Climbing 13,000 feet for a cure – Arthritis National Research Foundation
On Monday, May 30th, as many were observing Memorial Day in the U.S., Heather Hart departed the tropical state of Florida, making her way to the frigid temperatures of Alaska and to what it seems like, at times, an insurmountable adventure. There, with a love for outdoors, adventure, a new passion for mountaineering and a purpose-driven journey, she is laser-focused on summiting Denali, the tallest peak in North America.
Standing at 20,310 feet, Denali is often said to be as challenging to hike as Mount Everest due to its 13,000 foot vertical climb (surpassing Everest’s 12,000 feet climb). This is not an easy climb, an overnight decision or a simple training process. Hart, an orthopedic Physician Assistant at the Center for Bone and Joint Disease (CBDJ) in Hudson, Fla., has been in intense training for this highly skilled 16-21-day expedition that requires being in top physical condition, climbing skills, an unparalleled commitment and passion. It also requires motivation. Hart not only finds her motivation in having a goal, but also in the patients she works with daily and the fundraiser she established through the Arthritis National Research Foundation (ANRF).
“On a daily basis, I see people limited by their arthritis. One thing I recurrently hear from patients, that absolutely devastates me, is when they mentally feel they can run, bike, hike and be active, but physically their bodies are slowing them down or holding them back altogether due to their arthritis,” Hart said.
While Hart climbs, she knows she will be doing so for more than herself and the experience. In the fall, she registered for Climbing for the Cure fundraising campaign through ANRF — not only bringing donations to benefit arthritis research but also garnering moral support from family, friends, colleagues and even some people she does not know.
As she left Florida for the adventure and begins the climb up Denali, she is inching closer to her goal $1,500, which is motivating for Hart. However, while summiting Denali will bring extreme gratification, so will raising the funds and doing something to support the patients and arthritis community that she works with every day.
When discussing why she chose ANRF and arthritis research, Hart acknowledged continuing the advancement toward better solutions for patients, “I can only imagine how demoralizing it must feel to give up on things that once brought so much joy. As a provider, it is extremely challenging to discuss limited conservative treatment options to manage/treat arthritis, and then have to discuss more drastic measures such as joint replacement or fusion for end stage arthritis.”
“Although treatments are available to slow the progression of arthritis, most are still focusing on when arthritis is already present and causing pain in association with joint damage. There is still so much researching and discovering of more preventative treatments to happen. That is why I have chosen this charity. Hopefully one day, with further research and ingenuity, there will be more consistent and preventative treatment options. I hope one day we can stop arthritis, in its many forms, before it ever begins.”
From the base glacier, where the plane will drop the climbers off, the 13,000 vertical feet begins with the flexibility in completion time (between 16-21 days) to adapt to weather and other relevant climbing conditions. The two plus week timeline also allows to go at a pace necessary to carry the 100-150 pounds of gear and supplies that each climber takes with them. There are no porters or sherpas to carry gear and food up the mountain, everything needed for the team to survive is carried by each member.
“We carry heavy packs and pull sleds to get shelter and gear up the mountain. On average, at the start of our expedition, each team member will be hauling 100-150 pounds of gear up the mountain, so for me, that covers my body weight,” said Hart, who, for several months, has been waking at 4:30 a.m. for training. “Part of the reason this expedition takes as long as it does, is to not only acclimate, but to slowly haul all our gear up the mountain. Conditions can be harsh on the and it’s light out 24/7 in the summer, so sleeping can be tough.”
Temperatures vary, even dipping lower than -20F. The team may also experience gale force winds while on the mountain. With all these factors in place, it makes for a challenging climb and brings perspective as to why there is an average 50% success rate of summiting.
Hart has been meticulous and focused in planning for the trip, in training and in creating the motivation and expectation that she will summit Denali. Training and living in Florida made it challenging to build endurance for the high altitude she is facing. Most training was a combination of strength and cardiovascular workouts, including weight training, biking and stair stepping with a weighted vest. In addition, it was essential to prepare via hiking and climbing smaller mountains, which she did in the lower 48 states, including Rim2Rim at the Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier in Washington state, and Humphreys Peak in Arizona.
To escalate her workouts, she was able to hire and work with a private trainer at Vision Quest Fitness Studio, who would meet her many mornings at 4:30 a.m. before she would go to work. Her work, CBDJ, had been extremely supportive, even funding part of Hart’s excursion expense. Their support is impactful and aligns with their work where they treat patients whose quality of life has been impacted by arthritis. Their work includes evaluating and treating the musculoskeletal dysfunction, and provide patients with the knowledge and skills to restore optimal joint mobility, muscle performance and function after surgeries or injuries.
With such meaningful and important work, and in a role where she advises patients, Hart has experience helping others progress, which requires both physical and mental perseverance. In training to optimize her own physical capabilities, the same perseverance is required, as it will be in the climb.
“I tell myself, as I have with all my training hikes, to take it one step at a time. Eventually all those steps will put me on top of the mountain, and more importantly, will take me safely back down. There is no doubt in my mind, regardless of reaching the summit or not, it will be the trip of a lifetime.”
Hart’s climb is not only a life-changing experience for her, but the funds she is raising to support arthritis research, could change thousands of lives. All funds raised will be part of the grant funded awards for early-career scientists pursuing their ideas and research. The announcement of the 2022-23 cohort will be announced within the coming weeks from ANRF.
Along with this announcement, we hope to make one additional grant with funds raised through this year’s May Arthritis Awareness Month campaign for the ANRF, which fundraising continues through June. There is still time to donate to this campaign through June. One way to do that is to help Hart reach her fundraising goal AND fuel her motivation and inspiration:
Donate and support Heather’s dedication and ANRF grant funded arthritis research.
Learn more about Heather on Instagram: @roadlesstraveled_hh.
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(Click the link, then click on Denali West Buttress Expedition with guide Avery Parrinello. It should be available around June 1-4th.)