How a plan to reach the world’s highest peaks found a higher goal — preventing ovarian cancer

After a long career with the FBI, Mary Beth Kepner was looking forward to an adventuresome retirement with her husband, Floyd Spinner.

Her first trip was a five-month hike along the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast. From there, she got the idea of hiking up to the highest peak in all 50 states.

While taking mountaineering classes to climb Mount Rainier in Washington, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

This led to a consultation and subsequent surgery with Dr. Joanie Hope in Anchorage, a gynecologic oncologist.

Kepner’s cancer diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy didn’t dampen her desire to conquer Rainier … and later Denali. But COVID-19 did. The expedition company canceled the trip.

Dr. Hope was a fortuitous match for Kepner and her treatment. First, she’s one of just a few gynecologic oncologists in Alaska, specializing in female cancer “below the belt.” She’s also a traveler, a lover of the mountains — and the lead singer in a rock band.

It was on a trip to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa that Hope saw how the expedition empowered each of the climbers. From that inspiration, she began to make the connection between summiting a great mountain and conquering ovarian cancer. Drawing on her musical background, her medical background and collaboration with other ovarian cancer organizations, “Any Mountain” was born. “Any Mountain” is a project to raise money and awareness through song and dance. It focuses on early detection and understanding family histories’ role in cancer.


While Kepner was undergoing chemotherapy, the deadline approached for a climb to Denali. She took the spot. “I hedged my bets, though and purchased travel insurance,” she said.

Kepner ultimately summited Denali. She flew back to Talkeetna, and while she still was in the aircraft hangar at K2 Aviation, Hope called her from Anchorage and asked, “Are you ready to do Everest?”

“Of course, I was on a high from having climbed Denali, so I immediately said YES!” said Kepner.

Separately, Hope was researching prospective partners for a Mount Everest expedition. She found that Kepner’s mountain climbing expedition company for Mount Rainier, RMI Expeditions, featured a guide who was an ovarian cancer survivor, Jess Wedel.

Last week Hope, Kepner and another climber/survivor, Cheryl Tope, gathered at a Kaladi Brothers coffee shop. Hope had just a few minutes before a surgery, but we reached Wedel on FaceTime and talked about the incredible expedition they are planning. In fact, they leave Alaska for Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 1.

To bring Wedel on to the team, Hope sent her a message while she (Wedel) was at Everest Base Camp on another trip. She got a “thumbs up” reply within 10 minutes.

What started as an aspirational trip to the roof of the world has evolved into a comprehensive funding campaign to do the vital research necessary for early detection and prevention of ovarian cancer.

Hope paints the picture: “Mount Everest is more than 29,000 feet high. So we’re setting our goal at $29 million. For this trip, the goal is $2.9 million and we can do it,” she said.

Hope’s optimism is infectious. Her plans for the “Any Mountain” project are supported by her core beliefs: “Creativity is the mechanism for awareness and research is the mechanism to prevent ovarian cancer,” she said.

On the creative front, Hope and her team first made a music video, before going on to record several original tracks for an album.

The team that is headed to Mount Everest in a week is made up primarily of Alaskans.

Tope, who joined us for coffee, is traveling with her daughter on the trip. Both are ovarian cancer survivors. There are four mother-daughter teams on the expedition.

Only Kepner and her guide, Wedel, have their sights on the summit of Mount Everest. The rest of the team is going as far as the Everest Base Camp, at 17,600 feet. It’s a 40-mile trek through the Nepalese countryside. RMI partners with a Sherpa-owned expedition company, Imagine Nepal. Accommodations along the way are in village tea houses.

For those on the base camp expedition, it’s a two-week trip. While the group will hike up to Everest Base Camp, the descent is much faster, via helicopter.

Wedel and Kepner will spend a total of two months on Mount Everest, in order to acclimate to the high altitude for the ascent to the summit.

Going through the gear list for this trip can be daunting. There are specific recommendations on gear (with photos and brand recommendations), on hygiene and on immunizations. RMI provides detailed fitness guidelines, day-by-day itineraries, dietary information and specific instructions on which travel insurance to purchase.

The preparation and the all-encompassing nature of the planning, the gear, the required documents, the logistics and backup plans reflect Dr. Hope’s attitude about fighting ovarian cancer. “Fighting this cancer is tougher than climbing any mountain. Any mountain!” she said.


Hope is using all of her rock-star charisma to whip together a community of survivors and supporters to achieve the lofty fundraising goals for this expedition.

Music is central to Hope’s efforts. “We’re not singing about cancer, but about love, relationships and grief. And about hope,” she said.

The expedition’s website features profiles on the climbers, the cause and the goals for the climb.

Like many Alaskans, Tope and Kepner are avid travelers. Tope worked for Alaska Airlines for 29 years — and is familiar with packing up and going at the last minute. Kepner, in her career with the FBI, traveled all over the world: Machu Picchu in Peru, another trek in Nepal and extensive hiking in the British Isles.

Kepner already has plans beyond the Mount Everest quest. “My husband and I are making plans to ride motorcycles around the world in 2024,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly reported Dr. Joanie Hope is the only gynecologic oncologist in Alaska. She is one of a few.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and For more information, visit