Since she was a kid, Jessica Barton has worked to help make her community greener. At about age 11, she pioneered a neighborhood environmental club she named Indawa, a group of youngsters who cleaned up her backyard stream. Now 27, Barton laughs, remembering how she would blurt out the word "environmentalist" when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.
Little did she know then that this path would lead her to the 14,179-foot summit of Northern California's Mt. Shasta this past June. After reading about the Mt. Shasta Climb Against the Odds in a magazine, she quickly wrote an application essay. "I talked about my passion for environmentalism and the link between what we are doing to our environment" and cancer.
Besides, "being in the mountains is my thing," says Barton, a grass-roots coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who lives in Richmond's Fan District.
She says that her activism is fueled by statistics she discovered while researching the Breast Cancer Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group whose work the climb benefits. "The climb is called Climb Against the Odds because the odds of a woman getting breast cancer is one in eight." Those odds have increased at least 40 percent, from about one in 11, since 1973, according to the Breast Cancer Fund. Barton also learned that more than 90 percent of breast cancer is not attributed to genetics. "It definitely makes you think, ‘Where does this come from?' … I definitely think it's linked to the environment, what we breathe, eat and drink."
Research so far does not show a clear link between environmental pollutants and breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. However, the Breast Cancer Fund points out that few of the chemicals now used in making consumer products have been tested for effects on human health.
When Barton was accepted last October to join the 28-member climbing team, her life went into high gear as she began to raise the required $6,000. She pinned yellow posters around Richmond that read, "Got Leaves? I'll rake your yard for a donation to the Breast Cancer Fund." In between raking jobs, she planned a benefit, Concert for the Climb, at Gallery5 and hit trails in the Shenandoah National Park almost every other weekend to train.
But Barton's efforts paid off when she made it to the Mt. Shasta summit. "It was a bigger experience than I thought it was going to be," she says. Preparation included a snow-school session where Barton learned to self-arrest, the art of wielding her ice pick and rolling over to keep herself from falling. The teammates then camped below the mountain and began their climb around 3 a.m. on June 24.
Among the highlights of the climb for Barton was "seeing the shadow of the sun rising and casting Mt. Shasta's shadow on the land." The teams battled extreme winds as they climbed to the summit in threesomes with a guide, and several members of the group planted flags in the snow at the summit in memory of family members lost to cancer.
The last part of the 10-hour climb included what Barton says was another highlight: glissading back down. "Glissading means sitting down on your butt and sliding. It was like the world's largest slide."
Barton says the experience has changed her day-to-day life. She now works to reduce her carbon footprint by using organic products as much as possible, including all-natural beauty products, cleaners and foods. She also anticipates signing up for the 2010 Climb Against the Odds and mentoring another climber in the endeavor. To find out more, go to breastcancerfund.org/climb or visit jessbartonclimb09.blogspot.com.