Covering a Mother’s Love at 20,000 Feet

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I talked with Isabella de la Houssaye for the first time in January 2009. I was 25, just starting my journalism career, and was writing and filming a story about running the Libyan Challenge, a 124-mile race across Libya.

The race required participants to carry their food and use a GPS to navigate across the Sahara and Acacus Mountains. Isabella and I ran for three days straight. When we finished, we were bound in a friendship born of adventure.

In the decade that followed, the two of us talked infrequently. I would occasionally see updates on Facebook about Isabella’s children doing incredible things or a picture of her in some far-flung part of the world. In September, my heart sank when her husband announced on Facebook that she had Stage 4 lung cancer. He said she had found a trial treatment that temporarily alleviated her pain and blocked the spread of cancer cells. Typical of Isabella, she was going on adventures with each of her five children and anyone else who wanted to join with the time she had left.

In late December, I mentioned Isabella’s story to my editor at The Times. A few weeks later I was in Argentina, on a two-week trek with Isabella and her daughter, Bella. Their goal was to climb Aconcagua, a 22,840-foot mountain, the highest in the Americas.

As a journalist, filmmaker and adventure athlete, I have spent more than a decade running and covering some of the longest ultramarathons in the world. I’ve reported in 115-degree temperatures in India, where I got typhoid fever, and covered reindeer herders on horseback in Mongolia. Aconcagua would be my first mountaineering experience.

I shared a tent with the photographer Max Whittaker, an experienced mountaineer who shot the climb.

Each night, using a headlamp in my sleeping bag, I wrote the day’s events in my notebook. When we moved to a new camp, I often vomited from altitude sickness. I could not sleep until my body adjusted. To be able to report, I had to conserve my energy. During the climb, when we stopped to rest, I would jot down pieces of conversations and scenes. It was important to strike a balance between being part of the team and being an observer to what was happening.

Watching Isabella struggle took an emotional toll.

She was much frailer than I remembered, and even simple things like swallowing were now a challenge.

She was the mother who took her children white-water rafting through a remote, mosquito-filled jungle in Honduras, who climbed Kilimanjaro with each of them when they were teenagers. She was also the mother who stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to help them write their college essays.

It was hard to imagine that Isabella, who was only 54, might not be there to see her daughter’s milestones.

Though it was never discussed openly, I knew that’s why they were on this trip.

She was showing her daughter how to dig deeper.

But that did not always go over well with Bella. A headstrong 22-year-old, she was on her mother’s case constantly and had a hard time coming to terms with the change in Isabella’s physical condition. It was clear that the roles between mother and daughter were shifting. Bella was the one to take down the tent, carry the extra weight of her mother’s pack and help her at night when she was vomiting from the altitude.

When I heard climbers tell stories of turning around on summit day after walking just a few feet up the mountain because they wanted to keep their toes, I knew that there was no fighting Aconcagua. The mountain would either let us pass or it wouldn’t.

We were fortunate. On summit day the winds were calm, the weather bearable and the vista unobscured. I’ve been to many beautiful places, but seeing the silhouette of Aconcagua cast against the Andes at 21,000 feet humbled me in a way that no other place has.

Several hours later, just 500 vertical feet from the top, I sat down on a rock and knew that my day was done. I felt drunk from the altitude, was unable to control my legs and still had to make it down the mountain.

Isabella and Bella made it to the summit that day. Before I turned around, I took one last look at them. Isabella was the leader and the mother helping her daughter get to the top of the mountain, just as I remembered from our days in Libya.

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