Life with MS

A Journey of Exploration and Self-Discovery

By Marianly H. Primmer

Wendy Booker was standing at more than 23,000 feet elevation. She was fighting nausea, imbalance, a partially numb face, a weak left arm and severe numbness and tingling on the left side of her body, but continued to persevere.
She was about 6,000 feet away from reaching her ultimate goal: climbing to the top of the world, the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. She had already started taking oxygen, a necessity for such high altitudes.
“I know Mount Everest is a lofty goal, but it was mine,” Wendy said. She first tried the same climb a year earlier, but conditions forced her to decide to turn around.
One year later, she was faced with the same decision on the same mountain. Continuing the climb could mean either reaching her ultimate goal of being on top of the world or possibly risking her health, life, and teammates’ lives.
Wendy called it “horrendously difficult” when she decided to turn around again. She admitted, after descending the mountain, she doubted whether she made the right choice.
It was a tough call for Wendy because she had grown up believing that adversity can be overcome with hard work. “I came from a family that believed it’s not what happened to you in life, it’s how you deal with it. It’s just part of who my family was,” Wendy said.
Her parents, who had lived during World War II, had instilled in her an attitude of determination and grit. Those are the same values Wendy instilled in her three sons.
Her two oldest were teenagers and her youngest was eight years old when she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.
At the time, the 44-year-old was numb on her left side from her toes to the top of her rib cage, a symptom she has always had since diagnosis. Despite the constant tingling and numbness, she still has motion in her body.
At first her family was scared, so she wanted to put a “good face to it.” Months before being diagnosed, Wendy had taken up running and had just signed up to run the Boston marathon.
Wendy thought, “What’s the worst that can happen? I’m going to end up in a wheelchair? Well, that could happen from the MS or from the marathon.”
Less than two years after her diagnosis, Wendy crossed the finish line at the Boston marathon. Running more than 26 miles with MS gave her strength. “That was my first mountain.” Wendy was eager to see what else she could do.
A few years later, Wendy got the opportunity to climb Mount Denali (until recently known as Mount McKinley). This Alaskan peak is the highest in North America, infamous for its glaciers and frequent ice falls. Wendy had never climbed a mountain or even camped before deciding to accept the challenge. She was a self-proclaimed “girly girl.”
“There was no showering, bathrooms, or clean clothes.” During the climb she carried her essential belongings on her back.

She and six men began climbing in an unguided expedition, something which she now recognizes to be very risky. About one month later, Wendy reached the top, becoming the first person with MS to summit Mount Denali.
That’s where she had a realization, “This has nothing to do with climbing Denali; this has everything to do with multiple sclerosis.”
Wendy said the mere act of climbing makes people feel like they have MS because of the imbalance that comes with high altitudes. “We all have our mountains. MS is my mountain.”
At more than 20,000 feet elevation at the top of a snowy, hazy mountain, Wendy’s purpose became clear. “You’ve got your mountain, what are you going to do with it?”
Wendy began the Climb On! Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping newly diagnosed people with MS come to terms with their diagnosis, and gain resources in order to find what they are passionate about and achieve success.
“Find something positive, that you love to do. Find your passion and while you are doing it, you forget that you have MS for the time that your mind is engaged.” Wendy said it could be anything – playing guitar or learning a language.
Wendy also believes the first year of a person’s diagnosis is critical because it serves as the foundation for the rest of their MS journey. She believes a positive attitude combined with the right disease-modifying therapy can have life-changing effects.
Wendy has dedicated her time to carrying the message of hope for individuals with MS and has spoken at conferences in front of hundreds of people.
“Exactly what your mountain is doesn’t matter. What truly matters is that you find a way to push beyond the obstacles in your life to discover your passion and achieve more than you ever thought possible,” Wendy said on the home page of her website.
She went on to climb the highest mountains and reach summits around the world, except Mount Everest. Wendy found herself at the center of an ironic situation: the woman who had encouraged so many others couldn’t reach her own goal. Wendy was in disbelief as she descended Mount Everest without reaching the summit for the second time.
She called it a profound moment when “the disease had won” and she had a self-learning experience. “I’m not above this disease at all. It was a humbling experience that MS is forbidding me from doing what I want.”
She says she threw herself a “pity party” because she could not climb to the top of the world.
But it didn’t last long. Wendy remembered what her parents taught her when she was a kid, “It’s not what happened to you in life, it’s how you deal with it.” Instead of giving up on reaching the top of the world, she changed the way she would reach the top.
Her attitude of determination and grit was back. Wendy set off on an expedition to reach the North Pole, the true top of the world.
She participated in a dogsled and ski expedition that took her through unsteady ice with pressure ridges and open water leads. She spent about two and a half weeks in the freezing cold. On April 23, 2011, the day before her 57th birthday,
Wendy Booker became the first person with MS to reach the North Pole. Once she pulled out her GPS and got confirmation, there were hugs, yelling, jumping, and crying.
“That was more profound than reaching the top of every other mountain.” A wave of elation came over her. “I finally stood on the top of the world.”
You can read a first person account of Wendy’s journey in her book New Altitude: Beyond Tough Times to the Top of the World available on and you can find more information about her on