Lori Schneider has climbed the tallest mountain on all seven continents, a feat she accomplished while being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
We talked about finding strength in the face of skeptics, the meditation of climbing, and her choice to be happy.
“I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It took about three months to become correctly diagnosed after fearing I had brain cancer, Lyme’s disease, Lupus. My initial tests were misread. And when I found out I had MS, one of the doctors thought that possibly I’d be in a wheelchair within a year. That started a spiral of fear in my life.
I had been married to a really nice man. He’s still an, a nice man, but I couldn’t stay. I felt I had to do everything I ever wanted to do within the next year, while I still had use of my legs. It was a terrible urgency. And at that time, I thought I would be less of a person if I were in a wheelchair. I don’t think that anymore, having met so many incredibly strong people. But I saw it in myself as something that would make me weak.
So yes, I left a 22 year marriage. I left my community and my friends, sold the house and moved away. And I started climbing.
I thought my life was over. And I was afraid to tell anyone because I was absolutely embarrassed and ashamed because I thought it would define me as a person. At the time it defined all of the fears that I’d had about not being perfect, not being good enough. And so when I finally told my parents, six months later, I said, “I want to climb Mount Aconcagua. I have to prove to myself that I still have some control over my destiny.” And I summited that peak on the millennium. New Year’s Eve 1999-2000, almost exactly one year after the day that I woke up with a body that was half numb.
When that official diagnosis came, I was just afraid. I ran away from my whole life. But it was the running away that helped me find myself finally. And be okay with who I was and what I was, and find peace within my mind, my attitude, my overall feeling of what it means to just find yourself. And, and it really took running away to do that. Eventually, yes, it defined me. But it defined me as somebody who wasn’t afraid to try.
I summited. And I remember coming back down from the mountain and sitting on a rock. And I thought, you know, girl, if you are strong enough to climb a nearly 21,000 foot peak, you’re strong enough to accept the fact that you have MS. And stop being embarrassed and stop being ashamed. And I got back to Steamboat Springs and the newspaper said, we want to interview you about your climb. I walked in and said, “Okay, first, I just have to tell you, I have MS. And I’ve just been diagnosed a year ago.” And the lady looked at me and she said, “Whoa, that’s a whole other interview.”
Three days later, it came out in the newspaper and everyone knew at once. It was like ripping the band-aid off and it was the best thing that ever happened because I had to face it. I had to just move forward. I found so much strength in accepting that my body was going to do its thing, but I could control a lot of the outcome by first of all, changing my attitude and my mind, and then making my body stronger in ways that I could.
Mentally I got in a much better place after that first climb. And then I thought, well, I’m going to hurry up and try to do some more of the Seven Summits while I’m still strong. One led to another and another and another, and half a dozen years later, I climbed Denali, which probably is the most strenuous of all of them because I wore a 60 pound pack and I dragged a 60 pound sled behind me. There’s no Sherpas or porters. You’re your own pack mule.
Denali [was a] very difficult climb because I was the only woman in a team of 10 men who were younger and stronger. At that point I was 50. You show up on the first day and they’ve all read everybody’s bios, but they look at you and go, “Okay, she’s a woman and she’s old. Is it true you have MS?” And I could just see their eyes rolling, like, “oh God.” And when we had to introduce ourselves, I remember saying, “You know, I’ve trained for a year. I’ve trained very hard and I will absolutely do my best. I won’t ask you to do anything for me, but anything I can do to help you, I’m happy to do.”
I put a smile on my face and I try my darndest and just get out there and do what everybody else does. That climb is so terribly difficult because of the weight that you’re carrying. And even though the men had generally larger frames and probably much stronger, I knew that my only advantage would be my mental strength. I don’t take no for an answer very well. And if I make up my mind and I say, “I’m going to do something,” I try.
I let go of the outcome. I am not a person who says, “I’m going to summit Everest. I’m going to summit Denali.” I say, “I’m going to try.” And I remember on the Denali climb, every day it was just so difficult, and such a strain to pull that sled along. But I thought, I can’t believe I get to be here. And I get to do this. My body is responding. I went with an absolutely wonderful climbing company that I knew they would tell me if I wasn’t cutting it. That’s what climbing companies do. You pay them for their guidance and their direction. And if they think you’re a danger to yourself or anyone else, your day is done when they tell you your day is done. Getting up is optional, but getting down is mandatory.
After the first day of all of us carrying the same amount of weight, me at 120 pounds and them at 200 pounds. I was carrying my combined body weight between the sled dragging and the pack. And after one day it was like, “She’s in.”
After that climb, I thought, okay, just keep going. I climbed in Antarctica and ended up on Everest summiting almost 10 years after the time that I was officially diagnosed with MS.
Life goes on and you find your strength and courage again. All in all, it was a 16 year journey from the first climb to the last of the Seven Summits. That set a course for my life where I felt like every step I took had new meaning and new purpose. And my purpose was to do these climbs for people that were not as fortunate as I was. People in the MS world, there are so many of them that they can’t walk across a room or up and down a flight of stairs. And I still had my mobility and, and I thought these are the heroes. These are the strong ones. And I need to give a voice to those people who don’t have a voice to tell people how hard this disease can be.
If I failed it’s not because I didn’t try. There were days when the biggest, strongest in the group would have a hard time. And I’d say, “Give me your tent poles,” and you take two or three pounds from somebody and it makes all the difference. And somebody would say the same to you on a day that they’d see you having difficulty. We just have to prove to ourselves that we’re good enough to try. We’re good enough to grace ourselves with a chance.
Let go of the outcome. Who cares. Standing on top of a pile of dirt or a pile of ice, it’s sounds romantic and wonderful. But it’s just earth. But where you become fulfilled and stronger and feeling at peace is the fact that you did it. You gave it your best shot. And that’s all I ever want out of things I try in life.
After I finished Everest, people would say, “What are you going to do next? K2?” And I said, “No, that’s too hard.” That’s really a very technical climb. I had finished my goal, but what I wanted to do is help other people feel empowered. My goal was to give people a chance to find their own power. I don’t need to do any more climbs. My goal is to just help other people find their own source of power. And if they can find it by a little encouragement from somebody who’s been there and realize that many things you thought were impossible are really possibilities just in a way you never perceived before. [I want to] give them a chance to try it.
Climbing Everest, it’s a two month climb. I trained four hours a day, every single day for one year. I trained my body. I trained my mind. I beefed up my nutrition. Amazing. No sugar, no caffeine, no alcohol . I got the right amount of protein every day. I was really just set on giving myself the best shot. So you climb for two months, some at night. You start at ten at night, you climb for about ten and a half hours. That’s how long it took me from high camp. I climbed through the night and got to the summit at 8:39 in the morning. A storm had been in the valley. And as we came through the darkness into the light, I could see down below all of these clouds. And the closer we got to the summit, the clouds were rising and, and we realized a storm was coming up.
By the time I got to the summit, it was a whiteout. I couldn’t see a damn thing, 16 years of planning and dreaming about what would it be like to stand on top of the world? I couldn’t see anything. And the head guide was saying, “We’ve got to get down the storm’s coming.” And so we’re up there about 10 minutes. I had a satellite phone. I tried to call home and couldn’t get through.
What I realized when I was up there, I had no outward view. All I could do was to look inside. What I saw was this woman who ten years before thought her whole life was over. I thought my life was done. This was the worst thing being diagnosed with MS, that would ever happen. And I defined myself in such a different way. I got to the top and I thought, what I’m seeing is this person who became strong only because I gave myself permission to try and do the best that I could and, and move forward in a different way in life. So I got back down after that climb and really felt this joy having completed the goal.
But mostly I felt such gratitude for all of the people that had MS that were my inspiration. All along in that climb, I had letters that I brought with me. People in the community threw a little party for me before I left. And everyone wrote little notes. I had those. I read those every single night, every morning.. And when I got to the top, I was able to hold a flag for the first ever World MS Day on top, because the World MS Organization in London mailed me a flag, which matter of fact arrived on a yak because it did not come in the mail soon enough. So they brought it up to a base camp on the back of a yak. And I carried that so proudly to the top. I felt like this was a change in the focus of my whole life. My goal of climbing was done, but my goal of trying to help others in life, it was just beginning.
I’ve always been a person that finds my peace in the mountains. When life gets hard, I appreciate that I can go and sit on a rock, anywhere in nature, but especially in the mountains where you feel small in a huge space. We are small, our lives are so minute. And sometimes we get wrapped up in our own problems and they seem monumental. When I am in the mountains, I realize that I’m just a speck on this planet, in this whole universe. I like the calm that it gives me. You don’t have to be anything to anyone when you’re sitting alone on a mountain top, or on a rock, in the outdoors. You can just be. And be at peace with your thoughts. That’s the part I’ve always loved about mountain climbing.
I’m not a climber by nature. I’m not very good at it. I just happen to be determined. And I learn what I need to learn, and I give it my best shot and, and do it safely and carefully. But what I love about climbing is that you walk for hours on end every day, maybe 6, 8, 10 hours. And you’re really by yourself. There may be other people in front or behind you, but you walk with your own thoughts and you have to learn to find a calmness in yourself to do it. If your mind is filled with, “Can I pay the bills today and what’s happening at home and is the weather going to get bad here?” Or, “Do I have a blister on my big toe? I’m not going to be able to keep going. And, how do I pee with ten men around me, hooked to a safety line in front of people?”
These are all things you can let overwhelm you while you’re walking, or you can just let go. My strategy has always been just to let go. It’s a meditation, really. A walking meditation. Yes, sometimes all the thoughts creep in and I have to use strategies to push them away or to kill time when you’re eight, ten hours into it and you’re still walking. But for me, it’s a meditation. I find it very relaxing, even though it’s a struggle. A step is a step. It’s just how many steps you put together after a while.
When you climb an Africa, you’ll hear the African guides say, “Poli poli.” Slowly, slowly. And that’s what you do. You walk slowly, slowly. And on Everest because the summit is at 29,035 feet, the lack of oxygen makes you walk incredibly slow. A lot of times you’ll take a step and then seven to ten breaths, and then another step and seven to ten breaths. And you go this way for hours and hours and hours. Anytime you get above 20,000 feet, the pace slows down to a crawl, really. But that’s what you have to do to get enough oxygen in your lungs. You’re so exhausted. You wonder if you’re ever going to get there.
With Everest, you climb the whole mountain a couple of times, because you go high to get your body used to the lack of oxygen, then you come back down and you sleep at a lower camp to recover. Then you go back up to where you just were the day before, and you drop your gear. And the next day you go up a little higher and then back down. It’s a series of re-climbing everything. All big mountains are like that, but you climb it all. So not only are you slow, but you’ve been there-done that. So it is a mental game. It’s a terrible mental game. And that’s where you cull the herd. It’s who can put up with that mental challenge.
I love everything about Bayfield and the Apostle Islands National Lake Shore. Open spaces that fill your heart, fill your soul, with a love of nature and the outdoors. Living on the big lake, it’s a serene setting and it just invigorates you at the same time. And I love being here for the natural beauty, but just as much I love being here because of the people. This community is amazing and supportive. Before I left to climb Everest, they threw a little ceremony to send me with blessings on the way there. And the whole town came to this celebration. When I got back, they threw a parade and the joke was half the town was watching the parade and the other half was in it. Talk about feeling loved and supported. It was incredible.
And then, a decade or so later, my guy who had been my partner for almost 20 years died of a brain aneurysm in my arms. The community just took over. They planned a celebration at the pavilion in town. They provided everything. This is what small town USA is like. People care about each other and hug you and are there to genuinely support you in every way. I’ve never felt so loved in any place that I’ve lived in my whole life. And that had nothing to do with climbing a mountain.
Life gives you so many obstacles. A little over a year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I went through six months of chemotherapy infusions. Two days ago, I finished the last of my one year chemotherapy protocol of pills. And I realized that you don’t just get one thing in life. Most people will have a lot of hardship and a lot of downfall and a lot of mountains and obstacles. And to me, finding peace is a matter of just remembering how resilient you are. It’s not about climbing an obstacle. Because we’ve all got them. In relationships. It might be physical things. It might be mental things. We all have these massive mountains that come and go at different times in our life. And for me, finding peace is just a matter of finding that space within myself, that recognizes how resilient we can be when put to the test and feeling okay with the next obstacle that will come along.
When I got diagnosed with cancer, I thought I got this, I’ve got it. I can do this. Yeah. And I was lucky. The outcome was fabulous. I was cancer-free very early on in the treatments. I’ve had those stepping stones given to me and placed in my life along the way that make you realize that an illness isn’t the worst thing that’s going to happen to somebody. There are lots of mountains that are much more difficult to face. Depression and grief after a loss. Those are hard, horrible things, but you have to choose happiness. And I chose happiness. Dammit. I chose it again.”
-What is the mountain you are climbing?
-How do you approach obstacles in your life?
-Are there times you have tried to run away from problems?
-Talk about your connection to nature.
-Have you ever been driven by a goal?
-How have others supported you in your journey?
-Have others ever doubted your ability? How did that impact you?
-Have you ever achieved something you thought was impossible?