Eric Montgomery was 20 miles into a 2,650-mile hike and the blisters on his feet already had begun to swell. That was Day 1; by the end of the week, he would be experiencing new — and sharper — foot pain.
Montgomery was alone in the wilderness of California and faced four months of solitude ahead. Even once his foot pain subsided, he would struggle with a lack of mental stimulation and the threat of lasting injury. In moments of doubt, Montgomery remembered why he was hiking.
Montgomery, who grew up in Lisle, dedicated his spring and summer before medical school to the Pacific Crest Trail and a cause dear to him, pediatric cancer. He created a campaign called Hike 4 Pennies to raise money for Project Open DIPG.
The Pacific Crest Trail stretches along the West Coast from the Mexico border to Canada. Montgomery trekked at least 20 miles a day through desert and forest, from the heat of Southern California to cold, snowy mountain tops. He started in March and finished in July.
Hiking the full PCT — the trail detailed in the best-selling book and movie “Wild” — had been a personal goal of Montgomery’s as an undergrad at Pomona College in California. Raising money for pediatric brain cancer gave him another reason to do it.
“It seemed like a great idea to join two of my passions,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t realize the role of having an external (mission) would play. Obviously there’s some really long days where you’re out there by yourself … and being able to draw back on the greater importance and relevance to the hike provided a lot of motivation.”
Project Open DIPG joins two consortia and unites more than 30 medical institutions to research and find a cure for diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas, a childhood brain cancer that defies treatment. Less than 1 percent of children with DIPG survive for five years after diagnosis, according to the Defeat DIPG Foundation.
Montgomery hoped to raise at least 4 pennies for each of his 4.6 million steps, for a total of $185,000. The campaign has raised $127,000 so far, and donations can be made through fourpennies.org.
Hike 4 Pennies worked with Swifty Foundation, Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, Dragon Master Foundation and Kortney Rose Foundation to raise the funds.
Montgomery witnessed the hardships of childhood cancer firsthand through Michael Gustafson, his friend Ian’s younger brother. Gustafson passed away from the aggressive brain cancer medulloblastoma at 15.
At the end of his life, Gustafson founded Swifty to help find a cure. The foundation raises funds and awareness for pediatric cancer research and supports initiatives to increase post-mortem tissue donations, a necessary component for research.
Kira Couch, a Swifty junior board member, believes Montgomery’s trek is the most intense feat done to raise money with the foundation.
“I personally can’t imagine giving up that much of my time to support something so much bigger than myself,” Couch said. “I really commend Eric for the huge sacrifice he made. … For Eric to do something like this and to recognize (the cause) in such a selfless way, it’s almost like Michael is still here with us.”
Montgomery is pursuing a career in the medical field to continue fighting cancer. He recently started his first year at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Although he left for the four-month hike alone, the community formed through his fundraiser supported and followed his journey. Along the trail, Montgomery received questions from followers, and he answered them via videos posted to the campaign’s website. Many questions were asked by elementary school classes.
“Eric was really thinking big picture on this, so not only trying to raise money but also spreading that awareness and bringing in the next generation,” Couch said. “He was allowing young kids to be a part of his journey even though they weren’t necessarily the donors.”
Montgomery took a break from his hike to connect with a woman from California whose son passed away from DIPG. She introduced him to a broader DIPG community.
“Every person I interacted with from the community left a deep impression on me,” Montgomery said. “It was a personal goal to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but doing it every single day, by the end it felt a little bit selfish. … It calmed my soul knowing it was benefiting other people.”
After completing the hike, Montgomery visited the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. There, he observed cancer research and saw the direct impact of the money he raised.
“There were a lot of long days on the trail where you get stuck in your own head,” Montgomery said, “and that moment seeing the work they were doing, that was overwhelming to know this exactly is what it goes toward. It made a lot of long days and tireless hours of thinking wash away and help me know that it was worth it.”