We Choose To Climb

Bring on the mountain: Adversity-fighting Houston women set their sights on scaling Kilimanjaro

Bring on the mountain: Adversity-fighting Houston women set their sights on scaling Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro
News_Project Kilimanjaro_Start of 12.6 mile trek
The start of a 12.6-mile training trek.
News_Project Kilimanjaro_Becky_Working Hard
Becky Pope working hard to get ready.
News_Project Kilimangaro_group shot
Venita Ray, from left, Sheri Dawson, Jackie Doval, Becky Pope, Pam Hilmes and Deb Sanders with Shana Ross (kneeling)
Mount Kilimanjaro
News_Project Kilimanjaro_Start of 12.6 mile trek
News_Project Kilimanjaro_Becky_Working Hard
News_Project Kilimangaro_group shot

This September, I will lead a group of seven Houston women, all of whom faced or are facing serious challenges in their lives, to Tanzania, where we will climb Mount Kilimanjaro. These are professional women from varied backgrounds. They are married, single, gay, straight, mothers, daughters, sisters.

What each of them has in common is the drive and determination to not let adversity, illness, injury, obesity or life-altering events stand in the way of living life to its fullest.

Everyone meets obstacles. Life happens. That’s a given. The interesting part, the variable in the given, is how the human spirit deals with those obstacles. Some take a decidedly positive approach, an “Is that all you got?” attitude. Others never seem to get past the roadblock. Many people muddle through, but lose something of themselves along the way.

I see these scenarios played out time and again in my practice — and no, I’m not a therapist. I’m a fitness/healthy lifestyle transformation coach specializing in baby boomers (and younger) in general and menopausal women in particular.

By the time a person has reached mid-40s or so, life has happened. And that’s usually how people end up in my studio. They need help figuring out just what the hell did happen, how they can change it, whether or not it’s too late to feel good again. Even after doing this work for 15 years, I’m still intrigued by how some people begin transforming almost immediately while others just can’t pull it together.

But these women — the “Super Seven,” I call them — are exceptional in how they meet life with hands-on-their hips, chin-up attitudes. They’ve all had their struggles too. But they have transformed their lives in so many ways.

Climbing Kili was inspired by one of my long-time clients Becky Pope. In 2006, she and her partner Pam hired me as their coach. They wanted to lose weight, learn better nutrition habits and improve their fitness to better enjoy their hobbies —biking and hiking. We got to work; they both saw results and embarked on several hiking trips, and multi-day bike rides. They worked with me for a couple of years, learned a great deal, and went out on their own to continue living healthier lives.

 This is not a Hollywood story and there is no fairytale ending. This is life, as real as it gets. 

In early 2009, I got a phone call from Becky. She asked if I had some time to meet; she had a major health challenge and wanted to talk. My heart skipped a beat when Becky walked into my studio a few days later and I saw the bald head and much thinner form in front of me. The words, “stage 3 ovarian cancer” hit me hard. We both shed a few uncharacteristic tears, but she wanted to know if I could help her in her recovery. She was 12 weeks out from her hysterectomy and her doctor had given her the go ahead to begin light exercise.

So we began. Her determination was an awesome thing to behold. She finished her chemotherapy and onward we marched. Each check up was approached with optimism and she became stronger each month.

In late 2010, about 18 months after she had been declared cancer free, Becky’s blood counts went haywire. PET scans showed “hot spots." An MRI confirmed the diagnosis: The cancer had returned.

The holidays for Becky brought a new round of chemo treatments. Incredibly, she continued her workouts, missing very few days. She also continued working and living life with optimism, humor and zest. Once again, Becky’s been given the “all clear” sign. Her workouts are progressing, and her outlook on life is phenomenal.

The Next Mountain

In early spring, Becky asked if I would help her train for her next adventure. I said, “Sure, what are you gonna do this time?” She looked at me with a little smile. “Well, Pam and I are going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.”

I was stunned. She had just finished chemotherapy, was as bald as Mr. Clean, and sported a boot cast on one foot because of a tendon issue. I knew then that there was a story here to be told.

I’d been working on a book idea for awhile. I took a few days to think things over and then I approached Becky and told her my thoughts: if we were to write her story along with stories of other women who had dealt with adversity, we could craft an inspiring tale with the potential to help so many facing challenges — their own Kilimanjaros. Becky, of course, was gung-ho and responded with her usual “Let’s do it” approach.

My first concern was the date set for the climb — September 2011. I asked if the trip might be postponed to have more time to pull the project together. But alas, that option wasn’t available as Becky has other trips planned and postponing Kilimanjaro now would mean not having the opportunity again for three years. Becky is determined to live every moment to its fullest; the fact that she had other trips already planned didn’t surprise me.

So, as “they” say, there’s no time like the present. The team is assembled. We’re training and raising funds. We’re making this happen.

As I said earlier, we are women from varied backgrounds with all kinds of challenges. But each woman, at some point, faced the fact that she wasn’t living the life she could be living. And what each did right was to attack the problem instead of to look for an easy way out or try to find something to blame. They took hard looks at themselves and have put in the work to change their physical lives, and in many cases, their emotional well-being.

My book (working title We Choose To Climb) will chronicle the lives of each of these women and reveal how they have persevered through illness, obesity, addiction, injury, low self-esteem, life changes. Their stories are inspirational, poignant, funny, revealing — but most of all — real. This is not a Hollywood story and there is no fairytale ending. This is life, as real as it gets.

And now, these women (average age 52) are banding together to conquer the challenge of climbing the world’s tallest free-standing mountain with the message to other women and men that no matter the challenge, no matter the age, we are all capable of setting goals and reaching them. Over the next few months, I’ll keep you updated on our progress through this column. Until the next time, “Live Life Like You Mean It.”

Bring on the mountain. We choose to climb.

Editor's note: This is the first part in a regular series that Houston's Shana Ross will write for CultureMap on the climb, detailing everything from the preparations to the push up Kilimanjaro. Next up, Meet the “Super Seven."