The survival rate for metastatic breast cancer is about 26 months. The relapse rate for alcohol and drug addicts can be as high as 90 percent.
And the success rate for summit attempts on 14,162-foot high Mt. Shasta ranges from 33 to 40 percent.
By all counts, 47-year-old Leslie Vanoni has beat the odds.
In 2001, the Sonoma data analyst for Autodesk was diagnosed with stage-2 breast cancer. In the ensuing struggle to survive, she leaned more and more heavily on alcohol, even as the cancer slid into remission. By her own account, she hit bottom, lost everything (including her children), and with great irony became a recovering cancer patient and a disintegrating alcoholic. But Vanoni has a steel interior. In 2009, cleared of cancer, she finally managed to quit drinking for good.
Then, in 2011 sober a year-and-a-half, five-years past the remission mark, a PET scan revealed “spots on my spine, hip and lungs. Stage 4 cancer. There is no stage 5.”
So Leslie Vanoni did the whole treatment regime again, chemo sessions every week, losing the hair, looking at early death up close. But she somehow continued working full time, and her second recovery attempt was made with the loving support of two daughters, and without the influence of alcohol.
One day, colleagues at Autodesk suggested a Shasta attempt, through the auspices of The Breast Cancer Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit with a particular emphasis on exposing and reducing the environmental causes of the disease. Climbing Mt. Shasta had become an important fundraising activity, and a kind of spiritual quest for both survivors and friends and family of those who have succumbed to the disease. Vanoni bought in, even though she wasn’t sure what that meant. So in 2012 she prepared as best she could, made it just past 13,000 feet, “and then I started barfing.”
That was the end of her first summit attempt. But Leslie Vanoni being Leslie Vanoni, she decided to try again.
The second attempt involved a more focused and guided training regime, training in part with the help of her oncologist.
“After a period of time, you just feel stronger. I did a lot more elevation training. Climbing Mt. Shasta is not like running a 5K. They can’t physically lift you up there.”
So three times a week she climbed the infamous Dipsea Steps, a wooden stairway on Mt. Tamalpais with 680 steps. Once a week she would hike on Mt. Tam, and she regularly hiked Sonoma’s Overlook Trail wearing weights.
She also attended snow school on Shasta, and brought along more nourishing snack food, including beef and cheese.
Hiking to Shasta’s 9,200 foot-high base camp, Vanoni carried between 40 and 50 pounds on her 5-foot-3-inch, 100-pound frame. With her was her 15-year-old daughter, Bridget, and together the made Vanoni’s second summit attempt.
But the 2013 summer on Shasta was a far cry from previous years, being both colder and drier than many could remember.
The night of their planned summit attempt, winds hit 60 miles per hour and the temperature dropped to 18 degrees. Guides decided to delay the attempt for a day, which meant spending another night at base camp.
“We had to wait until midnight, the next night,” Vanoni explained. “And there was so little snow that the slope was much rockier, the snow trail was a lot narrower.”
“Up to base camp I had felt amazing, and when we started up I felt pretty good until about 12,500, when I began feeling heavy and tired. At one point I was on my hands and knees trying to climb up the rock. Bridget was in front of me and the rope would tighten up between us as I struggled. She helped keep me going.”
Vanoni said as she passed the highest point of her previous attempt, she somehow found the strength to continue upward. “As tired as I was at 13,000, I kept on. I was freezing and shivering and wearing two extra coats. Each step took forever. When we were within 50 feet of the summit, I saw my daughter charge. I couldn’t keep up, but I knew I would be there shortly, and I was. There we were, mother and daughter, on top of Mt. Shasta.” It was 8:30 in the morning.
It is a fundamental rule of mountain climbing that the summit is only the half-way point, and Vanoni said her descent was the hardest part of the climb. Shasta is famous for its glissade routes, the practice of sliding down snowfields on the seat of the pants, arresting speed with an ice axe. But this time, “There was not enough snow to glissade. It was so hard to come down. Afterwards, I was just exhausted, I was so tired I looked drunk. All the way to the bottom on the same day.”
For Vanoni’s daughter Bridget, it was a profound experience at many levels. “She said she hadn’t realized how many women were there for their mothers who had passed on, and there I was with my daughter, still alive.”
Meanwhile, Vanoni’s other daughter, Mia, posted Facebook photos that instantly got 125 likes.
Vanoni’s climb raised $400,000 for the Breast Cancer Fund, $21,000 from Vanoni, her daughter and a friend who climbed with them. “I want a cure for breast cancer,” she said. “My oncologist said, ‘if we can find the cause, we can find the cure.’”
Next year, says serial survivor Leslie Vanoni, “I’d like to go back. I’d like to take the focus off myself, I’d like to help somebody else get to the top of Mt. Shasta.”