Climbing the world’s tallest peaks despite deadly prostate cancer diagnosis

Determined to "live while he's alive," Joe Boardman has been climbing peaks in Mexico and Argentina. With only a handful of years left, he's creating a lasting legacy and handling sorrow with grace.
July 15th, 2019
The three members of the Boardman family on the summit of Aconcagua
Joe Boardman, right, climbed Aconcagua, the tallest peak in both the southern and western hemispheres despite a devastating diagnosis of prostate cancer. Joe climbs with his wife, Karen, center, and their son, Eli, left. Photo courtesy of Eli Boardman.

The sky woke up and turned from dark blue to yellow, then a brilliant red as Joe Boardman, his wife and their 18-year-old son climbed step by step to the summit of the tallest peak in the Americas.

Some people refer to Aconcagua as the cathedral of South America. The Argentinean peak is one of the world’s famous “Seven Summits,” the tallest mountains on each continent. At 22,841 feet tall, Aconcagua is the highest peak in both the southern and western hemispheres. To get to a higher altitude, with your feet still planted on Earth, you must venture to the Himalayas.

And for Joe, 58, the summit became a personal cathedral, a place where he could feel utter serenity and pure joy. Like the condors that swoop over Aconcagua, he could peer down to the valleys below, and for a time, feel weightless and free, as if he had no worries.

“It was just pure happiness and this feeling of being so grateful to be alive, alive in the real sense, not just breathing, but doing amazing or difficult things,” Joe said.

Sunset from Aconcagua in Argentina.
One of the many spectacular sunsets that the Boardmans enjoyed during their ascent of Aconcagua in Argentina. Photo by Eli Boardman.

You see, Joe is alive, but a terrible fate awaits him and he knows it. He holds up one hand and knows that in all likelihood, he has fewer years left than fingers on that hand.

“They say that I have four to six years and I’ve used up two. Then, I’ll be dead.”

You might expect someone with such a bleak prognosis to give up. Some days, Joe does indeed feel like surrendering to hopelessness.

But, with the help of his wife and son, his deep faith and a team of dedicated doctors, he is making the most of the precious time he has left.

Super-aggressive prostate cancer

Joe’s devastating prostate cancer diagnosis came out of the blue. His primary care doctor in Boulder had encouraged him to keep tabs on his prostate specific antigen levels or PSA. All men over age 50 should discuss prostate health and PSA testing with their doctor. Joe’s levels had hovered at around 2 in 2015, then when his doctor checked a year later, his PSA had risen to 4, the level at which doctors encourage men to get further testing for prostate cancer. Joe’s doctor urged him to see specialists at the UCHealth Tony Grampsas Urologic Cancer Care Clinic at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

Joe didn’t want to overreact, so he went ahead with a summer backpacking trip. Joe, his wife, Karen, and their son, Eli, live in Boulder at the base of the soaring red Flatirons. They always have enjoyed the outdoors together. In high school, Eli decided to climb all of Colorado’s 14-ers on his own and developed a hunger to do more peak climbs and extended backpacking trips.

Joe Boardman lays on his back in the Wyoming mountains with his collie, Stella, and his Havanese, Tess.
Joe Boardman enjoys a summer day in the Wyoming mountains where his great grandfather homesteaded a ranch. With him are his two dogs, Stella, right, a collie, and Tess, left, a Havanese. Photo by Eli Boardman.

Joe’s great grandfather homesteaded a ranch in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains and Eli came up with the idea of a great adventure: backpacking all the way from the southern tip of the range to the northern boundary. He studied maps for two years and designed a 26-day trip.

Joe felt great and completed the journey without any difficulties. The expedition whetted the family’s appetite for other high-altitude adventures and they planned to climb some giant volcanoes in Mexico over the Christmas holidays.

Do something now or be dead in a year

That fall, Joe went in for a biopsy. He got a call back with results from his urologist, Dr. Paul Maroni as he, Karen and Eli were together waiting to apply for passports for their Mexico trip.

“The results were bad, bad, bad,” Joe said.

Maroni, who is also an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director of the urologic oncology clinic, had to tell Joe that his cancer was very aggressive and could spread fast.

headshot of Dr. Paul Maroni
Dr. Paul Maroni

Joe heard the sadness in his doctor’s voice and instantly understood the challenge he was facing.

He’s a geophysicist and a data expert who runs his own company. As soon as his PSA levels had risen, Joe started reading all the research on prostate cancer.

He knew all too well that getting an aggressive cancer at such a young age put him in a precarious position.

To stop the cancer’s growth, he opted for surgery to remove his prostate gland and the family put their Mexico climbing adventure on hold.

“I came home from surgery on Thanksgiving day. We were hoping for a cure. I had clean bone scans,” Joe said.

Then he recovered and waited. In January of 2017, he went in for a follow-up PSA test.

“It’s supposed to be undetectable. It came back at 1.5, not 0. It was supposed to be 0 because I no longer have a prostate,” Joe said.

Weeks later, another test showed a PSA level of nearly 2.

“That was bad. It was doubling in three weeks,” Joe said. “It was a super-aggressive, super-crazy cancer. We needed to do something else or within a year, I’d be dead.”

New scans showed that Joe already had Stage IV prostate cancer and it now had spread to his bones and both of his lungs.

Doctors mounted an aggressive challenge, giving Joe multiple rounds of chemotherapy. He became extremely weak and got an infection that nearly killed him in April of 2017.

On top of the chemo, Joe had to endure hormone treatments. Because prostate cancer cells feed on testosterone, doctors gave him medications to stop his body from producing any testosterone. One of the most painful aspects of prostate cancer is that treatments can cause men to lose their sexual function and to suffer from urinary incontinence.

Overnight, Joe had to succumb to chemical castration.

“On top of the purely physical side-effects, the hormones sets your libido at 0,” Joe said.

As if that weren’t punishment enough, Joe’s brain suddenly felt like that of an old man and he suffered some symptoms that women experience during menopause, including hot flashes.

Despite all the terrible side effects, Joe’s decision to endure them was clear.

“Being alive was worth it,” he said.

Joe wanted to see Eli graduate from high school. He had gotten in to one of his dream colleges: Dartmouth. He was excited to study Earth science and physics like his dad. Plus, the family had plans for more expeditions.

Joe did everything in his power to embrace living, and that meant getting back to mountaineering and tackling the Mexico volcanoes that had beckoned them a year earlier.

Volcanoes and mariachi bands for Christmas

The Boardmans’ plan for Christmas, 2017 was to scale three of Mexico’s tallest volcanoes: Pico de Orizaba, which soars to 18,491 feet above sea level, Volcan Iztaccihuatl, 17,126 feet tall and Volcan La Malinche, 14,501 feet. Eli added another summit, the aptly-named Cerro Colorado, which tops out at 14,633 feet.

Joe had been a climber back in his 20s. Karen is a wilderness first responder and Eli is a talented mountaineer, trip planner, navigator and photographer. Together, the trio makes a great team, except that Joe worried he might slow everyone down.

“I was scared to death to go, thinking the toughest thing would be fatigue,” he said.

In fact, Joe did very well climbing the volcanoes themselves. The family first scaled Iztaccihuatl, then descended right before Christmas to a tiny town where the Boardmans, who are devout Catholics, celebrated Christmas Eve Mass.

They were the only tourists and reveled in the celebration. Mariachi bands played everything from Jingle Bells to Johnny Cash tunes while townspeople paraded with piñata-like creations that shot out candy and dancers performed complex routines with machetes.

The Boardmans then climbed La Malinche and conquered their highest target: Orizaba.

The Boardman family on the summit of Iztaccihuat, a volcano in Mexico
The Boardman family on the summit of Iztaccihuatl, a volcano in Mexico. Joe Boardman suffered from bouts of coughing after climbing the high volcanoes in Mexico. His doctors later diagnosed him with exercise-induced asthma that was aggravated by air pollution. Photo by Eli Boardman.

While the ascents went well, Joe suffered an unexpected problem once he descended. He had trouble breathing and had severe coughing fits.

“I was fine climbing at 18,000 feet, but when I came down and got back to Mexican towns, my airways would shut down,” Joe said.

He assumed he had suffered from some sort of reverse altitude sickness. The symptoms abated when the family returned to Boulder on New Year’s Day. They arrived home, thrilled to have completed another expedition and excited for more adventures to come.

Coping with a terrible diagnosis

While the climbing trips brought great highs – literally and emotionally – at other times, Joe understandably suffered deep lows. Just when the cancer struck, he had been at the prime of his life and his career. He operated a one-man business, and at times, had to tell clients that he couldn’t think clearly and concentrate enough to create the complex algorithms that always had come so easily to him.

To help Joe cope with depression, his doctors connected him with Elissa Kolva, a clinical psychologist, who specializes in helping cancer patients boost their quality of life. Kolva is also an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

headshot Elissa Kolva
Elissa Kolva.

Joe always arrived at medical appointments, including his first with Kolva, with records and background materials. But, he also brought something else: photos of Karen, Eli and their adventures together.

“This is who I am,” he said.

Joe also had read every article Kolva had published and quoted excerpts from her research papers back to her. He was intrigued, for instance, that she had studied the psychological impacts of cancer on patients including “existential distress,” exactly what he was feeling.

Through their work together, Joe moved from hopelessness to hope, an epiphany he sums up as: “live while you are living.”

Kolva used what’s known as Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy, developed by Dr. William Breitbart at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The concept is based on the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written in 1946 by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He wrote about the human need for a sense of purpose and the freedom we all have to choose how we react to any circumstance, even the worst of them.

First, Kolva reassured Joe.

“These losses are real. They fundamentally change your life and your relationships,” Kolva said.

The hormonal changes that affected Joe’s brain also greatly distressed him.

“With Joe, you have somebody who is brilliant and has been working at such a high level and he’s experiencing these cognitive changes. It’s really an isolating place,” Kolva said.

Together, Kolva and Joe focused on how he could find meaning and purpose even as he suffered.

Carving out a lasting legacy

Kolva asked Joe to think about his identity and Joe honed in right away on his rich heritage as a great grandson of an explorer who homesteaded a ranch in Wyoming. Known as Whiskey Mountain Ranch, the land near Dubois sits at 7,400 feet above sea level. It has three lakes and great trout streams with views toward Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s tallest peak.

Joe’s love of the West and high-altitude mountains flows in his DNA.

The wind blows hard all winter at the ranch and the ice freezes two feet thick on the lakes. In the summer, cattle graze on the land and Joe enjoys the same views that entranced his great grandfather, John R. Boardman, back in 1901.

The Boardmans had first emigrated from England to Connecticut back in 1638. Seeking opportunity, Joe’s branch of the family kept moving west. Around 1898, while living in Kansas, John R. Boardman got a job as a photographer with a company called Underwood & Underwood that made slide viewers called a stereopticon. Using the device, people could see 3-D images of western landscapes.

“They were the YouTube of 1898. His job was to go out and take all these pictures while doing bold adventures,” said Joe, who still has a stereopticon and many of his great grandfather’s images.

Joe Boardman building a cabin in Wyoming.
Joe Boardman’s great grandfather homesteaded a ranch in Wyoming. Joe is working to preserve the ranch. This summer, he and his wife and son are rebuilding a log cabin from the ground up. Here, Joe sits on the first log. Photo by Eli Boardman.

Just a couple of years before Joe got his cancer diagnosis, he decided to buy out his two older brothers to ensure that he could protect and preserve the ranch.

Then the cancer struck and Joe feared that the diagnosis would destroy his plan. But, Kolva pointed out something crucial to him. Even after his death, the ranch will matter. Joe has the power to live a meaningful life now and his vision will carry on even after his death.

Joe experienced a powerful transformation in how he viewed his life.

“There’s a big family legacy there. The ranch is a place of happiness,” Joe said. “Even if somebody loads up your pockets with rocks and throws you out in the lake, even at Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl was finding meaning in his life. He was making choices about how to respond to terrible circumstances. It’s a great metaphor for living with a terminal diagnosis.”

Ever since his diagnosis, Joe has related to long-suffering Job in the Bible. Cancer and its terrible side effects were torturing him. But, his doctors helped him reframe everything so he could focus on all that’s good and meaningful in his life.

Joe Boardman backpacking with his dogs
Joe Boardman with his dog, Stella, in the Wyoming mountains. Photo by Eli Boardman.

“I feel so blessed,” Joe said.

Kolva said Joe is such a humble man that he sometimes doesn’t give himself credit for the great life he already has lived and the powerful legacy that will reverberate long after his death.

“Sometimes, he takes himself out of these amazing accomplishments. But, he has built his family and is really recognizing his role in it. He matters. These things that are good will continue to exist,” Kolva said.

She reminded Joe of a quote from the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Even though Joe’s cancer is robbing him of so much, it can’t take away his soul or his faith or his family or his zeal for exploration.

“In the face of something absolutely terrible, Joe is continuing to grow,” Kolva said.

And that meant getting back to the tall peaks that were calling him.

A call to high peaks and medicine to make climbing possible

As soon as the family completed their journey to Mexico, Eli started planning the expedition to Aconcagua. At Dartmouth, he would study on the quarter system and would have a long break from Thanksgiving of 2018 through early January of this year. That would give the family plenty of time to try and reach Aconcagua’s summit.

Joe’s medical oncologist, Dr. Brandon Bernard, was actively and successfully keeping Joe’s cancer at bay. But, before Joe could venture back to high altitude, he had to figure out what was going on with his lungs at high altitude.

Dr. Jim Maloney headshot
Dr. Jim Maloney

So he headed to UCHealth’s Comprehensive Lung and Breathing Center, which includes a High Altitude Clinic.

There he saw Dr. Jim Maloney, a pulmonary specialist and professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

While Joe thought hat he had suffered from reverse altitude sickness, Maloney asked Joe to carefully describe the timing of his symptoms, then came up with a different diagnosis.

Joe felt the worst when he returned to villages and cities far from the highest elevations at the tops of the volcanoes. Maloney figured out that Joe probably had suffered from exercise-induced asthma, aggravated by polluted air.

final ascent of Aconcagua in Argentina
The Boardmans make their final ascent to Camp 3 on Aconcagua in Argentina. Joe had suffered from some breathing challenges after climbing high-altitude volcanoes in Mexico. Lung specialists later diagnosed Joe with exercise-induced asthma rather than altitude sickness. He did great climbing Aconcagua. Photo by Eli Boardman.

To be safe, Maloney gave Joe medication to treat him for both asthma and altitude sickness, which is also known as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or HAPE. HAPE is very dangerous because it can kill people – like some of the 11 climbers who died on Mt. Everest earlier this year.

“We talked about the seriousness of HAPE. He knew that if he developed symptoms, his job was not to push on to the summit. His job was to stay alive,” Maloney said.

And all of his doctors encouraged him to have a wonderful time. In years past, it would have been unthinkable for doctors to encourage a patient with Stage IV cancer to go on such an ambitious journey.

But, Joe’s team strongly encouraged him to keep climbing.

“He and his family have such a quality time climbing. For him, that’s huge,” Maloney said.

Joe was thrilled that his lungs performed so well for him. He used the inhaler and it prevented any asthma.

“My breathing was perfect. I coughed less than the 20-year-old guys with the man buns,” Joe joked.

The summit

While Joe’s lungs performed perfectly, the climb wasn’t easy. The Boardmans arrived at their base camp and soon found themselves dealing with a foot of fresh snow, which is almost unheard of on Aconcagua’s dry slopes in the late spring.

They also suffered some severe sunburns along with powerful winds that buffeted them nearly every day. And Karen took a fall that left her with a fractured elbow. She was their expedition medic and knew there was no way to treat her injury on the mountain. She had to endure the pain and tough it out.

Aconcagua, the highest peak in the southern and western hemispheres
Aconcagua is the highest peak in both the southern and western hemispheres. Photo by Eli Boardman.

The Boardmans spent 16 days climbing to higher elevation and back down to allow their bodies to acclimate to their high-altitude environment.

Eli said his dad did great.

“He helped the group as much as any of us. It was not like we were taking him mountain climbing. We were all mountain climbing together. It was a great way to bond as a family. We all helped each other and we got to the goal,” Eli said.

He acknowledged that climbing mountains seems pointless to some.

“There’s no good reason to go climb to an arbitrary point,” Eli said. “But, having a goal and striving toward it still provides meaning in our lives. It helps with perspective and living in the moment. You’re disconnected from everything else and you’re focused on that next step.”

For the Boardmans, the transcendent day came on December 16.

That was when a perfect weather window opened and the wind died down to a relatively calm 35 miles per hour. They made their push to the summit.

They began well before dawn and with the wind chills, the temperature felt like 22 below. They moved slowly, but steadily as a team of three. One group of two people reached the summit ahead of them. Then the Boardmans arrived and basked alone on the highest point in their part of the world.

Joe Boardman on the summit of Aconcagua
Joe Boardman thought of all of his caregivers as he climbed to the summit of Aconcagua. He brought a UCHealth flag with him and posed at the top. Photo by Eli Boardman.

“It was beautiful. It was exultation. It was perfect,” Joe said. “The whole way up, I thought about my doctors, nurses, aides, everyone who devotes their lives to helping those in need like me.”

And after descending, Joe sent his team an email sharing the family’s exciting news.

None were surprised that they’d made the summit.

“He has met a tough diagnosis with a lot of courage and a lot of deep thought,” Maloney said.

Kolva grinned as she saw the spectacular photos.

“I thought to myself, ‘of course he made it,’” she said. “It’s easy for me to see his strength.”

Another summit beckons

While the prostate cancer has been cruel, Joe said his journey has brought “weird silver linings.”

“I have a new perspective. I’m less cynical. It has greatly deepened my faith and I’ve met and worked with all these people who devote their lives to helping others….It gives me hope for the future of humanity.”

Joe is a pilot and for a time, during times of his deepest suffering, he stopped flying.

Now, he is back in the air flying with his instructor and airplane partner and Eli, too, is learning to fly.

And, of course, the family is planning their next expedition: this time to Africa.

In August, the Boardmans will do a safari in Tanzania followed by an expedition up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The peak in Tanzania is another of the world’s “Seven Summits,” the tallest in Africa at 19,341 feet. Joe can’t wait for both the beautiful moments and the challenges that he expects will arise.

Recently during a religious retreat, the priest asked Joe and others to sit quietly and see if God had a message for them.

Joe sat for a short time, then clear as a bell, a message came to him: “It’s not going to get any easier.”

That was a lousy message.

“You must be kidding,” Joe thought to himself.

Thankfully, about a week later, while praying during a Mass in Boulder, Joe got what he called the “corollary and balancing truth.”

The new message: “That doesn’t mean it can’t get any better.”

It was another aha moment. Yes, this health journey could simultaneously get tougher and better. That’s true, too, of climbing mountains or preserving the ranch or countless other challenges.

And so Joe will go on climbing and living step by step.

“I work hard to count my blessings, not look for instant miracles,” Joe said. “The true miracle is in living this life, a gift from God no matter its length.”

 

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.