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Despite lung cancer, man and son tackle 46 High Peaks together

March 24, 2016
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer (aolivero@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

The plan, Dave Clark says, is to start anew every three weeks. Every time, it begins on a hospital bed and ends atop an Adirondack High Peak.

Clark is constrained to this timetable due to stage IV lung cancer. Despite an 80 percent chance he dies this year, he treats each three-week block of time like a new training season in pursuit of becoming a 46er. So far, he's summitted three of the 46 peaks that were originally surveyed at over 4,000 feet.

The 51-year-old New Jersey resident knows he only has a 1 percent chance of surviving past four years. But he's ever-optimistic, and despite having never been to Lake Placid or Saranac Lake, he has almost accidentally found a harmonious home here in the Adirondacks: The place for what will likely be his final project.

Article Photos

Dave Clark, left, and his 24-year-old son Matthew reach the summit of Porter Mountain on March 5.
(Photo provided)

"I saw the most beautiful place I'd ever seen," Clark said in a phone interview. "The beauty of the peaks, the fresh fallen snow. I found a sense of peace, found a sense of strength. For that period of time I forget I have a non-curable cancer."

Clark may only be able to count his trips to the Adirondacks on one hand, but the senior manager of the Emergency Department Trauma Center at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in New Jersey is no stranger to climbing and hiking. Along with his 24-year-old son Matthew, he has caved, repelled, bouldered and ice-climbed across the country over the past two decades.

Matthew has been his climbing buddy since he was a young child, Clark has passed on his passion for the outdoors to his youngest son, an avid adventurer himself who one day hopes to climb Alaska's Denali.

But 14 months ago, their family of five's life was altered when Clark was diagnosed with his sickness: non-small cell lung cancer, adenocarcinoma, stage IV.

After losing weight and feeling tired following an ice-climbing trip in New Hampshire's White Mountains, a CT Scan revealed Clark had a golf-ball-sized tumor that had grown into the base of his spine. It started on the upper-right lobe of his lung, requiring the removal of a piece of his lung about the size of a cellphone.

Between then and now, Clark made that first trip to the Adirondacks, trekking with his wife Lisa to Lake George this past summer. After seeing his first Adirondack sunrise and hiking the smaller Prospect and Buck mountains, he found his new favorite place.

It was during that time he decided he wanted to attempt the 46.

Thus far, the Clarks have embarked on six High Peak hikes. They've successfully reached three: Phelps, Cascade and Porter. Their first attempt came in January, when the duo was forced to turn around on Mount Marcy three-quarters of the way up.

The Clarks reached the summit of Phelps later in January in whiteout conditions. Their third trip was the least successful: They were forced to turn around after just a couple of miles into their attempt to summit Street and Nye, unable to find a safe way across an ice buildup on Indian Pass Brook.

On March 5, the Clarks reached the summits of Cascade and Porter. It came 22 days after doctors had taken a significant piece out of Clark's right lung and 17 days after he was released from the hospital.

"Knowing what the mountain gives me and what I take from the mountain," Clark said, "(it's) as medicinal and important as any treatment a physician could prescribe.

"The chemo has kept me alive," he continued. "The mountains have given me hope."

Clark is scheduled for another round of chemotherapy. In the meantime, he and Matthew were thinking about hiking Whiteface, Tabletop or Big Slide.

Matthew says his father is in some of the best climbing shape of his life. He has augmented his preparation to include more elliptical training, gradual increases in incline and distance each day on the treadmill, and two days of rest prior to a climb.

"Every three weeks, it's again retraining and trying to rebuild this muscle," Dave Clark said. "It is building muscle, then losing muscle - a very delicate balance."

Matthew said his father has always been smart and funny, the life of the party, at least around the family. On the mountain it's much the same.

"It exemplifies what I want to be when I grow up," Matthew said. "Spending time around him will help me become that kind of person."

In upcoming months, Clark hopes day-long hikes will transition into multi-day pursuits of the High Peaks as early as May as he gets into better shape to hike many more peaks this summer. But two surgeries have removed about half of the right portion of his lung. He can't take deep breaths as he has in the past. When he exerts himself, he doesn't take in as much oxygen as he used to. On occasion, he uses a rescue inhaler.

Nevertheless, throughout recent months, Clark said his surgeon and oncologist are 100 percent supportive of his pursuit of the 46.

With these debilitating realities, Clark doesn't like to say he is "fighting" cancer - because that connotates that at some point there will be a winner and loser.

Instead of a winner or a loser, Clark sees himself as a conqueror.

"We climb mountains to not conquer the mountains but to conquer ourselves," he said. "I will die from (cancer); that's a fact with the high mortality of this disease. But training for the mountains keeps me enthusiastic. Being in the mountains, I want to continue to live."

Like many with cancer, Clark uses textbook feel-good mantras. "Death is not losing to cancer," is one. "Having love beats cancer," is another.

Unlike many, though, Clark now has new memories of mountaintops in what may be the final months of his life.

The best of those so far was the most beautiful sky he says he's ever seen. It came atop Cascade on March 5, after he and Matthew broke above treeline just shy of 1 p.m. Not a cloud soiled the scene. The sun was bright. The sky was "ultra" blue. Viewing the contrast from Cascade's rock face to its immaculately white, frosted trees, Clark said he was overwhelmed.

Down ahead, Matthew yelled up to his father.

"Dad, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," the son said. "This is why we climb."

"Matt," the father responded from above, "just being here with you, this is why I climb."

 
 

 

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