Everest expedition: Ascent with purpose

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

NEW YORK -- On her milestone fifth anniversary of surviving breast cancer, backpacking granny Midge Cross is taking on another small challenge: climbing Mount Everest.

Two heart operations and a case of mercury poisoning can't keep Alison Levine down. Kids at home, jobs, the full gamut of middle-aged life -- no problem for Lynn Prebble, Jody Thompson and Kim Clark.

The most unlikely band ever to try to scale the world's tallest mountain left Wednesday on a journey with a message for everyone.

''You can step out of your comfort zone and push yourself to go for the things you want, and you don't have to be deterred by war or terrorism or economic crisis or anything like that,'' says Levine, who came up with the idea for the all-female expedition and got funding from Ford.

''We want to show that women do have a place in mountaineering and that it isn't all about getting to the top. It's about going out there and working as a team. It's about the power of women, about perseverance, about the American spirit and how we are not willing to give up our dreams just because there's a lot of chaos in the world.''

Planting a flag on the peak of the 29,035-foot mountain, which has claimed the lives of 174 climbers since 1922, and becoming the first all-female team to scale Everest would be a bonus, but it's not the goal.

These are women who have plenty of experience scaling mountains around the world, but they are not professional climbers. They have a different agenda.

For the 58-year-old Cross, who would be the oldest woman to reach the top of Everest if all goes well, the triumph is simply in trying, in conquering fears if not mountains, and inspiring others not to let age or disease stand in the way of their dreams.

She might look wispy at 5-foot-2, 115-pounds, but she's been climbing up and down slopes since she was a little girl with her grandmother in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. While planning climbs in Nepal five years ago, she found out she had breast cancer.

''Wait a minute, you don't understand, I don't have time for this, I'm going to Nepal,'' she told her doctor.

''Wrong, you're not going to Nepal,'' he said.

The doctor won, and after radiation and a lumpectomy the disease has not come back.

''So five years later, almost to the day, I have an opportunity to go and it's just incredible,'' she said. ''Now, as luck would have it, my younger sister has breast cancer and she's going through chemotherapy. So in a way, this is a climb for her, too.''

Facing her own mortality, Cross cherished more than ever the climbs she made with her husband on several continents, the skiing and mountain bike racing she did to train, the majesty of the world around her in tiny Mazama, Wash., in the Cascade range.

''I think that we who have been closer to the end, or seen that we're not going to live forever, look at every day as a blessing,'' said Cross, who also has diabetes.

For Levine, who will turn 36 next week in Nepal when the expedition embarks for base camp, the trip is about going beyond the normal boundaries of life. She was born with a condition called Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome, which can cause rapid heart rates. Four years ago -- 18 months after her second heart operation seemed to end the problem -- she started climbing. And kept climbing. So far, she's climbed the highest mountains on six continents.

Her workout schedule can be exhausting just to read. She takes spin classes twice a week, climbs on a Stairmaster with a 40-pound pack three times a week from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. and does 80 pushups each morning and evening. She also runs a 10-mile trail once a week along with 30 minutes of weight training three times a week. For the past 10 weekends, she's either been snowshoeing up ski slopes in Tahoe or climbing 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.

''I do wall sits every morning while I am blow-drying my hair,'' she said. ''I tell myself I have to stop blow-drying when my quads burn so badly I can no longer stay in the position.''

When Levine started planning the expedition last summer, plenty of daunting obstacles came up. She had energy-sapping circulation problems that turned out to be mercury poisoning from eating tainted fish in Asia. She shrugged that off.

Then the royal family in Nepal was massacred and Maoist guerrillas were wreaking violence in the Himalayan foothills. The U.S. economy was in recession. And then came Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan.

''We thought this is probably not an ideal time to be putting something like this together,'' Levine said. ''Then we thought, that's exactly the reason we should go.''

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