Seven Women, Six Days, One Mountain

Spotts Park workout: Shana Ross (kneeling) joins six other women (l–r) Venita Day, Sheri Dawson, Dr. Jackie Doval, Becky Pope, Pam Hilmes, and Deb Sanders, on a quest to Mount Kilimanjaro.

Shana Ross Leads the Way up Kilimanjaro
by Marene Gustin

“It’s not on my bucket list,” says fitness guru Shana Ross, reflecting on her upcoming climb up the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. “I never even thought about doing it.”

But when longtime client Becky Pope told Ross that she and her partner, Pam Hilmes, had decided to make the climb, Ross was all in. Pope had been diagnosed for the second time with ovarian cancer, and Hilmes has rheumatoid arthritis.

Pope even found five other women—with cancer, HIV, and menopause—who were willing to go along on this African adventure in September.

Mount Kilimanjaro

And so Project Kilimanjaro was born.

Ross has taken on the task of training the group for the climb, and both she and her partner of 25 years, Mary Beth Reuter, will be going along. Pope’s oncologist is also making the trek up Tanzania’s highest peak, and another group member, Jackie Doval, is a chiropractor—which, Ross admits, should come in very handy.

Hundreds of people attempt to climb Africa’s highest peak every year, partly because of its beauty and partly because it’s possible to hike the mountain without ropes or technical equipment. “It’s really more of an intense hike,” Ross says. “But it’s the altitude that gets you. Most people who don’t make it to the summit are stopped by the altitude.” That’s what happened to tennis great Martina Navratilova last year when she attempted the climb, but wound up spending three days in the hospital.

The Houston women’s team will make the weeklong trek beginning on September 12, taking the Rongai Route and hopefully hitting the summit on the fourth day. Those with acrophobia (fear of heights) will be glad to know that the final hair-raising ascent to the summit is done in the dark, so you can’t see how far up you are. “They tell me you can only see what’s in your light in front of you,” says Ross. “So you can’t look down!”

Ross admits that training for a high-altitude climb in no-altitude Houston is tough. But she’s using a hybrid workout of cardio and strength training, as well as nutrition.

“The heat has stopped us from working out outdoors,” Ross says. “But we’re doing stair climbing with backpacks now, and everyone’s endurance is increasing. None of us are elite athletes, but these are women (gay, straight, married, single, black, white—we’re like the United Nations!) who have experienced illness and hardship in their lives. Women who have faced emotional mountains and made it to the top. We’re all appropriately anxious—okay, appropriately scared—but we are prepared and I’m confident we can do it.”

Besides the physical training, Ross is big on nutrition. She and Reuter cook at home 90 percent of the time, and she posts real-time cooking videos on YouTube. Her favorite go-to meal is a salmon filet with a kale, lemon, and avocado salad. That’s probably not what they’ll be eating on the climb, but Ross says the tour group, Zara Tours, sends porters ahead to make camp and cook hot, high-calorie meals for the climbers, who can expend 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day. And Gluten Free Houston, a local bakery, is developing three energy bars just for Project Kilimanjaro, with planned names like Kilimanjaro Krunch.

For the 51-year-old Ross, who was raised in East Texas eating fried things smothered in gravy, fitness wasn’t really on her radar until she turned 40 and got a coach, a diet, and started working out. She then started helping others achieve the same goals, and in 2007 opened her own fitness studio in the Heights. Today, she and Reuter live just seven blocks from the studio they jointly run with their dog, Simon the Wonder Wiener.

“No relation to the congressman,” she laughs.

The couple also enjoys the occasional night out at the theater or ballet, and excursions to New York City for Broadway spectacles.

“But my work is my real hobby,” Ross insists. “I love what I do. I love working out and helping others achieve their best.”

Ross helps hundreds of clients each year, but her goal is to reach even more people. With that in mind, she will be writing a book about Project Kilimanjaro, telling the stories of these amazing women who have overcome so much and who tackled a mountain in celebration. A portion of the proceeds will go to the National Ovarian Cancer Alliance.

And if this group of amazing women makes it to the summit, what’s next?

“First,” says Ross, “we’re going to take a shower, because none of us is looking forward to six days without a shower. And then there will be a big party!”

Project Kilimanjaro: We Choose to Climb

These amazing women could use your help to achieve their goal. If you would like to learn more about this project, or make a donation to help them, visit WeChoosetoClimb.com. They will be tweeting, Facebooking, and hopefully Skyping their adventure.

Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.


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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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