Lori Schneider didn’t tell anyone she had Multiple Sclerosis until six months after she received the diagnosis in 1999 (and then it was just family and her best friends). Fast-forward 12 years, and now she's announcing it from the mountaintops--literally.
On July 19, 2011, Lori completed a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. The climb, titled Leap of Faith Adventure, involved seven men and women with MS, along with four people with Parkinson's disease and nine climbing companions, including a neurologist, a physician assistant and a physical therapist.
"What an incredible journey it was," Lori commented. "There have been some really tough parts of the trek, but we've made it and that's a credit to all of us who believe that we can go beyond the limitations of our disease and still achieve incredible results, both physically and mentally. We have remembered all those with neurodegerative disease who climb personal mountains each day, as we have taken the steps to this summit."
In 2009, Lori became the first person with MS to successfully climb Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the world at 29,035 feet. “It took me some time to process what MS meant to me, but by the time I was on Everest, I felt it was an honor for me to carry the weight of the MS label,” Lori said from her home in Bayfield, Wisc. “To take the hopes of others who also have been diagnosed with MS with me to the summit was a good feeling.” During her 10 minutes on top of the world, Lori unfurled the flag of the first ever World MS Day, organized by the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation. “That was a powerful moment for me. Summiting Everest seemed an unbelievable dream, but there I was.”
Lori’s climb of Everest was the final challenge of her goal to climb the “Seven Summits,” the highest peak on each of the Seven Continents.
Lori was already a climber and avid traveler when, at age 43, she woke up one morning with numbness in over 50% of her body. Doctors did a spinal tap immediately, but the results were misread and MS was ruled out. Lori was told it could be a stroke, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme Disease, or brain cancer. In two months the numbness had spread to her entire body. The day she was scheduled to have a brain biopsy a new doctor realized her spinal tap had been incorrectly read. A brain MRI confirmed the diagnosis of MS.
“When I first heard those two little letters – ‘MS’ -- I was scared. The diagnosis sounded so devastatingly fatal for me. I thought there was no other outcome than for me to immediately lose mobility. And that was terrifying for me because I was so active.”
In fact, Lori was in the middle of training to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, when she got the news. She had planned to climb the mountain with her father over New Year’s. One of the reasons she initially kept her diagnosis from her family was because she was afraid her parents would be devastated and also want her to cancel the trip. “I knew I needed to continue to plan on the climb if I ever hoped to come to terms with the disease,” she says. “I needed to prove to myself that I could still move and had the power to attempt to live the life I wanted to.”
And the Aconcagua climb did just that. “Even more so than climbing Everest, it was climbing Aconcagua that I consider my victory over my fear of MS. It gave me my power back.” After that climb, Lori decided it was time to tell more people about her MS. “I thought that if I was strong enough to stand on top of that mountain, I was strong enough to tell people I had MS. I wasn’t worried anymore about what they would think.”
While Lori was picking off the remaining six of the Seven Summits – North America’s Denali, Elbrus in Europe, Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia and finally Everest (years before her MS diagnosis, but while she was experiencing symptoms of the disease, she had previously climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa) -- she founded Empowerment Through Adventure and began traveling as an inspirational speaker.
“I’m just an ordinary person who came up with this extraordinary goal. Even if I hadn’t been successful, I’ve learned there’s still power in trying. Life is too short not to try. Getting that message out is more important and rewarding than standing on a summit.”