While Battling Cancer, Some Turn Earnin’ Feels Pretty Good

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 2, 2011      

I was diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkins lymphoma in November 2008, at age 57 after a career of amateur athletics in Aspen and the Rocky Mountains.  Up till then, I’d biked thousands of miles both here and in Europe, heli-skied in Canada and Alaska, been a ski mountaineer for 35 years, and worked on ski patrol at Aspen Highlands and Snowbird, Utah. I’m a strong, healthy guy, so “unexpected” is a weak word for the feelings I felt after finding out about my illness.

Peter Kelley Highlands Summit

Myself, summit of Aspen Highlands.

Two weeks after my diagnosis, I jumped right into aggressive chemo therapy (minimum six treatments, perhaps more).  This meant a “round” of infusions every 21 days. I hoped to pound this disease down far enough (it’s said there’s currently no cure) to make a cycling trip my wife and I had already bought for the following June of 2009.  No one could tell me if I’d be O.K. to go, and there was a good probability that wouldn’t be my biggest problem!

I’d been building my hill climbing strength for 25 years, to one day ride in good style across northern Italian Alps and the Dolomites, where some of the steepest roads anywhere reside.  Now, I was likely going to arrive there as weak as I had ever been, if I could even make it at all. Best case, I’d finish treatments in April and have 60 days to get better.  I didn’t know how weak I’d be by then.  Bottom line was I had to stay as strong as I could all winter, even during treatment, or I wasn’t getting up the Stelvio and the Gavia!  So, uphill that winter had to be part of the program.

There were some tough days and nights that winter of ’08 – ’09.  I reeled from the chemicals being pumped into me every three weeks.  Damn!  Prime powder skiing season.  I’d just about start feeling better day 12 or 14 of the 3 week chemo cycle, and then they’d hammer me again.  I was keeping on track as best I could.

My skinning uphill times for a 1,500 vert, hard pack climb, went from the low 30’s to on one occasion, a slogging 50+ minutes!  I felt that my head was going to explode from the chemo and believe me, I had NO energy or power.  Throwing up was not an option, as I had already been through the anti-nausea regime during my chemo infusion, at $350 for the 4 pills they’d give me!

Peter Kelley at Buttermilk uphilling.

Uphilling at Buttermilk ski resort with my wife.

These infusions took place over two days, which made it less likely I’d have a reaction to the chemicals they were giving me.  The second day was usually worse than the first. So, after the first day of chemo, I knew I had somewhat of a “hall pass” before they hit me with the really bad shit, on day two.  One time I decided I was going to ski the 2 feet of fresh in Highland Bowl that afternoon, right after I finished the morning treatment.

I was a little light headed, but struggled up the ridge from Loge to Highland Peak in a blizzard, complete with 15 mile an hour cross winds and low visibility.  Wearing the balaclava came in handy, but I still had major frozen right side of my face problems, and iced up goggles on the left. I began to understand this may not have been such a good idea — perhaps my judgment was just a little impaired?

Reaching the top of Highland Bowl mid-afternoon on a powder day usually means skiing chop from the morning’s crowd getting their first tracks.  However, when the weather conditions are just “bad” enough, the patrol often opens the G zones/north woods later than “usual.”  It’s possible to still get first tracks at 2 – 2:30 in the afternoon (don’t tell anyone).  This was one of those days.

Climbing.  One foot in front of the other.  Breath.  Can’t see.  Wind howling. Top out on Highland Peak and click in.  Turn left, then fall line ski down the G-8 rope, for some solid reference in the white out and blowing snow.  Maybe the hike today WAS worth it!  Down through Tortilla Flats, the storm softened bumps in the willows, and out the traverse to Deep Steeple.  Up and over the top, on my way home.  Today, one lap was enough.

Peter Kelley at Highlands summit with Pyramid Peak

Highland Peak, during better weather.

The cancer infusion nurses would remind me to drink a lot of water the day of a Tx, which would flush the drugs as soon as possible, once they’d done their job.  I figured pounding up the ridge to the bowl would result in a serious thumping of my heart as well.  That would really move the chemicals out of my system!

Well, that may have been sound reasoning at the time, and I did feel good that night; probably not least from the sense of defiance I earned, considering my situation.  It didn’t hurt taking charge in a situation where I was otherwise pretty much powerless.  I attempted to be extraordinary.  But, I paid for my impertinence the next day — I don’t think I was ever sicker from an infusion of chemo therapy.  Maybe being that sick was a good thing, and perhaps it was just the effect of cancer dying off, or so they told me. 

Know what though?  I went because I could.  Something for everyone to think about, in good or bad health. 

And yes, that post-chemo cycling trip did happen! Here I am in Italy.

And yes, that post-chemo cycling trip did happen! Here I am in Italy at the top of a mountain which has been a prior stage finish for the Giro (2005?) called the Tre Cime Laverado. It’s about a 5 mile spur that includes 2 ½ miles of 18% grade! It’s just out of Cortina, and included it in a thirty mile loop about July 1st , 2009, which was just 3 months after I completed chemo.

Italy bicycle riding.

Two years later, I still remember every detail of earning my turns that day! Later that winter, I was able to repeat the Highlands climb and ski on a sunny day, with a good friend. That’s when we took the pictures you see here. Also, I did go on to do that ride over the high European passes, photo above is myself and my wife Sue at Passo Stelvio in Italy, which is one of the classics of European bicycle riding.

(Guest blogger Peter Kelley is a longtime Aspen resident and committed backcountry skier who Lou hung out with quite a bit during what we Aspen orginalists call the “days of wine and roses.” Please check out Peter’s photos at peterykelley.com, and his real estate business at real-estate-aspen.com)


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


22 Responses to “While Battling Cancer, Some Turn Earnin’ Feels Pretty Good”

  1. Randonnee February 2nd, 2011 11:15 am

    Great story! Living big with the situation at hand. Courageous!

  2. Smokey February 2nd, 2011 11:54 am

    Wow…I guess thats all I can say. Inspiring.

  3. Nick February 2nd, 2011 1:13 pm

    Were you able to go on the bike trip? inspiring story.

  4. John S February 2nd, 2011 1:37 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…to put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

    Thoreau might have written it, but I am always heartened by people that live it.

  5. Another Jonathan February 2nd, 2011 2:05 pm

    Peter, thank you. This is at once incredibly moving and inspiring. I think it resonates both with those of us who for now enjoy good health and those in similar situations as yours. I think most who’ve had to wait out a significant recovery appreciate the reminder to take note of our good health when we’re out there doing what we love. It’ll be nice to look back and be able to say we knew we had it good when things start to slow down…or in some cases, come to a screeching halt.

    “Guest blogger Peter Kelley is a longtime Aspen resident and committed backcountry skier ”

    Committed in the fullest sense!

  6. Lou February 2nd, 2011 2:15 pm

    Indeed, I might backcountry ski with an upset stomach once in a while, but PK takes the committed tough guy prize! I mean, climbing a peak while you’re on chemo! Peter!

  7. Good Karma February 2nd, 2011 4:15 pm

    I know this has nothing to do with the story, but I think that b/c skiers like me would want to know: departmentofgoods.com is selling an Ortovox Patroller 3 antenna transceiver for $150 (that’s half off). Use code: 5ZJ-2-KUH4X to boost the discount.

  8. Nick February 2nd, 2011 5:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing! Keep up the great work! Courageous!

  9. Lou February 2nd, 2011 5:15 pm

    Peter was able to go on that bike tour after his chemo, I just posted another photo he sent over, this one from Passo Stelvio, Italy! It’s at the bottom of the post above.

  10. Jack February 2nd, 2011 6:00 pm

    This is Jack Albright from WRFA. I wanted to touch base regarding an important upcoming meeting. Could you contact me via email, so that we could talk in person, as soon as possible? If you still have my number, please give me a call.



  11. Joe February 2nd, 2011 7:05 pm

    Your vision on life not to wait to tomorrow is something that I fully embrace. Thanks very much for sharing and hope you continue your fight. A true inspiration!

    -Lou- On a side note I hope the comments section doesn’t become a sounding board filled with comments(ads) such as those made by “Good Karma”

  12. Lou February 2nd, 2011 7:19 pm

    Joe, as for spamming, I wasn’t sure whether that was a spam or not so I let it slide. I do keep rather strict watch on things! That comment looked like a legit “let me help my friends out” type of comment. Most spams are easy to spot. But yeah, a good spammer could wise up and fool me, at least part of the time (grin)!

  13. ScottN February 2nd, 2011 8:07 pm

    “I went because I could.” Awesome perspective on life and living. Its not about how fast, how far or how high….its simply because, you can. Thanks for sharing your story Peter.

  14. Glenn Sliva February 2nd, 2011 8:26 pm

    Fight like Susan damn it! We’re all with you. Glenn

  15. Mark W February 2nd, 2011 9:45 pm

    Never give in! Thanks for the inspiring report.

  16. Dostie February 3rd, 2011 9:55 am

    Rock on Peter!

    Still remember your awesome lightning photo we published back in the day (after the wine and roses period). You have just helped several people you don’t know give ‘er one more go.

    And those turns do taste sweeter when you earn ’em, especially against the odds, eh?

  17. Bill February 3rd, 2011 10:32 am

    That’s a story that inspires us all. Thanks for sharing it.

  18. Jason February 3rd, 2011 11:14 am

    Just Do It. Right?!

  19. Good Karma February 4th, 2011 12:47 am

    I assure you it is not a spam. As a big advocate of using beacons in avalanche terrain and someone who isn’t rich, I like to share such a good deal when I see it. I’m so sorry if I offended anyone with the heads-up though, I just have never seen that good a price on a brand new beacon of that quality.

  20. Lou February 4th, 2011 8:05 am

    Good Karma, your karma is still good. Thanks for sharing the good deal you found.

  21. Donny H February 7th, 2011 9:27 pm

    A lifetime can be likened to a lonely beach of sand.
    a stranger makes a mark one day, an imprint of a hand.
    As time goes by the beach once clear is now a cluttered field,
    of memories and keep-sakes of the ones that we hold dear.
    Time does its best to wash away remembrances of those –
    the ones we never meant to meet(but for the Grace of God Go I) – the ones we never chose.
    But as through some odd twist of fate, these are the ones we cherish.
    The time we spend with these such friends, Peter, will never, ever perish.

  22. Stu February 8th, 2011 12:47 am

    Thanks for the story I just finished 7 weeks of radiation and am feeling pretty wimpy. This has inspired me to get my skis out and into the mtns for some turns. I was thinking about not skiing at all this winter and was feeling sorry for myself but damn if you can do that after chemo I can for sure get some easy turns in this year after just a bit of radiation, Thanks

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