To the summit


Photo by Kevin Coffey.

When you are looking for a challenge, you pick the biggest, meanest obstacle you can find and you focus on it. And you train. And you plan. And you plan and train some more.

This time, TA Loeffler is focusing on Everest.

Her attempt this March will be the second for the local educator and author. In 2005 an illness kept her grounded at Base Camp on the mountain, but now, in late March she and a team will be heading to Nepal to make another attempt at the summit.

It won’t be easy. The high altitude is a place where the body will no longer heal, where you have no appetite. The air is so thin it can take four to six breaths to power a single step. It’s cold, and dangerous.

Why would anyone put themselves through this, knowing how hard it will be?

Bryhanna Greenough caught up with Loeffler to ask about the expedition, her inspiration, and how she’s getting ready to climb the highest peak on the planet.

How did you get the idea to climb Everest?
I climbed Mount McKinley in 2005. It’s also known by its aboriginal name Denali. It’s the highest peak in North America, and I got it in my mind I wanted to climb it, so I trained and I climbed it in June of 2005. I was in that sort of quintessential midlife crisis space. So I finished that but realized I wasn’t finished looking, so I headed over to Nepal and biked from Lhasa to Kathmandu on a mountain bike. An amazing trip. I’d been in Tibet before, but in a Land Cruiser, and I wanted to actually be in the landscape so I thought I’d bike.

As part of that trip we visited the Mount Everest base camp, and it was there I had the sense I wanted to try to climb Mount Everest.

At that point I wasn’t scared about the climbing—as I should have been. I was scared about the fundraising. Contrary to my public teaching persona, I’m a very shy, phone-phobic human being. I had no idea how I was going to raise the $60,000 I needed to do the climb. But I took a picture of myself at base camp to remind myself when I got back that it was what I wanted to do.

Through various bake sales, T-shirt sales, and garage sales we came up with half of the money for the expedition. Mortgaged the house for the rest, then went off in 2007.

But it didn’t have the ending anybody really wanted.

I got sick two times on the expedition, and it wasn’t safe for me to keep climbing. So I came back and took a little while to just sit with it.

Then I got back with it at Ojos del Salado, the highest peak in Chile.The weather kept us from the top, but still, it got me going again. I kept working on the Seven Summits—the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

Went to Kilimanjaro…

Pumori in Nepal… which is called “Daughter of Everest,” and it sits across the valley from Everest.

It’s easy to sit here now and say “yeah, I’m going to climb Mount Everest,” but when you’re actually in the same kind of high altitude environment—where you can hardly move; you’ve got the headache—that’s where I wanted to really see if I had it in me. Not only through the climbing phase again, but through the training and the fundraising again. It was there, climbing Pumori, which I climbed in honor of my mom, I said “yeah, okay, I got 12 or 16 more months in me to give to this thing.

And that’s when I decided.

That was fall of 2008.

How many of the Seven Summits have you climbed?
I’m five for seven now.

Last summer I went back to Elbrus, in Russia, after I went there in 2006 and got shut down by weather.
Suddenly I was at four for seven.

Then Marian and I went to Australia, which then made it five for seven.

Now, going back to Everest this year I would be six for seven. And if that comes to fruition, I’ll start looking for fundraising for Vinson, which is in Antarctica.

That must be a logistically tricky one.
The climbing is really straight forward, actually. Really cold, but the trick is the price tag is the same as Everest but it’s a mountain no one’s ever heard of. The flight to the ice is what makes that so expensive, because it’s a private company that charters a Hercules. It’s a very expensive proposition to get to the ice.

That’s how I got back to Everest. It was this sense that I wasn’t quite done, the mountain still had something to teach me, and I still had lots to learn. I wanted to go back and climb higher than I did before, and if it all comes together and I stand on top, that will be gravy, but to go back more confident, to go back stronger, to go back with all of the experiences I’ve had with climbing it the first time and other things I’ve done in the meantime to give myself the best shot of getting there… That’s all part of it.

Last time when you were on Everest, in 2007, what happened exactly?
I arrived at Base Camp with a pretty good case of bronchitis, which we know here, even at sea level, can be pretty hard to heal from. It required going on antibiotics, and I developed a high altitude wheeze. I was coughing so hard I was throwing up. It was a pretty rough way to get started. Eventually the docs were worried I could get what’s called ‘high altitude pulmonary edema’ which often comes with a respiratory infection. So they sent me down the hill a ways. Once you pass 4000 metres your body really stops healing.

So I went down, I rested, I got over the infection. I was doing pretty well, then I started throwing up and I was like “what’s going on?” You visit the medical folks and at first they said it’s altitude, but I didn’t think it was. I’d been up there for five or six weeks already.

By the time they actually said it was Giardia [an intestinal parasite], I had already lost 15-20 pounds. For a high altitude mountaineer that’s your reserve, that’s your resiliency. My strength had disappeared.

I went back down to try to heal to get strong enough to go back up, and I set myself a task, a peak at 5,200 metres. I said okay, here’s your test. Go climb that thing. I had to will every step, from the bottom of my being.

But I actually got myself to the summit of that thing, and I took a picture and that night, looking at it, I knew I didn’t look well. The next morning I threw up again and said to myself, “okay, you don’t have it. You don’t have the margin you need to be safe.”

I’ve done a lot of outreach with children, with schools, and I decided ahead of time it wouldn’t be good to scar an entire generation if I could help it. I was going in with conservative parameters. It wasn’t fair to my team or my sherpa to go up that high. You have to be at 100 per cent or at least as close to 100 percent as you can be.

I actually didn’t know how weak I was until I trekked out and got back to Kathmandu, where I had trouble climbing the stairs in my hotel.

The two illnesses so close together, close to eight weeks at altitude, I was levelled.

So, disappointing? Absolutely.

I had poured my heart, soul, everything, into it.

It was interesting though: When I first came back, one of my Buddhist mentors said, “I know you don’t want to hear this at the moment, but you may actually be of greater service having not summited than if you had.”

On reflection, I think she was actually very right. A decision I made fairly early on is I said to myself, you have to be as visible in the community if you have not summited as if you have summited. Because if you’re not, then those same kids you’ve been talking to get the idea there’s some shame in trying and ‘failing.’

I remember doing an interview with the CBC St. John’s Morning Show and Jeff Gilhooly asked me what was harder to recover from, the illnesses or the failed climb. I looked at him and said I don’t think of the climb as failed, I think of the climb as not climbing as high as I wanted to. The amount of energy and focus on the journey in the first place made it a success. Choosing to try to make that happen.

It’s important for us to risk disappointment. I think it can be tempting to stay where we are comfortable, to stay where we’re certain we can make something happen. But without the risk of disappointment, what good is it?

Did you know you would go back?
It took me two years to decide to go back.

As soon as I returned in 2007 people were asking me, “are you going back?” It would have been easy to say “yeah,” and it’d be easy to say “no,” but the real answer was I didn’t know.

I had a friend that always said, you have to do everything twice. The first time is often easier than the second because you don’t know what you’re getting into.

It was harder to choose to do Everest the second time than it was to choose the first.

You know what you’re in for.
I knew what I was in for in terms of the fundraising, the training, the everything. My life, beyond a certain amount of relationship maintenance, is training. That’s all I’m doing for the next three months. If it doesn’t help me climb Everest at this point, it’s out of my picture. You just have to ante up, which gets your hopes up.

But what I’m hoping for is a fun, safe, amazing experience. Ideally I will get to climb higher than I did before, but so many things need to come together to make that happen. You need health, weather, teammates to climb with… Sometimes I think it’s a miracle anyone gets to stand up there, just seeing how all these different things need to come together in the right combination.

It’s almost like you need the stars to align.

Going back the second time, you have the experience from the first time. Since then, last fall, I did a second Himalayan expedition, so some parts of it will be easier too. I know the lay of the land. I’m choosing to climb with the same operator as then, so the leadership of the team will be familiar to me. Four of my teammates will be the same, so that’s just a real gift. You’re not starting from scratch.

There are other women on the team this time, and it’s so rare for there to be. I’m a hockey player and hockey players are superstitious: I always put my left skate on first. Every time I’ve climbed one of the seven summits with another woman, I’ve summitted.

What’s the hardest thing about Everest?
It’s a long expedition, and it has a surprising amount of down time. Some expeditions, you have your three weeks… your four weeks…. You’re working hard just about every day. You can’t wait for a rest day and you can barely catch your breath. Everest, on the other hand, out of the two and a half months there are maybe 20 climbing days. There’s a lot of waiting for your body to acclimatize, and there’s waiting for the route to go in. So you can’t build up that same kind of momentum. You have to find peace in the relax. It’s a funny thing to do. You think about who gets themselves to Everest: You’ve got to have some amount of drive, some Type A in you to make the fundraising happen. You have to make room in your life so you can go away for that length of time, and you have to make yourself train hard.

So before you get there you’re going and going, and then you get to Nepal and you find there’s nowhere to go.

Actually, someone on our first climb couldn’t deal with the downtime and actually had to leave. I’ve gained some strategies. I have an iPod packed with podcasts and some movies and some e-books and all kinds of ways to do it. I’m actually very comfortable these days, sitting around. But the length of time just keeping yourself occupied living at altitude, it’s hard. Base Camp is at 5200 metres above sea level, which means there is half as much oxygen available to you as there is here in St. John’s. You can’t move very fast. You will yourself to eat. You do acclimatise, and you get better. Base Camp is this rocky, icy place. I call it gravel pit camping on steroids. You can’t even go for a nice walk there. If you’re going for a walk, it’s an ordeal. You’re living in this small, very intimate community and you can’t escape.

Everest is a strange place. When I was there last there was a bakery. Someone had carried up an oven. You could actually go to the bakery at Base Camp and by an apple turnover. And I did. It become a regular event, but it was a half hour walk over arduous terrain to get to the bakery. So I’d say it’s a long thing.

Another piece I might say about the difficulty is this: It’s a huge thing. It’s the world’s biggest mountain, it’s intensely dangerous and it’s a big deal. And that can magnify, and there can be an over-magnification of it it. A temptation to make it bigger than it really is. I’ve been trying to find the balance between giving it all of the respect needed, but on the other hand trying to keep it from getting too big in my mind. It’s big and it’s not that big.

Why do you want to do it?
I won’t go with Mallory [an English mountaineer] and say “because it’s there.”

I think it changes. I began this mountainous path because I was in a spot of confusion—midlife kind of stuff—and through that I discovered I could have impact on others. I would write my weekly blog and hear back from someone saying, “you know, my mom’s in the hospital and she read your blog and then she took extra steps at physio.”

I began to see by doing what I was doing and sharing it, that other people were taking on the obstacles in their lives. So that became quite a motivation.

So inspiring others is as strong a reason as doing it for yourself?
I climbed Denali (Mount McKinley) for me. It was only for me. But it was that that taught me to reach out and create this community of support around myself. Then it hit me: “Wow, if I’m taking on life and sharing it, then other people are taking on theirs.” That lent a middle piece to the story…

The tagline for this climb is “Mountain of Learning.” It’s about learning about myself, learning about my teammates, the people that train with me, and the stuff that people give back to me.

Our lives are like dropping pebbles on a pond, and the ripples go out. Most the time we don’t know where the ripples go, but sometimes the pond is small enough that ripples come back and we see them. It’s a privilege the get stuff back.

How are you preparing yourself? You mentioned pulling a tire up Signal Hill…
That one’s been getting a lot of attention lately. Basically I’m working with a 30 pound pack and a 45 pound tire—a tire plus a rim from my 1980 Chevy Corsica, known as the Oma-mobile, from my grandmother who gave it to me. The tire hangs about six feet behind me off the backpack. I start at the bottom of Temperance Street, by the Harbour Authority Building, and pull it up right from the harbour to the top of the hill.

So it’s dragging on the ground?
It’s dragging on the ground. You become very intimate with friction on different surfaces. The new sidewalk has more friction than asphalt, for instance.

I started training last year, before going up to Iqaluit for expedition training because you’re actually pulling sleds so its very sport specific. But because I’m training at sea level, at the moment the tire is the altitude. Until someone’s been at altitude, it’s hard to understand what it’s like to move yourself uphill without enough air. At 5000 metres, it’s one breath, one step. 6000 metres is two breaths, one step. 7000 metres is usually three. 8000 metres is four to six breaths just to take a step. How do you train for that at sea level? Also, at the school for Kinetics and Recreation at MUN we have a system called a hypoxicator which sucks oxygen from the air.

You wear a mask?
Yeah. I was walking at a 15 per cent grade on the treadmill with a pack on, with the mask on, as if I was at 3000 metres. That allows me to pre-acclimatise. I can create some extra red blood cells before I go. So that’s one piece of it. Then there’s that gall damned fatigue, which trains me as much mentally as it does physically. You can’t go fast. If you’re at altitude you instantly get dizzy, as if you have gotten up to fast. You have to develop this patience.

Pulling a tire up Signal Hill, everyone’s passing you and you’re just plodding. My goal is to be able to pull five hills before I go. I’m at one and a half so far, and two tomorrow. As the weeks go by, just inching it up so you can do five pulls up the hill in a row.

Well I hope you get a little ice!
Yes, once you get a little ice and snow the tire just slides. I have this great inner inclinometer—I know the slope profiles of every street between Wood Street and the top of the hill.

What does it feel like after you successfully climb a mountain?
People will often ask how long you get to spend up there. It depends on the mountain. I’ve spent as little as 10 minutes this summer on Elbrus. The weather was deteriorating, so we basically got up, it was miserable and we took a couple shots and we ran down. Sometimes 30 minutes, 40 minutes but there’s always this more hazardous portion waiting, so there is this momentary “wow, it all came together. I’m standing here where I can stand and go no higher.” It’s a huge thrill when it all comes together, because you can never assume it will.

Then there’s this recognition that I’m only halfway home. I’m truly successful on the mountain when I’m back home safe and the rest of the team is home safe. So that’s when the party can really happen.

What I find is true is it’s I think it’s magic to stand on any high point. I’ve climbed Signal Hill probably over 400 times now and I’m still excited every time I crest the hill, because I can’t go any higher. Or the Southside Hills. The hills I’m climbing are higher, for sure, and maybe the summit is more meaningful if it takes me six months to accomplish, versus 18 minutes or 32 minutes… But for me it’s pretty magical to go where you can’t go any higher.

Loeffler’s book More Than a Mountain: One Woman’s Everest is published by Creative Book Publishing. For more information click here.

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