She left her career as a Lehman Brothers lawyer to focus on raising her children. She was beginning to envision the day they were all out of the house when doctors told her she had terminal, metastatic cancer.
“I feel that I went from my parents’ house to my husband’s house to having kids, and just when I think I’m going to be free I get this diagnosis,” she said as she adjusted her pack over the port on her chest where she gets her infusions.
These mother-daughter ventures can have their fraught moments. When Bella was 14, she had a meltdown when she reached a false summit near the top of Kilimanjaro. Frustrated, she refused to go any farther. Deaf to her mother’s encouragement to keep going, Bella said she was motivated to summit only when a guide told her, “If you were my child and behaved like this, I would slap you silly.”
“She is the driving force and rock in our lives,” Bella said as she handed her mother a jug of water, which she carried to lighten her mother’s pack. “When I told her that I was going to take a year off between high school and college to trek in the mountains, she told me I should make it count and do the P.C.T.,” a reference to the Pacific Crest Trail.
On that hike, Bella frantically called her mother in the middle of the night. A snow, rain and sleet storm had descended, and Bella was wet, freezing and alone on the trail. Isabella told her daughter that to stay alive and avoid hypothermia, she had to keep moving and find shelter. Bella hiked through the night and into the next morning, eventually taking shelter in a drop toilet on the trail.
On the second day of the trek, the team caught its first glimpse of Aconcagua. A jagged peak with a whirling white cloud encircling its pointed tip, the mountain was both terrifying and mesmerizing. A guide pointed to an outpost on the side of the mountain — Camp 3, the last camp where the team would rest before making the final ascent.
The trail the team was taking to the top followed what is known as the Polish Traverse Route through the Vacas Valley to base camp. From there, it winds around the mountain for a summit approach from the northwest side. As the second day wore on, Isabella weakened, especially on the downhill sections of the trail. Chemotherapy had made her bones brittle, and she worried about falling. She asked the guides for assistance navigating the rocky ascents, which were just a tiny preview of what was to come.
A brutal trek to base camp followed. Icy winds came in sideways in ferocious gusts. Isabella worried about getting blown off the mountain.