MS was the motivation I needed to climb Mount Everest

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by BioNews Staff |

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Five photos showing individuals with multiple sclerosis, who are sharing their real-life stories during MS Awareness Month, are hung with clips on a string above the words 'MS Community Spotlight.'

Jen Willis treks to the Lobuche high camp in the Everest region in Nepal. (Photos courtesy of Jen Willis)

Day 27 of 31

This is Jen Willis’ story:

It was June 12, 2008. I was 37 years old and had given birth to my third child just six days earlier. The lead-up to that had been particularly stressful due to some extraneous workplace challenges, and while his birth by cesarean section wasn’t difficult, immediately afterward I became freezing cold and needed to be rewarmed in a special air-heated bag.

Jen Willis recaches Ama Dablam, a mountain in the eastern Himalayan range.

I was left feeling drained. When I started to become very dizzy over the next couple of days, I blamed it on fatigue. By the fifth day, the dizziness was almost unbearable, and I was also experiencing double vision. An MRI showed a single unidentified bright object and “suspected” multiple sclerosis (MS). The neurologist said it was a 70% likelihood. A spinal tap a few days later came back clear and the likelihood was reduced to 10%.

I had a friend working alongside MS researchers, and by talking with him I learned that the prognosis for someone with MS was not as poor as it had once been. I vowed that if I was ever diagnosed, I would actively fundraise for MS research myself, knowing that I would become a beneficiary of this work.

I was sitting outside looking up at the Rocky Mountains at that moment, and I decided that I would fundraise by one day going on my own Climb for a Cure for MS. I would bring my long-standing dream of learning how to mountaineer to life and combine it with fundraising.

Some 10 years later, in 2018, after many years of tests and no one knowing exactly what the increasing white spots in my brain were, I was eventually given a definitive diagnosis of MS. With that came the time to climb!

Life was challenging me in a few ways during this season. So I left my marriage and then my job soon after. And with the help of an amazing mum, I was able to focus on my dream.

Jen Willis takes a break at the base of the Khumbu Icefall, a notorious section of the Khumbu Glacier, just above the Everest base camp.

Over the following year, I trained extensively around Melbourne, Australia, my home city, and then headed to Nepal in October 2022 for a two-month mountaineering expedition. We climbed Mera Peak and Ama Dablam, one of the most spectacular and technical peaks in the Himalayas.

As not many people had ever heard of these peaks, my quest to climb for a cure did not raise as much money as I had hoped. So, in April 2023, I headed back to Nepal on a two-month expedition to climb Mount Everest. While logistics meant I didn’t quite make it to the summit, I am proud to say that I became only the third person with MS to climb to 8,000 meters on our beautiful planet.

While MS throws me my share of challenges, had it not been for my diagnosis, I’m not sure I would’ve ever taken the time to do something so significant for myself by climbing Mount Everest!

You can listen to a TEDx talk I gave after my return to hear more about my climb. You can also follow more of my adventures on my Facebook page, MS Adventure.

In recognition of Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month in March, the MS Community Spotlight campaign features a series of stories highlighting the real-life experiences of people affected by MS, written in their own words. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest for more stories like this, using the hashtag #MSSpotlight, or read the full series.