Everest 2010: Cindy Abbott - Climbing Against Time

Jan 25, 2010
Outside Magazine

Cindy Abbott on Mt. Baldy The human spirit is an amazing creature. Somehow, climbing big mountains brings it out. Cindy Abbott is no exception. With a broken leg on Aconcagua, she hobbled down from the high camps to be helicopter out, had surgery and was climbing again seven weeks later. Now she is going to Everest. Oh and she has a rare disease that baffles doctors to this day.

Cindy has the disease, Limited Wegener’s Granulomatosis or WG. The Mayo Clinic describes it as an uncommon disorder that causes inflammation of blood vessels, which in turn restricts blood flow to various organs including kidneys, lungs and upper respiratory tract.

What causes WG is uncertain, but it's not an infection nor is it a type of cancer. Without treatment, it can be fatal, most commonly from kidney failure.

Cindy's symptoms started with vision problems resulting in blindness in one eye. Through a series of test, WG was diagnosed and today she is under treatment - and focused on a goal - before it is too late. She made this startling declaration to her University Newspaper

“That’s why I want to climb Mt. Everest now,” Abbott said. “My immune system is down from the immunosuppressant medication I’m taking to control the disease and I don’t know how much longer I have. I want to live life to its fullest.”

Cindy, 51, has a Master of Science degree in Kinesiology with a focus on Sports Psychology and Exercise Physiology and teaches Personal Health at California State University, Fullerton. It was while watching Everest: Beyond the Limit that her goal was launched for climbing Everest.

Together with 7 Summits guide, Scott Woolums, they developed the plan and now Cindy has climbed many mountains including Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Rainier, Elbrus, Peak Lenin and her local training peak, Mt. Baldy, near her home in California.

So what drives a person with a rare disease to go to Everest complete with all the risks and difficulties. Cindy took some time from her training to speak with me. I am sure you will find her story simply inspirational.

Q: Your commitment to this climb is huge - risk, loans, time away from family. What are you hoping to achieve with your climb?

There are several objectives: the first being the climbing of the world’s highest mountain. Unlike some climbers who have multiple opportunities to summit Mt. Everest, this will be my one and only chance.

Both during and after the Mt. Everest climb, another focus is to raise rare disease awareness and funding for research. Having gone for over 10 years with an undiagnosed/misdiagnosed disease that was damaging my body is a terrible experience for both the person and the family members. If I can help one person get diagnosed and treated before the disease does its damage; then, summit or not, I will have accomplished an important goal.

Making the decision to go public and launch my blog was difficult because I am a very private person, but the opportunity to help by sharing my story out-weighed the privacy issue. Since going public, I believe my climbing has already had an inspirational affect. I have received many positive and supportive comments from both healthy people and people with WG. Here is a comment from Doug Thomas, he has WG:

Cindy- You have been quite an inspiration to me, certainly, but to others on the WG Support Website because you are taking life by the horns, Wegener’s Granulomatosis or not. Many times, people with WG listen to negative voices around them, buying into the notion that life ends with the diagnosis and prognosis of this disease. (WG is an auto-immune disease where your immune system goes into high gear and destroys your vascular system, small and medium vessels at least, and, for one person in ten, is a death sentence. Oh yes! You will have this disease the rest of your life!) You show how the disease and prognosis need to be dealt with, certainly, but that nothing is outside the realm of possibility, even climbing the tallest terrestrial feature on earth! While each Weggie has a different experience with the disease (a short list of 109 symptoms…), each Weggie can take your example and find his or her own Mt. Everest to “climb”.

Q: Of all the activities to raise awareness for WG, why climbing and why Everest?

Why climbing? I have always been an avid outdoor adventurer with SCUBA diving as my main sport. As part of a safari and diving vacation in 2006, my husband and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2006 and I discovered a whole new world.

Now, several years and mountains later, I cannot express the feeling I get when I climb to that next higher camp or stand on a summit of a mountain: the beauty, the challenge, and the personal satisfaction. Climbing, as you can read from Doug’s comment, is emblematic of the challenges people with WG deal with on a daily basis: For some, climbing a flight of stairs is their mountain.

Why Everest? In the spring of 2007 I watched Discovery Channel's Everest: Beyond the Limit and decided I wanted to climb the world's highest mountain. I contacted Scott Woolums and ask if he would train me. We made arrangements to start by climbing Mt. Aconcagua in December of 2007.

In August of 2007 I was diagnosed with Wegener's Granulomatosis and started a medication treatment program. My decision to train for Mt. Everest was made prior to my diagnosis. After the diagnosis, I decided to use this climb to help draw attention to NORD (National Organization for Rare Diseases) and the Vasculitis Foundation and by doing so - help other people.

Q: No doubt what you are attempting is unique and dangerous given your condition. How does you immediate family feel about this effort?

Cindy and Larry on Mt. Elbrus Summit by Scott Woolums After almost 25 years together my sole-mate and husband, Larry, was not surprised by my decision: although he admittedly did not understand it. Larry put everything he wanted to do on hold and became my training partner (at the age of 62!). He has allowed my dream of climbing Everest to take over our lives both in time and in money. Larry understands my need to experience life and he knows that I will never stop exploring the wonders of the world. I could not ask for a better husband: He is 100% supportive of my climbing Mt. Everest.

My daughter, on the other hand, was very upset with me at first, but she is now one of my biggest supporters.

Q: You broke your leg on Aconcagua at 19K and hiked down to be helicoptered out. Did this discourage you from future climbs?

It had the reverse effect. Having to hike down from just below White Rocks to Plaza de Mulas base camp with a broken leg gave me valuable insight into what I can do if the need arises.

As an adventurous SCUBA diver for the past 19 years, I have developed an understanding of two things: a deep respect Mother Nature and the importance of self-reliance. Amazingly, there are many similarities between diving and climbing.

Q: You use Mt. Baldy (10,064’) as part of your training. Can you tell us bit on how you climb Baldy and any other training techniques?

Mt. Baldy is great for local training. We use a 4.5 mile route starting at about 6100 feet to get almost 1000 ft of vertical gain per mile we climb. Now that it is snow-covered, it is great crampon mixed rock-ice training. For additional training, a few weeks ago we went to the Alabama Hills (just below Mt. Whitney) and I asked Jed from Sierra Mountain Guides to recreate "The Hillary Step" (only 20,000 ft lower). I wore my big yellow boots and guide gloves: It was great training!

Also, I have climbed the following:

Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,341 ft, July 2006 

Mt. Aconcagua, 20,000 ft, Jan 2008 (abort summit due to high winds)

Mt. Washington (NH), 6,266 ft, June 2008 (four month after plate put in leg)

Mt. Whitney, 14,504 ft, Sept 2008 (seven weeks after plate removed from my leg)

Ice, snow, and mountaineering private course, June Lake Area, December 2008

Mt. Rainier, 14,410 ft, June 2009

Mt. Elbrus, 18,513 ft, July 2009

Peak Lenin, 22,500 ft, August 2009 (abort summit due to team member with frost nip)

Q: Some aspects of WG include inflammation of the blood vessels and lung and kidney issues, are you doing anything special to address these on your Everest climb?

I am one of the lucky WG people. I do not have lung or kidney involvement. Since my diagnosis, I have been on a continuous medication treatment program that has worked very well. For the last two years, I have been monitoring myself and consulting with my doctors and also Dr. Peter Hackett of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colorado.

I am a very responsible person and I do not take the climbing of Everest or any mountain lightly. By the way, this season Dr. Hackett will be staffing the Everest south-side base camp medical facility.

Q: What led you to select Scott Woolums as your guide for Everest?

After researching many high-altitude guides, I contacted Scott. I was immediately impressed by his approach to what I was proposing: a novice wanting to climb Mt. Everest. He told me that I have to take climbing one step at a time: focusing on each step to understand what is needed to even begin to think about climbing Mt. Everest.

Scott Woolums is an amazing high-altitude guide. He is extremely experienced, professional yet personable, safety-oriented, but most of all: Scott cuts me no slack. I have to be able to do it or it is a no-go. That is what I want: an honest opinion of my abilities not someone who says what I want to heard. We have been climbing together for several years and I am continually impressed by Scott’s seemingly innate abilities both as a climber and a guide. For Mt. Everest, Scott has teamed up with Mountain Trip.

Q: Sports Psychology is your field. What are your thoughts and preparation on the mental aspect of a climb such as Everest?

Great question: I think people may underestimate the psychological aspect of climbing Mt. Everest. For me, the first thing I had to get straight in my mind and sole was: Could I be away from my family for so long? My husband and I are true sole-mates and we have always been together on our adventures. Now I will be without him for over two months! For me, this truly will be the most difficult aspect of climbing Mt. Everest.

Risk verses Rewards: To make sure I was not romanticizing the climbing of Mt. Everest; I read every book I could find, watched all the documentaries, and talked with many people. Next, I applied that information to my training and personal experiences with both climbing and diving. After a great deal of thought and sole-searching, I recognize the seriousness nature of climbing big mountains and I have the correct mind-set and mental strength to take on the challenge.

Q: Any other thoughts for your followers this year?

After years of training and preparation, the day to leave for Mt. Everest is fast approaching; and while there have been some bumps along the way, I feel ready for the challenge. I have a picture of my husband and my daughter that will be in my pocket at all times: close to my heart.

Being diagnosed with Wegener’s Granulomatosis was just another door I had to walk through as I make my way in this wonderful life. As I continue on my path, I hope to bring some awareness to the needs of people with rare diseases.

Staring on April 1st, I will be on a 68-day expedition to raise money for research and support services for the Vasculitis Foundation. I thank anyone who can spare a few dollars and donate to the VF. By doing so, you will know that you are helping many people with rare diseases. Donations can be made through the link on my blog or under my “Event” on the Vasculitis Foundation’s web site 

My philosophy is reflected in this quotation, "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain!" (Author Unknown) Of course, while on Everest I will be waiting for any storms to pass along with everyone else!

Cindy, we will be following you closely and pulling for all your success and safety. You can learn more about Cindy on her website and follow her climb from her blog.

Climb On!


Arnette is a speaker, Mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. You can read more on his site.

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