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March 24, 2002
In 1995, while standing on top of Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua,
the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere, Nancy Knoble decided to change her
She would resign from her high-powered executive job with a California telephone company within a year, she told herself, and find work with more meaning.
She recalled what her late father always told her: “Leave your campsite better than you found it.”
“Being on the mountain, you gain perspective on your life,” Knoble said. “You step back from yourself.”
True to the promise she made to herself that day, she gave up her life of 60-hour work weeks in the hectic San Francisco Bay Area and in 1996 moved to Bend to lead the Central Oregon Partnership, a nonprofit organization that fights poverty.
And as part of this new life, Knoble, 53, has taken on another cause: breast cancer. But unlike other cancer survivors who participate in walk-a-thons or runs to promote the cause, Knoble climbs some of the world’s tallest peaks as a part of her recovery and to raise awareness about breast cancer.
In 1995, she scaled the 22,841 foot Mount Aconcagua with other breast cancer survivors. Knoble was one of only three of the 17 survivors who reached the summit. In 1998, Knoble led a team of climbers up Alaska’s Mount McKinley.
Film crews followed her climbing teams and produced documentaries that aired on PBS. Her scrapbook includes mementos from meetings with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with dozens of newspaper and magazine clippings of her expeditions.
And earlier this year, Knoble was named to the board of directors of the Idaho-based Expedition Inspiration, whose motto is: “Until There’s a Cure, There’s a Climb.”
The nonprofit organization organizes mountain climbs for cancer survivors and raises money for cancer research. Scheduled climbs this year include Mount Whitney in California, Mount McKinley and the Grand Teton in Wyoming. The group also is planning hikes along the Appalachian Trail and in various cities across the country. As a member of the board, Knoble will serve as a role model for other survivors and speak publicly around the country about her experiences with cancer and mountain climbing while promoting cancer research.
Katie Powell, executive director of Expedition Inspiration, said Knoble serves as an example of someone who has conquered breast cancer and moved forward.
“She’s a breast cancer survivor with incredible strength in both body and mind,” Powell said.
Knoble said she had stepped away from the organization for a few years but returned so she could continue the work of her friend Laura Evans, who started the organization in 1993 and died of cancer in 2000.
Evans, the author of “The Climb of My Life” — based on the Aconcagua ascent — wanted to empower survivors by challenging them both physically and mentally. By giving cancer survivors a goal such as climbing a mountain, she provided them with determination to keep leading active lives.
Evans also wanted to encourage researchers working to find a cure. Through her leadership, Expedition Inspiration has awarded more than $250,000 in grant money to cancer research centers across the country. It sponsors an annual breast cancer symposium to encourage an open exchange of ideas among leading researchers in an effort to speed up the search for a cure for breast cancer.
“That was her legacy,” Knoble said. “It lives on.”
An avid backpacker used to stomping around the California Sierras, Knoble climbed her first big mountain, Mount Rainier, in 1992.
“It was this new love I had for mountain climbing,” she said.
But shortly after that climb, in 1993, she discovered a lump in her breast. She was only 45.
Three close friends also had breast cancer at the time, Knoble said, and they helped her deal with her diagnosis.
“Instead of saying ‘Why me?’ I sort of said ‘Why not me?’ ” she said. “My way of dealing with breast cancer was not to let it change my life.”
In fact, Knoble considered herself lucky. Her cancer had not spread from her breast and could be treated with radiation.
Shortly after her diagnosis, she met Evans and learned of Expedition Inspiration’s plans to climb Aconcagua. She wanted to join but was told she did not have enough high altitude climbing experience.
So Knoble decided she would prove she was worthy of the trip. Several months before Expedition Inspiration’s scheduled climb up Aconcagua, in September 1994, after radiation zapped the cancer cells in her breast, Knoble convinced Evans to let her join her on a trip up Mount Elbrus, an 18,500-foot peak in the former Soviet state of Georgia.
“It was the first major challenge I had taken on since the cancer,” Knoble said. “I didn’t know if I could do it.”
But she did it.
“When I got to the top of that mountain, it was unbelievable,” Knoble said. “It was just a very moving experience.” At the top of Mount Elbrus, she scattered some of her father’s ashes.
Bill Knoble, who died of cancer two months before Knoble discovered the lump in her breast, shared a love for outdoors and adventure with his daughter. He took her camping for the first time before she could even walk. Growing up near Lake Erie, Knoble spent much time sailing, camping and taking nature walks with her father.
With the Elbrus climb, Knoble impressed Evans enough to become a last-minute addition to the Aconcagua team.
With only four months and a busy day job, Knoble had little time for training. Whenever she had a spare moment, she ran or climbed the hills around her home wearing a backpack stuffed with 50 pounds of kitty litter.
The climbing team took off for Aconcagua in late January 1995 with a television crew in tow. Their mission: to raise awareness about the risk of breast cancer, to raise hope among breast cancer survivors and to raise money for research. The team was featured in glossy magazine ads, promoting their cause.
“At that point, people weren’t talking about breast cancer so much,” Knoble said. Climbing the world’s tallest mountain outside of the Himalayas was “incredibly challenging,” Knoble said. To put it into perspective, Mount Aconcagua is taller than two South Sisters put together. Base camp was at 13,000 feet — higher than any peak in Oregon.
But the support she received from the other survivors kept her moving. One cancer survivor taught her a mantra that she repeated over and over: “Confidence, courage, strength.”
For inspiration, Knoble wore a chain around her neck with three rings attached to represent each of her three close friends with breast cancer.
“When I didn’t think I could make it, I would look at those rings and repeat my mantra,” Knoble said.
It took 16 days to climb Aconcagua. The toughest part for Knoble was the trek between 16,500 feet and 19,000 feet. She was climbing higher than she had ever gone before that day and had to work through her fears of the higher elevation. Reaching that 19,000-foot point was empowering, she said.
“It gave me a lot more self confidence,” Knoble said. “I faced my fears.”
She made it to the top of the mountain on Feb. 4, 1995, and there sprinkled some more of her father’s ashes.
For Knoble, reaching the summit became a metaphor for surviving cancer.
“Climbing a mountain is one step at a time,” Knoble said. “Overcoming breast cancer is one step at a time.”
The experience motivated her so much that Knoble put together another team to scale the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley — the highest peak in North America. She organized a group of survivors to climb with a group of recent college graduates to send the message that young women need to be aware of the prevalence of breast cancer.
Although McKinley is not as high as Aconcagua, it presented no less of a challenge because of the Arctic weather notorious for keeping climbers from reaching the summit.
But Knoble faced one of her biggest setbacks before she even got to the base of the Alaskan mountain. In 1997, when she was training for the climb, she discovered a new lump in her breast.
This time she needed a bilateral mastectomy.
Despite the new health scare, Knoble was determined to keep her date with the mountain.
“I think a piece of the recovery is I was so determined. I had this goal,” she said. “I think having a goal and having something to look forward to is really important to recovery.”
She headed up McKinley in August of 1998, but a severe storm that showed no sign of clearing for days kept her team from reaching the summit. The team made it to 16,500 feet and waited seven days for a break in the weather. Still, Knoble is proud of their accomplishments.
Knoble is not sure whether it was the mountain or the cancer that caused her to change her life. But since 1993, when she discovered the lump and then went on her first Expedition Inspiration climb, she has opened herself to many new experiences. She travels around the world for new outdoor adventures, she lives in a place where she
can lead a more peaceful lifestyle and she has a career that she says “feeds her soul.”
And Knoble continues to repeat that mantra she learned on Mount Aconcagua: “Confidence, courage, strength.”
And she has added one more thing: “Joy.”
“I brought that back into my life,” she said.
And she plans to keep on climbing. She saved some of her father’s ashes to sprinkle on Mount McKinley when she finally reaches its summit.
“I still have unfinished business on Mount McKinley,” Knoble said.
Read more . . .
About Alpine Mountaineering:
The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
Following the Leader
The Mountaineers' Rope
The Ten Essentials
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What should I know about climbing Aconcagua?
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