Lofty Ambitions

The youngest American to climb Mt. Everest explains how ADD taught her to build up her focus and determination.

Danielle Fischer climbed Everest
Danielle Fischer climbed Everest

On June 2, 2005, seven months shy of my 21st birthday, I achieved a lofty goal by reaching the 29,035-foot summit of Mt. Everest. In a moment, I became the youngest American to scale the world’s tallest mountain and the youngest person ever to scale all of the Seven Summits (the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents). It was the proudest day of my life.

Growing up near the majestic Cascade Mountains in Bow, Washington, I spent a lot of time outdoors. When I was a little girl, my father used to take my sister and me into the mountains. Often we would go on horseback, exploring beautiful places that few people ever visited. I recall feeling free, without a care in the world. That’s how my love for mountains began.

But my early life wasn’t always carefree. I struggled throughout grade school. I was smart but easily distracted, and I had a hard time completing assignments. If I did complete them, I would forget to hand them in. I even had trouble completing my chores at home. I felt like I did not belong anywhere, so I shied away from people.

Getting the help I needed

In sixth grade, I learned that I had ADD. Initially, I was nervous about the diagnosis. But my doctor told me that, with the help of medication and a lot of determination on my part, I would be able to lead a normal life. The first drug I tried didn’t work well. The second one did. For the first time in my life, I was able to focus.

I was lucky to have a good support team, including my friends and family. I also worked closely with a therapist and a psychiatrist. It really helped to talk to people who understood my struggle with ADD, and who encouraged me to pursue my passion for mountain climbing, as well as continue my education. I had to find the right balance between acknowledging that I needed help and feeling that I should push myself to the best of my abilities. I guess you could say that I am approaching ADD the way I have approached mountain climbing, with all the strength and determination I can muster.

A growing passion

I really got into climbing the summer after my sophomore year of high school, when I climbed Mt. Baker, a 10,778-foot glacier mountain near Bow. I was with my dad and his friend Mike Woodmansee, an experienced mountaineer, who soon became my climbing mentor. That summer I made several climbs with my dad and Mike, making it to the top of several peaks in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, including Mt. Rainier.

Soon I became determined to scale the Seven Summits. In January 2003, I started with 22,848-foot Aconcagua in Argentina. In July of that year, I did two climbs: 19,339-foot Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and then Mt. Elbrus in Russia, 18,481 feet. Next came 7,320-foot Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia, which I climbed in January 2004, followed in May of that year by the 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley in Alaska. Then came 16,067-foot Vinson Massif in Antarctica’s Ellsworth Range in January 2005, and, finally, Mt. Everest in Nepal. In all, it took me two and a half years to climb all seven mountains.

Proving a point

Alpine climbing requires great strength and endurance. At first, it seemed too hard physically for someone who stands only five-feet-seven and weighs only 130 pounds. I didn’t enjoy it, but I kept climbing because the beauty of the mountains – especially the breathtaking views from the summits I reached – gave me an incredible sense of joy. And, I suppose, I wanted to prove to myself that having ADD couldn’t keep me from reaching my goals.

People often assume that the toughest thing about climbing is the physical part. For me, it was focusing on the climb for long periods of time. (The Everest expedition alone took 77 days.) In everyday life, a momentary lapse of focus is unlikely to cause major problems. But if you’re traversing a steep, icy ridgeline thousands of feet up, a lapse can be deadly.

Along with the medication I take, climbing has helped me learn how to focus. As a result, I have become better at all aspects of my life, including school. When I was younger, I lacked self-confidence. Now I am much more secure in my ability to succeed in whatever I attempt.

I have just completed my freshman year at Washington State University, where I am majoring in material science engineering. Once I graduate, I hope to get a job with a company that manufactures climbing equipment. Many of these companies allow their engineers to take time off to test their climbing equipment, and I’m hopeful that the job I get will allow me to pursue my passion for climbing. I’m scheduled to graduate in 2009. But my next goal is to climb Gasherbrum II, a 26,360-foot peak in Pakistan. I hope to stand on that summit sometime this summer.

I hope my story will be an inspiration to children and young adults who have ADD. The point, I think, is to get the treatment you need – and to take the time to find out what your passions are. Because when you truly enjoy what you do and are working toward a goal, you will be able to focus on that goal.

Good luck, and never give up on your dream!