Women’s Adventure’s Michelle Theall interviewed mountaineer Lori Schneider, the first woman with Multiple Sclerosis to climb all seven world summits. Here is the entire transcript of that interview.
What were you like growing up? Who influenced you to be such an avid outdoor adventurer? -I never would have thought as a little girl growing up playing with dolls, that my life would have progressed to where I am now…playing on mountain tops. I was never an athlete as a young girl, and my favorite sport was probably chasing boys. There weren’t many organized sports for girls growing up in the 60′s and 70′s. In high school I tried to embrace my dad’s love of running, and joined him from time to time on his early morning runs. He once told me that someday he would like to go to Africa and climb Kilimanjaro. I told him that someday I would like to go with him. Life went on and I grew up, got married, moved to the mountains, and started what would be a 20 year teaching career in Special Education and Elementary Education. Twenty years after that talk with my Dad back in high school, I decided to take a leave of absence from my teaching career, and set out with my husband, on a two year trip around the world. We met my father in Africa and climbed Kilimanjaro together, summiting on Dad’s 61st birthday. Six years later, Dad and I decided to climb Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America together, and thus the idea to climb the “Seven Summits” or highest peak on each continent was born. What started out as my father’s dream, became a dream I have chased my entire adult life.
In 1999, you were diagnosed with MS, what symptoms were you experiencing at that time that led you to the doctor? I was officially diagnosed with MS in 1999, but I now realize that many of the symptoms I had been experiencing years earlier, were MS related as well. In the 80′s and 90′s, my sporadic leg numbness and general muscle weakness was labeled an “autoimmune disorder”. I overlooked the tingling fingers, toes, and lips I was experiencing on Kilimanjaro, as altitude issues. I now know that these were all signs of my yet to be diagnosed MS. In Jan. of 1999, I swung my legs out of bed, getting ready to start my day on the treadmill. My foot felt like it was asleep, with a ‘pins and needles’ sensation. As I began to move, I realized that the feeling covered the entire right side of my body, as if someone had drawn a line from head to toe, down my torso. It took 4 spinal taps, multiple tests, 2 brain MRI’s, and a couple of months, for the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis to be determined.
How did you react to the diagnosis and what setbacks have you had, if any, during the course of this disease? I went into panic mode, when the doctors uttered those two little letters from an alphabet I had recited so many times…MS. My world came crashing down around me, as I feared the end of a physical life I had come to love. Within two months of the initial numbness, the opposite side of my body had gone numb as well, and doctors told me it was rapidly progressing in my body. I feared the worst, as they told me that I might someday be in a wheelchair. After treatment, the numbness eventually went away, but I ran away from my life in hopes of completing all the things I had ever wanted to do, while I still had good use of my legs. I left my 22 year marriage, quit a 20 year teaching career I loved, sold my house, moved away from my friends and community, and fled from me fears. Over the past ten years, mountain climbing has given me back my strength, both mentally and physically. I have been almost symptom free, with only one serious MS complication since my initial total body numbness. That was in 2006, after a successful summit of North America’s highest peak, Denali. I returned home and ran a marathon three weeks later, when I began to lose vision in one eye. It was as if a dark cloud was covering one eye, while the other was fine. I thought maybe I had burst another blood vessel in my eye, which sometimes happens to me at elevation. I was told that the vision loss was due to my MS. After a 5 day IV Steroid treatment to relieve the optic neuritis, my vision returned.
In the ten years it took you to accomplish the goal of climbing all 7 summits, how did your body change and react to both the aging process and the disease progression? It took me 16 years to complete the Seven Summits, after that first climb in 1993. My body went through many ages and stages during that time. As I aged, it got harder and harder to physically train for each climb. In preparing for Denali in 2006, I trained wearing a backpack filled with 50 pounds of dog food on my back. I would hike up and down the hills of our local ski area, with several other friends to cheer me on. On Denali, you are required to carry about 60 pounds in a backpack, while pulling a sled with another 60 pounds of gear on it. The climb was the most physically demanding of my life, due to the heavy loads. When I returned, I was told that my persistent back pain was due to a pinched nerve on my lower spine. A blister had formed due to a faulty spinal tap by a young medical student 10 years earlier, and had caused a slow leak of spinal fluid. After back surgery to correct the problem, followed by nearly a year of recovery time, I was ready to dream of mountains again. I also called this Alaska climb, ‘Denial on Denali”, because I was going through the final stages of menopause at the time. My brain was having trouble wrapping itself around the idea of aging gracefully. With each climb, I am amazed at what our human bodies can do when pushed to the limits. I now feel stronger inside and out, by challenging myself and climbing beyond my labels and perceived limitations. My multiple sclerosis is stable at this time, but I now feel mentally ready to face the challenges that may be down the road, in my life with multiple sclerosis.
And why did you save Everest for last when it would likely be the most difficult? Why not get it out of the way earlier on? Sometimes being younger doesn’t always mean you are stronger or more skilled. Mountain climbing, like any occupation, requires an impressive resume before you can apply for the best jobs. In attempting Everest, it was first necessary to produce a resume saying that I was ready for the challenge. Once accepted by the climbing company, it was time to prove to myself that I could attempt such a feat. For twenty years I taught special education and elementary education. My goal as a teacher was to help children believe in themselves and not be afraid to try. Now, it was my turn to learn those very lessons. In attempting a goal as lofty as Everest, I gave myself permission to try. I have to believe in myself, in order to live my dreams. Sure, I may not always succeed at what I attempt, but there is no failure in that. The success is in the journey…it is always in the journey.
What do you think and feel emotionally while you are in the middle of these big climbs? Any specific epiphany you can share with us? Life, like mountain climbing, can be broken down into three parts. The first part is luck. Sometimes you just have to have good luck when it comes to dealing with things you can’t control. On Everest we were lucky to have good weather most of the time. I was also lucky that my health remained strong, while many of the others were dealing with stomach ailments, respiratory problems and altitude sickness. Secondly, you must have physical strength to deal with day to day life, as well as life on the mountain. You exercise, you get your body in decent shape, then you do the best that you can with the physical challenges you are given. Lastly, life, like climbing is a mental game. On Everest, I had to tell myself that it was ok to just try. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to get to the summit, but I gave myself permission to try. I also had to put myself in a positive mental state and not let fear in, when faced with circumstances that scared me. One day we witnessed a massive avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall. We saw climbers trapped, and one disappeared, never to be found. It was our turn to pass through that area the next day. I had to convince myself that this was not my time to worry, and that I must move with strong, deliberate motion, in order to keep myself out of harms way. I had to stay positive and focused. Attitude…it’s all about the attitude.
Are you on any of the medications for MS? Why or why not did you choose to use the available drugs? –At this time I do not take any prescription medications or injections for my MS. Twice I have experienced MS exacerbations over the past ten years, and have been given a 5 day intravenous steroid treatment in the hospital. I discussed the options long and hard with my neurologists, and with their approval, I am choosing to use alternative therapies to assist my MS at this point. Although daily injections are recommended for most people with MS, my doctors felt that with close monitoring, I could forgo injections until my system no longer responded to the alternatives. I have used acupuncture and meditation at times, a healthy diet, exercise, and omega oils along with basic nutritional supplements, over the course of my MS. Each case with MS is unique, and what works for one person may not work for others. The key is careful monitoring from a neurologist, because much of MS occurs without notice. I am one of the lucky ones and my disease is stable at this point. Should that change, I will consider a more traditional course of treatment. For now, the alternative treatments better suit my lifestyle of climbing in places where sanitation and refrigeration are difficult.
How is your health today? -Today, I am 53 and healthy! I still try to get a little exercise every day, since my return from Mt. Everest. I continue to hike the hills at our local ski area, and go for long walks with the dogs.
Why was it so important to you to set and achieve the goal of climbing all seven summits?
Climbing was my father’s dream, which I embraced as a way to spend time with him. When he no longer chose to climb, I wanted to complete the goal for both of us. I have always been a determined person, who set a goal and stuck with it. This one took me 16 years, but I needed to see how the story would end. I needed to write that final chapter in my climbing book of life, and I must say, even I was surprised by the ending. What a ride it has been!
What did you do when you reached the top of Everest? -We climbed for nearly 11 hours to reach the summit of the highest peak in the world. What started in the wee hours of the night, turned from darkness to light, clear skies to cloudy, calm winds to blizzard, as we progressed to the summit. As we reached the pinnacle, the view was non-existent and the winds were howling. I wanted to share the moment with my family, so I called my father on a satellite phone which I had borrowed. I could not get a signal from 29,035 ft., but I continued to hit redial. The head Sherpa, Lakpa Rita told us that the weather was deteriorating quickly and we needed to get down NOW! With one last push of the button, I heard my father’s voice on the other end calling “Lori…Lori??” I answered back, yelling over the noise of the wind “Dad…Dad! I made it!!!!” He was so excited for me, but his concern was evident. “Now we have to get you back down.” He knew that the hardest and most dangerous part was still ahead of me, with 6 more hours to descend, with a tired mind and body.
Describe your relationship with your dad. He seems to be a pivotal figure in your life. -I got lucky in the family department of life. I was raised by loving parents who always believed in me, and I have three brothers who I adore. I remember my mom telling me “Go for it girl!” when I would be apprehensive about something. She helped me believe that I could do anything in life. Mom died suddenly in 2002, two days before I was scheduled to climb Mt. Elbrus in Russia. It shook our family deeply, and I cancelled the climb. With my family’s support, I returned to the mountain a month later, and yelled goodbye to my mom from the summit. My dad was the typical hard working father who went to work every day, while mom was in charge of the household. On our Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua climbing trips, Dad and I connect on a level of friendship. Since my mother’s death, we have relied on each other even more, and have formed a bond that will last forever. He is my biggest fan, and is with me in spirit, every step of the way when I climb. I love him dearly and am proud to call Neal Schneider my father.
What’s your personal life like? Kids, dogs, significant other, hobbies -Spending my adult years in Steamboat Springs, Co helped me develop a love of nature and the mountains. I have always enjoyed skiing, hiking, and being outdoors. Since moving back to my native Wisconsin, I have enjoyed the beauty of the lakes and wilderness areas. I love to go for walks with the dogs, kayak, snowshoe and spend time with friends and family.
What scares you? In the words of the great climber Sir Edmund Hillary…”It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” In climbing Everest I learned to overcome my fear of failure. I have taken a leap of faith in my life and learned that if we believe, we can achieve. I am no longer fearful of what might happen with my MS in the future. I have learned that the labels which once scared me, no longer define who I am. You are who you are on the inside, and that is what truly matters.
How are you using these experiences? -In becoming the first person in the world with MS to conquer Mt. Everest and complete the “Seven Summits”, I feel a need to use these life’s lesson to teach others to believe in themselves and live their dreams. I have created a program called EmpowermentThroughAdventure.com where I speak to organizations about living life fully, in spite of the labels we are given. As an inspirational speaker, I hope to give others the courage to follow their hearts, and believe in their own dreams.
What’s next for you?? How do you top Everest? -Physically, there are no more Everest’s in my future. Climbing big mountains is an expensive sport, with Everest topping out at nearly $90,000 when it was all said and done. In climbing the Seven Summits I drained the savings from my teaching career, and took out a large loan to pay for the final summit. I would however, like to pass on the feeling of empowerment to others who have been diagnosed with MS. As part of Empowerment Through Adventure, I am organizing adventure activities for others who want to prove to themselves that life does not end with a diagnosis of MS. Some are adventure trips here in Northern Wisconsin, on sailboats or dog sleds, where people don’t necessarily have to be as mobile. I will also be taking a group of climbers to Africa each year beginning in 2011, to attempt a climb of Kilimanjaro. These climbs are designed to be fully supported with porters and medical personnel, and will use a buddy system, pairing non MS partners, with those who have MS. A scholarship has been set up to help facilitate this program. Donations to ETAdventure can be made by visiting the support page at www.empowermentthroughadventure.com