Climb Against the Odds: camaraderie, tech and a rescue

Lauren Steinheimer
Climb Against the Odds climbers at the summit of Mt. Shasta last week, holding prayer flags, including one for each victim of the recent shooting in Orlando, Fla.

As if a group of cancer survivors summiting Mt. Shasta wasn’t exciting enough, the 13th annual Climb Against the Odds event this past week saw the integration of innovative mapping technology from FireWhat in Dunsmuir as well as a helicopter rescue at 14,000 feet following a climber’s fall from the summit.

A group of 17 climbers, many of whom were cancer survivors, set out last week to summit Mt. Shasta along with nine volunteers from Shasta Mountain Guides as part of the Breast Cancer Fund’s 2016 Climb Against the Odds. Of that starting crew, Shasta Mountain Guides co-owner Chris Carr said 11 made it all the way to the summit.

One of those reaching the summit was local climber Shalonda Gerdes, who described her experience as, “Amazing, beautiful, and not at all what I expected.”

In addition to feeling overjoyed by the sense of camaraderie along the climb, the support from her local community and the thrill of summiting a formidable peak in her 40th year, Gerdes said she was honored to pay special tribute to the victims of the recent Orlando shooting with special prayer flags.

Every year, climbers with the Breast Cancer Fund carry prayer flags with the names of their supporters to the summit of Mt. Shasta. This year, they also carried flags for the victims and injured survivors involved in the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Fla. earlier this month.

Rescue at the summit

Gerdes was in the second group of climbers to head for the summit, making it there around the same time as a large group of Boy Scouts. While the crew was celebrating their achievement, the Scout leader pitched backward and fell from the summit pinnacle, cartwheeling down the mountain until he landed in a pool of blood, according to Carr.

Mountain guide Rich Meyer hit the SOS button on his tracking device, initiating a successful helicopter rescue just below the summit. Carr said the patient was conscious, but in critical condition with a list of injuries including a broken neck, broken back, broken ribs, punctured lungs and punctured liver.

Several professionals involved with the climb, including Carr, mountain guide Nick Caselli and FireWhat CEO Sam Lanier, said the patient was incredibly lucky that certain factors were in place that could have made the difference in his survival.

The Delorme tracking device that triggered the rescue helicopter was one of 10 carried by each mountain guide on the trip as part of an experiment in live tracking and story mapping by FireWhat.

Geographic Information Officer Cassie Hansen explained that each device automatically sent location data to FireWhat’s tracking map every 20 minutes, leaving a marker on the map that was updated in real time.

The tracking points were color-coded by group, creating a flurry of multi-colored dots and tiny stars along the climbers’ path to the summit. “We call this the confetti on the mountain map,” Hansen joked.

Originally intended to create a real-time map of each group’s progress up the mountain, Caselli referred to the new tracking technology as, “a huge part of the rescue.”

The tracking devices not only provided exact latitude and longitude coordinates of the patient, but allowed for two-way satellite communication in an area with no cell phone service.

“Having that communication really helped get that guy off the mountain,” Caselli said. Professionals at the scene were able to relay critical information such as the patient weight, temperature and wind direction to the rescue helicopter.

“Luckily, the conditions were right,“ Carr said, adding that a higher temperature or wind speed might have made a detrimental difference. Not to mention the fact that a crew of well-equipped medical and mountain professionals happened to be at the summit on a Wednesday afternoon.

“I don’t know if that was the first helicopter rescue from the summit, but it’s definitely the first one I know of,” said Carr, who has summited Mt. Shasta more than 170 times according to his guide bio.

Carr said he’s trying to turn this unfortunate accident into a learning experience to share with the public.

“There’s an opportunity to take away some key points here,” he said. “A lot of people really underestimate Mt. Shasta, and this is an example emphasizing the importance of proper preparation, equipment and training.”

Story map

Families and friends of the Breast Cancer Fund climbers were able to experience their loved ones’ journeys fro m afar by following FireWhat’s story map updated in real time.

Though Carr said Shasta Mountain Guides has carried tracking devices in the past, this year’s climb was the first to include unique live mapping, which he found “extremely useful.”

Gerdes said her supporters knew she was on the purple team, and a link to the map was posted on her Facebook timeline.

“I didn’t have any cell service when I was at the summit,” she said. “But when I came back down into range, I found so many messages people sent right as I reached the summit! So, I know they were watching me on the map and rooting for ‘Team Purple.’”

Along with the colorful confetti of tracking points, the story map included photos taken along the way, sharing scenes of breakfast by headlamp, breathtaking views from the climb, summit victories and the triumphant return to Horse Camp.

“It’s called a story map because it’s really telling the story of the hike as it’s unfolding in real time,” Hansen said. “Some people already decided they want to do this next year after seeing the map.”

The story map can be found at:

In addition to sharing a story, Caselli added the live tracking and ease of communication provided some peace of mind to climbers’ loved ones while they were on the mountain. “There’s a lot of worry about this group of climbers from their loved ones,” he explained, pointing out that several had metastatic cancer.

A seasoned mountain guide with 10 years experience on Climb Against the Odds, Caselli noted the convenience of carrying a device that tracked him automatically. “In the past, we had to radio in every hour with our location,” he said. “This makes it a lot easier – we can focus on actually climbing and guiding our groups up the mountain.”


Everyone interviewed for this story extended tremendous praise and gratitude to the Breast Cancer Fund for continuing to lead cancer survivors up Mt. Shasta while spreading awareness of the dangers of environmental toxins.

Gerdes, who does not have cancer, but lives with a chronic illness, said the focus on toxins was what really drew her to the fund’s mission. “They do good work, not only for people with cancer, but for everyone,” she said.

“It’s really cool that they continue coming back every year and totally embrace this community,” Carr said.

The community’s support for the climb was evidenced by the $11,500 raised by Gerdes alone, over $4,000 of which came from her fundraiser event at City Park. “I’m really blessed to live in this small community where everyone rallied behind me.”

She said she’s excited the money she raised will remain in Siskiyou County to help women with breast cancer.

Gerdes thanked her family most of all, saying she wouldn’t have been able to do it without her husband, two kids, mom and in-laws.

“I had to train and was gone a lot of weekends,” she said. “I also really wanted to do this for my kids- to show them you can help people even when you’re not in the greatest health yourself.”

Thanks were also extended to Shasta Mountain Guides, who Gerdes referred to as, “Amazing, patient and kind – a real class act.”

She also thanked FireWhat for giving people at home the experience of tracking their loved ones along the journey.

Other members of the community on Gerdes’s thank you list include her uncle Chris Schneider, who helped with training; and Jen Wood, who gifted her Pilates sessions. She thanked all who helped with her fundraiser, including Berryvale, Liza Wood Catering, Wonderland Distributing, Crystal Geyser, Mount Shasta Ice, Castle Rock Water, Mount Shasta Nordic Center, Karrie Ann Snure of Living Shasta Photography, and all the generous donors.

The Fifth Season does a breakfast for climbers at Horse Camp, and Fifth Season owner Leif Voeltz pointed to contributions made by two other Mount Shasta businesses, Lalo's Restaurant and General Produce.

“It’s been an amazing experience just to live in this place, and my journey has been made so much better by the community’s support,” Gerdes said.

For more information on Climb Against the Odds, visit the Breast Cancer Fund blog