In 1914 Ernest Shackleton posted a notice “Looking for willing and able bodied men to go on a perilous journey from which they may never return” Over a 1000 applied.
In 2002 I answered a similar notice. I was one of a handful of ‘applicants’ and so began my amazing journey to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. I wasn’t a climber. I wasn’t an adventurer. I had never been higher than a few gentle mountains that make up part of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I went with my father, I think I was ten.
But the call to attempt to go on a perilous journey of which I knew nothing but wanted to learn was too great and so with no experience in 2002 I went to Alaska to climb Denali. I did return but I was humbled. And thus began my new life…..
My journey was further complicated by the fact that unlike Shackleton’s able-bodied men, in 1998 I had been diagnosed with MS but that above all else was my very personal reason for attempting this mission. I wanted to see if I could climb with and for MS.
Mountaineering is unlike any other sport. It is a very solitary sport and a team effort both at once. The challenge is met by bringing together a clear, responsible decision as to what is the smart thing to do. The ego must be totally eliminated and the glory or self-adulation to reach the summit must be weighed by the total cost of what it takes to get there. As a friend so eloquently put it, “This is not a missed shot in a tennis game, there are no do overs. The ramifications of a single decision are enormous and the responsibility lies totally on and within the individual climber.” A poor decision not only affects the individual climber but also puts great risk on the people who must now give their own lives in order to save that person. A summit will only be recalled or glorified for a finite period of time. A poor decision on the way to that summit will carry a lifetime of regrets or take that life altogether.
It is all about individual choice. Reaching one’s personal boundary and recognizing that we have a responsibility to ourselves, those we care about, the people we are climbing with and to our personal mission. The hardest choice I have had to face in the 12 years I have been living with MS was to turn back from a summit attempt on Everest… twice. I have had to recognize that on Everest I reached my boundary- sustained life above 17,000 feet, where the air is painfully thin and took my body to a place where it couldn’t function with Multiple Sclerosis. My MS could not tolerate the lack of oxygen to the brain and the enormous daily temperature fluctuations on the mountain. Everyday while others on my team grew stronger I was getting weaker. I noticed new symptoms I had not had before as well as a severe increase of those I have lived with for years.
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s perilous adventure to Antarctica could have ended very differently then it did. Although the expedition failed because he did not reach the south pole, Shackleton triumphed over enormous odds to bring all 28 men safely home.
My mission has been to educate, motivate and encourage those facing MS that they too have the ability to take an amazing journey with their disease. They have the personal responsibility to get on a medication to make themselves the best they can possibly be to face the challenges of the mountain ahead. Just like an individual climber facing insurmountable odds, discomfort, fear, trepidations and perseverance, we with MS face this mountain every day. But only within ourselves do we hold the individual decision to push back, reach and recognize our limitations, challenge our hearts, minds and spirit and live a fulfilling life with and for MS. It is not an easy mission but I personally know it is fate that brought us here. Our spirit that will guide us through. And the rewards are like no other.
Like Sir Ernest Shackleton my mission ended very differently than I had expected. But I did not fail. I have attempted Everest twice. I took MS to the highest it would allow me to go. As the medical staff at base camp have documented, the bar has been set. I am a mountaineer, an adventurer, an explorer. And I’m not done yet.
Safely back at Everest Base Camp