Deaf Oregon State graduate three summits from a dream
Saturday, May 22, 2004
Her dream is so vivid, so persuasive and has such a vice-grip on Miriam Richards' psyche that no obstacle has been too great.
Not the mid-life onset of multiple sclerosis.
Not lifelong deafness.
Not even a 600-foot plunge from an ice shelf on Mount Hood that left her with a shattered jaw, a damaged right eye, torn ligaments, myriad bruises and rehabilitation that lasted more than a year.
At first, as she lay in a hospital bed in critical condition nine years ago, the Oregon State University student told her parents via sign language that her third failed mountain ascent would also be her last. Her love of the outdoors would be limited to working for the National Park Service, interpreting nature for deaf people and traversing less-hazardous wonders like the Pacific Crest Trail.
Yet even as Richards nursed serious injuries, visions of mountaintops and reaching heights no deaf person had ever attained continued to flash in her mind's eye.
"I changed my mind," she says. "I won't give up my dream."
Fast forward to today, and Richards, now 39 and an OSU graduate in forestry, is sitting at a table, her eyes glistening as she recounts her life story by "signing" interpreter M'Leah Woodard using rapid-fire hand gestures.
In the past six years, Richards has been to the "Roof of Africa," 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. She has summitted the highest point in South America, 22,840-foot Mount Aconcagua.
She has even conquered her fears on 11,239-foot Mount Hood, Oregon's highest peak.
Now, she is preparing for her ultimate quest: To become the first deaf woman to ascend the highest point in all 50 states.
In the next week, Richards, Woodard and hired guides plan to climb 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, making it 48 down and two to go. Last on the list are Wyoming's 13,804-foot Gannett Peak in August and, the granddaddy of them all, Alaska's 20,320-foot Denali in June 2005.
"I'm really motivated," she signals to Woodard, who spends half of her years as an interpreter and the other half as a wilderness ranger with the U.S. Forest Service.
"I want to overcome my perceived limitations. This is a challenge for me. It's a physical and mental challenge."
At first glance, Richards doesn't evoke images of a mountain climber. She is short, heavy-set and looks more like someone who sits behind a desk all day than a woman who has conquered difficult climbs and once did a 50-mile solo hike for 14 days on the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier's base.
Yet overcoming lack of physical strength pales compared to her lifelong challenges with deafness and, now, the multiple sclerosis diagnosed last year after she struggled with bouts of dizziness.
"She has toughness, endurance and determination, and a very positive, can-do attitude — all of which can get you a long way on non-technical climbs," says Kathy Cosley, the guide who led Richards up Argentina's Mount Aconcagua in 1999. "I admire Miriam's perseverance and courage."
Though Richards always had a passion for the outdoors while growing up in Victoria, B.C., and then while attending Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C., she never gave "highpointing" a thought until first learning about it seven years ago. She was instantly intrigued by the realization that fewer people have reached the top of all 50 states than have climbed Mount Everest, and none of the 129 who've done it is deaf.
Only 10 of the 50 high points are over 10,000 feet, but the effort have made it a chore for all but the most dedicated — even for so-called members of the "highpointers" club.
"I'm really surprised at how many people involved in highpointing don't succeed," says Richards, a part-time sign-language instructor at Western Oregon University who also works odd jobs around Corvallis.
Her initial ascent remains her most meaningful.
The 1997 climb of 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak in west Texas was her first since the accident on Mount Hood two years earlier. She was joined by her 65-year-old father, who at first resisted going because of sizzling summer heat but was ecstatic upon reaching the summit.
The exhilaration forged a father-daughter bond and further motivated Richards to continue climbing.
She has since zigged and zagged around the country — "like a grasshopper," she says — even climbing six high points in two days in the southeast in 2000.
On 23 climbs, she has hiked solo. On 22 others, she has traveled with friends.
She required guides only on the more technical Mount Hood and Montana's Granite Peak.
Idaho's Borah Peak and Nevada's Boundary Peak were "pretty scary."
Her biggest climbing challenges lie ahead, not because of her deafness, which has not proven a significant hindrance on the slopes, or her multiple sclerosis, which is managed by medication, but because many guides remain hesitant to climb with a deaf person.
Never mind her successes on Hood and Aconcagua.
Guides fret about communication and liability, and worry about how to handle another fall.
Richards requires an interpreter for her final guided climbs. In Woodard, she has found the rare combination of someone who knows sign language and also can climb technical mountains.
"The idea was thrilling for me," Woodard said. "I feel like sometimes I had two lives, interpreting and the outdoors. This is a great way to meld them. It'll be interesting to see how it goes."
On Aconcagua, Colsey, Richards and another deaf climber typically communicated through writing. They also used hand gestures.
"The only real problematic thing was that it was really hard for them to join in the general conversation, so they did not really form part of the group, socially," Colsey said. "I did learn some sign from them and enjoyed that a lot. It was very rewarding for me."
Because they will be climbing at night and in the snow on Rainier, Woodard plans to wear black gloves so that her gestures can be seen. They'll also make their gestures more emphatic.
"So many people have been willing to work with me in terms of gestures, but this will be a new experience in Rainier," Richards said. "We'll see how easy this can be. Hopefully other deaf people after me will have an easier time."
Truth be known, an even larger concern is Denali because the outfitter is reluctant to take her with a group. They have offered to take her alone, but the cost is $23,000 — far more than she can afford on income limited to part-time work because if she's employed full-time she loses Medicare.
Richards plans to meet with the outfitter later this month to negotiate an agreement.
One way or another, she figures, she'll get it done and move on to a life traveling the country, sharing her experiences with deaf people and helping others understand the challenges for the deaf and victims of multiple sclerosis.
After all, she's come too far to let an obstacle as small as $23,000 halt her now.
"Even this, I'm not going to let it block my dream," Richards said.
Copyright © 2004, Lee Enterprises