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K
ay LeClaire didn’t climb her first mountain until she was 1 years old. At 61,
she has reached the top of the highest peaks on all seven continents, the Seven
Summits. In May of 2009, Kay became the second oldest woman in the U.S. to
summit Everest. It was her fourth attempt.
“My parents taught me to persevere and to never give up,” says Kay. She took that lesson
to heart and has practiced and honed it in the classroom of life—and on the mountains.
It all started with Rainier. Inspired by an article in Seattle Magazine that listed climb-
ing Mount Rainier as one of the fun things to do in Washington during the summer,
Kay decided she’d give it a try. She signed herself up, along with her son, Andrew. Both
of them made the summit in 2000.
“From then on, I was hooked,” says Kay.
She was also keenly aware of her novice status and knew that if she was going to get
serious about climbing, she was going to need some expert help. The Mountaineers
Mountain School provided that guidance; Andrew and Kay’s husband, Jerry, joined in
the training.
Among the many skills Kay picked up in her Mountaineers training, facing her fears
proved to be a watershed experience and one that would serve her well in the future.
“One of my goals is to inspire folks
“There was a point climbing the Minnehaha rocks where I was hanging and couldn’t
my age to be more physically active.
find a route or a handhold or foothold,” Kay recalls. “I was so afraid that I started
People shouldn’t give up rigorous
whimpering.
exercise just because they’re older.
‘Where do I go now?’ I cried. The answer was ‘up.’ Something clicked in me at that
I say to them, ‘you can do it, you
moment that said, ‘Ok, Kay. Get a grip.’ And I did. I actually climbed to the top.”
just have to work your way into it.’”
Since then, she hasn’t stopped climbing. Of course, there have been the occasional
setbacks. In addition to the often volatile caprices of nature and the inherent danger “What a great facility this is,” says Kay,
of the sport itself, there is the physical toll of altitude and time that weighs on these a Club member since 1990. “It’s a great
athletes. While making her way to the top of the world, Kay has collected a few of her training spot for me with excellent staff.
own battle stories. It’s important to have a buddy in all of
On her first attempt at Everest, she made it to second camp before a heart arrhythmia this and that’s why the Club is so nice.
forced Kay off the climb. She was taken by helicopter to Kathmandu, Nepal and later It’s a wonderful outlet where you have
underwent an ablation procedure to her heart in Spokane. She would make three more friends that you can share your struggles
attempts at Everest before her summit in 2009. and problems with and get strength to
On another first summit attempt, this time on Denali in 2003, she and her teammates keep going.”
made it to high camp before a horrendous storm—100 mph winds and disintegrating The strength and drive to keep going
tents flying into the air—forced them to descend. is a life theme for Kay. Born in Moscow,
“I was going down a steep part and carrying a heavy pack when I felt something give Idaho with deep Northwest roots — her
in my knee,” Kay explains. “They wrapped some Therm-a- Rest pad around my leg and I grandparents lived in Cataldo, Idaho
was able to get down to base camp where they taped it up. I walked out—well, you have and her father was raised in Thornton,
no choice—still hauling my pack and dragging a sled behind me.” Washington — Kay’s life has been a
Her torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) required six weeks of physical therapy. The series of summits, both on and off
following year, Kay made it to the top of Denali—and back down—without injury the mountains.
Injury prevention was just one of the reasons that Kay decided to enlist the help of one She graduated from Arizona State Uni-
of the Club’s personal trainers, Michelle Levitch. The two have been working together versity with a degree in nursing. Shortly
since 2004 and Kay hasn’t had a single injury since. Kay attributes that to a consistent thereafter, while part of a botanical
program of cross training that includes cardio, weight training and stretching. Club research project in Argentina in 1973, she
instructors, Molly Benzel and Sue Madsen are other key components of that winning met her future husband, Jerry, a Harvard
strategy, as are fellow Club members. grad with a degree in biology.
www.spokaneclub.org . January 010 . 
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