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Marjorie Cross  

EVEREST EXPEDITION LEADER/CANCER SURVIVOR

Midge Cross was in the midst of planning a trek to the world’s most formidable mountains when she found herself facing a challenge more daunting and dangerous than the Himalayas: breast cancer.

“I told my doctor, I don’t have time for this,” Cross says. “I’m going to Nepal.”

She didn’t go climbing, however. Instead, she underwent a lumpectomy and radiation therapy. She became a mentor for the Navigator Program, a one-on-one support system for newly diagnosed women. Now, five years later, she officially has beaten her breast cancer. Serendipitously, she is celebrating the occasion of her landmark “all-clear” date by finally heading to the Himalayas, this time in an attempt to climb Everest.

“The timing is quite incredible,” says Cross, whose three sisters all have had breast cancer. “My younger sister just had a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy. This is her Everest.”

In addition to the cancer, Cross was diagnosed 18 months ago with diabetes.

The senior member of this Everest expedition, Cross tends to think of herself as “the token over-50, cancer survivor, diabetic grandmother.” Her teammates regard her quite differently, however.

When Alison Levine and Lynn Prebble were in the process of reviewing resumes and interviewing potential expedition members, both knew right away that Cross was a keeper. In fact, Levine spoke for the group when she emailed Prebble, enthusing: “Midge for president!”

Having spent her girlhood roaming the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Cross was a 36-year-old single parent when she started climbing in earnest. She met Scott, her husband-to-be, when she attended the Colorado Mountain Club Mountaineering School where he was teaching. Scott bullied her for days, Cross says, to apply for this Everest expedition.

“He’s done three Himalayan trips,” she says. “He thought it would be good for me and that I would be just the kind of person they were looking for.”

It wasn’t the first time that one of her family members thought she was extraordinary enough to be noticed by others. A few years ago, Women’s Sports and Fitness magazine requested nominations for “Woman of the Year,” looking for candidates who inspired and supported other women. Her daughter wrote the winning letter about Cross, who subsequently was featured in the magazine.

Cross manages to maintain power, endurance and speed with regular workout regimens that change with the seasons. In the winter, her backcountry skiing outings often involve several thousand feet of elevation gain. In the summer, she runs in the mountains, hikes, rock climbs and cycles. She lifts weights year-round, two or more times a week.

For Everest, she has been practicing walking on a ladder in crampons, she says, “pretending that instead of looking down three feet, I’m looking into a dark crevasse.”

Because she lives in Washington state at only 2,000 feet above sea level, she also felt the need to “practice” living at altitude, so she (and her husband) have been sleeping in a special tent that simulates the oxygen-deprived conditions on Everest.

“It’s a fabulous device,” she says. “A generator sits in the bathroom and rumbles away; there’s an oxygen absorber in the generator. We moved our futon mattress inside the tent and started at about 9,000 feet. Last night was 16,000,” she said, a week before leaving for Nepal. “I woke up with a slight headache and was aware I had tossed and turned.”

In addition to the tent, Cross bought some new gear for the trip. “The boots alone run about $650, and they’re not really useful for any other kind of activity,” Cross says. “But they will be warm. That’s $65 a toe, and I like all my toes.”

Frostbite notwithstanding, the thought of going without a hot shower for six weeks is a bit daunting, Cross admits: “But once you’re a little dirty, what’s a little more dirty?”

Cross is realistic about the challenge ahead, but also optimistic: “Do I expect to get to the summit? No. Do I hope I do? Absolutely.”

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