Cancer survivor's centennial climbing quest

Mountains serve as a perfect metaphor for the life of Keith Koster. In his 57 years, he has experienced ups and downs. But when he reaches the summit after a long struggle, the beauty of nature shines through.

A Navy veteran and chaplain of Adirondack American Legion Post 70 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Koster has loved the outdoors since his youth, when his family took trips from upstate New York to Wyoming and Colorado.

Now he uses his mountain-climbing skills and experience to promote The American Legion’s 100th anniversary. Calling it his American Legion centennial challenge, Koster is on pace to climb all of the Adirondack Mountains’ 46 peaks in one year. He will finish on or before March 15, the Legion’s 100th birthday.

In addition to his hiking gear, water, food and emergency supplies, Koster packs an American Legion flag for each climb. At the summit, he proudly holds the banner in a show of triumph.

It’s an epic, inspiring adventure for even serious hikers. Even more so for Koster, who is a three-time cancer survivor. 

GOING FOR THE BOLD Most mountain peaks in the Adirondack region range between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, with Mount Marcy the highest at 5,344 feet. Though that’s not even half the height of some mountains in the western United States, the Adirondacks pose different challenges.

“If you love rocks, you love roots and you love mud, you’ll love hiking in the Adirondacks,” Koster says. “The Adirondacks are a very unique area. Unlike a lot of other areas in the country where you’ve got switchbacks and nice, fairly level trails, you’re literally climbing over rocks and roots, through mud that’s sometimes knee-high. You better hope you’ve got your boots tied on tight. There’s no place like the Adirondacks, especially in black fly season.”

Or winter. The trails can be buried in snow from early November through April. Before Koster embarked on his American Legion centennial challenge, he earned his “Winter 46er” designation – a hiker who scales each of the summits from Dec. 21 through March 21.

About this time last year, Koster was helping a friend finish his own Winter 46er. He came up with the idea of an American Legion challenge during the Department of New York’s Mid-Winter Conference, when Sons of The American Legion Detachment Commander William Casey III challenged American Legion Family members to do something bold.

“I guess I listened to his message a little too much,” Koster says. “It kind of started as a personal challenge. But along the way, people are starting to follow me on Facebook and following The American Legion, so they’re seeing a different side of the Legion. We’re not sitting around doing nothing. We’re very active. We’re very energetic.”

‘NEVER GIVE UP’ To that end, Koster has formed the American Legion 4th District Family Athletic Club. It organizes road races, a Jan. 1 polar plunge into freezing Lake George and other outdoor activities. 

“A lot of people think an athletic club is strictly a running club,” he says. “I’m looking at it as something we can bring the American Legion Family into. Legionnaires can do it with their families, whether it’s running a 5K or climbing mountains.”

Koster’s expedition matches the theme of New York Department Commander Gary Schacher: “Never give up!” 

“I know a couple of people who accomplished this, and it is no easy feat,” Schacher says. “I’ve climbed one peak – oh, my gosh, going up was the easy part. Coming down is what hurts.”

Schacher and Koster say they’d like to form an American Legion group devoted to running 5Ks –another example of the commander’s interest in creating active events for veterans.

For the past several years Schacher has organized the Patriot Highlander Challenge, an obstacle-course race for veterans and their families that promotes competition, teamwork and initiative. While not all veterans can complete an obstacle-course race, scale a mountain or finish a marathon, most are able to walk or run a 5K.

“What a great thing that would be to have an American Legion team traveling around, doing 5Ks and carrying the American Legion flag,” Schacher says.

‘HIGH-ENERGY GUY’ Koster’s own energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Dan Moellman met Koster through Scouting, and the two men have climbed together for more than 15 years after they met. They have taken their sons and other Boy Scouts on different adventures, including backpacking at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M., in 2008. That particular trek can last up to 12 days and cover anywhere from 56 to 100 miles.

During a pre-trip physical exam, Koster’s doctor discovered a lump in his throat.

“After that, we did several videos and looked at all different parts of my neck, and they determined it was time to operate,” he says. “I had about a 2-inch mass in my neck. I did more research on thyroid cancer than I ever wanted to do in my lifetime. If there’s any kind of cancer that’s good, I had the best kind because it didn’t limit me.”

Koster had a full thyroidectomy – removal of his his thyroid – and kept it a secret from Moellman, medical personnel and everyone else on the trip.

With four days left on the trail, Moellman suffered a knee injury, so Koster carried his pack the rest of the way.

“I couldn’t believe it when he told me later that he was battling cancer,” Moellman says. “Keith is inspirational and always positive. He’s a high-energy guy and great to be around.”

Koster often played the role of historian on trips, taking photos and giving Scouts CDs afterward as  keepsakes.

“He’s very aware of the Scouts and interacts with them,” Moellman says. “He has an infectious laugh. The real challenge with Scouts is to bring along those who have issues at home or physical limitations. Keith has always done his best to include everybody.” 

THE CANCER RETURNS Two years after the first surgery, doctors discovered another mass. 

“They cut from just below my ear down to the top of my shoulder,” Koster says. “To this day I have no feeling from the middle of my ear to the top of my shoulder from that surgery. They said, ‘OK, we got it all this time.’”

About five years later, the cancer returned, this time wrapping itself around his vocal chords. Koster was extremely concerned; he regularly emcees American Legion events and conducts training for Boy Scout training. 

“Going into surgery, it was scary not knowing the outcome or how long I may or may not have my voice,” Koster recalls. “After surgery, I came out and I bellowed out as loud as I could. My wife and mother broke down in tears because there was a pretty grim prognosis of what I might sound like.”

He’s been cancer-free for several years now. 

“I went into all the cancer surgeries like scientific experiments,” Koster says. “Unfortunately they were on me. While I carried my faith into it and prayed a lot, I knew I couldn’t pray it away. So we had to take the right actions. I was really going into it being as positive as I could, mostly for those around me. I get emotional still today; seeing my father cry for the first time was really difficult. And then telling him the second time that I had cancer ... that was the hardest thing I had to do. He was always a rock.”

Koster’s therapy is twofold: he takes medicine every day to survive without a thyroid, and he hikes to clear his head.

“There’s a lot you go through when you’re having cancer, or any life-changing kind of thing, and the trail just clears my head,” he says. “I’m not thinking about what dose I’m on. I’m not thinking about the next radiation treatment. I’m not thinking about the next surgery. I’m just thinking about putting my foot on the rock safely in front of me, or grabbing on to a tree to hold on, or using the ice ax so I don’t go sliding back down the 100 feet I just came up.”

A PATH TO PEACE Koster sometimes hikes solo, other times with Moellman or others. The longer hikes can last up to 12 hours or more, depending on the group’s skill levels, terrain and weather.

On these hikes, it is critical to be able to trust your partners, Moellman says. “You must be able to count on them not just for support, but making decisions that can affect you and the hike. You are trusting them with your life in a lot of situations. Keith has always been there.” 

Koster and Moellman have endured tough times on the trail, but their friendship, familiarity and years of experience help pull them through. 

When hiking alone, Koster finds motivation by remembering his comrades.

“Some of the hikes are long, 16 to 18 miles in length,” he says. “You’re going through elevation and changes in your body. I’m not a young chicken anymore, so my body tends to ache and hurt. Lately I’ve been thinking about veterans. Afghan vets in the summertime when it was 90 degrees, brutally hot, trudging through. I’m carrying the flag for them, so I should be able to do it. Same as this time of year, when it gets cold and miserable and visibility is almost nothing. I think of our veterans who are doing the same thing.”

Koster hopes his achievement will inspire others, especially young veterans who may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or other difficulties. Hiking, he hopes, will bring them peace.

“Even if just one veteran who may be thinking of going down a different road sees my story and says, ‘Maybe I can do that,’ it would be worth it,” he says. “I don’t even have to know that person. If I can change that one person who has cancer or that veteran who’s going down a different route than maybe they should be going down, that would be important to me.”   

Henry Howard is deputy director of media and communications for The American Legion.