In the heart of the White Mountains, Janice Armbrust struggled against the elements.
She and her boyfriend, Jeff Ramos, had planned an invigorating long weekend amid the alpine tundra. They invited four friends to join them for a three-day, 33-mile trek along New Hampshire’s Pemi Loop, widely considered one of the steepest and most strenuous hikes in America. Sure, this was mid-October, a time of notoriously unpredictable weather, but these were seasoned adventurers, comfortable with jagged terrain and austere conditions. Besides, the couple felt extra motivated — they had been planning to get a dog and were going to celebrate their accomplishment by naming it “Pemi.”
But 12 hours into the hike, horizontal rain pelted their headlamps, and hurricane-force winds threatened to blow them off a ridge. They knew they would never reach their campsite before nightfall, so they set up shelter where they could. Phones had failed, supplies were drenched. As the cold intensified, Janice felt fear settle in her bones. Six people huddled through the night in the two tents they’d managed to pitch.
Janice and Jeff, overcome by the emotion of it all, said “I love you” for the first time.
In the morning, everyone agreed to forgo the remaining two days on the trail. They packed up their equipment and went home. But Janice and Jeff vowed they would return soon to finish what they had started.
Little did the couple know, an even tougher test loomed on the horizon. Not long after the Pemi Loop mishap, while still in her twenties, Janice was diagnosed with glioblastoma (GBM), an aggressive form of brain cancer.
She would need grit and resolve — traits honed on adventures around the world — more than ever.
“My mantra outdoors has always been: Slow and steady, one step after the next,” she said. “Likewise, in this type of situation, you can’t think of the mountain or the big challenge ahead. You have to focus on the next step and take it a day at a time. Otherwise, you’ll get discouraged and you might forget to appreciate the beautiful views right in front of you.”
Janice grew up in in a small town near Hamburg, Germany. As a pre-teen, she and a friend watched the MTV reality show “Laguna Beach,” and she became enamored with the setting: “I was like, I need to be where these people live.” In high school, she participated in an exchange student program that landed her in Romulus, Michigan — a far cry from Orange County, but a thrill nonetheless. Her dream of living in the U.S. only deepened.
As an adult, Janice began working in Germany for a global consulting company. Every vacation, she visited the U.S. — at one point, she road-tripped from San Francisco to Maine — until she couldn’t wait any longer. She asked her boss for a transfer, and, when a position opened in New York City in 2019, she headed for Manhattan.
That first year, the self-described workaholic clocked 60 hours per week at her job. But she also managed to explore the city, make great friends and get her adrenaline fix. One day, she turned up at a local rock climbing gym.
Jeff, a critical care nurse, also happened to be climbing that day. He noticed Janice instantly.
“She was standing in front of this bouldering wall, looking at the problems, trying to figure them out,” he said. “It wasn’t easy — this was pretty new to her — yet here she was, all by herself. It was so attractive to me, and I’ve learned that this is how Janice approaches everything. She’s so full of drive.”
The pair bonded over their shared love of exploration and the outdoors. When COVID-19 shut the city down two weeks later, they quarantined together, a move that accelerated their relationship. Soon, they were heading to Aspen, Colorado for a multi-day hike among the turquoise lakes and wildflower fields of the majestic Elk Mountain range. Next stop was Hawaii to snorkel with turtles and climb through the tree canopies of Oahu’s Moanalua Valley Trail. All the while, they made plans for their future — including, someday, a move to the West Coast. Jeff, it turns out, had been doing his own California dreaming.
It was during a backpacking trip through Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park that Janice first felt off. At first, she attributed the constant head rushes to the changes in altitude, but when the symptoms didn’t go away, she contacted her doctor, who sent her for an MRI. Within a week, she was in surgery for a brain tumor.
Jeff and Janice share a positive outlook on life. For years, Janice has maintained a daily journal of things she looks forward to, as a way to foster gratitude. Jeff sees laughter as imperative for living well.
The GBM diagnosis rocked their world — and their attitudes — but only for a moment.
“I’m not a crier, and in the beginning I would have these uncontrollable sobbing fits,” Jeff said. “We felt down and out. But then, once you get that out of your system, you realize: We are in this together, and the important things haven’t changed. I still want to explore this world with Janice. I want to suck the marrow out of life alongside her.”
Between doctor appointments, Jeff planned a proposal in Central Park that he “totally bungled.” First, to get her out of the house, he told Janice he was taking her on a picnic — in the snow. Then, after getting down on one knee, he forgot to pop the question: “I don’t know what I said, but it wasn’t ‘Will you marry me?’” A short time later, before 46 loved ones, the couple exchanged vows in a ceremony in the Long Island backyard of a longtime friend.
Since those early days, Janice has experienced a radical shift in her priorities. She refocused her career, now working as a sustainability consultant on projects she finds more fulfilling. And she’s switched to part-time work because she wants to spend as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors with her friends and family.
Janice wants to leave a positive mark on this world. She is volunteering with the national Imerman Angels program, mentoring fellow cancer patients, and for the American Alpine Club to protect climbing landscapes.
“I want to spread optimism and positivity. I want to inspire people to grab life by its horns, live life to its fullest and do good,” Janice said. “That’s my biggest goal now.”
In many ways, Janice is who she’s always been: a woman who values her relationships more than anything. She describes herself as incredibly fortunate — even post diagnosis — largely because of the support system around her.
“My friends and family have supported me, and all of my adventurous decisions, my entire life,” she said. “They have always been a big priority for me, and cancer has only strengthened this.”
With her doctor’s approval, Janice is forging ahead with her bucket list. She has long dreamed to hike the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail from Mexico to Canada, and while it’s no longer possible to do that in one go, she’ll tackle it in sections — one day at a time. Meanwhile, Jeff is researching must-do climbing destinations: Rocklands in South Africa, Magic Wood in Switzerland, Fontainebleau in France.
“Life is short,” Jeff said. “Mine, hers, everyone’s. So we are approaching life with a little more vigor now.
“My advice to anyone? Do what Janice is doing. Experience as much as you can. I can visualize her on the mountain so clearly, and she’s the same way in life: She trudges forward, she doesn’t take breaks, she just goes for it. I’m in awe of her.”
Jeff and Janice did make their move to California, earlier than planned. Before leaving the East Coast, they returned to the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire. Things were different this time. Janice had lost her hair. Her packs of gear now included medications and treatments. Completing the trail seemed to somehow hold extra meaning. But they were still the same adventurous couple — in love with each other and the outdoors, supported by great friends and hungry for all the wonder the world has to offer.
“If the hike had been easy the first time around, I’m not sure I would have appreciated the experience as much,” Janice said. “The struggle helps you recognize the beauty.”
How far did they make it?
Today, in the couple’s sunny Los Angeles apartment, is a cuddly golden shepherd, rescued from a shelter. Her name, naturally, is Pemi.
The health status of patients featured reflects their condition at the time the story was written and photographs were taken and may have changed over time.