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MS Climbers to Tackle Highest Point in North America; Unguided Ascent of Denali Proves Disease Can't Keep Them Down

TALKEETNA, Alaska, May 7 -- When Wendy Booker becomes the first known woman with multiple sclerosis (MS) to summit the highest point in North America in May, she will be fulfilling a goal she did not dare dream before her diagnosis.

It was only after the 47-year-old was diagnosed with the neurological disease four years ago that she began taking on challenges she never dreamed possible.

Booker is the sole woman climber on a seven-person, non-guided team made up almost exclusively of people living with MS. The summit bid for Alaska's glacier-filled Denali is all about doing what may first seem out of the question -- whether that is reaching the summit of a mountain or overcoming MS.

"Climbing a mountain would be a huge feat for the average person, which makes it seem almost outside the realm of reality for people with MS," says Booker, the interior designer and mother of three from Manchester, Mass. "I want this climb to inspire people with MS and their families to keep on living their lives -- and to climb their own mountains, whatever those may be."

The Climb for the Cause was created to change the perception of what people living with MS can do. It encourages people to begin a drug therapy immediately after diagnosis, as well as incorporate other lifestyle changes to manage the disease, which is what most MS experts recommend. Booker and her fellow teammates will begin their ascent on May 16 with a single goal in mind: inspiring those with MS to not only live their dreams, but also reach new heights they never may have considered.

Pushing Back

Booker, a marathon runner who lives on the north shore of Boston, is not your typical rugged mountain climber. Having never scaled so much as a boulder before this climb, she credits MS with motivating her to consider new challenges she never thought possible.

"I want to see how hard I can push back at my MS," Booker says. "Being diagnosed with MS is a life-changing event, and we can either change for the better or not."

Like Booker, 32-year-old Clay Roscoe's introduction to technical climbing came after he was diagnosed with MS in 1991. The Philadelphia medical student brings eight years of mountaineering experience to the team, including a stint as a guide on the volcanoes of Ecuador. Attempting to summit Denali has been a long-time goal for Roscoe, but he also sees the climb as an avenue for raising awareness of the disease and ways to fight it.

"Finding a drug therapy that works for you plus physical activity are keys to managing MS," Roscoe says. "I want to encourage people to push themselves within reason."

To the Top of North America

Imagine living on a wind-whipped sheet of ice in the heart of the rugged Alaskan frontier for five weeks, and you will have an idea of what the MS climbing team will endure. Denali National Park's six million acres is home to grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and the highest point in North America -- Mount McKinley, also known as Denali. Although the altitude is lower than the 29,000 feet of its famous Himalayan counterpart Mount Everest, Denali is notorious among climbers in other ways.

Dramatic weather changes can convert a day of climbing into a day of survival skills in a snow cave. In the summer, Everest looks balmy compared with Denali temperatures of 20 degrees to 40 degrees below zero. And Denali's lower atmospheric pressure makes its 20,320-foot summit feel like being at 22,000 feet. The peak juts out from the Alaska range, rising so much higher than the surrounding mountain that Denali makes its own weather.

To train for extreme weather conditions plus the burden of packs that can add another 90 pounds per person, the team has done practice climbs since last fall in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. In addition, almost daily cardiovascular and strength training workouts build up their endurance quotient.

The team will gather in Anchorage, Alaska, May 13, to assemble supplies before traveling to Talkeetna, where they will take a ski plane to the Kahiltna Glacier. At 7,200 feet, Kahiltna is home to base camp and the jumping off point for a three- to five-week arduous trek up steep ice and over crevasses to the summit via the West Buttress route. The route is familiar to Anchorage native Jim Dokoozian, 48, who led a 1977 team to the summit before he was diagnosed with MS. The construction company owner is returning to Denali with a renewed sense of purpose as he and the other team members pit their own skills against the mountain.

Climbing with MS

Take one look at Booker, Roscoe, or any of the other Denali climbers with relapsing-remitting MS, and you would never suspect that while they are donning crampons and scaling ice walls as part of the training regimen, their bodies also are battling a silent, unpredictable disease.

MS causes the immune system to attack healthy areas of the nervous system. When the sheath that surrounds nerves becomes inflamed, people with MS suffer what is called a relapse and experience symptoms that can include vision problems, weakness, and pain. Booker's MS manifests itself through numbness on her left side, fatigue, and balance problems, but she has not suffered a relapse since 1998.

Booker, Roscoe, and Dokoozian all take medication to manage their disease and will continue their drug therapy schedule even high on the mountain. The other climbers also manage their MS with drug therapy and acknowledge that advances in medicine have brought them a long way from the days when a diagnosis of MS meant little hope and a future of disability.

"I have learned to appreciate each day, to appreciate my health, and to listen to my body," Booker says. "There are so many things people with MS can accomplish. I have so much to look forward to, and Denali is just the start."

To learn more about the Climb for the Cause team and track the ascent, log onto Teva Neuroscience, Inc. is a sponsor of the Climb for the Cause.

The Climb for the Cause will benefit the Consortium of MS Centers (CMSC) and the Foundation of the CMSC. The CMSC is an organization dedicated to setting a standard of MS care throughout the world through education and research. For more information, visit the official Web site of the Climb for the Cause,

Editors Last Line: Even though this is really not an automotive story(except now you know where the name Denali came from)it is a story that I think we should all see.