ACONCAGUA PROVINCIAL PARK, Argentina — Isabella de la Houssaye and her daughter, Bella, struggled to breathe in the thin air of the high Andes as they trudged up a zigzag trail to the top of Aconcagua, the highest summit outside the Himalayas.
At an elevation of about 22,840 feet, it is often called “the roof of the Americas.” At this height, breathing is difficult and the risk of debilitating, even fatal, altitude sickness is a reality even for the strongest climbers.
Isabella has Stage 4 lung cancer, which makes breathing especially hard.
She and her daughter were four hours into their 14-hour push to the top when Bella, 22, broke down at roughly 21,000 feet. The vastness of the snow-capped mountains stretching out beneath them was stunning, but Bella was not contemplating the view.
“I don’t know why we are here or why we are doing this,” she said to her mother as she leaned against her pack on a rocky knoll in the morning light.
Wearing matching puffy orange jackets made for temperatures of minus 40 Fahrenheit, crampons, helmets and ski goggles, with buffs that covered the lower half of their faces, they looked almost identical.
For two decades, Isabella, 55, an outdoors enthusiast, longtime mountain climber, veteran marathoner and triathlete, and her husband, David Crane, a top financier in the energy industry, have raised their five children, who all use the surname Crane, on adventure. These excursions, like riding horses from Siberia to the Gobi Desert, often with no one but their mother, led them to extraordinary athletic feats.
At 20, her eldest son, Cason, became the first openly gay mountaineer to climb the highest peak on each continent, which are collectively known as the seven summits. Her second child, David, cycled from Cairo to Cape Town when he was 19. When Bella was 19, she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile route that winds through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range, stretching from Mexico to Canada. Last year, Isabella’s fourth child, Oliver, became, at 19, the youngest person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Her youngest son, Christopher, 16, is among New Jersey’s top high school distance runners.
When Isabella’s lung cancer was diagnosed, in January 2018, she was not sure if she had months or even weeks to live. Bedridden and in excruciating pain with tumors in her pelvis, spine and brain, she qualified for a trial treatment and was prescribed two anticancer drugs that alleviated the pain and blocked the spread of cancer cells. The treatment is usually effective for 18 months, then the patient often deteriorates.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate for people who learn they have Stage 4 lung cancer is 4.4 percent. About 50 percent die within five months. There are a few who have lived for more than a decade. Isabella, who is thankful to have access to excellent medical care and for her “extra” time of relatively good health, hopes to be one of them. She believes her holistic approach to her treatment has helped mitigate the often debilitating side effects of the experimental drugs.
As her strength returned last year, she made plans to go on adventures — maybe the final ones — with each of her children, ages 16 to 25. There were lessons she wanted to share with her children about grit, persistence and mindfulness.
In April 2018, she hiked more than 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route in Spain, with Oliver. Then, last June, she ran a marathon in Alaska with Cason. In September, she, her husband and three of their children finished an 80-mile ultramarathon in Kazakhstan. A week later, she and her son David completed a full Ironman — a triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run — in South Korea.
In January, she and Bella, her third child and only daughter, traveled to Argentina to conquer Aconcagua as part of a team that included another mother and daughter and two guides, plus a reporter and a photographer from The New York Times.
Technically, Aconcagua is a relatively easy mountain because it doesn’t require ropes, ice axes or climbing skills. But it is a two-week climb that requires sleeping in freezing tents while withstanding subzero temperatures and brutal winds. About 40 percent of climbers who attempt to reach the summit get there. Isabella, significantly weakened by chemotherapy and weighing less than 100 pounds, knew this mountain was going to inflict its pain and push her and her daughter to the edge.
That was the point. This trek was an attempt to deliver a few essential lessons to her daughter while she still could, including the acceptance not only of life’s triumphs, but its woes — “joy and suffering alike,” she said.
Standing at the trailhead on the first day of the journey through the Vacas Valley to Aconcagua, Isabella and Bella showed no signs of worry.
Bold and vivacious, Bella, a junior at Columbia University, wore a beige hat with a sloth on the front. She ironically called it her “spirit animal.”
Isabella is bone thin, with high cheekbones, shoulder length brown hair and small brown eyes that squint when she smiles. She wore a bright orange hat with “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History” written on the brim.
The day was warm and the sky was blue with magnificent clouds. The trail, surrounded by red-rock mountains, appeared relatively easy.
“When I do things like this I remember how far I’ve come,” Isabella said as she started the trek.
She grew up in a conservative family in rural Louisiana, attended college at Princeton and law school at Columbia. She was 40 before she wore a two-piece bathing suit or got into running. By 45 she was running 100-mile races in Libya and Namibia.
She left her career as a Lehman Brothers lawyer to focus on raising her children. She was beginning to envision the day they were all out of the house when doctors told her she had terminal, metastatic cancer.
“I feel that I went from my parents’ house to my husband’s house to having kids, and just when I think I’m going to be free I get this diagnosis,” she said as she adjusted her pack over the port on her chest where she gets her infusions.
These mother-daughter ventures can have their fraught moments. When Bella was 14, she had a meltdown when she reached a false summit near the top of Kilimanjaro. Frustrated, she refused to go any farther. Deaf to her mother’s encouragement to keep going, Bella said she was motivated to summit only when a guide told her, “If you were my child and behaved like this, I would slap you silly.”
“She is the driving force and rock in our lives,” Bella said as she handed her mother a jug of water, which she carried to lighten her mother’s pack. “When I told her that I was going to take a year off between high school and college to trek in the mountains, she told me I should make it count and do the P.C.T.”, a reference to the Pacific Crest Trail.
On that hike, Bella frantically called her mother in the middle of the night. A snow, rain and sleet storm had descended, and Bella was wet, freezing and alone on the trail. Isabella told her daughter that to stay alive and avoid hypothermia, she had to keep moving and find shelter. Bella hiked through the night and into the next morning, eventually taking shelter in a drop toilet on the trail.
A First Look at the Peak
On the second day of the trek, the team caught its first glimpse of Aconcagua. A jagged peak with a whirling white cloud encircling its pointed tip, the mountain was both terrifying and mesmerizing. A guide pointed to an outpost on the side of the mountain — Camp 3, the last camp where the team would rest before making the final ascent.
The trail the team was taking to the top followed what is known as the Polish Traverse Route through the Vacas Valley to base camp. From there, it winds around the mountain for a summit approach from the northwest side. As the second day wore on, Isabella weakened, especially on the downhill sections of the trail. Chemotherapy had made her bones brittle, and she worried about falling. She asked the guides for assistance navigating the rocky ascents, which were just a tiny preview of what was to come.
When she arrived at Casa de Piedra, a riverside camp at the foot of Aconcagua, Isabella headed to her tent. She was still cocooned in her sleeping bag the next morning when the guides called the team to breakfast. Bella badgered her mother to get up. When Isabella wouldn’t budge, Bella, who learned a little about tough love from her mother, took the tent down with her still inside.
A brutal trek to base camp followed. Icy winds came in sideways in ferocious gusts. Isabella worried about getting blown off the mountain.
Bella, who had earlier lobbied for a more challenging route up the mountain, across a glacier, appeared oblivious to her mother’s fears. She broke from the single file line, a breach in climbing etiquette, and blazed her own path, taking the winds head on. That was a bad idea.
Several hours later, she was sitting on the side of the trail complaining of exhaustion. Isabella looked on in silent exasperation. Later, a guide would tell Bella, “No more breaking from the line.”
‘My Last Mountain’
At almost 14,000 feet, Aconcagua’s base camp is a lively place with circular domed tents for each team to eat in, a reading room, spotty internet and solar showers for anyone brave enough to strip down. A home-cooked meal, for those who are not too nauseous to eat, is a highlight of the day.
As she tried to stomach a meal, Isabella declared that this would be her last mountain. “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” she said. “I’m going to take each day at a time but have no illusion that I will get to the top.”
Bella told her mother that was probably a good idea. Their next adventure should be a beach vacation, she suggested.
Later in the day, Pablo Goldengruss, the lead guide, explained that he did not worry whether one or more people on the team would not make it to the summit, including Isabella. “The mountain has a way of letting the people who are supposed to pass over her pass,” he said as he sipped a cup of Argentine tea.
There were still many days to go.
The next morning, Bella wearily emerged from her tent with a bucket of her mother’s vomit and a large bottle of urine. Too cold to leave the tent at night to go to the bathroom, many climbers choose to relieve themselves in their tent using bottles or, in the case of the female climbers, a device designed for women. It had been a long night. Ill from the altitude and cramped in the crowded tent, Isabella had thrown up several times and spilled a bottle of urine in the tent.
Bella cleaned it up, and between otherwise silent bites of eggs and pancakes at breakfast, she said, “I forgive you, mother.”
Isabella looked at her daughter, and her gaunt face lightened with laughter. “This sure was a way to bond,” she said.
Each climber underwent a medical checkup before leaving base camp.
When a young doctor listened to her lungs and said, “O.K., your lung function is fine,” Isabella broke down. It had been exactly one year since doctors had discovered her cancer.
At the time of the diagnosis, she was caring for a nephew with a bacterial infection, helping her son Oliver plan his row across the Atlantic and attending to Bella, who had broken her neck in a skiing accident. Isabella had ignored her own symptoms for weeks. She felt inflammation in her body, which made sleeping difficult. She struggled to lift her right leg, and it often felt as if someone was hitting her in the lower back with a hammer. But she kept putting off going to the doctor until the pain was too intense.
After the diagnosis, she never truly absorbed the news as much as allowed it to hit her day by day. She tried to be grateful for the perspective it was bringing to her life.
“So much of who I was was defined by my physical strength,” she said. “It’s definitely hard being sick and saying goodbye to the person you were before. You have to redefine yourself, and you don’t want to define yourself as a sick person. I’m learning that you have to find acceptance with the decline.”
Toward the Summit
The mules that hauled the team’s sleeping bags, tents, cookware and food to base camp could not advance further. That meant that instead of carrying light loads up the mountain, the team had to carry packs as heavy as 60 pounds the rest of the way. Weighing 92 pounds, Isabella planned to hire porters to carry her and Bella’s share of the supplies.
Bella did not like that idea at all. She wanted to carry her load and her mother’s. Isabella told her daughter that her goal was to get up the mountain as safely as possible, and to do that she had to hire porters.
Goldengruss, the lead guide, told the group they would leave base camp the next day and move to a new camp every other day until summit day. He said the group would have to stay in line, and there would not be any unnecessary stops. He handed out black plastic trash bags and told the team they would need to defecate in them. Snow was their only water source, and it was imperative that there was no cross-contamination.
Weakened by the vomiting and the exposure to the elements, and unable to sleep because of the altitude, which made getting enough oxygen difficult, Isabella was not sure she would even be able to leave base camp.
But the next day she did leave, and when she and Bella made it to the next camp, their spirits rose. As they rested in their cramped, musty tent, their only refuge from the elements, Isabella told her daughter she wanted her children to have all the things she did not have growing up. “A knowledge of the outdoors is one of them,” she said.
Bella looked at her mother, and her face, usually stoic, softened with emotion.
“I don’t know anyone in the world who is stronger than you,” Bella said. “I will never be you.”
“Are you kidding me?” Isabella said. “You are so much stronger.”
When the team reached Camp 3, towering above the clouds at 19,600 feet and dotted with orange and yellow tents, Bella zipped her mother’s jacket. Isabella’s fingers, chapped from chemotherapy and the elements, were bleeding. Bella offered her arm to steady her as they looked at the layers of mountains that unraveled in the distance.
The trip had brought out another side of Bella — it had forced her to become the mother.
There were few words as the team left early the next morning. Hard-to-reach places often demanded silence. As the sun rose and blanketed the snow-capped mountains in warm, orange light, it cast a silhouette of Aconcagua across the vast landscape.
Isabella had a determined look in her eyes and kept a steady pace. When Bella broke down with fatigue 500 meters from the top, it was Isabella who convinced her daughter that she could make the summit, just as she always had.
Six hours later, Isabella and Bella reached the roof of the Americas. Exhausted, they embraced as Isabella wiped tears from her eyes. The mountains always have a way of making me cry, she said.
They were too tired to walk down on their own, so the guides tied ropes to them as they descended.
Back at Camp 3, Isabella had a triumphant smile. There will be rough times ahead, but this was a good day.
“It was so important to me that Bella and I have this experience together,” she said. “I really wanted her to see that when things get hard, you can find a place inside yourself to keep going.”