Gail Endres was 64 years old when the evolution began. The quiet, recently retired factory worker from small-town Iowa was the first to sign up for a journey to Mount Everest base camp in 2011 thanks to a new foundation with a goal of providing cancer survivors the opportunity to achieve something they never thought was possible. At that point, he’d never left the continent. He’d never climbed mountains. He didn’t have many friends outside the factory. His diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2002 and a recurrence in 2006 and the treatments they entailed had left him wondering what he was capable of and what sort of life was in store for him following retirement.
“It seemed as though cancer was in control of my life at one point,” Endres recalls thinking.
He didn’t know what would take place on the mountain. He got the gear nonetheless, and attended nearly all of the group’s training sessions. Prior to embarking on this journey of great proportions, Endres spent a lot of time quietly wondering to himself what the future would bring.
“I’m hoping what derives from the trek is the distance from cancer, plus all the friendships and new experiences that you’re gonna have,” Endres speculated at the time.
Before boarding the plane for Nepal, he sat at the computer in his home in Ankeny, Iowa, watching numerous YouTube videos of what the trek might look like. What it might feel like. What might come of it. He smiled and he wondered.
His hopes were coming true. The new experiences were plentiful – seeing Mount Everest for the first time, sleeping atop a freezing glacier, hiking day after day after day with not a road in sight. The new friendships were blossoming – 13 other cancer survivors and 15 supporters spending every waking moment on the trail together and every sleeping moment in close quarters in the huts along the way. No television or Internet to occupy their minds. Just sharing stories of trials and tribulations. The common bond they shared made making friendships quite easy. Endres, just shy of 65, hiked gracefully up the mountain with his new friends and a subtle sticker on his pack stating, “Life is good.”
Gail’s son, Jason, was along for the trip. The two hadn’t spent much time together in recent years and both saw this expedition as an opportunity to grow closer. The distance from cancer seemed to be working, and simultaneously an overall closeness to loved ones new and old.
“He’s changed a lot,” says Gail’s wife, Carol. “He’s more compassionate with people, and it seems like he takes more time to enjoy things that are going on whether it’s with the grandkids or driving down the highway. He sees the beauty in everything more than I think he has.”
Following a successful adventure to Everest base camp, the Above & Beyond Cancer group gathered often both at formal functions and spontaneous backyard BBQs. Endres was commonly the first to arrive and the last to leave. He’d smile and laugh throughout the evening with people who had been strangers in the not-too-distant past.
He stopped wondering what lied ahead and embraced the present. He thought life was good.
Endres has since scaled the peak of Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro on Above & Beyond Cancer’s second journey. Despite having had a pair of stents placed in arteries that were almost fully blocked just a few months before, Endres proved that at age 65, entering new frontiers on a physical front was a realistic goal. His confidence was not only back to where it used to be, it was higher than it had ever been.
“He says he’s never felt so good,” his wife Carol said. “And I think that’s true.”
Endres will compete in RAAM (Race Across America) this week as part of an 8-person relay team, which includes four other cancer survivors. At age 66, he’s still discovering muscles he didn’t know he had and finding himself in the midst of new experiences he never dreamt could be a part of his life.
During a recent 100-mile training ride throughout the cornfields of Iowa, the team began trading stories while on a break for lunch. The founder of Above & Beyond, Dr. Richard Deming, who is also a participant in this week’s RAAM event, asked Endres when exactly he finished at the factory.
Endres said he’d worked longer than he originally planned and that he finally decided to retire and “take it easy.”
“And how’d that work out for ya?” Deming asked with a smile.
The team broke out into laughter.
Endres laughed along with his new friends. Although he’ll remain forever humble, he was fully aware that what he was accomplishing in his 60s – the new experiences, the past mountain climbs, the upcoming bike race across America – was something to be proud of.
“As I’ve accepted the physical challenges and worked at becoming stronger, my mental strength has evolved from, ‘I wonder if I can,’ to ‘I think I can,’ to ‘I know I can,” he said.
“I feel like cancer is in the past.”
The distance has been accomplished. The evolving continues.