Parkinson's Prevails: Brandi versus the Mountain
Diagnosed at 25
This is a true story about a girl and a goal.
It was late August 2009, and I was having a "Poor-Me" day. It was one of those days when the world is against you and everything that could go wrong... just did. I had spent most of the day alone and crying, thinking "why me? How could this happen... how could I have Parkinson's disease."
My name is Brandi, I'm 29, and I was diagnosed with PD when I was 25... this is my story about the journey to the top of my mountain.
That night I ventured out of my bed to a friend's house. My friends could tell I was "down." They tried to cheer me up by telling me stories of a recent climb they had just returned from, however this plan backfired and made me more upset and depressed. Couldn't they understand my life was over... I have PD, people with PD don't climb mountains they shake too much! Then it happened! My friend looked at me and said "you should climb a mountain, you could prove to people that you can overcome your weaknesses, you don't have to go around you mountains... you can hit them "head-on" and go straight up! You can conquer your mountains!" Now, I'm not sure why that made any sense to me... but it did! It inspired me! I had a goal, I had something to prove to everyone... I had something to prove to myself!
I went home and I researched mountains in Montana. I chose Granite Peak - the highest mountain in Montana. I told myself, "If I was going to do this, I was going to make a point in doing it."
For next year I focused on shaping up. I walked and ran daily. I went to the gym and did cardio and weights. I learned to ski that winter. And, much to my surprise, I loved it. In the summer, I met Dave and JaLina Collins - who taught me how to climb and rappel. Oh, and on the side, I started a non-profit organization Summit 4 Parkinsons.
By May I had a team of 6, a plan, and whole bunch of support. I had a new found strength in myself and I lived by the motto, I have Parkinson's - Parkinson's does NOT have Me.
We began our journey to the top of Granite Peak on August 12th, 2010. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the scenery was breathtaking. I felt amazingly good and strong, I had a team I believed in and whom I knew believed in me (their motto was, If Brandi can- WE can). As I hiked I felt my willpower grow and my drive to succeed overpower me- I was on a mission; I wasn't just climbing for myself anymore but for EVERYone touched by PD.
As we neared our first campsite, Mystic Lake, it began to pour rain. Quickly, we found cover under some boulders and waited. About half an hour later we were back on the trail and then arriving at our campsite. We were later greeted by Dave and JaLina and Kami and Garret made their way to camp in the middle of the night. Friday morning our team was complete and we were all radiating with excitement and enthusiasm.
At 0900 on Friday morning we began the, rightfully named, Switchbacks from Hell, a steep hike that rises in elevation from 7637 feet to10,000 feet in less than three miles. The weather was perfect from the get-go not too hot, not to cold. As we climbed higher and higher into the clouds (literally) the weather began to change. The temperature dropped quickly and fog set in. Soon after the rain began and quickly turned to snow which was blowing full force at us. Our pace slowed to a crawl as we reached our next destination Froze to Death Plateau, which was also beginning to live up to its name (seriously I just hiked up a trail from hell to this frozen plateau... what was I thinking!) by the time we reached the first campsite I was soaked and freezing, my fingers were numb making it near impossible to put up a tent let-alone anything else requiring dexterity. I was shaking uncontrollably from cold and PD - to sum it up, I was miserable. Ryan, my boyfriend, toughed it out and managed to get the tent up and food cooking as I laid shivering in my zero degree down sleeping bag.
For the next 24 hours we endured snow storm after snow storm, high winds, cold, and fog. We had planned to hike to the Peak on Saturday but had to delay due to weather. Saturday was a long, cold, and depressing day. We remained hunkered down in our tents on Froze to Death Plateau the entire day. The team tried to stay positive but the idea of summiting on Sunday looked very bleak. We had come so far and now weather was keeping us from our goal - everyone was bummed. Dave decided that if the stars were out at 0400 on Sunday we would make our way to Granite Peak... the odds were against us, but we had hope.
Sunday morning came quickly and as Ryan and I opened the tent we saw stars, tons of beautiful twinkling stars! As we got ready we were amazed to see shooting stars all around us, finally a good omen. We made wishes on the stars and Dave led us in a prayer, then we set out on the last stretch of our journey, over miles of boulders and rocky terrain to our destination the top of Granite Peak.
We scrambled across the boulder fields for hours until, finally we reached the end of Froze to Death Plateau and in the near distance we spotted Granite Peak... for the first time. A magnificent jagged point jutting into the sky, it was awe-inspiring. I felt my eyes swell with tears as I peered at my rocky nemesis. I felt as though I stood in one corner of a boxing ring, a small 5 foot, 1 inch girl weighing in at just over 110 pounds against the Hulk of all mountains, but I had a secret weapon I was being cheered on by a million people with PD. With every step I took my determination became greater. Soon I was standing at the base of Granite Peak.
As you stand at the bottom of Granite Peak you realize that you are a mere speck of dust, it is a powerful unforgiving force to be reckoned with, and it was not going to submit to me. My senses heightened. I began the climb upward into the ever expanding sky towards the top of this awesome mountain. Much of the mountain I wanted to rope up for fear of falling off the side, but because of time constraints and with my trust in my team and Dave I free climbed all but two pitches on the way to the top... a pretty big feat for someone with PD. On the second of the two roped climbs I was brutally brought back to reality when a rock was kicked loose from the top of the pitch, I was on the top so my concern was for the people below us - my best friend and her husband. Kami and Garret were directly below us, therefore the rock was hurling directly at them. This was a very sobering moment for me, I was hysterical, whimpering and crying, covering my ears for fear of what I might hear next. For the next five seconds, which seemed like forever, I was overcome by fear. And then, I heard Kami's voice from below "Rock!" They were warning the people below them. I sobbed a sigh of relief, as I heard the rock come to a stop, my team was okay - Thank God! As reality of what just happened set in, I clung to the rock wondering if it had defeated me "Should I go on, was it worth it, what if another rock slipped loose, or what if someone got hurt?" I was consumed by fear and doubt.
After a moment I gathered myself, I was here for a reason and I was close to accomplishing it, no one had gotten hurt. I needed to finish what I had started. Climbing is just like my disease, sometimes you are filled with doubt and fear; you have to decide whether to let it consume you or to move past it. I moved past it. I free climbed the rest of Granite Peak with a humbled confidence. I climbed the last few feet to the top, I had won! I had finally proven to myself, I have Parkinson's - Parkinson's does not have me!
As I took my place on the granite platform that is the summit of Granite Peak I was overcome by emotions. I cried, I thought about the strength and endurance it had taken to sit here... on the top of Montana. I thought about my great grandmother who died in March, she was the first person I had known with PD. I remembered my PD support group, many of whom had signed my helmet - I had brought them to the top with me as promised. I can't begin to describe the feelings and emotions I went through, it was a long, difficult, and painful journeybut completely worth it!
As I have said from the start, this climb is for everyone living and caring for people with Parkinson's disease. It was the proudest moment of my life.
I would like to thank everyone who helped me achieve this goal! Special thanks to David (aka Dave) and JaLina Collins for their overwhelming support and encouragement along the way. Dave and JaLina were our lead climbers, I can never repay them for what they have given me I can only offer them the same strength and support through friendship, I love you guys!! Kami and Garret Gillispie, thank you for watching over me as you have for the past decade (and thanks for the PB&Js)! Ryan, for following me up the highest mountain in MT and holding my hand through it all! Thanks to all the random strangers we met on the way who gave us encouragement, especially to the hikers camped at the top of froze to death who happily fed us trail mix and goldfish!
This was for the millions of people with PD, I hope I made you proud!