This Baylor alumna (and ovarian cancer survivor) just climbed Mount Everest
Climbing Mount Everest is, obviously, an impressive feat. But doing so after having survived ovarian cancer? That’s a truly incredible story.
Meet Baylor alumna Jess Wedel (BSW ’11). In 2016 — just five years after graduating from Baylor — she was diagnosed with a rare, non-genetic ovarian cancer. Thankfully, after 18 weeks of chemo (and two major surgeries), she was declared cancer-free.
Even before the cancer, Jess and her mom, Valari, had been mountain climbing together for years. After the cancer fight, however, Jess decided to go big, spurred on by her mom. And so, in 2020, the pair made the trip. But… After weeks of climbing, health problems led to Valari being medi-flighted off the mountain; shortly afterwards, a COVID outbreak among the sherpas ended Jess’ hopes of reaching the summit.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end. People had begun following Jess’ story — first through the cancer, then towards Everest. A nonprofit approached her about being a part of a team that would go back to Everest to raise money and awareness for ovarian cancer.
And so it began. Even just the trek to base camp — a 40-mile journey with a lot of elevation gain — proved powerful. As a part of a team of 20 that included ovarian cancer survivors, oncologists, and caregivers, Jess says the climb to base camp was “my most favorite thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
But Jess didn’t stop there. As she continued up the mountain, working with incredible Sherpa guides, she encountered brutal conditions and ended up sick. On summit day, she didn’t think she’d actually make it to the top. Conditions change quickly, and with so many things stacked against her, the chances were high she’d have to turn around.
Through it all, Jess’ mantra was,”I’ll keep walking. I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other until I feel like I need to go back because it’s not safe. And somehow, I just did that for hours until I found myself on the top.”
In late May, Wedel became the first ovarian cancer survivor to summit Everest. Her team raised more than half a million dollars for research, but she says hearing from other cancer survivors might have been the best part of the experience. For instance, one woman said she followed Jess’ journey while in the hospital completing her own treatment; watching Jess gave her strength and hope to keep going. For Jess, having that impact is an honor.
“I’m just some weird girl from Oklahoma, but it’s so cool that my story is helping others feel like there are more good days ahead for them,” she says.
Jess credits her Baylor professors for helping her get here by providing a safe space to ask questions and be curious in a way she hadn’t allowed herself before college.
“The School of Social Work sort of set that foundation for how I live now — creating a space safe enough to ask questions and sort of allowing for a human-centered framework on life… Even now in guiding, I’m working with people and helping them have an experience outside. All of those bases of a human-centered framework on life were planted at Baylor.”
So what does one do after climbing Everest? This summer has been about recovering and leading climbs on Mount Rainier. There will be more big climbs in the future, but for now, she’s letting it all sink in.
And in the next year, Jess will continue mountain guiding in Colorado, Argentina, Mexico, and, in the spring, back in Nepal. She won’t be climbing Everest this time, but she’ll lead another trek and do a little climb there in the spring.
Sic ’em, Jess!