Rain swirled around the group as they stood in the wind atop the 13,528-foot King's Peak. There was so much static electricity in the air from lightning that several felt their hair stand on end. Some hugged as others planted flags. Tears mingled with the rain, which was falling so hard it knocked a walking stick out of one man's hand.
And 81-year-old David Hall marked the occasion by singing his own rendition of "The Long Long Trail Awinding" as two of his sons, Larry and Jed, saluted him by dipping the wings of their small aircraft as they went buzzed the top of the peak. His other boys, Evan and Mark, as well as their families, stood at his side as he sang.A long trail, indeed. Many of the people who made the 13-mile round trip to the top of the mountain had faced bigger challenges and climbed bigger hurdles when they were diagnosed with cancer.
But this day, they stood as "Survivors at the Summit," joined in the annual trek by family and friends who acted as support persons. They came from Utah and neighboring states.
A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Hall flew B-24s in World War II and B-26s in the Korean War. He retired 35 years ago and he and his wife built a house in his hometown of Vernal. When the Uintah County civil defense director died of cancer, Hall volunteered for the job and did it for eight years. After that, he "really retired" to spend time with his wife, four sons and two daughters. He was in his mid-50s.
Over the years, he and his children climbed King's Peak, Utah's highest mountain, a dozen times.
But the climb Aug. 14 had special significance for the octogenarian. When he was diagnosed with stomach cancer - "The word cancer brings tears to my eyes" - he says he was frightened. This climb marked that a year had passed since his chemotherapy ended and he learned the cancer died, while he lived on. It was easier, he laughed, than the climb the year before, when he was only three months out of treatment and a mere 80 years old.
Renee and Richard Beckstead made the climb for two people who didn't survive cancer. Her father, Owen "Sandy" Merrill, died two years ago. Twelve years ago, three months shy of his 11th birthday, their son Jason lost a war with liver cancer.
Standing at the top of the mountain, Renee Beckstead could feel Jason and Sandy nearby, she said. They loved the outdoors.
"I just had a very, very warm feeling that they were right there hiking beside us and very happy and were just in their element," she said.
JDee Birkeland, at 44 a breast cancer survivor, has made the climb three times - as long as Survivors at the Summit has existed. One of her joys and privileges, she will tell you, is carrying flags bearing names of people who have had cancer.
She and roommate Suzy Kocherhans, whose mother died of cancer, carried a total of 52 flags, all representing friends who had had cancer. Some lived, some died. But all deserved to be recognized, she said.
The climbers sold flags, at $10 each, to raise money for expansion of the Cancer Wellness House in Salt Lake City, which serves as a resource and support to those with the frightening diagnosis.
Birkeland was proud to once again stand on the peak, despite the wild weather, where she read aloud names attached to the flags. That ritual was so important to her, she said, that when Kocherhans kicked a boulder down and suffered a panic attack, she went on ahead to complete her task.
Kocherhans did make it to the top, despite her fear. "On top, it seemed so close to heaven I felt like I could touch my mom's hand. It was an honor to carry those flags up there."
But the woman she most admired was one who didn't make it to the top. "She was the bravest, in my mind. She knew where her summit was (how far she could go) and she accepted that."
The weather was bright and sunny when the group left Salt Lake on an early Friday morning in August and drove through Wyoming to the Uinta Mountains, where they started hiking - at their own pace and in their own groups, to Henry's Fork Trailhead. Everyone had a "buddy" for cooking, sleeping and monitoring purposes. The sun was still shining when they reached Dollar Lake, seven miles later, and set up camps.
They started the 13-mile round trip to the summit Saturday at 5:30 a.m., accompanied by two pack llamas laden with supplies and two horses for emergencies.
One of the horses would, indeed, carry out a hiker overtaken by altitude sickness. The altitude also halted the hike of the doctor who had come along to support the cancer survivors. He rested before hiking out on his own.
When they started down the mountain, headed for Dollar Lake and a party the next day at Henry's Fork Trailhead, hail pounded them. But they didn't care.
They'd survived far worse.