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Scaling Great Heights

By: Megan Michelson

By Megan Michelson

Brothers Jason and Andy Dorais climb and ski mountains at record speeds, but it’s Amanda, Jason’s wife, who’s surmounting the biggest peak of all: cancer. 

In 2013, Jason Dorais qualified for the Ski Mountaineering World Championships, which were taking place in France. It’s the Super Bowl of his sport, and Jason is a top American athlete in the niche world of ski mountaineering racing, where speedsuit-clad skiers on lightweight touring gear essentially cross-country ski up mountains and then ski down as fast as they can.

Jason would have been a promising contender at Worlds, but just before the race, he opted out and gave his spot to the first alternate on the U.S. team, who happened to be his brother, Andy Dorais. One year prior, Jason’s wife Amanda was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.

“Amanda was as sick as she’s ever been and she was really struggling,” Jason says now. “It was an easy decision not to go. These ski events really aren’t a big deal when you compare them to real life.”

Amanda continues fighting for her life in a way that’s not dissimilar to how Jason and Andy climb mountains: with perseverance, strength, and unwavering resilience. But to her, what matters isn’t whether or not she reaches the summit, but how she approaches the climb.

Soon after she was diagnosed, one of her sisters wrote on a Facebook page set up for Amanda, “We have yet to see her be angry, depressed, or lack a joke or a smile even as the news worsened and the questions have grown.”

Beyond unflinching positivity as she’s navigated her illness, one thing has remained constant for Amanda: Jason. On a random Wednesday this fall, the two sat side by side in a hospital waiting room in their hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, awaiting yet another CT scan. Anyone else might have been bored, restless, or sad. Others may have zoned out to the TV or flipped mindlessly through magazines. But not Amanda and Jason. They sat and talked quiet and contented. They would have rather been in the mountains, out hiking or climbing–backpacks loaded for a day’s adventure–but there in the hospital, there was no one they’d have rather been with. Jason tries to make each of Amanda’s doctor’s appointments. “What else would I want to be doing,” Jason asks, “besides spending time with my wife?”

Jason, 33, and Andy, 35, are both emergency room doctors as well as vigorous endurance athletes. They look almost like twins—lean, long frames, inky black hair, and giant, smiles. Raised in Indiana, they were standout collegiate track athletes who moved West. After college they got into rock climbing, as their father had before them, using student loan money to buy ropes and harnesses.

They didn’t start skiing seriously until their mid 20s, when they got season passes at Alta, Utah, and then, mentored by friend Jared Inouye, ventured into the world of backcountry skiing, where they climbed and descended untracked mountains outside of resort boundaries. Competitive by nature, ski mountaineering racing soon followed.

“The Dorais brothers came onto the ski mountaineering scene like they do everything: strong and fast,” says Utah-based filmmaker and skier Noah Howell, who documented the pair in the 2013 backcountry ski film Elevation. “They changed the tempo of skiing here in the Wasatch and beyond, and opened many eyes to what could be climbed and skied in a day.”

In 2011, the Dorais brothers and Inouye shaved a staggering two hours off the previous speed record on Wyoming’s 13,776-foot Grand Teton by climbing and skiing the peak in five hours, 17 minutes. In 2013, they tackled Washington’s 14,409-foot, glaciered Mount Rainier, ski touring and climbing up and skiing back down in under four hours—beating the previous record by 20 minutes.

After the brothers broke the speed record on Rainier, Amanda was waiting at the bottom, filming with a camera. They came in exhausted, but elated at their time. They high-fived and then Amanda said from behind the camera, “Hug each other!” (The brothers are known for not showing much emotion toward one another.) “That’s pushing it,” Jason responded. But clearly they rely on one another in more ways than just as ski partners. “We push each other, but he is there for me and I am there for him, whatever it takes,” says Andy.

To spend daylight hours reaching skyscraping elevations, they often work evening shifts in the emergency room. (Nobody is quite sure when or if they sleep.) When they have days off together, the brothers have been known to log 14-hour days on skis in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, climbing more than 12,000 feet in a single outing.

Once, driving along the highway in Salt Lake City, Andy looked up at the prominent Wasatch peaks towering over the city and said to his brother, “How come nobody has ever traversed the whole range?” So they did it, running—not skiing this time—30 hours across 60-plus miles and climbing 30,000 feet in elevation gain. That’s more than Mount Everest—from sea level.

“We’ll come up with an idea and then it’ll just evolve,” says Andy, who is married to Jessie, also a doctor, with whom he has two young sons. “Then whatever that thing is just consumes us. It’s all we want to do.”

 

In March 2011, mutual friends introduced Jason to Amanda, a striking brunette who loved to rock climb and taught fourth grade. Within a few days, Jason asked her to go climbing. Soon after, they were inseparable.

Jason didn’t exactly proclaim his athletic accomplishments. “It took me a while to comprehend how good he really was,” says Amanda. “I went to a race or two after we met and he would come in first or second, and I’d think, ‘Who is this guy?’ I’m proud of his accomplishments, but who he is as a person has always been more impressive to me than anything he could do in the mountains.”

A year later, Amanda was training for a marathon when she started experiencing strange symptoms—diarrhea, stomach pains, and severe weight loss. She ignored it at first, thinking it was related to an increase in her training, but the problems didn’t go away.

Eventually, she consulted a doctor, and then a gastroenterologist, and in September 2012, doctors found a large tumor in her colon. Later that month, she underwent surgery to remove the mass, her appendix, and part of her bowel. The cancer eventually spread to her lungs and her pelvis, advancing her cancer to Stage 4.

“I was shocked,” Amanda says. “I’m a healthy, active person, and I just never thought something like this would happen to me. It changed everything for me in my life.”

Two months after her diagnosis, Jason asked Amanda to marry him. “I had fallen in love with this girl,” he says. “We were heading in that direction anyway and marriage simply made sense.”

The commitment of marriage made for a marked shift in his brother, says Andy. “Throughout his life, Jason has always had his own goals,” he says. “In a way, he was selfish—motivated by his own passions and hobbies. But in his relationship with Amanda, he’s changed. It’s the first time I’ve seen him truly live for someone else and put someone else before him.”

On a frosty December day in Salt Lake City in 2012, Jason and Amanda wed, surrounded by family. Amanda had just started her first intense bout of chemotherapy. Just prior to the wedding she was on a feeding tube, and had been relegated to a walker or a wheelchair. But on that day she walked down the aisle adamant that cancer couldn’t interfere with something so personal and special.

Amanda doesn’t seem to mind that for her husband, the mountains keep calling. Last year, they planned a vacation to the Oregon coast. It was going to be a beach trip, no skiing involved. But on their drive out, Jason couldn’t stop thinking about skiing Mount Hood, a beckoning, towering volcano.

He’d conveniently packed boots and skis, just in case, and getting to Hood was only an hour detour on their road trip. He sprinted up the mountain at 3:00 P.M., returning to the base in an hour and 44 minutes—an unofficial fastest known time—to find Amanda and their dog napping in the back of the truck.

“Any trip we go on, there is bound to be some sort of mountain running, skiing, or climbing going on,” says Amanda. “I’m totally in support of him going out and living that lifestyle, because when he’s not in the mountains, he’s here, 100 percent.”

The 2015 Ski Mountaineering World Championships took place in Switzerland last February, and this time, both Jason and Andy made the U.S. team. Amanda was well enough to travel and spectate, and as the brothers sprinted up on skis on the snow-covered ground below, Amanda rode lifts and trams strung up the mountainside. As she watched, she admired their speed and efficiency and marveled at their ability to endure pain. “The practice of suffering and learning to withstand and even enjoy that goes a long way,” says Jason.

Amanda now undergoes chemo every six months and she hasn’t worked in years. She keeps her hair pixie short—it thins and falls out during the chemo—and she still deals with a lot of discomfort, like back and hip pain from the radiation, fatigue and nausea from the chemo. She’s gotten so thin from the treatments that she claims she can look like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, but that’s not true. She remains beautiful, with large, penetrating brown eyes, sharp cheekbones, and porcelain skin.

Many days, she feels too tired to leave the house, but she is determined to spend her time wisely. She recently went to a Snoop Dog concert. She gets up and walks her dog, a loveable Brittany named Hannah, and when she’s feeling up for it, she occasionally goes out for a short run or ski in the winter. “It can be tough physically, but it always feels amazing to get out there,” she says.

“You can’t hold Amanda down,” says Andy. “She’s the most social person I know. She and Jason are both very matter-of-fact about her diagnosis. They say, ‘This is the situation. What can we do about it?’ And what are they going to do—sit home and sulk? No, they’re going to go out and live.” Jason says being in the mountains helps him cope with everything that’s happening at home. “Whether I’m skiing or running or climbing, it helps clear my mind,” he says. “It’s good to get away from everything and enjoy the physical movement.”

Jason and Amanda live in this moment, never looking too far to the past or the future. They talk of wanting a child, but, “It can be hard to plan ahead,” says Amanda. “Things come up and we go for it. I think even without the cancer diagnosis, we wouldn’t be those people who are like, ‘What do you want to be doing in five years?’” “We enjoy the health we have,” Jason adds. “And the time we have.” OLI

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