Kicking the habit at 14,441 feet
December 8, 2009
By David Hayes
Jeff Rafuse had tried many times to quit smoking, something he picked up at age 15.
Little did he know, all it would take to kick the habit is climb a 14,441-foot mountain.
The 1998 Issaquah High School graduate learned of the American Lung Association’s annual Climb for Clean Air through the KIRO radio program “The Ron and Don Show.” As tribute to a producer on the show suffering from lung cancer, Don O’Neil joined the climb of Mount Rainier, a fundraiser for the ALA.
“He talked quite a bit about the climb, which motivated me a little to do it, too,” said Rafuse, 29. “I’d been smoking on and off since I was 15 and had tried to quit with varying degrees of success.”
He felt the time, March 1, 2009, was right to quit for good, especially if he wanted to get in shape to reach the summit with other climbers.
As a mortgage and loan officer, Rafuse was a pretty inactive guy. But with the help of family and friends, and using the local trails around Issaquah, he kept away from the cancer sticks.
Two to three times a week, he hit Tiger Mountain Trail, a short but steep climb that’s ideal training for conquering Mount Rainier’s trail to the summit.
A funny thing started to happen on the way up — Rafuse said his lung capacity grew and his waistline shrank. He said he figures he dropped as much as 30 pounds before the climb in July and he has kept most of it off since.
This was also the first major fundraiser Rafuse attempted. Everyone participating had to bring in a guaranteed $4,000 for the ALA. Rafuse easily topped that summit, netting $4,600.
He hopes to top that amount next year when he participates again, even though event organizers have lowered the minimum in an effort to attract more participants.
Armed with all of the appropriate gear and his newfound lung capacity, Rafuse joined about 20 others on O’Neil’s trip to the summit of Mount Rainier July 24-26. He was surprised to learn that there are limited opportunities to turn around for those who discover the trek is more than they anticipated.
“There’s only three stops, and a guide has to go back with anyone who turns back,” he said.
After four climbers and two guides did turn around, at the third stop, it was everyone all the way or everyone turn back with only one guide left. No one else quit.
Roped closely together, Rafuse said he literally at that point had no choice but to keep pace, one foot after the other, no matter how exhausted he was getting.
“When I felt like I had nothing left in me, we were 15 to 20 minutes from the top and the guide kept saying, ‘Just 10 more minutes of pain,’” Rafuse said. “This was the hardest thing I ever tried to do.”
Surprisingly, even accessing water was difficult, as bottles had to be securely packed away. Instead, Rafuse, to placate his thirst, kept sucking on snow dug out by his ice pick.
After collapsing in exhausted exultation at the summit, he broke out one of the lung association banners he was asked to carry for O’Neil. After about an hour to enjoy the experience, the group made the return trip in another eight hours. He learned the climbers that joined O’Neil raised over $100,000 for ALA.
“It was an amazing experience, from start to finish,” he said.
So much so that he’s already training for another one next July. Only this time, he’s roping in a buddy. As enticement, Rafuse purchased so much equipment that he’s got two of everything, so his friend doesn’t have to get anything on his own.
His smoking habit? Completely gone.
“There was something different this time I quit,” he said. “I have absolutely no desire to do it again. My mindset is different. I feel tremendously healthier.”
His ultimate goal is to get in good enough shape and enough experience under his belt that he could summit Mount Rainier with a group of friends without needing guides.
“I’m not there yet,” he said.
David Hayes: Dhayes@isspresss.com, 392-6434, ext. 237. Comment at www.isspress.com.