On Top of the World
The hardest part of Lori Schneider's climb to the top of the world came at the perilous end.
She scrambled up and over car size boulders on the ice ridge leading to the 29,035 foot summit of Mount Everest.
Lori dared not think of the deadly drop-offs on both sides of her.
"It was so dangerous." she says. "I had to put my mind in a different place to keep going. I could not let in fear."
Lori did what she has done for 16 years. The 52-year-old put one heavy foot in front of the other. She clambered up and up, ever closer to heaven. Then she asked her Sherpa guide why people were stopped ahead.
"That's the top," he said.
On May 23, after pushing the physical limits of her body Lori became the first woman with multiple sclerosis to summit Mount Everest. She had only a short time to unfurl a banner proclaiming World Multiple Sclerosis Day before beginning the treacherous trip down.
"I did not have time to savior the moment," Lori says, visiting her family last week. "The mountain started to cloud over, and the winds got worse at 60 mph. We only spent ten minutes up there."
The Bayfield woman was disappointed, but she
understands conditions quickly turn deadly on the Himalayan peak
between Nepal and Tibet. Even in summer, the mountain is no place
for humans. The huge monolith offers a constant threat of
avalanches, crevasse falls, murderous winds and below freezing
temperatures. Before leaving the summit, Lori made a quick call via
satellite phone to her father, Neal, of Janesville. Then she braced
her 5-foot-5, 120-pound body against the wind and started down.
The next day she realized what she had done.
"I was lying in my tent and I thought to myself: 'Oh my Gosh. I climbed Mount Everest'," Lori recalls. "I couldn't believe I had really done it. It all seemed so surreal."
She reached the summit 10 years after the doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. Lori woke one morning in 1999 with numbness in half her body, and physicians suggested that she prepare for life in a wheelchair. But Lori slowly fought her way back from the unpredictable and often disabling disease, which so far has shown few permanent symptoms.
But the illness got Lori thinking about what she wanted to do with her life and her legs. She quit her 20 year teaching career and left a longtime marriage. Motivating her was an urgency to get on with her dreams, while she was still in control of her body. In 1993, Lori and her father had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and she fell in love with climbing. She set a personal and ambitious goal of scaling the highest peak on each of the world's seven continents. One at a time, she trekked to the tops of the world: Mount Aconcagua in Argentina; Mount Elbrus in Russia; Denali in Alaska; Mount Kosciuszko in Australia; Vinson Massif in Antarctica; and, finally, the Mother of all Mountains.
Lori was in Nepal for two months trekking, resting and getting used to the high altitudes. At night in her cold tent, she often read the signatures and the good wishes written on a 5-foot scarf from her family and friends. Then, she wrapped herself in its love.
Lori and her team with Alpine Ascents International hiked to base camp at 17,600 feet. Then they scaled the Khumbu Icefall up to 19,500 feet, where avalanches with deadly regularity. But even where climbers walk over ladders crisscrossing bottomless crevasses, Lori felt calm.
"I wasn't nervous about the climb," she says. "I wasn't anxious. I felt at peace. I knew I would be alright."
Eventually the climbers rested at Camp 1 in the Valley of Silence and pushed on to Camp 2 at 21,300 feet. Then they scaled the Lhotse Face and ascended to Camp 3 at 23,500 feet. Later, they came back down to rest and acclimate some more to the extreme altitude. Eventually, they made the climb again, all the way to Camp 4, at 26,300 feet. Then when the native guides felt the time was right, the climbers left in the darkness morning to make the 10-hour trip to the summit. At daybreak, Lori witnessed the most brilliant pinks, wash over the roof of the world before clouds set in.
Now, Lori has different mountains to climb back home in Bayfield, where the small Wisconsin community is planning a parade and welcome-home potluck today. Lori plans to help others with multiple sclerosis realize their dreams are not over.
"I want to help them feel more in charge of their own destinies through kayaking, dog sledding and sailing trips," she explains.
Eventually, she also hopes to lead a group of women with multiple sclerosis on annual climbs of Mount Kilimanjaro. The teacher in her wants to let them know they can live boldly, too. Lori recalls the fear she felt when she was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But after climbing Mount Aconcagua, she came back a different woman.
"I realized I was strong enough to face the peak. I could face those two little letters - MS," Lori says. "I want to help others take back their own personal power."
She will continue giving inspirational talks through her business, "Empowerment Through Adventure," to pay off her $65,000 loan to climb Mount Everest.
"This was my higher education," Lori says. "I invested in myself, and now I want to share what I learned with others."
She is thankful that she came through her final and most dangerous climb without even a blister. More than 200 have died on the mighty mountain, where climbers use oxygen to stay alive at its peak. For five days, Lori wore an oxygen tank at all times. But even before the so-called "death zone," many climbers get altitude sickness. Seven of the 19 in her team never made it to the summit due to injury or illness. One was airlifted out with pulmonary edema. Another suffered badly frostbitten fingers.
Lori is now ready to melt back into her life. She insists she is no athlete, simply someone who keeps going when others stop.
"You don't have to be the best or the strongest to achieve your dreams," she says. "You only have to believe in yourself. After all, if you don't, who will?"