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Iditarod finisher heading up Everest, hoping to inspire his cancer patients

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published April 11, 2017

Larry Daugherty trains by hiking up Mount Baldy near Eagle River often. (Joel Forsman)

Dr. Larry Daugherty has a treadmill in his carpeted Anchorage office and behind that a pair of dumbbells to use if he can eke out time in his day for a brief workout between appointments with patients who have cancer.

For months, the 41-year-old radiation oncologist and father of five spent early mornings climbing mountains, afternoons walking on that treadmill while he worked on his computer and evenings running.

He had to get "in the shape of his life," he said last week, standing in his office during one of those brief breaks between appointments that on this day he had set aside for a newspaper interview.

Daugherty left for Nepal two days later — on Friday — hoping to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest spot on Earth. If he does, he will become the first person to reach the mountain's peak and finish the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the same year.

But the journey is about so much more.

Mushing was one of the big reasons Larry Daugherty and his family moved to Alaska. (Joel Forsman)

Radiating hope for cancer patients

Daugherty will climb Everest with three friends and they will carry thousands of colorful prayer flags scrawled with cancer patients' names and messages to loved ones.

"Our plan was always to get those prayer flags to the summit,"  Daugherty said.

The collection of the flags started back in 2010 when Daugherty and another radiation oncologist, Brandon Fisher, started the nonprofit Radiating Hope. The two climbed mountains together and were looking for a way to mingle their hobby with their profession, Daugherty said.

They decided to raise money to improve cancer care across the globe, asking for donations to purchase or refurbish radiation equipment for developing countries, including Guatemala, Ghana and Kenya.

Donors can choose to dedicate a prayer flag to someone impacted by cancer, sending that flag on climbs organized by the nonprofit throughout the year, including an annual trip to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise money to build a cancer center in the local community of Moshi.

"We have thousands of them," Daugherty said of the flags. "Luckily you can compress them down pretty good."

Trekking with Chugiak principal

Nearly 100 people will trek with Daugherty and his three-man team to Everest base camp, at about 17,600 feet. Some are cancer survivors. Others are family of those afflicted. Others are simply looking for adventure and trying to help the cause.

"I know a lot of them, but I don't know all of them," Daugherty said of the climbers on the two-week trip that will include his wife, Prairie.

Larry Daugherty and Prairie Ellen Daugherty, his wife, made a selfie in Phakding, Nepal in April 2017, before Larry’s bid to climb Everest.

Another person he does know is David Legg, principal of Chugiak High School who lives near the Daugherty family in Eagle River.

After graduating high school, Legg said he had mountaineering dreams. He started to climb Denali in 1986, but cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain, forced him to turn around early, Legg said in an interview last week.

"It's one of those few unfinished things in my life," he said.

His boyhood dreams got overtaken by others as he went to college, got married and started a family, he said.

Then cancer inserted itself into his world, killing a close family friend who accompanied him to Denali.

In 2015, Legg's wife received two simultaneous diagnoses: cancer and multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable disease that attacks the central nervous system, disrupting the flow of information from the brain to the body.

His wife went through chemotherapy, and just as she was finishing treatment, Legg fell during a fire alarm evacuation at school and said he broke his pelvis.

It was a tough year, he said. A really tough year.

"So here I am, at a point where she's completely dependent on me to some degree and I've become completely dependent on others," Legg said. "It was frustrating for me, as her spouse, who was supposed to provide her support."

Legg went through physical therapy. His wife overcame cancer, but she still has MS. In some ways, Legg is going to Nepal for the both of them.

"She beat cancer, but she can hardly walk 100 yards. She can't go and her goal is to travel. So it's like she's doing it through me," Legg said, pausing, crying, and apologizing for becoming emotional.

Legg will bring 10 prayer flags to Nepal, one for his wife and others for school staff impacted by cancer. He said he knows those flags are just symbolic and can't cure anyone, but he believes they signify hope and support.

"I don't have the words to describe to you how important this is," Legg said of the journey to Nepal. "It's just done with purpose and knowing there's a lot of good happening because of this trip."

Together, Legg and the group trekking to base camp raised just over $100,000 for a cancer center in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. The money will go toward a brachytherapy machine, used to treat cervical cancer, Daugherty said.

"This will make a real and lifesaving impact over there," he said.

At base camp, a Buddhist monk will bless the thousands of prayer flags before Daugherty and his climbing team take them farther up the mountain.

Frostbitten reminders

Daugherty sat at a table in his workplace last week looking over his fingers. The tips of some had become blistered and frostbitten during the Iditarod, as did his two big toes.

Daugherty finished the Iditarod in 44th place, running a team out of race champion Mitch Seavey's kennel and taking prayer flags with him to Nome. He ran his first Iditarod last year, with a Seavey team, too.

Larry Daugherty packs his sled bag in preparation to leave the village of Tanana during the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Daugherty said he didn't plan to run this year's Iditarod, but he went down to Seavey's kennel this winter with a friend visiting Alaska. Seavey needed someone to run one of his dog teams, he said.

"I knew it was going to add a lot of chaos to my life, but being able to be the first one to do them both in the same year I thought was a cool opportunity, and I took some time to reflect on that," he said.

In 2015, U.S. Army veteran Steve Watkins attempted to finish the Iditarod and summit Everest in the same year, but he never reached the mountain's peak.

About a month into his journey, a earthquake rocked Nepal, killing thousands and sending a deadly avalanche rumbling down the mountain. Watkins survived, but his prized Iditarod finisher belt buckle remains in the rubble.

At least three Iditarod mushers have summited Everest in years they didn't finish the sled dog race: Cindy Abbott, Bob Hempstead and Mark Selland.

Abbott said in an interview last week that both grueling events involved physical and psychological suffering, but she thought the Iditarod was more challenging, "even though the duration is a lot less and the literal deadliness is a lot less."

"On Everest, every decision I made was based on only me," she said. "On the Iditarod, every decision I make is based on my dogs."

Running out of time

Since finishing the Iditarod, Daugherty has seen specialists for massage therapy and acupuncture to increase his circulation in his fingers and toes, he said.

"I don't know if it was that or the time away, but it feels healed," he said. "My energy is good. I feel good."

Daugherty said he dreamed of racing the Iditarod since age 10, the only boy in a family of seven. His grandparents traveled the world and loved Alaska. His grandmother would mail him newspaper clippings about the Iditarod.

Daugherty's wife, Prairie, said the two met in college and went on their first date in 1998 to a bonfire on sand dunes outside of Rexburg, Idaho. He told her then that he would move to Alaska one day and sign up for the Iditarod.

"And I thought, 'Who does that?'" she said, laughing. The two got married about a year later.

Daugherty spent more than a dozen years in school to become a radiation oncologist, sending the couple to cities around the country. In 2014, the couple and their five children moved to Alaska, where Daugherty took a job with the Alaska Cancer Treatment Center in Anchorage.

"One of the underlying reasons was to come up here to do the Iditarod," he said. His interests, he said, "kind of exploded" after medical school.

"They'd been pent up for so long and then also, honestly, the interaction with those who are facing death every day — multiple times a day, many times a day — I think has made me a little bit hyperaware and probably a little over the top about going after my goals and my dreams in life," he said. "I've just become a little bit fanatical about checking off every item."

Larry Daugherty and his family have their portrait made in the snow. (Joel Forsman)

Prairie Daugherty described her husband as creative, motivated  and innovative. She said her family supports his journey to Everest, but this year has been hard on the family with him away at work and training for long hours.

However, she said, hearing the responses from his patients and the community has been uplifting.

"This isn't about Larry, this isn't about us, this is about his patients," she said. "And this somehow has been able to capture their hearts and their hopes."

Larry Daugherty worked until 10:30 a.m. Friday before heading to the airport for his noon flight to Nepal.

He said he hoped to summit Everest by May 12, leaving the prayer flags behind to flap in the wind.

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