FROM RADIATION TO RAINIER, AN OXFORD BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR EMBRACES THE JOURNEY.
WRITTEN BY Caitlyn Clegg | contributed PHOTOS COURTESY OF BETH BOWERS
For Beth Bowers, the peak of Washington’s Mount Rainier was a lofty goal. The 60-year-old Oxford resident decided to take on the climb as a way of underscoring her victory over cancer. Ultimately, a storm cost her the chance to summit last July, but the trip gave her a new perspective on how far she’d already come.
“I was disappointed, but (after that) I felt like I could do anything,” Bowers said. “It made me stop and realize: It was the journey, not the summit, that mattered.”
When she decided to make the climb, Bowers was five years out from her battle with breast cancer. “You’ll be tired for a few weeks,” is what many people told her about radiation treatment. But for Bowers, a few weeks turned into months, which turned into years. Despite being an avid cyclist and runner, she just couldn’t seem to get over the hump.
“The radiation knocked me down,” Bowers said. “I felt like my body was working against me. Here I was, a healthy, active person who gets teased for eating a salad at lunch every day. And then this thing comes out of nowhere and stops me.”
Bowers decided she needed to do something epic to get over the weakness, both physical and psychological, that the radiation had left her with. A longtime Seattle resident, she had climbed Mount Rainier nearly 30 years before, when she was 32. She remembered the feeling of wanting to stop at Disappointment Cleaver, the “easiest” route to the summit — and the mental fortitude it took to keep going. She knew it would take months of intense training to be ready to climb. And she knew this goal was exactly what she needed to get stronger.
So, in September 2018, with her 60th birthday looming, Bowers booked her trip with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. and wondered where to begin to prepare for the climb.
Bowers is the director of clinical education for respiratory therapy at Itawamba Community College’s Tupelo campus. There, she found help from one of her students, whose husband, Adam Holt, was a personal trainer. When Bowers approached him with her monumental goal, he was thrilled to help.
Bowers began training 10 months before the scheduled climb. Three days a week she would wake up at 4:20 a.m. and drive to Tupelo to train with Holt. Her training started slowly, with sessions lasting half an hour. Gradually the sessions got longer and more frequent, eventually building up to hour-long sessions, five days a week. When Bowers wasn’t working with Holt, she was trail running with her dog, Noah, to build strength in her ankles.
As her strength grew, so did her determination. Bowers knew she had to push herself even further to prepare for the summit. Alongside Brady Bramlett, fellow Oxford-University United Methodist Church choir member and former Ole Miss pitcher, Bowers started climbing the stairs in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
“We climbed the stairs twice a week, every week, starting in April until she went to climb in July,” Bramlett said. “And most of the time she was ahead of me on those stairs.”
Together, Bowers and Bramlett trudged up and down the 90 steps on each row. The climbing alone was grueling, but Bowers would also have to carry a 40-pound pack on her back — roughly 31% of her bodyweight — during the ascent. So, as with her strength training, she started small. Bowers filled her pack with 11 pounds of charcoal and kept pushing up and down. But inside, doubt crept in.
“I said to myself ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Bowers said. “My hips were killing me. A 40-pound pack seemed so far out of my reach. I had to close my eyes and visualize the summit. I had to tell myself, scream at myself, whatever I had to do to make it to the top of those stairs.”
Bowers kept at it. Over time, the pack felt lighter. She added more weight, a few pounds at a time. She added afternoon sessions to the morning ones. And after 10 exhausting months, she felt prepared for the ascent.
Arriving in Seattle felt like coming home. Bowers reconnected with old friends and co-workers, who saw her to base camp. Then it was time to put everything she had been training for into practice.
Bowers’ climbing team included eight fellow climbers and three guides. The guides, expert climbers with Rainer Mountaineering Inc., operated like a well-oiled machine. The climbers ranged from their early 20s into their 60s and hailed from all parts of the country: Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon and Mississippi. Among the hopeful summiteers were two father-daughter groups, a pair of brothers-in-law, and two other women, with whom Bowers remains close friends.
“If you asked me to pick eight other people to climb with, I’d pick the same people,” Bowers said. “By the time our trip was over, we were all laughing and getting along like we were best friends.”
As their climb began, Bowers propelled herself with the same positive attitude that got her through both her radiation treatments and her strenuous training. With every step up the sharp, steep trail she envisioned herself making it to the summit.
“Once I started the summit, I was climbing with confidence,” Bowers said. “I put myself in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.”
Overhead, though, a threat was brewing. Dark storm clouds were rolling in from the Pacific Ocean. Bowers started to get nervous.
“By this time, I knew that the only thing that could stop me was the weather,” Bowers said.
“It was frustrating.”
By the time the team reached Camp Muir, at 10,000 feet, the wind was shrieking across the rock face at 75 mph, and the rain was pouring down. The guides told the climbers to rest and wait out the storm inside a small bunker, hoping to set out again around midnight. Whether it was the howling winds, the pounding rain, or her nerves, Bowers couldn’t sleep.
Midnight came and went without word from the guides. The team had lost their window. Bowers, after all her training, wasn’t going to make it to the summit.
“That was the hardest part,” Bowers said. “But I had beaten cancer. I had gotten stronger. It made me realize all the good things that had been part of this journey.”
Back at base camp, Bowers found her family and friends waiting for her. Although she wishes she could have made the summit, she said she wouldn’t change her experience.
“We are the sum of our experiences,” Bowers said. “After going through cancer, radiation and all my training, I was never going to quit. I got to watch myself get stronger. It gave me more confidence.”