PERU — On Aug. 9, the day before her 52nd, birthday, Nanette Niemann climbed Big Slide's summit, for 46er bragging rights.
She started her quest in August of 2017.
“Truly, I started on the whim of an invite with a friend," the Peru resident and 5th grade special education teacher at Saranac Central School said.
“So, that was August and early October I completed two more. By mid October, I got re-diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Her first diagnosis was at age 39 after a routine mammogram.
“That was being done early because my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer,” Niemann said.
Marietta Dupras passed away 12 years ago from breast cancer.
“I was tested after my first diagnosis,” Niemann said.
“I wasn't BRCAA positive. I didn't carry the gene. My mother didn't carry the gene. My mom was going through chemo while I was going through radiation with my first diagnosis.”
Both of her breast cancers were different.
“So it wasn't even a re-occurrence the second time,” Niemann said.
The first time she had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and the second time a lump was discovered on the same breast, same side.
“Same everything,” she said.
“This one is estrogen receptive whereas the first time it was not. It feeds off estrogen.”
For her first bout, doctors did an incision where they removed the affected area, following up with 30 radiation treatments.
In November 2017, she opted for a double mastectomy at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vt.
“I could have gone single, but I opted for double with reconstruction,” Niemann said.
After the mastectomy, she had four other surgeries due to complications.
After 12 weekly chemo treatments, she lost most of her hair so shaved it and wore a baseball cap.
“I taught through it all,” Niemann said.
“I only took off chemo days.”
The biggest thing she learned is to take nothing for granted anymore.
“You talk about me doing the 46 High Peaks, once I had done those first couple before the diagnosis they kind of became, I don't want to say obsession, but it really was a goal,” she said.
Niemann climbs with a myriad of people including two friends she met at Eclipse Fitness Center in Plattsburgh.
“Just this past year, to get the final ones finished, I started doing a lot with my stepsister Alicia Chase,” she said.
They climbed Big Slide with a 9 a.m. trail start and reached the summit at 12:13 p.m.
“I brought a bottle of Big Slide Beer to the top of Big Slide,” Niemann said.
“Actually when we got done, we went to the Big Slide Brewery.”
That climb was uneventful in comparison to a cliff moment on Cliff Mountain when she freaked out.
She and Chase had hiked in from Adirondack Loj.
“I have to laugh because one of the thoughts I did have recently on a peak that was a little unnerving coming down, I told my sister after the fact, I said in my head was freaking out coming down I said, 'breast cancer tried to kill me twice, and it didn't succeed. And I'm not going to let this mountain do that,'” Niemann said.
Her gear includes a flask of Fireball, which she has carried for 45 of the High Peaks.
“We always do a shot of Fireball at the top of the mountain,” she said.
“I did carry my pink boa to the top of the last mountain. I've had it since my first diagnosis, so it climbed the last mountain with me.”
She is the mother of two sons, one stepson and two grandsons.
Her oldest grandson, Hunter Ahern, 7, has started to climb.
“We've done just one little one, but we already got our goal set,” Niemann said.
“Every time he drives around now, he tells me he's going to climb that mountain.”
When her sons were very young, it had crossed her mind to climb the High Peaks.
“My oldest is mentally retarded and disabled and lives in a (group home) now, so that just wasn't an option when I was younger,” she said.
There were mornings, when she and her crew headed out at 3 a.m. to knock off four mountains in a 16-hour day.
“For me, I take nothing for granted,” Niemann said.
“Obviously, I didn't let this slow me down. Actually I think I became a little more determined.”
GOT HER BACK
During last summer's series of surgeries, there were times she couldn't use her chest muscles at all.
“So, I carried a fanny pack water-hydration system,” Niemann said.
“Then all my fellow hikers would would take food for me because I couldn't put a backpack on. I wasn't allowed. An amazing support group that carried my food up.
From March to November 2018, she scaled 31 of the 46 peaks.
“On a desperate, desperate attempt to catch-up to the ones I was hiking with because four of them finished in October of last year, and I was 12 mountains shy,” she said.
“I couldn't make it.”
In October, she will have her sixth surgery.
Then, she will get her beat-up right knee checked out then.
Niemann is eight years short of a 30-year retirement.
“That's from watching from mom hang on to get her time in before she retired, and then she died six months after she retired,” she said.
“She was doing chemo. Hers metastasized, but she was going to hang to get those 25 years in, I think she aimed for, because she was a really late starter.”
Mother and daughter were both special education teachers in the Saranac Central School District.
2019 had a rocky start with her family's loss of their father, Leonard DuBrey, to pancreatic cancer.
But nine months in, she's still climbing.
She and climbing mates, Kathi Grabda and Krystal Lewis, and Lewis's husband, Tony, hiked a week recently in Boulder, Colo.
“We're a little obsessed,” Niemann said.
“My sister was probably texting me because we're going hiking Thursday. I got the Saranac 6 under my belt. I got the 46, and we're hoping Thursday to finish the Lake Placid 9.”
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