Wake up. Check the packs. One more look at the trail map. The first day, cover about four miles and set up camp, with California's Mount Whitney silhouetted in the sky. Set the tent. See the sunset. Being with him, the love of her life.
Twenty-one days of quiet, deep connection.
That was how it was supposed to be for Suzanne Towry. Just her and husband Emile Pourroy – who she always called Knute.
“He loved Notre Dame,” she said, referring to the American football coach, Knute Rockne.
Perhaps the only thing Knute loved more – other than his family – was hiking. Pourroy was a natural in the outdoors, both during a 28-year career in search and rescue in California or spending his free time on trails and absorbing himself in all the bigness and stillness nature offered.
His big dream, Towry said, was completing the John Muir Trail, a hike in excess of 200 miles that winds through three national parks, climbs over nine passes and touches the sky on Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 states. It’s a challenging, grueling hike that burns calories that usually leaves hikers a few belt notches leaner in exchange for some of the most majestic views in the country.
We’ll do it in 2018, he told her in a video he recorded near the John Muir Trail. Together. It will be magical. Spiritual. Towry couldn’t wait to share the dream with him.
But then the seizures started in 2017. That was followed by fear, tests and MRI scans. And the answer came in terrible words: Brain tumor. Cancer.
Pourroy would never set foot on the John Muir Trail with her. He died in 2019 at the age of 61, leaving Towry and her son alone with a void that couldn’t ever be refilled. Through the grief, she kept working, making instructional videos at Amgen. She leaned on her family. She worked out and stayed busy.
But she couldn’t forget the dream he had to hike the John Muir Trail with her.
Towry decided after he died, she would hike the trail with her son in Knute’s honor. And more than that, she would bring his ashes along with her. They would all be on the trail together.
“I always thought he’d be the one to outlive us,” she said. “He was always on his feet. A healthy person and the tumor came out of the blue. It was the last thing I expected. But he always wanted this and so I’m doing it for him.”
Preparing to Hike
John Amorosano has hiked the John Muir Trail several times and knows how difficult and dangerous it can be.
“There are a ton of highs and lows and one of the biggest factors is altitude,” Amorosano said. “You’re at an average of 10,000 feet and you have to acclimate. AMS (acute mountain sickness) can be life-threatening.”
Amorosano hiked it in 2013 and made a video on YouTube chronicling his journey and Towry said she and her husband had come upon it when researching their own plans to hike the trail. As Knute’s condition worsened and the treatments took their toll, the video became a way for them to experience the John Muir Trail vicariously.
She said toward the end of his life, he watched that video at least once a week. Not one to wallow, she noted later he was one of those people who always kept perspective by saying there was always someone who has it worse than what he was going through.
But the YouTube video of Amorosano's John Muir Trail hike, called “A Journey Through the Range of Light,” buoyed him.
“That kept him going so long,” Towry said. “It gave him something to believe in.”
When he died, she wrote a note to Amorosano, telling him how much the video meant to him. She told him she was planning to hike the trail in his honor and wondered if Amorosano might have any recommendations. She mentioned, despite her own career in search and rescue, she was a little concerned about some stream crossings in July, due to snowpack runoff.
Amorosano wrote her back and said he wanted to help her prepare. He attended to Pourroy’s memorial service in December 2019. He promised to help in any way he could.
He suggested they do a northbound route, since permits are easier to secure. It also helps the body acclimate to altitude a bit better. By the fourth day, she’d be up Mount Whitney – a big challenge with its summit cresting at 14,496 feet.
Towry, who lives in North Carolina, said she began training at altitude in her home state – but it was a few thousand feet lower than what she would be at along most points along the John Muir Trail. Her son also trained with her when he was able.
Joseph Towry said they were preparing for a physical and emotional journey.
“This will be a test of my character,” he said. “The biggest thing I learned from Knute is that life is precious and it is short and that you have to just get up and go and do something and not worry about it, but to instead experience it. This is the kind of experience that will build you and change you.”
Looking Back, Setting Forth
They both arrived in Mammoth in mid-July to spend a week acclimating to the altitude before going to the trailhead on July 23 at Horseshoe Meadow.
She said being at about 8,000 feet was noticeable, but she felt like her body was adjusting. Some family members had arrived at the cabins to be with her before she and her son took off on the trail and her manager at Amgen, Aly Kelly, had encouraged her and wished her good luck from England.
“He would be so proud of what she is doing,” Kelly said.
She said her pack is at about 30 pounds and she felt prepared for the journey. But on Monday, the family went to Sherwin Lake near Mammoth to remember Knute and spread some of his ashes there. It was the place where Pourroy said they had finally decided to hike the John Muir Trail together in August 2018.
Joseph Towry said the memorial at the lake was emotional and powerful. Knute was remembered as a man who was patient, calm, kind and thoughtful. Though not his biological father, Joseph Towry said Knute was a steadying influence for him during his teenage years.
He also saw a role model for perseverance.
“I learned how to be self-reliant. I watched him be competent and complete in everything he did,” Joseph Towry said. “He wouldn’t just stand there and look at things. He’d just do them. That was important and something I still try to do today.”
He said as they scattered some of the remains, the sky was clear and the weather was perfect. There were tears. Some laughs – Knute had a good sense of humor, she said. Towry said after they came back to the condos, heavy rains came and she was grateful that they would help the ashes settle.
With the hike about to start in a few days, she said she was a little nervous about the challenges that lay ahead. But she also was excited to experience what she and her husband had talked about and planned for years ago.
“No distractions, no phones, no people interrupting,” she said. “I expect as I hike, in the quiet, memories will pop up. When I go backpacking, you get into your mind and remember things you haven’t thought of in years. Your mind is so quiet, it’s like you can think clearly. I will be with my son, but I will be with Knute, too.”
Suzanne Towry is participating in the Dempsey Challenge to raise money for the Dempsey Center, which helps people dealing with the impacts of cancer on patients and their family members. Amgen has partnered with the Dempsey Center in their efforts.