On July 14, 2017, Taryn Simpson posted the following message to her Facebook page:
“By 2020 I will summit Mount Rainier. Someone hold me to this.”
Almost exactly two years to the day Simpson found herself at 14,000 feet, staring down into Rainier’s massive snowed-in crater, the sunlit silhouette of the Cascades stretching off into the distance. And between moments of composing herself and trying to catch her breath, she reflected on her challenges with rheumatoid arthritis and the journey that led her to this moment of triumph over the genetic condition.
“I was just so happy and grateful,” Simpson said. “There was this overwhelming pride, and this thought that, ‘I have to do more of this.’”
The Snohomish native transformed her condition from something that cut short her childhood athletic ambitions into an incentive for pursuing a new one: mountaineering. And now she’s conquering Washington State’s highest peaks one by one.
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Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is a condition in which the body’s immune system fails to recognize its own tissue and therefore attacks itself. This creates inflammation and pain, primarily in the joints.
Simpson, now 33 and a quarter away from earning her degree in biochemistry from University of Washington Bothell, always had the condition. She was an active child growing up in Snohomish, with gymnastics being the sport she loved most. But she always seemed to be laid up with nagging injuries, and she was experiencing constant pain.
But Simpson didn’t know she had RA. She thought her pain was just a part of life.
“What I experienced, and what anyone experiences, is their normal,” Simpson said. “It wasn’t weird, that’s just what I knew. I was just a kid who got injured all the time, and I thought that was normal for people.”
The pain eventually forced Simpson to quit gymnastics when she was a freshman at Snohomish High School. She was 19 when she decided she had to give up snowboarding. She saw a steady stream of doctors and physical therapists who could provide no answers. By the time she was 24 she was wondering if she’d been consigned to a lifetime devoid of activity.
But that summer Simpson was pointed by a friend in a different direction, which led her to medical specialists who were able to determine she had RA. It’s the type of diagnosis that can turn someone’s life upside down. This was true for Simpson, too, but perhaps not in the way one would expect.
“I was so relieved,” Simpson said. “Something was clearly wrong and no one could tell me why. So to finally have something definitive, and a way to potentially prevent the issues, was huge.”
Simpson changed her diet, eliminating gluten and most dairy, which are foods that cause inflammation. She began taking medication that helps prevent RA’s worst symptoms.
And that allowed Simpson to get back into the game.
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In 2015 Simpson, well into the process of learning how to manage her RA, was invited by friends to try out a gym bouldering wall. Not only did she enjoy it, she soon had a startling revelation.
“I had really big issues with arthritis in my hands and thumbs — I was in school and I noticed because I couldn’t write,” Simpson recalled. “But when I was climbing consistently the pain in my hands went away.”
Suddenly Simpson had her pathway back to activity.
Simpson began engaging in outdoor activities like rock climbing and hiking. The time in the outdoors helped shift her mentality on what she was physically capable of accomplishing. The turning point came in May of 2017 when she joined a group climbing Mount St. Helens. Although the ascent proved challenging, it produced a mental breakthrough — with the assistance of Stacia Glenn, one of her fellow climbers who has since become a good friend.
“We kind of split into two groups, a fast group and a slow group, and I was a slug in the back,” Simpson said. “Stacia and I were talking as we were climbing and she said, ‘Don’t beat yourself up about if you’re slow or fast. You need to give yourself more credit. You have RA and you’re doing this.’ I’d been beating myself up for what I couldn’t do instead of giving myself credit for what I could do, and that was a huge change in perspective for me.”
It also prompted Simpson’s vow to climb Rainier by 2020. This summer she got the chance to keep that promise. She joined a group, which included Glenn, that set out to scale Rainier via the Emmons route in July. The group did the ascent in two days, reaching Camp Sherman at about 10,000 feet the first day, then pushing to the summit the second day.
“The last few hundred feet were brutal,’ Simpson said. “I had no energy, and the old quote is, ‘Reaching the summit is optional, getting back down is mandatory.’ The last little push I was so exhausted, and I was wondering, ‘Am I going to be able to get back down?’
“About 15 steps below where you can see the crater I started to cry because I was like, ‘I’m actually going to do this.’ That’s when I realized that crying at 14,000 feet when you can’t breathe is a terrible thing to do. That made me laugh, and now I’m crying, laughing and trying to catch my breath all at the same time.
“I was up there and I was like, ‘I need to do this again.’ It was really special, I was just so ecstatic, and it was so beautiful.”
The date was July 21, two years and one week after she posted her Facebook message.
While Rainier was the promise, it’s not Simpson’s end goal. Next up is attempting to scale all five Washington volcanoes in the same season. She climbed St. Helens again on Black Friday, she’s hoping to climb Mount Adams in the near future, and she plans on tackling Rainier, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak this summer.
And she’s continuing to prove that RA, or any other condition, need not have the final word on what one can or cannot do.
“I think the biggest thing for me has been being able to prove to myself that simply being told something isn’t possible doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do it,” Simpson said. “I think a lot of people are told they can’t do something and take it at face value. They’re told they can never be active or will always have to deal with chronic pain. But that doesn’t mean you can’t live a full and incredible lifestyle.
“If one single person takes my story as motivation to continue trying to find an answer for their body, it’s absolutely worth it for me.”
If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.