Edie Sundby is the only living person who has walked the 1600-mile Mission Trail. This would be an impressive feat for anyone, but it’s even bigger for a cancer survivor who was once given three months to live. After being diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer in 2007 and told she was out of options, Sundby didn’t give up. Despite 0.9% odds of survival, the 62-year-old former Vice President for Pacific Bell in San Francisco is now thriving—and getting ready for her next adventure.
“For me, walking is a transcendent physical, emotional, and spiritual experience, like dancing,” Sundby says. “If I can move, I am not sick. That is my alternate reality. And I believe with all my will in that reality. So when cancer strikes (or in the throes of battle), I believe that if I walk I will live; when I stop, I die.”
We talked to Sundby about one of the hardest walks in the world and how she got through it despite the odds.
The Clymb: When were you diagnosed with cancer? What did the doctors tell you at the time?
EDIE SUNDBY: I was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer in 2007. My twin daughters had just graduated high school and were enrolled in their first year of college. The cancer had spread from my gallbladder to other organs (liver, colon, bile duct, hepatic artery, portal vein, peritoneum, throat, and neck), and then to my lungs. Gallbladder cancer and pancreatic cancer are the two deadliest cancers and fewer than 2% of those who have them live for more than five years. Because my cancer was so widespread, doctors in San Diego gave me less than three months to live and recommended palliative care over treatment.
The Clymb: At that point, did you start any form of treatment?
ES: I found Dr. George Fisher at Stanford Cancer Center who immediately started me on aggressive chemotherapy. It took 5.5 years and 79 rounds of chemotherapy (almost one million milligrams) to subdue the cancer—plus intense radiation, radical liver surgery, and the loss of my right lung.
The Clymb: Were you an active person before your diagnosis?
ES: I was arrogantly healthy. I had practiced and taught yoga for twenty years, and trained at a gym four days a week for years before diagnosis. While I was not outdoorsy, I was very physically fit from yoga and weight training.
The Clymb: When did you decide you were going to hike the California wilderness? Was this something that came up during treatment or something you decided after?
ES: I started walking the canyons around San Diego during cancer treatment, to cope with the effects of chemo, and to control fear and anxiety. I was so physically and emotionally depleted after almost six years of continuous cancer treatment, and after losing my right lung I was so grateful and thankful to be alive that all I wanted to do was walk, connect with God, and feel the incredible joy of being alive. Then, six months after losing my right lung, I walked the 800 mile El Camino Real mission trail from San Diego to Sonoma, averaging 14.5 miles a day for 55 days. When I got to the end of the trail in Sonoma, I didn’t want to stop walking.
The Clymb: You split the walk into two parts—800 miles through the California Wilderness, and then an additional 800 miles through Northern Mexico to the California border. Why did you choose these two trails?
ES: The El Camino Real de las Californias mission trail stretches 1,600 miles from Loreto Mexico to Sonoma California. I walked the California portion in 2013; when cancer returned in my remaining left lung two years later, I walked the first half, from Loreto Mexico to the California border. I chose to walk the El Camino Real de las Californias mission trail because it is true wilderness and no one in history had walked the entire 1,600 mile trail.
The Clymb: Your second walk through Northern Mexico is one of the toughest in the western hemisphere. Can you tell us about it and the physical demands of it?
ES: The El Camino Real de las Californias mission trail extends 1,600 miles through the mountain wilderness of Baja Mexico and the Sonoran Desert to Northern California. I experienced desert heat and cold, walls of cactus, sleeplessness, hunger, both physical and spiritual exhaustion, the dangers of wild creatures, encounters with drug smugglers, and weeks with no water other than what a pack mule could carry. I was accompanied by vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) who kept me safe and guided me through the cactus and through the desert, over the mountains and helped me find the old Jesuit and Franciscan trail.
The Clymb: How long did it take you to walk each trail?
ES: It took two months to walk 800 miles from San Diego to Sonoma and two months to walk the 800 miles from Loreto Mexico to the California border.
The Clymb: What went into the preparation for these walks?
ES: California was a much different walk than Mexico. In California, there were places to buy food and water, to eat and sleep. In Mexico, there was nothing but wilderness for hundreds of miles. Remote, primitive ranchos where I could occasionally buy tortillas and dried beef are scattered along the old mission trail in Mexico, and I carried dried packaged food on a pack mule, plus water. I slept in a tent in the desert, on soft sand, or on sweaty mule blankets. Sometimes at a rancho, I would sleep on a mattress or boards on concrete blocks elevated a few inches above the ground, for protection against crawling desert creatures like scorpions, giant centipedes, and rattlesnakes.
The Clymb: What’s the biggest challenge of attempting such a long walk? Is it mental, like boredom or wanting to give up? Or is it physical exhaustion and discomfort?
ES: There is never, ever boredom on a long walk. It is the most transcendent experience imaginable, and the most healing. “Walking is the best medicine,” declared Hippocrates. Indeed, it is. I can hardly wait to take another long walk—and can barely think of anything else.