Boomin’ Up North Magazine
Mt. Everest high! Lori Schneider of Bayfield, Wis. climbs to the top of the world.
Premier Edition Fall’09
By Karen Hollis
Front Cover
 

BAYFIELD– Lori Schneider had already scaled several mountains when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis nearly 10 years ago.  When she heard those two letters, her memory shot back to the discouraging message of a long-ago television campaign: “MS – crippler of young adults.”  “I thought, ‘My gosh, my physical life is over,’” she recalled during a recent interview at her rural Bayfield residence. “And it scared me to death.”  But Schneider has since learned a simple but empowering lesson: that ordinary people – herself included – can do quite extraordinary things. Only a decade after hearing those two little letters, she reached her goal of climbing the world’s “Seven Summits” with her recent conquest of Mt. Everest, and in fact became the first person in the world with MS to do so.

In climbing the highest peaks on the seven continents of Africa, Europe, South America, North America, Australia, Antarctica, and Asia, Schneider has managed to maintain a level of physical activity that far surpasses that of the vast majority of adults who do not contend with the disease she has.  Her physical life, by no means, is over as she feared those 10 action-packed years ago.  Part of this is due to the nature of Schneider’s experience with MS, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the body’s central nervous system.  She has the relapsing-remitting form of the disease, which means she may have long periods of time without experiencing any symptoms.  The symptoms of the disease vary from person to person, but hers – which have so far included fatigue, loss of vision and numbness that coursed through half her body ­– arise at infrequent intervals.  Part of having the relapsing-remitting form of the disease, she said, means that after she is treated for an exacerbation, her symptoms will either partially or completely fade away until the next flare-up occurs.  Schneider said that to this point, she has been relatively fortunate, as she has been treated for and recovered from just three major exacerbations since her diagnosis.
 


Lori Schneider with Mt. Everest summit behind her.
 

But another reason Schneider was ultimately able to climb Mt. Everest – the highest point on Earth at 29,035 feet – was that she never gave up on her goal, she said.  Told by a doctor when she was diagnosed that she would likely soon be in a wheelchair, Schneider instead had mountaintops in mind.  That meant not interrupting her training regimen, even when she was hospitalized.  She can remember one physician’s quizzical reaction when he found her doing sit-ups at five in the morning in her hospital bed.  “I said (to the doctor), ‘I’m training to climb a mountain in South America’ – and that was a peak that was nearly 23,000 feet – so it was a formidable challenge,” she said.  “And he said, ‘Seriously?’  “I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to climb a mountain.’ And he said, ‘Um, OK.’  “But he really felt that I was probably not going to have much success, because of my health issues.”  Schneider proved him wrong, climbing the 22,841 feet to the top of Mt. Aconcagua – the second of her Seven Summits – in three weeks.
Original inspiration

Schneider was originally inspired to climb by a dream her father had to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, which led to a successful summit of the mountain on her father’s 61st birthday in 1993.  After climbing Aconcagua in 2000, Schneider participated in a climb of Mera Peak in Nepal to raise money for a charity, and then she was off to Russia to climb Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus.  With her health still strong, she trained on volcanoes in Mexico to get in shape for an attempt of Denali – North America’s highest peak – the following spring.  With an investment of $10,000 in extreme weather gear, along with a relentless determination, Schneider reached the summit of Denali, in Alaska, in May 2006.

Persistent back pain, however, led to surgery in 2006, and following recovery time and training to rebuild her strength, Schneider had ice axe back in hand and was off to Australia’s Mt. Kosciusko in July 2008 and Mt. Vinson in Antarctica only four months later.  She said she “saved the best for last,” setting foot on the top of the world, Mt. Everest, on May 23, 2009.  But the process wasn’t easy. She faced a number of challenges beyond the obvious physical ones that come with reaching the highest mountaintops on the world’s seven continents.
 

Did some running away

When she was first diagnosed, Schneider kept her disease a secret from many people, and it wasn’t until she fully grieved and accepted the news, she said, that she opened up to others.  She also “ran away from her life,” she said, and took an early retirement from her job as special education teacher in a Colorado public school system.  A 1978 graduate of Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, with degrees in special and elementary education, Schneider had spent 20 years teaching in Iowa and Colorado.  She sold her home and returned to Wisconsin so she could be closer to family.  There she faced the financial challenges that come with battling a chronic disease in the absence of employer-sponsored health care.  For the last nine years, she has been fortunate to find coverage through a Wisconsin program for “high-risk” adults, but even that coverage comes at a high cost.  “It takes a lot of the savings I have left from my teaching salary,” she said.  She has been working to parlay some of her frequent motivational speaking engagements, as well as her new adventure-trip business – Empowerment through Adventure – into a new and sustainable source of income.
 


Global Statement – At the request of the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation,
Lori Schneider raised the flag for World MS Day when she reached the summit of Mt. Everest.


Extreme Camping
Lori Schneider shows off the oxygen tanks that helped her breathe in her tent on Mt. Everest.


Back at ground level- After returning from her successful climb up Mt. Everest, Lori Schneider relaxes at home with her canine pals.

A reinvention of herself

“I’m trying to reinvent myself at 53 years old,” she said. “I have some (income) coming in at this point, but a lot of that is eaten up by insurance.”  Beyond these concerns, Schneider has faced difficult decisions about what course of MS treatment would be best for her.  Many people with the disease take daily drug injections to manage symptoms and prevent damage to their bodies.  After careful consideration with her neurologist, Schneider decided against taking the daily injections, which could be difficult to sustain due to her frequent travel to remote countries and her enthusiasm for extreme sports.  Instead, they opted to treat her flare-ups when they occur, she said.  “We thought long and hard about it,” she said.  “This was not something I took lightly, but we decided with careful monitoring, we felt at this point my MS responded well to short bursts of treatment that would reduce inflammation.”  As part of this treatment course, Schneider uses certain alternative therapies, and she undergoes annual tests to make sure the disease isn’t damaging her body in ways she can’t see or feel.  If these ever reveal the disease is progressing, she said she’ll immediately switch course to the injectable drugs.

Decades ago, people with MS were advised against engaging in too much physical activity, Schneider said. But for her, exercise – and specifically surmounting extreme physical challenges, like climbing Mt. Everest – help her stay in a positive frame of mind.
That’s one reason why she started her new business, Empowerment through Adventure, through which she is organizing a 2011 climb up Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro for a half-dozen other people with MS.  It’s through adventures like this one, as well as speaking to MS-related groups across the world, that Schneider hopes to spread the word that one can lead an active life with MS.  She wants people to be able to call upon her story when they hear the words “Multiple Sclerosis,” not the frightful messages of earlier eras.  “My goal is to just give MS a face that isn’t so discouraging, to let people realize that the diagnosis of MS doesn’t always mean the end of a physical life, and to give a little bit of hope to people who have been newly diagnosed,” she said.  On her site, www.empowermentthroughadventure.com, Schneider notes that in her role as a motivational speaker, she tries to weave together her two stories – her story of climbing the world’s highest mountains, and her story of climbing the mountains in her life. “Both take courage and will,” she said.  And, she notes, “Life is too short not to go for the gusto when you are given the opportunity.”  Said Schneider, “I can’t always count on always being able to climb mountains, but I’ve realized the diagnosis doesn’t mean give up everything in your life.”