In the midst of a blizzard, with 40-mph winds, surrounded by blinding snow, Mike Leum wasn’t thinking about much, other than checking to make sure he was safe, and most importantly, that his 25-year-old son, Hunter, climbing alongside him on a mountain, was safe, too.
“I look over and he’s got this big old grin on his face,” he said. “That was priceless.”
The father and son climbed more than 10,000 feet of Mount Hood in Oregon, carrying colorful flags with the names of cancer patients or survivors written on them.
They held them atop the mountain as the flags flapped in the high winds, taking selfies before making their way back down.
Mike Leum, an assistant director for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who oversees all eight of the rescue teams in the county, raised $7,000 to be able to make the climb on June 10.
The money is going to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
It was a whirlwind weekend for Leum and his son. The day before, they swam 1 mile in the San Francisco Bay — just for the fun of it. The swim was supposed to be from Alcatraz Island to the bay, but high winds made it too dangerous.
“Those types of conditions, that’s probably where I do best,” Mike Leum said of his recent Mount Hood climb. “Because when we do our rescues, we don’t get to pick the weather.”
It’s not a first for the senior Leum, who has been volunteering for Montrose’s search-and-rescue team for more than 25 years. He has climbed Mount Rainier before and raised more than $136,000 total for the cancer research organization. It’s his son’s second time joining him on the adventure.
Mountain climbing has been a family activity for years, but Leum thought that the added benefit of raising money for cancer research would elevate his experience. He has several family members who have battled cancer, including his wife, who had melanoma, and his mother who died from pancreatic cancer in 2005.
In 1999, Leum learned he was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant for a 57-year-old mother who was dying of leukemia. He jumped at the chance to donate life to someone.
Leum also volunteers about 500 hours of his time each year to rescue efforts and has completed more than 1,000 missions.
“There’s no higher reward than reuniting people with their families, whether they’re stuck in a car or the side of the cliff or they’re missing on a hike in the middle of a snowstorm,” he said.
“We’re basically in the reunion business and sometimes, unfortunately, that means maybe just being able to give a family closure,” he added.
His best rescue was also his worst, he said. He recalled saving a 12-year-old girl from a truck that was hanging off a freeway. He and his team resuscitated the girl after several attempts all the way to the emergency room, but she died three days later.
Being on the rescue team often means experiencing difficult moments like that, but Leum said he was grateful to keep the girl alive long enough to allow her family to say goodbye.
With all of the volunteer activities he is involved in, including the Life Rolls On Foundation, which takes athletes with spinal-cord injuries surfing each summer, it’s easy to call him a hero.
But Leum rejects that title.
“I’m not the hero here,” he said. “The heroes are the people who have fought the cancer fight and those among us who are currently fighting that fight.”
Hunter Leum said he appreciates that he was raised to value charity and that he was able to share the recent experience with his father.
“When we were reaching the top, the storm broke a little bit, and it allowed me to reflect on the people’s lives this is going to touch,” he said. “It was definitely a heartfelt experience.”
The Leums said others don’t need to climb a mountain to help cancer patients .
“Yeah, we raise money but that’s only scratching the surface for people with cancer,” Hunter Leum said. “There’s so much more we can be doing.”