August 12, 2010 in Washington Voices

Spokane climbers raise money for heart conditions

8 of 11 summit Mount Rainier
By The Spokesman-Review

Kathy Engh believes sometimes you find something you’re just meant to do. For her, that’s mountain climbing. “I took a class with Spokane Mountaineers last year,” she said. “I just fell in love with it.”

The 44-year-old said she enjoys the physical and mental challenge. “It’s hard work – I have to give it everything I have.”

But she finds the rewards unparalleled. Recently, she returned from an expedition to Mount Rainier that coupled the exhilaration of a climb with the passion of a higher purpose. From July 8 to 10, Engh and 10 other climbers participated in the annual Climb to Conquer SADS (Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes). Engh was the only woman on the trip and one of the eight climbers who summited.

The climb is the brainchild of Dr. Chris Anderson, a pediatric heart rhythm specialist at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital. Anderson became interested in mountaineering after moving to Spokane in 2002. He said, “It provided an outlet for the stress of what can be a very difficult career at times.”

Anderson wanted to do something “bigger” with climbing – something that would benefit others. His work had brought him into contact with the SADS Foundation. According the foundation, 350,000 Americans die suddenly and unexpectedly from cardiac arrhythmias each year, and almost 4,000 of them are people under the age of 35. Sadly, most of these deaths are preventable.

“Many of the conditions are treatable with simple medication,” Anderson said. But early diagnosis is critical.

Anderson said the SADS Foundation has spearheaded support for doctors like himself as well as families who deal with these genetic conditions. He and fellow members of Spokane Mountaineers organized the first Climb to Conquer SADS in 2007, and he’s been delighted to see the event grow each year.

This year’s climb leader, Brian Hoots, said the group had ideal conditions and good weather on Mount Rainier. Each member of the expedition was paired with a family from the foundation. “The goal of the climber was to understand the family’s challenge,” he said. “I climbed for a woman and her daughter who lost their husband and father in 2009.”

Engh said, “I climbed for a little girl nicknamed Princess George. She died a little over a year ago.” She paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “George was only 3.”

The SADS families communicated with the climbers via e-mail and sent photos of their loved ones. They also crafted banners for the climbers to wear on their packs. Engh’s banner featured George’s tiny handprints as well as messages from her siblings. “George and her mom were with me every step of the way,” said Engh.

Likewise, Hoots said he felt the family he climbed for was taking the journey with him. As he neared the summit, “It was like having the wind in your sails.”

The banners offered ample opportunity to educate other climbers about the cause. In addition, this year’s Climb to Conquer SADS raised $40,000 for the cause.

Anderson hasn’t been able to climb with them since he was injured during the 2008 expedition. He now serves on the board of the SADS Foundation, but this year he made it a point to be on the mountain to greet those returning from the summit. “I wanted to be there,” he said. “I wanted to thank the team of climbers with all my heart.”

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