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Climbing Against The Odds

by Jane Eklund
Monadnock Ledger Staff

"I believe that long after we are gone from this planet, our work continues in the presence of those who carry us in their memories. At any rally, walk, run or fundraising event for breast cancer, you will see in the faces of the families and friends of women who have had the disease, a determination to raise awareness about breast cancer and the hope for a cure. For every husband, life partner, child, sibling, parent and friends who raises his or her voice, there is the presence of a woman who can no longer speak. In an effort to eradicate breast cancer, those who speak out remind us that hope lives."
Margit Esser Porter
from "Hope Lives"

PETERBOROUGH - When Margit Esser Porter talks about her recent journey to the summit of Mount Fuji in Japan, she speaks about the beauty of the countryside there, of the clouds lifting as the climbers began their assent, and the sense of peace and inner strength she found there. But mostly she talks about people, the others who were along for the Aug. 21 and 22 [2000] Climb Against the Odds, which raised $1 million for breast cancer research.

That may be because breast cancer is personal for Esser Porter, who was diagnosed with the disease five years ago at age 34. As part of her journey through recovery, she put together a kind of collective journal, a small volume weaving the voices of women dealing with breast cancer treatment, called Hope is Contagious. Now, she's hot off Mount Fuji and her sequel, Hope Lives: The After Breast Cancer Treatment Survival Handbook, is hot off the presses.

"What was really powerful for me," Esser Porter said last week of her trip, "was that the world got really small." She was able to establish an e-mail friendship, for example, with a young Japanese woman who'd been diagnosed with breast cancer. She climbed with Charles Wilson, whose wife, Marcy Ely, died of breast cancer in 1998, and with Buhawi Meneses, a young Filipino who made the ascent for his mother.

The 12,460-foot trek wasn't an easy one for Esser Porter, who suffers from altitude sickness. She brought along supplemental oxygen and a gadget to test the level of oxygen in her blood?both donated by corporate sponsors. Even so, she wasn't sure she'd be able to make it all the way to the summit, and after climbing for eight hours on the first day, she spent the night in a trailside infirmary.

She rose at 3 a.m. the second day and continued to climb. Esser Porter was one of 70 Americans who participated; 30 were breast cancer survivors. Of that group, 58 reached the summit. Another 300 Japanese made the trek up the mountain as well.

Carrying a walking stick that was stamped at various stations along the path and a backpack full of prayer flags dedicated to individual women, Esser Porter was the second-to-last to reach the peak.

She was greeted by a happy Buhawi Meneses, who'd assured her the day before that she could make it to the top.

She got there in time for a prayer flag ceremony, but did not have a chance to reflect on the experience before she had to turn around for the trek back down. "It was really frustrating for me, because I had no time at the summit," she said.

Reflection time came the next day, when she made a sojourn to the Hakone Forest Temple, where another ceremony was held for the climbers. "I got to the summit, I did my thing, I earned my sponsor money, but this is where it happened for me," she said of the Buddhist temple.

The whole time, though, she was aware that she was making the climb not just for herself. She was carrying prayer flags in honor of other women; she had with her a prayer given her by Peterborough chef Hiroshi Hayashi. On her way down the mountain, when she began recovering from altitude sickness and was starting to feel hungry, she stopped at a simple restaurant along the trail for some food and decided that was an appropriate place to read Hayashi's message, which read, in part: "Mount Fuji is the energy center of the planet."

Esser Porter agrees with that sentiment. "I got energy there," she said, noting that even though the plane flight to Japan, and a shorter flight to Fuji, was strenuous and quite lengthy, even though she got sick, and she averaged about three hours of sleep a night during the trip, "I got younger on that trip."