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Toronto climbers take cancer fundraising to new heights

Adam Mc Clare (L) and his cousin Hart Togman practice climbing stairs at their apartment building on Pleasant Blvd., while preparing to climb Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Hart Togman and Adam McClare hope to reach the top of Ecuador's 5,897-metre Mount Cotopaxi near midday on Dec. 14. The two will have started their summit bid just after midnight, climbing around glacier crevasses and up into increasingly thin air.

If they reach the peak of the active volcano, they will be on the edge of a smoking crater that's almost a kilometre wide.

Gazing into an abyss is an apt metaphor for how many families feel when confronted with cancer – which makes it an apt goal for the climbers, who are trying to make this confrontation a little easier for others dealing with the diagnosis.

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Two years ago, Summit for SickKids grew out of the personal experiences both men have had with cancer in their families. The goal for the 2011 campaign was to raise $20,000 for cancer research and treatment at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. They doubled that amount before leaving for South America earlier this week.

Both Mr. Togman, 24, and Mr. McClare, 27, credit their experience at advertising firms in Toronto for helping them distinguish themselves in a field crowded with fundraising causes. SickKids Foundation spokesperson Janessa Bishop says the hospital has more than 1,000 third-party fundraising events a year.

"You really need to stand out so people take notice," says Mr. McClare.

Last year they were noticed enough to raise $15,000 for a climb of Washington's 4,392-metre Mount Rainier. Mr. Togman says the organizational and outreach efforts that go into sustaining a grassroots fundraising drive become like a full-time job, complete with its own compensation.

"It has made me realize what is possible in myself, and in all those who have helped us," says Mr. Togman. "I remember staying awake for 36 hours to get a sponsorship proposal ready. Looking back, I would do it again, but 50 per cent harder, because it is so rewarding."

Both say the reward derives from having watched those close to them fight cancer.

Mr. McClare was only three years old when his mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer, but he remembers the strain of complications and the spectre of a relapse following him into adulthood. "I always said I was going to try to help when I could," says Mr. McClare.

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That chance came two years ago when Mr. Togman dreamed up Summits for SickKids after his 11-year-old cousin was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"Before that, cancer happened to other people," says Mr. Togman. "My cousin being diagnosed was the kick in the ass. Everyone can do more. This was my time."

The pair say they are paying for the climbing trip themselves and, with little marketing or overhead expenses, they appear confident about where donations go. Half helps fund the oncology floor at Hospital for Sick Children, where colourful and comfortable lounges can be like a second home for families for months on end. Ms. Bishop says the department's "family-centred" approach incurs extra costs by offering things such as social worker and psychiatrist visits for patients' siblings.

The other half goes to the hospital's cancer genetics research program. Director David Malkin says research centres such as his are mainly funded by grants, but those grants are usually tied to specific projects. It is the fundraising stream that he says is "extraordinarily important" for giving the program the flexibility to pursue more "explorative research" that might lead to the next innovation or breakthrough. Dr. Malkin says a clinical surveillance protocol for early detection of cancers associated with a specific gene mutation was developed in the centre over the last few years and is now being adopted to treat children around the world.

As for the actual mountain to be climbed, Mount Cotopaxi is only 60 metres shorter than Mount Logan, Canada's highest peak. The equatorial latitude and relative symmetry of the cone-like volcano mean the climb is not technically difficult by Andean standards, but the top 1,500 vertical metres of the route are above the snow line. Together with their guide, the climbers will have to guard against avalanches, toppling seracs, rockfalls and crevasses that are getting increasingly dangerous after successive warm years.

Though the trip will necessarily be taken one step at a time, Mr. McClare allows that the team has already identified a potential destination for next year's campaign, Argentina's Mount Aconcagua.

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It's the tallest peak in the western hemisphere, but so far the climbers have shown no signs of letting altitude sickness blur their vision.

"We are ad guys. We know you need to have a punch like climbing a mountain," says Mr. McClare. "But it's not about reaching the top. We do this for a cause."



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