One of the best byproducts of a career in storytelling is working with interesting and inspiring people. Cindy Abbott definitely checks both of those boxes.
She is the only woman on earth to both reach the summit of Mt. Everest and complete Alaska’s 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Now for the amazing part of her story. She accomplished those rare feats while treating the debilitating side effects of a rare disease.
The disease is the start of this story.
After 14 years of searching for answers to a number of issues including failing eyesight, Cindy was diagnosed in 2007 with Wegener’s Granulomatosis, a rare, incurable and life-threatening disease. Determined to raise awareness so others may find their diagnosis more quickly, Cindy established her goal of climbing the highest peak in the world. In 2010 she became just the 40th American female to reach the 29,029 foot summit.
Looking for a new awareness-raising challenge, she met an old friend of mine who also passes the interesting and inspiring test. Flandreau, South Dakota farm boy, University of South Dakota Law School graduate and perennial top musher in the sled dog racing world Vern Halter.
For nearly a decade I followed Vern on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on behalf of his sponsor, Wells Fargo. Over the years I travelled every mile of the longest, toughest race in the world via bush plane and snowmobile with a still camera, video camera and a laptop computer to chronicle his progress on KELOLAND.com so all his fans from his Dream a Dream grade school assembly program tours back in the Dakotas could keep tabs on their favorite musher.
Vern is now retired from active racing but still operates the Dream a Dream Sled Dog Farm in Willow, Alaska with his wife and veterinarian, Susan Whiton, another member of the interesting, inspiring club.
In other words, Vern and Susan have retired from competitive mushing, but their dogs have not. The canine athletes have pulled Cindy to the end of the Iditarod Trail twice. Both times she was awarded the Red Lantern for her perseverance in being the last musher to cross the finish line in Nome. There is an old saying at the Iditarod, “To finish is to win.” This year Cindy did win, setting a new record for the Red Lantern with a time that was fast enough to have won 14 past Iditarods.
Every once in a while when someone like Cindy tries to raise awareness, they enlist the help of a guy like me. The most recent assignment was to create a trading card for Cindy to hand out at speaking engagements. A simple assignment, right? Boil down all the details of her amazing story onto the tiny back side of trading card.
Thanks to the amazing photo of Cindy triumphantly raising the Red Lantern in front of the burled arch finish line, I didn’t need a lot of words. That image was captured by Jeff Schultz, who has been the official photographer of the Iditarod for decades. But I also encourage you to read Cindy’s book chronicling the Mt. Everest climb, Reaching Beyond the Clouds. Her Everest and Iditarod stories have also been told in a feature-length documentary available on iTunes, Banner on the Moon. You’ll also find her story and some great photos on her web site.
Most good stories leave us with a lesson or two. One of the morals from this tale is that even the smallest of assignments, in this case a pro bono trading card, are an opportunity to combine words and images to trigger emotions that spark action. Many times the smaller canvas actually pushes the storyteller to create a more focused – and therefore more compelling – message.