard all summer. But aside from the double vision and the mental beatdown of my recent prognosis, I felt like I was fully capable of climbing a mountain.
It was now or never.
I started calling to see if I could gather a crew on short notice. I asked climbing legend and friend Greg Miles about coming along. At 59, Greg is a well-seasoned vet of climbing in the Tetons. My friends Dave and Aaron agreed to join too. We’d all worked at Teton Gravity Research together, and both of them had some climbing experience.
On the morning of August 17, I was detached from the chemo pump. Hours later my wife Lora and I boarded a last minute flight to Jackson, while our son stayed home with family. I rallied the team and began getting everything in order. We weren’t sure how far we’d get, but it felt good to be back in Jackson and doing something productive with my friends.
The first day we hiked for about four hours to our campsite in the Petzoldt Caves, which sit atop a wooded rock bench adorned by wildflowers, with a glacier on one side and a cold fresh stream on the other. We set up camp and practiced our knots and belay techniques in preparation for the next day. I couldn’t sleep much with anticipation building by the minute. Staring at the stars put me at ease as the towering rock formations nearby silhouetted the edges of my one-eyed vision. An amazing place to spend the night.
The next day, summit day, began with a 2 a.m. wakeup call, followed by granola bars and instant coffee. Then we were off. Without a cloud in the sky, it seemed as though we’d have a clear day to summit. As we tiptoed closer to the beginning of the Owen-Spalding Route and began organizing our gear, Greg (our leader) looked at me and asked, “How are you feeling, Tate? 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 turn back to appear. One that I’d be able to walk back down the mountain with and live with for the rest of my life. But one didn’t present itself.
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s do this!”
The climb was exciting, terrifying, fun and everything that I’d hoped it would be. We moved carefully through a section called the Belly Roll and its over-hanging ledge that drops thousands of feet into an abyss below. Luckily my eye patch covered my left eye, the side of the ledge with the precarious drop, so I couldn’t even see the danger. After that, we’d made our way up the Owen Chimney.
As we began Sargent’s Chimney, the next obstacle, it started snowing. For the first time, I struggled. I struggled to get my footing and was scratching at the walls trying to find a handhold. I started to think about being only 48 hours out of chemo. I thought about how I was wearing a damn eye patch and the falling snow. I started telling myself this whole thing was a really bad idea.
But just as that thought entered my mind I found a good hold and I began to pull myself up the chimney, joining the rest of my crew. We scrambled up a ridge with the wind whipping up the face and we were there—the summit.
I’d actually done it. Completed my journey to the Mountain in the Hallway.
Once at the top we took photos and quickly made the decision to descend before the weather got worse. The descent was just as exciting as the way up. Downclimbing rocks without proper depth perception wasn’t easy. It was also an extremely emotional experience. I couldn’t help but continually look back at the mountain in amazement at what we’d just accomplished.
I thought of how daunting and impossible all of this seemed less than 24 hours earlier. I thought back to sitting in the infusion chair at sea level just days earlier and how far away that seemed. There are a lot of metaphors for cancer and many of them are euphemisms for war. People fight and die, with winners and losers and if you die you’re the loser.
That 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 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. But 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. 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 got back to the trailhead at about 10 pm greeted by our wives who were awaiting our arrival with pizza and beer. We were exhausted but stoked.
Two days later I was back in San Diego undergoing radiation to zap my brain lesions. I’ve spent years using the Grand Teton as meditation in these situations. In the past, I’d imagine the journey from the trailhead to the summit as I’d understood it from reading about it in a guidebook, but now I replay this story in my head as it actually happened. After leaving the radiation room in the basement I rode the elevator up three floors. As the doors parted, there it was, that photo of the Grand Teton. The Mountain In The Hallway.
This essay is adapted from a post at MacDowell’s blog.
Photos: Dave Hudacsko, Aaron Hamby and Greg Miles