Sept 25, 2002
Cox News Service
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo.
Years of scrambling across sheer rock faces and traversing high-altitude environments has accustomed Eric Simons to overcoming hardships and personal challenges.
Nothing in the world of vertical rock and snow, however, prepared Simons for the greatest challenge of his life.
In November 1995, after a day of climbing on the world-class sandstone cliffs of Eldorado Canyon near Boulder, Simons went to bed recalling his neck unexpectedly was stiff. The next morning, he awoke to find the entire right side of his body numb.
In the days that followed, Simons lost all feeling below his neck and his right arm was paralyzed.
From that moment on, instead of slick handholds and the constant pull of gravity, Simons found himself fighting multiple sclerosis, an insidious disease that he refuses to let control his life.
While there is no known cure for MS, research and people such as Simons have shown that MS patients are capable of living full, productive lives. Since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Simons, 47, has done numerous technical rock- and ice-climbing routes in Colorado and has climbed several of the world's higher peaks.
He's also climbed 33 of Colorado's 54 peaks higher than 14,000 feet.
Simons had a setback shortly after his initial MS attack when some of his internal organs inexplicably started to shut down. Doctors feared pancreatic cancer, but after a week or so the organs began functioning again.
By then he had lost 40 pounds along with most of his muscle tone "and I couldn't sit up for more than 30 seconds," Simons said.
"I had these two things happen at the same time and I couldn't even think about climbing," said Simons. "All I could focus on was getting through each day."
Facing the possibility of a life in bed, Simons decided to call on his mountaineering experience.
"The same thing happens in the mountains when the weather hits and the panic rises," he said. "The best thing to do is sit down and calm yourself before you make any decisions."
Knowing his best chance at recovery was to set some self-imposed goals, he first worked at simply sitting up. Once sitting, he could look out the bedroom window and see a gazebo in his yard.
"All I wanted was to walk out to the gazebo and watch my children play," he said. "My world had narrowed so much, I felt I could be happy for the rest of my life if I could just get outside and watch my children."
Eventually he was walking down the block, at first leaning heavily on his oldest son, Evan, now 20.
"I kept upping the ante, pushing the envelope," Simons recalled. "Instead of asking people to get something for me, I used the need for something to get some exercise. I would go downstairs, rest 10 to 15 minutes and slowly make my way back upstairs."
As his strength gradually returned, he started climbing mountains again and now has to his credit three of the world's higher mountains: Mount Kilimanjaro (19,434 feet), Mount Rainier (14,441) and Mexico's Pico de Orizaba (18,401).
All were climbed since his initial diagnosis with MS.
He also managed to reach 22,650 feet on Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America (22,840 feet) before having to turn back when his climbing partner developed altitude sickness.
Obviously, not all MS patients are high-altitude climbers. Statistics indicate one out of 800 people in Colorado have some form of MS, so every day you might talk with someone who has MS.
"That's the thing about MS," said Priscilla Mangnall, Western Slope development coordinator for the Colorado Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "People don't die from MS, they learn to live with it."
Tricia Tittle of Grand Junction, a former Grand Canyon boater who now works at Summit Canyon Mountaineering, is one of the half-million or so Americans with MS.
Tittle said that except for taking medications that slow the disease, her lifestyle hasn't changed much from the days accompanying her husband, Marc, down the Colorado River.
"He can out-row me, I seem to get tired more quickly now," said Tricia.
"I wanted someone to show how active an MS patient can be," she said. "I wanted to show that not all MS patients are in wheelchairs. People who have known me for a long time forget I have MS."
She and Marc spent the summer touring the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska and British Columbia and took several days back-packing into Denali National Park and Preserve.
Simons, who recently summited the Maroon Bells near Aspen, also saw Denali this summer when he led a group of climbers, all with MS, in an attempt to climb the 20,320-foot peak, North America's highest mountain.
"It was brutally hard," said Simons, describing what is reputed to be one of the toughest mountains in the world. "I likened it to putting on a 70-pound pack and doing squats for eight hours a day for three weeks."
High winds, deep snow and intense cold prevented most climbers this year from summiting Denali, including Simons' group. Still, he feels his group reached one of its major goals.
"Just the fact we dared to push and test our levels had a very strong message," he said. "We dared to do something I don't think anyone else had done before.
He said the key to an full life with MS is to stay active.
"For people with MS, the secret is mobility," Simons explained. "I tell people it's a good idea to push yourself, to stay active.
"People have to focus on their abilities, not their disability."
Dave Buchanan writes for The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colo.
© 2002, Cox News Service