On an extra-cold January evening in rural Iowa, Gail Endres stood above a trashcan in the same cozy house he’s called home for 38 years, holding a shiny new Browning mid-layer jacket in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other.
“Do you really need a new coat?” his wife Carol questioned.
“Well, if I go to Nepal I will,” her husband casually responded without looking up as he snipped the price tag free, allowing it to take its place with the rest of the garbage.
This was a peculiar statement coming from a man who has never broken beyond the boundaries of the North American continent in his 64 years of life.
“What?” his wife reacted, dragging out the ‘uh’ sound to prove her perplexity.
This is how Gail Endres decided to tell his soul mate of 43 years that he would be fleeing the flat fields of Iowa to set eyes on the highest mountains on the planet in the Himalayas with a group of fellow cancer survivors that coming spring.
“I think he told me in that way because I’m not sure he quite believed it could be possible,” Carol Endres suggested.
Thanks to Dr. Richard Deming – the Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines and the man who organized the adventure – a group of 14 cancer survivors including Endres are embarking on a fully funded, 18-day round-trip trek to the base camp of Mt. Everest in April.
“I’m hoping what derives from the trek is the distance from cancer, plus all the friendship and cultural advantages and new experiences you’re gonna have,” said Endres, who at 64 will be the oldest member of the group. “My wife told somebody just the other day, ‘I’ve never seen him so excited about anything in his life.’”
Endres was diagnosed with early–stage prostate cancer in 2002, and despite a successful prostatectomy, he had to endure seven and a half weeks of radiation therapy when the cancer recurred in the same area in 2006. He’s been cancer free ever since and was the first survivor to sign up for the Everest expedition.
Endres is in the best physical shape he’s been in for a while, attending all the weekly workouts hosted at the Healthy Living Center through the LiveStrong at the YMCA program, and discovering muscles with his trainer he didn’t know he had.
Even though he’s traveled throughout all 50 U.S. states, Gail Endres seems to be the epitome of an Iowan grandfather. Humble. Wise. Appreciative. Bald on top with a pair of glasses you couldn’t picture him without. “Deere” isn’t just a word to him. It’s a living.
The country roads change names a couple of times as you drive out to his home a 30-minute ride from Des Moines. His quiet living room currently looks like a display at an outdoor retailer, with hiking poles, gloves, hats, a sleeping bag and a new jacket arranged in orderly fashion on the freshly vacuumed carpet. He’s so prepared that even the clock on his living room wall had been moved ahead one hour even though daylight-saving time wasn’t for another two days.
Proudly showing off his first U.S. passport, issued in January of this year, Endres explains how it wasn’t easy to acquire. Since he was born in a rural home near Milo, Iowa, in 1946 as the youngest of 10 children, his parents didn’t bother to have an official birth certificate issued until much later in life – something he described as common in those days. So when it came time to order his first passport, Endres had to bring in four of his eight siblings currently living to the rescue to prove he was who he said he was by signing affidavits at a local bank. Once the paperwork went through, he forked over the extra cash to have his passport expedited. The key to Nepal was at his doorstep within three days.
Endres retired from John Deere Des Moines Works on his birthday last June after 44 years (and only two unexcused absences), and ever since signing up for this excursion he has spend many afternoons on YouTube doing his research. Sometimes for knowledge, sometimes for pure pleasure. Watching takeoff and landing videos of the flights cycling through Lukla airport, which is notorious for having one of the world’s shortest and steepest airstrips, become a bit of an addiction for him.
He watched from his home computer as a single-engine airplane did a cartwheel down the runway, and let out an ambiguous laugh while later describing this particular video. It’ll be Endres on that plane in two weeks, but the father of three, grandfather-of-seven seems incredibly calm given the adventure on the next page of his calendar. Perhaps cancer has helped him distinguish what’s worth getting worked up for from what isn’t.
Endres is one of the few cancer survivors in the group who will be accompanied by a family member. His 37-year-old son Jason, who is moving out of his Brooklyn residence at the beginning of April, will be joining him. His father has not sent him a link to the videos of the airplane ride to Lukla for one good reason. Jason does not like to fly.
“To me that’s exciting,” the older Endres said with a wide grin. “It’s exhilarating. But my son would rather take a beating than fly.”
Both Gail and Jason hinted at the fact their relationship hasn’t been one of too much depth since Jason moved away to New York a decade ago. But a pair of polar-opposite events has helped with strengthening their bond. When Gail was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, and especially when he put that chapter of his life behind him in 2006, his son Jason noticed some change.
“Until he went into the hospital, I don’t think we had really talked much about any emotional side of anything,” Jason Endres said. “That whole ordeal changed him a lot. He’s a lot more open to talking and he calls me a lot. I think honestly it’s made him a happier person afterwards.”
Ironically, thanks to that awful thing called cancer, Gail and Jason Endres will be hiking side-by-side throughout one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth next month. When asked about his decision to join his father on the journey in spite of his fear of flying, Jason Endres said he wasn’t sure that he’d be going if it weren’t the situation that it is.
“I feel like I’m going in some way in support of him. It’s exciting to see him show so much interest in another place and culture. He calls me all the time to talk to me about things he wants to do.”
When Jason was hospitalized for kidney problems while living in New York, his mother and sister traveled to be at his side, but his father remained working in Iowa at his son’s suggestion.
“I should’ve gone out there too and been out there too,” Gail Endres recalled. “He said, ‘You don’t need to, there’s nothing you can do,’ but I’ve always felt guilty. If something would’ve happened to him, then I would have really felt inadequate not having been out there as my parental duty. So this is a chance to make up for that. From my perspective, that’s the way I’m looking at it.”
Carol Endres will be waiting for updates from the family’s Iowa home as her husband climbs further away from cancer and closer toward their son on figuratively and literally the other side of the world.
“Even though this is his chance of a lifetime, he had to have cancer which is awful, but he doesn’t have cancer now,” she said. “To be able to hike Mt. Everest is a dream come true for him.”
Does Carol Endres wish she could go with her husband?
“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “But I’m so thankful I don’t have to.”