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December 10, 2004

A high goal drives work

From: Corvallis Gazette Times, OR - Dec 10, 2004

Corvallis woman keeps pursuit of 'highpointing' in all 50 states

Gazette-Times reporter

Six months ago, Corvallis climber Miriam Richards thought her dream of becoming the first deaf woman ever to climb the 50 states' highest peaks was in her grasp.

She was planning to summit the last three "highpoints," Washington's 14,410-foot Mount Rainier in late May, tackle Gannett Peak in Wyoming in August and join the short list of elite climbers to reach the highest peak in each of the 50 states in June 2005 by climbing the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in Alaska.

"I'm really motivated," Richards said last May, one week before her trip.

She made a banner, thinking that Rainier would be her 48th highpoint. But the banner never made it out of her pack. Richards and her guides encountered treacherous weather and spent several days waiting for a storm to pass. It never did.

"I kept thinking, I paid $1,200, and I'm stuck in a tent," Richards recalled.

Discouraged, but not defeated, it's not unlike many other obstacles Richards has faced. For the Oregon State University forestry graduate, mountains like Kilimanjaro in Africa might seem more like ant hills.

Richards has been deaf all her life and was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the central nervous system that can cause abnormal fatigue and a loss of balance and muscle coordination.

Perhaps it's because she's deaf that Richards doesn't listen to people who would try to tell her she shouldn't climb.

Even the postponement of her most-anticipated ascent, Alaska's Denali, and the disappointment on Rainier doesn't detract from her goals.

"I'm going back," Richards said recently. "I'm going to finish."

These days, Richards is preparing to leave for Melbourne, Australia, where she'll be volunteering as an interpreter at an information desk during the Deaf Olympics. Richards will be welcoming visitors and providing information at the games.

Richards said her job is to ensure that the event is the most successful ever. The native of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, twice competed at Deaf Olympics, in 1984 as the No. 1 tennis player for the Canadian team, and in 1989 in New Zealand.

She said Olympic organizers sought her for the job because of her high standard for customer service, and her friendly and positive manner.

Richards said the most rewarding aspect of the job will be meeting new people from around the world and growing from the experience of learning about other cultures.

When she returns from Australia, she'll resume her exercise routine of running, swimming and weightlifting to prepare again for Rainier.

Richards worries about the physical effects of being without her regular MS medicine while she's in Melbourne. She's also frustrated with trying to raise enough money to pay for her adventurous pursuits.

She receives a modest disability income and is limited in the amount she can earn. She works part-time as a sign language instructor at Western Oregon University. She referees soccer games and does other odd jobs on the side, such as delivering phone books.

She's trying to raise $30,000 for McKinley, about four times the guide company's regular fee. Richards must pay more for extra accommodations because she is deaf.

"Right now, I have no idea what date to climb Alaska," she said.

Richards said she's had to convince other guides before to take her and many have refused because they're worried about her safety and their liability. In 1995, she fell from an ice shelf on Mount Hood and was injured so badly that it took more than a year for her to recover.

The fall shook her confidence at first, but she regained her courage, even while others remained skeptical.

She even had to convince a winery owner that she could work harvesting grapes this fall to earn extra money.

Richards told the owner that because she can't hear, her visual sense is stronger. In the end, she got the job and her boss was so impressed that he invited to come back and work again next year.

She knows she'll need to do more than pick grapes to be able to climb Mount McKinley.

So she's written grants and letters seeking sponsorship, hoping that a company or organization would be willing to contribute to the Denali guide's fee. She's also looking for someone who would be willing to be her guide when she attempts Rainier again.

"I had such high hopes to complete Rainier," she said. "I'd prefer to get Rainier done, and then have Alaska be the grand high point."

Becky Waldrop covers public policy and education for the Gazette-Times. She can be reached or 758-9510.

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