Jess Wedel remembers sitting in chemo rooms, cold and sterile with machines beeping and IVs dripping.
But she also remembers the person most often there offering encouragement and support and love. Her mom, Valari, was a constant companion as she battled ovarian cancer in the spring of 2016.
Together, they conquered that mountain.
Five years later, they hope to scale another mountain — Mount Everest.
The Oklahoma residents have already begun the nearly two-month-long journey in Nepal. If they are successful, they will become the first mother-daughter team from the United States to reach the top of the world’s highest peak.
Jess is also planning to summit nearby Lhotse, and if she reaches the peaks of both Everest and Lhotse, she would become only the second American woman to do so in the same climbing season.
Valari and Jess admit those accolades would be nice — Oklahomans aren’t often known for mountain-climbing exploits, after all — but that isn’t why they climb.
They climb because they can.
Really, they believe they have been given a second chance to embrace life, to go big, to try the unexpected. They believe that not only because Jess beat cancer but also because all three of Valari and Greg Wedel’s daughters did.
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“We understand the concept of live for today,” Valari said. “It’s not a motto — it’s how we live our life.”
They know that after receiving a cancer diagnosis, nothing is guaranteed. Not success. Not survival.
After beating cancer, Jess has never been the same.
How could she be?
She has embraced being outdoors and pushing limits more than ever before. But she often does those things with her mom. Together, they are doing something that lifts their spirits, something that fills their souls. When they climb mountains, they are reminded of where they have been.
“It’s ever present for both of us,” Jess said.
They are reminded, too, of where they are going.
The quest to climb mountains began early
Valari Wedel is very much an Oklahoman.
Lifelong resident of Edmond. Went to Oklahoma Christian University. Attends Memorial Road Church of Christ.
But as a kid, she had a fascination with climbing mountains. Was it because she was from Oklahoma? Or despite it? She’s not really sure, but as a teenager, she read every book and watched every movie about mountain climbing. “Into Thin Air.” “Touching the Void.”
But even as she got older, she never actually climbed any mountains. Going to college, getting married and starting a family took precedence.
Then while Valari and husband, Greg, were on a mission trip in Honduras, a friend mentioned he was going to climb Mount Rainier.
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“Oh, my gosh,” she told him. “I want to do that.”
Even though she was in her 40s, her childhood fascination had been rekindled, and four or five months later, Valari, Greg and six others headed to Washington.
“And it was absolutely the most hilarious thing, in hindsight, I ever did,” Valari said. “We were so unprepared. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing.”
The group didn’t make the summit. Knowing what she knows now, Valari says there was never any way they’d have made it. They didn’t know enough about being in the backcountry or moving in cold weather or handling higher elevations.
“By the grace of God,” Valari said, “we’re all alive.”
Greg said, “It was miserable. I wanted to quit right then, but she just kept going.”
Valari realized her fascination was a passion.
Greg wasn’t completely shocked by his wife’s new interest. They’d gone scuba diving when they were younger, and her fearlessness was evident. She would go deeper than most divers were comfortable.
Going high into the mountains took the same kind of fearlessness, but Valari started climbing all over the world. In a sport dominated by men and climbers who were often half her age, she went after some of the most grueling peaks on the planet, including Cho Oyu in the Himalayas, Aconcagua in Argentina and Denali in Alaska.
“She’s amazing,” Jess said.
In 2013, Valari and Greg went to Nepal. Valari wanted to climb Mount Everest.
“It’s tough up there,” said Greg, who planned to go to Everest Base Camp, then stay put while Valari attempted to summit. “You’ve got to be fearless. The exposure. Crossing those wobbly ladders across bottomless crevasses. I just couldn’t do it.
“When I was at base camp watching Valari just practice over crevasses you could see the bottom of, which is 30 feet down, I couldn’t watch. It just made me so nervous to even think about anybody doing that.”
But Valari did it, though she never made the summit — oldest daughter, Colby, had an unexpected turn after a cancer diagnosis, and Valari and Greg knew they had to come home and be with her.
Valari was in her 50s at the time, and it seemed unlikely she’d ever have another chance at Everest. She never expected to try it again.
And she absolutely didn’t think it would be with Jess.
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Jess Wedel left Oklahoma and thought she’d never be back.
After she graduated from Edmond Memorial High School, she moved away. Went to college in Texas. Lived in Colorado, then in Wyoming.
She wanted some adventure.
Within reason, though.
While she was living in Wyoming, Valari came for a visit. She decided to do some climbing while she was there, and Jess decided to tag along.
“And I did not love it,” Jess said, laughing.
Actually, she hated it. She was scared of the heights and afraid of the dangers. She was miserable, and she let everyone know it. Climbing at the back of a rope team, Jess was screaming and cursing.
“She’d never heard me say a cuss word before,” Jess said of her mom.
Valari kept looking back at her.
“What’s going on?” Valari would ask.
“What are we doing?’ Jess would reply. “Why are people doing this?”
They laugh about it now, but at the time, Valari suspected Jess was focused on fear.
“For her in the beginning, I think it was … the potential, ‘If I fall, I’m going to take everybody with me,’” Valari said.
It’s a very real concern, but over time, Jess became less fearful.
“She started to trust herself — ‘Oh, wait, I know what I’m doing. I can walk on the glacier. I can manage the rope. I can take care of myself,’” Valari said. “Then that made the climbing like, ‘Oh, this isn’t a big deal. Why was I afraid?’”
The Wedels, though, would soon have a scare that had nothing to do with climbing.
Jess, who moved back to Oklahoma in 2014, was undergoing some tests after an annual checkup. An ultrasound revealed a mass near her ovaries. It was so large — “I actually saw it on the screen and was like, ‘Oh, no, this is not good,’” she said — doctors initially thought it was too big to be cancerous.
Perhaps the mass was a cyst. Even if it was a tumor, it was likely benign because she was only in her 20s.
It was neither a cyst nor benign.
Jess had ovarian cancer, and a rare form of it to boot. She had two major surgeries in early 2016, the first to cut out the mass, the second to remove her ovaries and uterus. Then, she underwent 18 weeks of chemotherapy.
“You’re beginning to process death,” Jess said. “You know everyone dies, but my life could be over.”
She clung to every shred of good news. Her second surgery revealing the cancer hadn’t spread. Her body showing signs of recovery, even though they might be small, throughout chemo. It gave her hope.
Thoughts of death gave way to something different.
“I can survive this,” she started to think.
On Dec. 13, 2016, her doctor at MD Anderson in Houston proclaimed her cancer free. Jess was elated. Relieved. Excited.
But she was changed, too.
“I have the freedom now to create whatever life I want,” she said. “I always had that freedom, but it felt more real. This is all you have, so if you don’t want to own a house and work your 9 to 5, then don’t do that.
“I from then on sort of took small steps to do things that felt good for me — and that included climbing mountains.”
‘Cancer is not gonna tell me what to do’
If Valari and Jess Wedel were climbing mountains, they were climbing together.
They went to Mount Rainier. Then came a trip to climb in the Grand Canyon. Then a return to Rainier.
Valari saw a change in her daughter. Even though she suspects climbing experience was part of the reason why, Valari believes the biggest change in Jess was because of her cancer experience.
“She wanted to not let cancer define her,” Valari said.
“Cancer is not gonna tell me what to do.”
And so they climbed. And climbed. And climbed.
It became common for Valari and Jess to head to Will Rogers World Airport, hop on a plane and make a long weekend of climbing. While they have always been close, they found a deeper connection when they were climbing.
“It’s easy being on a mountain with her,” Jess said. “We’re both sort of our best selves.”
Valari said, “That time together on the mountain, all other things are gone. When you’re on the mountain, it’s a lot about survival, taking care of each other and being together.”
Yes, it’s an expensive hobby; Valari is a retired nurse and Greg is a certified public accountant while Jess is director of grants and programs at Presbyterian Health Foundation. It can be a grueling endeavor, too; Jess has asthma and Valari is now in her 60s.
“I’m not missing a moment with her,” Valari said. “She wants to climb with me, we’re going, no questions asked.”
But climbing Mount Everest?
That was actually Valari’s idea.
A couple of years ago, a friend of the family had a recurrence of her own cancer. It hit everyone hard, but the news sparked something in Valari, too. A feeling that life is too short. A sense that she needed to try to climb Everest again.
She texted Jess.
“I think we should climb an 8,000-meter peak,” Valari wrote.
“Mom, you could just say that you think we should go to Everest,” Jess replied.
By the end of 2019, Valari and Jess had committed to make the trip. They found a guiding company. They secured their spots.
They spent the first couple months of 2020 preparing and training. Because they were regularly climbing, they weren’t out of shape, but climbing Mount Everest requires a higher level of fitness. They got permission to use the stairwell inside the Valliance Bank Tower, the mirrored 22-story building across from Penn Square Mall, and they started spending anywhere from one to three hours a day climbing the stairs.
On March 11, 2020, China canceled all climbing permits for the north side of Mount Everest, which is in Chinese-controlled Tibet. A day later, Nepal did the same for the south side, which it controls.
Valari and Jess were devastated. All that training. All that planning. For nothing. But as the spring wore on and the magnitude of the pandemic became clear, they knew canceling the Everest climbing season was the right decision.
Still, when the team that they’d signed on with offered spots to them for 2021, they didn’t hesitate.
They still wanted to climb Everest.
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Valari and Jess Wedel left Oklahoma for Nepal on March 28.
They probably won’t even attempt to summit Everest until at least May 1. The weather has to be good — or at least with clear skies and winds under 50 mph — and that window for summiting usually doesn’t open until the first week of May at the earliest.
But the trip is long, too, because of dangers on and off the mountain.
With the pandemic still raging, Valari and Jess had to quarantine for several days after arriving in Kathmandu. They were tested. They were monitored. Only after they cleared COVID quarantine were they able to fly to Lukla, which is at the bottom of the Khumbu Valley.
That’s where they started a nearly two-week trek to Everest Base Camp.
(Don’t let its name fool you — Base Camp sits at an elevation of 17,400 feet, which is about 3,000 feet higher than Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States.)
“We could hike that in about three or four days probably,” Valari said of the journey from Lukla to Base Camp, “but we’re climatizing.”
Climbers have to get used to the higher altitudes and the thinner air that contains less oxygen, and the best way to do that is gradually.
On April 7, Valari and Jess began the first of what their guide company calls rotations. Each one lasts several days with the climbers going higher each day, then returning to lower elevations to sleep. They are exposed to increasingly higher elevations, then recovering at night with more oxygen-rich air.
After each rotation, they will have between three and five days of recovery.
Valari and Jess trained for all this for months. Evenings and weekends were again spent inside the Valliance Bank Tower, wearing weighted packs, going slowly, mimicking the hours and hours of slow movement it will take to climb Everest.
They were also trying to train their brains.
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“This is mentally preparing us,” Jess told Valari at one point. “If we can keep walking in these stupid stairs for this many hours, we’re building mental toughness.”
Valari said, “You really have to know how to get your head in the zone and push your body, and if you can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how great of shape you’re in. You won’t make it.”
The truth is, there are no guarantees Valari and Jess will make it to the top. Lots of climbers get sick because of the altitude and can’t go on. Others get hurt because dangers lurk all over the mountain. And yes, a few die every year.
But Valari and Jess aren’t thinking about what might be lost. They choose to focus instead on what they will gain from this experience, no matter the outcome.
“People that climb mountains are often summit driving,” Jess said. “But if that’s the only thing you’re thinking about, then it loses all the meaning.”
Valari and Jess Wedel are thinking about the journey — not just on the mountain but in life.
Beating cancer was the toughest thing they’ve ever done. They think of the battle as a team effort, by the way, something they did that together. They walked side by side. They scaled those heights together.
Now, they plan to do the same on Mount Everest.
“It’s hard for me to imagine doing it without her,” Jess said. “My dream of Everest is to climb it with her.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or [email protected] Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
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GO, GALS, GO!
As Oklahoman climbers Valari and Jess Wedel prepare to summit Mount Everest and try to become the first mother-daughter team from the United States to do so, family and friends from home offered words of encouragement.
Bair Jones, a family friend who will climb Mount Rainier with the Wedels in July:
You are two of the strongest women I have ever known, and I know you can do this! Take in the majesty of the mountains and put one foot in front of the other. As Edmund Hillary said, ‘It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.’ We love you. Go for it!”
Chelsea Baker, friend who has climbed with the Wedels:
“You are strong and courageous women who strive to love others and have learned to care for yourself by pursuing what you love. The path definitely hasn’t been easy, but you have persevered. Hoping that these moments are unforgettable. Love you both!”
Robert and Traci Boker, Valari’s brother and sister-in-law and Jess’s uncle and aunt:
“We are so excited and happy for you guys ‘living the dream’ of climbing Everest. We are praying for you to have an amazing and safe adventure. You’ve made it through the hardest part — training and sacrificing every day. Now it’s time to enjoy it and celebrate every day you are out there. Hope you have an amazing trip!”
Dan Waugh, church friend who has climbed with Valari:
“I like the simple message Valari always told us when we started to climb. She would hold out the back of her hands — there, written on her hands would be HOLD on one hand’s knuckles and FAST on the other hand — and simply say … ‘Hold fast to the belief you can. Hold fast to safety. Hold fast to the moment with friends.’”
Robin Waugh, church friend who has climbed with Valari:
“‘You can slow down, but no stopping’ is advice from Valari. I could hear that voice in my head when it got tough. If anybody can do that mountain, Valari and Jessie can!”
Mark Brewer, church friend who has climbed with Valari:
“These two are amazing technical climbers who have climbed all over the world, and this is their time to tackle Everest. Very excited for them and looking forward to following along with their updates.”
Beth, Mike, Todd, Austin and Lizzie Lockard, family friends:
“As you embark on this incredible adventure together, may you literally feel the enormous love and prayers and support of all of us at home surrounding you, strengthening you, lifting you up as you journey forward. May your angels keep you safe always, and may God bless every step you take toward your goal. We’ll be so excited to hear all about it when you return.”