Dragging tires up the hill, and other life lessons with a mountaineer
It was a sleety, windy Saturday morning about three weeks ago. I was alone. I had hiked up from Cuckold's Cove and had just broken out onto the hardtop of Signal Hill Road.
I was heading downhill, and coming uphill toward me was a familiar figure.
TA Loeffler isn't hard to pick out on the hill. Bent almost double against the wind and gravity, she wears a heavy pack on her back … and behind her trail two car tires.
She's dragging them up the hill. This is her training, the preparation for a third attempt on Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain.
I walk past her and wave, cracking one of my "dad jokes" about my spare tire versus her two spare tires. She stops, smiles and greets me like a long-lost friend, then continues her slog up the hill.
Three weeks later, I'm slogging up the hill with her. Her trip to Nepal is a couple of weeks away. She hopes to be climbing Everest by April 24.
This particular slog up the hill is for Here & Now. I meet TA Loeffler halfway up the hill at the GEO Centre.
She has a pack for me, a third the weight of hers. She's going to tow two tires behind her. I get one. Part of me feels like an imposter, while the other part thanks her silently.
And we're off — an unlikely twosome.
Loeffler is a small woman. Though powerfully built, she's half my size. She leans into the hill. I learn later that she's carrying 100 extra pounds, tires and packs combined.
On the other hand, she must have packed my rucksack with Styrofoam. I am getting away lightly.
We must look an odd couple. I'm reminded of a couple of characters from some fictional kid's book. Me, the big old rickety carthorse, and she, the tough little Newfoundland pony.
This is one determined woman. Her bio tells me she has climbed six and four fifths of the world's highest peaks. The four fifths is Everest, which so far has defeated her twice.
In 2007, she was stopped in her tracks by altitude sickness. In 2010, some sort of bug got the better of her.
Why climb mountains?
But here she is again, taking another stab at it. More training, more packing of gear, and more fundraising. The bill for her latest attempt will be more than $55,000.
She raises it through sponsorships and speaking engagements. (She has a full time job as a university professor.)
Loeffler says she climbs mountains to inspire others and, like a lot of serious athletes, she also does it to prove something to herself.
Odd couple that we are, I feel a bond. We both agree that strenuous physical activity serves us both as a kind of psychiatrist. I exercise as a way of putting my daily cares into perspective, as a way of stomping dark thoughts and occasional sadness into submission.
Loeffler's experience has been far more profound than mine.
As a child she was sexually abused. She tells me getting over that has been like "peeling away the layers of an onion."
Climbing, she says, has gotten her through some "very deep and dark, hard, hard times."
Getting out, setting goals
I am inspired by our chat — so are many others. Apart from being a motivational speaker to help finance her expeditions, she also drops into schools and talks to the kids there about the importance of getting out and moving and setting goals.
As we trudge up the hill, I almost forget we're being trailed by videographer John Pike. John stops us and restarts us occasionally so he can switch position to get the shots he needs.
As we crest the hill I'm regretting that the hike is over. We sit down for a more formal interview and Loeffler talks about the toll the last Everest attempt took on her body and mind. She tells me how hard she's trained this time.
The previous day's workout involved lifting a heavy sandbag over and over. She takes pride in the fact that she set a record, lifting the sandbag more times than she has in any other workout.
I ask her how she feels when she looks back on all she's done. Loeffler says she feels a gentle pride.
Her experiences have taught her compassion, for others and herself, Loeffler says. Above all, she's learned not to be so hard on herself.
Another trek up Signal Hill is over. In just over three weeks TA Loeffler will face Everest for a third time. As the interview ends, I wish her luck.