On Top of the World
Published: In the Washburn County Journal
Thursday, January 8, 2009

Barbara Brown
 
Section: Front Page

 

“Money is not the currency we use to pay for living our dreams....determination is.” 
— Lori Schneider, mountain climber
 

TOWN OF BAYFIELD — Fiercely determined, yet humble, relentless, but realistic, a dreamer, a fighter, a conqueror, an inspiration. These are insights into the soul of Lori Schneider, a truly beautiful and remarkable woman.

Schneider is a 52-year-old retired teacher who likes to climb mountains — big mountains — the highest mountains in the world, in fact, referred to as the “Seven Summits,” one on each continent: Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,340 ft. Africa, Mt. Aconcagua, 22,841 ft., South America, Mount Elbrus, 18,540 ft., Europe, Denali/Mt. McKinley, 20, 320 ft.,  Mt. Kosciuszko, 7,380 ft., Australia, and most recently Vinson Massif, 16,067 ft. in Antarctica.

Schneider said she’s “saving the best for last,” Mt. Everest at 29,035 ft. Only 25 women, 10 of them from the United States, have ever conquered the seven summits. Schneider intends to be number 26.
 

 

Mountain climber Lori Schneider raises her arms in victory as she reaches the Mt. Vinson Massif summit in Antarctica.

 

Fulfilling her dream of climbing the highest summits in the world, in and of itself, is an incredible aspiration; an aspiration that becomes even more significant when you find out Schneider was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) when she was 43. She awoke one morning, the entire right side of her body numb, “....as if someone had drawn a dividing line down the middle of my  body,” she said.

MS is a chronic, often disabling autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves). Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms are unpredictable and vary from one person to the other.

“Hearing the sound of those two letters, M/S was terrifying,” Schneider said. How could this be happening? Her identity suddenly shifted from an energetic, highly capable, healthy, athletic young woman to someone with a two-letter, debilitating disease.

She had big dreams of doing more mountain climbing and traveling around the world. Prior to the diagnosis, Schneider and her father, who she calls her “inspiration, friend, and hero,” climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro and planned to do other summits together.

Now, like the flip of a coin, she was facing the greatest challenge of her life. Schneider realized she was at battle with a formidable foe. Her only recourse was to overcome the identification, the labeling, of being a MS victim. She depended upon her inherent determination to take back as much control of her body that was possible.

“I had to get over the fear of having MS. I had to get to the point of realizing it (the disease) does not define who I am. In realizing that our limitations and barriers are self imposed, we are able to move beyond them and they no longer define who we are,” she said.

Her dream of mountain climbing intensified after the diagnosis in 1999. Her life changed course dramatically. “I quit my 20-year teaching career in special education and elementary education, left a 22-year marriage and felt the panic of needing to complete my chosen task while I was still in control of my physical body.

“From that point, I saved money when I could, and in 2000 used what I had saved to participate in a climb of Mera Peak, in Nepal, to raise money for a charity. Next I was off to Russia to climb Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus. With my health still strong, I trained on Mexico volcanoes for an attempt of Denali the following spring. With an investment of $10,000 in extreme weather gear, along with a determination that would not stop, I reached the summit of Denali in May of 2006.

“Upon returning from Denali, I was told that my persistent back pain was caused by a cyst on a nerve in my spine, which was being pinched between two disks. The cyst developed from a slow leak of spinal fluid, due to a faulty spinal tap by a young medical student when I was first diagnosed in 1999. After back surgery in 2006, and recovery time followed by training to rebuild my strength, I am ready to move forward again.

“With ice axe in hand and the desire to complete my dream of setting foot on each continent and climbing the ‘Seven Summits,’ I climbed Australia’s Mt. Kosciuszko in July of 2008, and Mt. Vinson in Antarctica in November 2008. I am saving the best for last, Mt. Everest in May 2009.”
 

Schneider’s most recent climb in Antarctica was grueling, she said, but in retrospect, the ideal training and precursor for the ultimate climb at Mt. Everest, “a mountain of many moods,” she said.

Schneider keeps a journal to record her experiences of climbing the “Seven Summits.”

Following are a few excerpts from her approach to the Mt. Vinson summit in Antarctica. 

The Saddest Thanksgiving Ever

“We arrived at High Camp at 1:30 a.m., after six and a half long hours back up the fixed lines. We put up our tent in a frantic attempt to provide shelter, as the mercury plummeted to minus 35, plus the wind chill.

“Exhausted and frozen we skipped food and tried to sleep for a few hours. We awoke to howling winds. Our 10 a.m. summit attempt would have to be pushed back a few hours. We stayed in the tent as the winds continued to build. By noon, the guide felt we were in a threatening environment and needed to get down fast, before the 45 mph gusts got worse. As he informed me, we were now in a dangerous life and death mode.
 


A dramatic beam of light shines on the mountain climbers at the summit of Mt. Vinson Massif.

“We made a plan how we would quickly proceed, once we stepped outside the tent — backs to the wind and protect the fingers at all cost. We packed our gear inside our shelter, then headed out into the relentless wind and pulled down the tent. I was crushed by the realization of not getting a shot at the summit. Thoughts of disappointment rattled my brain, as we scurried down the fixed lines in the bitter cold.

“My goggles soon became frozen and my nose was beginning to get icy, even under my facemask. The descent to Low Camp seemed to go on for hours.

“When we returned to camp the guide said we would be going down to Base Camp in the morning. A black veil of disappointment filled my head as I tried to grasp what was happening. The tiny, minute window to the summit had been closed and I would be going home without ever having a shot at the top. I called Dad via satellite phone to let him know I was safe, but my disappointment was immeasurable. He listened while I cried and felt my pain as strongly as I did. Several hours later my guide talked with a leader from another team. The two of us would join their group tomorrow and stick it out a few days longer, possibly having a shot at the summit after all. Looks like I’ll be climbing that 4,000 ft. headwall for a third time.”

First Summit Attempt

“It’s a go! We packed our smaller day packs with glasses, goggles, gloves, down mittens, and jackets. Snacks and water bottles ready, we headed for the summit about noon. We did a long, slow death march toward our goal we had all come for. At minus 35 and windy, our rest stops were either non-existent or short. 6 p.m came and Vinson was within our grasp. We were only 200 vertical feet from the summit when the call was made by all three group leaders to turn back. That last summit ridge would take another two hours and the minus 35 temperatures, plus the wind chill factor at 45 mph, were creating a dangerous mix. The route back was icy and the danger factor high. We turned around and hustled back to High Camp, after a 10-hour push.”

Second Summit Attempt

“We started out after only a few hours sleep, back up the route we retreated from yesterday. The weather was in our favor and soon we were on the summit ridge. It was time to clip into the ‘running pro.” The ropes we hooked into for protection to keep us from sliding down several thousand feet on either side, should we fall.

“The lead guide told us we were now changing from hikers to mountain climbers. Let the fun begin!

“After an hour or two of scrambling over rocks and ice while wearing our crampons, we reached the summit!! I am overwhelmed and exhilarated all at once. I look toward heaven and yell hi to my mom, then kneel down and kiss the frozen ground. I am carrying the pictures and cards from loved ones with me. The weather is perfect at minus 25 and calm skies. It feels almost balmy in the sunshine. We wanted to savor every last moment so we were the last to exit our slice of polar heaven. After 12 and half hours we return to High Camp, completely exhausted but filled with joy.”

It is this excruciating and exhilarating combination of near defeat and triumph of climbing the most difficult mountains in the world that empowers Schneider. She is the conqueror, not the victim as she climbs to the top of the world and feels the intensity of the earth’s ground force beneath her.

Her seventh summit attempt begins this spring. She sets off for Mt. Everest in Nepal on March 29. She’ll be in Base Camp, (17,600 ft.) for one month to acclimatize. The hike to Base Camp takes 10 days. 

The way to the summit is done in increments. “You carry high and sleep low,” she said. The climbers carry heavy backpacks and pull sleds loaded with their gear up the mountain to set up the next camp. Then they retreat to the previous lower level to sleep and continue to acclimatize. 

At 23,000 feet, Schneider and the other climbers will be using oxygen, allowing them to proceed to even higher elevations. At 25,000 feet they will enter the “Death Zone,” where Schneider said is a point where your body is more in a shut-down death mode than in a living mode.

Time is of the essence when climbing Mt. Everest, she added. “There is only a short window for summit attempts to Mt. Everest. It’s from mid to late May,” Schneider said. Accumulatively, the Mt. Everest trip is about a two-month sojourn; 10 days to reach Base Camp, 30 days acclimatizing at Base Camp elevation and the rest the time spent ascending the summit.

As Schneider nears the time of departing for Nepal and completing the “Seven Summits,” she grows stronger in her commitment to achieve her goal and yet concedes her dream-come-true depends on the mood of the mountain.

She has borrowed $65,000 to complete this trip, having used the last of her savings to finance the other six summit trips. There is nothing that can deter her from attempting to finish what she has started out to do.

“I hope to stand on the top of Mt. Everest, but that mountain has its own set of rules. I plan on giving 100 percent of me. In that regard, I will reach my personal summit.”

By reaching her goal of climbing the “Seven Summits” Schneider hopes to inspire others who are suffering from physical limitations and illnesses to reach their own summits and move beyond their labels and live their dreams. 

Along with pictures and cards from loved ones and a lock of her mother’s hair, Schneider plans to bring a flag to the Mt. Everest summit, the highest mountain on the surface of the earth.

Any companies interested in becoming a sponsor of Schneider’s journey will have their company’s banner or logo imprinted on the flag. For details go to lori@EmpowermentThroughAdventure.com or lori@ETAdventure.com

Schneider has created a new solo venture, Empowerment Through Adventure, dedicated to showing others how to discover their inner strengths through high adventure. She also plans to bring six people diagnosed with MS each year to climb Kilimanjaro.