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Top 5 Lists and the Top of Aspen Mountain

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Can you name 5 people who've changed your outlook on life? Can you name the change? I’ve always been a fan of lists; in fact, I’ve always hoped to be interviewed, asked my top 5 singers, books, actors, songs to take to a desert island, any category, really, which would reveal how savvy and discriminating my tastes are. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity created characters who shared all pertinent information in the form of a Top 5 list: Top 5 breakup songs, Top 5 all-time favorite albums, Top 5 ‘Laura’s Dad Died’ songs…and like a guitar string wound way too tight, Jack Black’s character plucked John Cusak’s character’s last nerve with that last one. That was the end of Top 5 fun for most of the rest of the story.

Maybe more transformative than Top 5 Friday Night songs is to recognize someone, much less 5 people, who’ve changed the way you view the world; and to only truly reflect on it, after they’re gone.

A friend passed away this winter, and her memorial is coming up on June 13, on Aspen Mountain. I met Sean Patrick about 6 years ago, when I was first really getting into rock climbing. She was holding an inaugural fundraising event in Salt Lake City, for the HERA foundation, called Climb for Life. Sean was battling Ovarian Cancer, and had started the HERA foundation to further awareness, empower the afflicted, and take positive steps towards ending Ovarian Cancer. The event combined her passion for climbing with her passion to find a cure and ease the battle along the way.

Doctors had attributed her waning health, by the age of 46, to overtraining and/or chronic fatigue; she was flight-for-lifed from a climbing trip in Yosemite, and the diagnosis was, finally, Ovarian Cancer.

She was given weeks to live, but lived for more than ten years, until January 20, 2009. Her one-hour interview with Jane Pauley, her endless efforts to raise awareness of the importance of early detection, and effect change within the medical community, so that Ovarian Cancer ceases to be the “Silent Killer;” her accomplishments were many and her work will always endure.

But how Sean affected me is not the stuff of press releases, obituaries or grant proposals.

I was just getting into lead climbing when I attended that First Annual Climb for Life. I’d been top-roping, or following, for the first 4 years of my climbing career. I’d mostly climbed male partners who were more accomplished climbers than me; it was a positive way to get into the sport and advance my ability, and now I was curious about life on the “sharp end” of the rope. I headed to Salt Lake with one of Sean’s friends, Nancy, who’d invited her to come down and check it out. We drove out along the back roads of Meeker and into Utah, stopping for cows and all the po-dunk liquor stores and gas stations we could find; the more Old West, the better.

We arrived to find a climbing mecca based out of the Black Diamond compound in Salt Lake. There was this incredibly organized funfest, centered around all things climbing: daily clinics i.e. climbing partners who were, in Top Gun speak, among the best of the best: Nancy Feagin, Stephanie Forte, Lisa Gnaade, Bobbi Bensman, some of the major women climbers in the sport had volunteered to get this event off the ground. There were a few hardy and curious men that first year, but for the most part, most of the participants were female. I’d never been around so many women climbers and felt totally motivated to lead, and to learn, and to excel. There was yoga, there were gift bags, there was salsa dancing, food, and the kind of climbing community I’d always wondered about.

And Sean was sassy. She was wry, matter-of-fact, open, energetic, mischievous and seemingly unphased by the fact that she had Ovarian Cancer. She was an open book when asked about it, and told her story over and over, but her personal presence and the way she moved in the world made you respond to her as this really fun, ready-for- anything spirit vs. the woman with cancer who was given weeks to live.

The event grew, and now there are many more men, and women, participants and pros: Chris Sharma, Nate Gold and Katie Brown came out a few years ago for the first screening of their international bouldering flick, and Climb for Life events have sprung up across the country, outside crags and inside at gyms. Money continues to be raised, as does awareness, and the need for more of both is always there. In fact, the HERA foundation has set a goal to raise $50,000 by June 13, Sean’s memorial. “Take Ten to High-Five HERA” encourages donations in multiples of 5: $5, $50, $500. This has made my Top 5 list of Top 5 Fundraisers, in case anyone wants to interview me about it.

I remember talking to Sean’s partner, Scott, after we all met; he told me about making the decision to see it through with her. When they heard the grim nature of her diagnosis, he decided to stick around for whatever came next. He was an integral part of the Climb for Life event, and though I’m sure he missed the good ol’days when it was mostly women, I know he too, is amazed, by how Sean’s dream has grown to include co-ed climbers, outdoor retailers, doctors and activists and sponsors from all walks of life.

Sean and I weren’t close friends, more warm acquaintances, and I saw her sporadically over the years, even though she lived just down the road in Carbondale, Colorado. The way she affected me wasn’t necessarily through friendship, but through example. She was too busy making a positive change to pencil in ‘being cancer victim’. She honed in on what really mattered to her, and then left the rest alone. “Life happens, and the only thing you have control of is your attitude.” she said. “You can deal with it with a bad attitude or a good one…and life is just more fun with a good attitude.”

I remember something my dad told me, when I was in high school. “Never let any one tell you what you’re capable of, or that you can’t do something.” At that first Climb for Life event, I felt empowered to put my own rope up, and therefore redefine what I thought possible; Sean’s unwavering resolve to take control of her circumstances and thereby redefine what everyone else thought possible, has reminded me of the importance of believing in one’s self. Sean Patrick showed me what my dad was talking about. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Sean’s memorial is on top of Aspen Mountain, June 13. All are welcome. If you’d like to “Take Ten to High-Five HERA,” more info available at: