Isabel Suppe: Climbing Past the Impossible

Amazing Women - Isabel Suppe

by Christine Perigen | March 20, 2013

Isabel Suppé is no dweller. She doesn’t dwell on the negative. She doesn’t dwell on the past. And she sure doesn’t dwell in one place too long. Optimistic, reflective, and full of hilarious stories, it’s no wonder Isabel has picked up motivational speaking. She can turn the most terrifying, difficult, and impossible situations into a comical and refreshing opportunity. If you don’t feel like getting off your ass and doing something amazing after hearing even one of Isabel’s “Oh, this is my average day” stories, I don’t know what else will.

While climbing in July 2010, Isabel fell 1,100 feet off Ala Izquierda del Condoriri´s southeast face in the Bolivian Andes. After spending the next two days crawling over the ice with a severely exposed fracture at 16,000 feet above sea level, Isabel was finally rescued. Soon after, she was told that she would never climb again. Three weeks later, she was climbing up a rock wall in a cast.

Isabel's fall is highlighted in red. 1,100 feet
Isabel’s fall is highlighted in red. 1,100 feet

Isabel, when I first read your story, I thought, “Holy shit.” I was blown away by how resilient you are.

The fall while climbing was actually the easy part. Everyone hears the story and thinks, “Wow, so brave.” And, of course, I was really lucky because I could have just broken my neck and been done. I have to say, if you take such a fall and are lying on a glacier and you only have two options: either die or fight for your life, of course you do what you can to fight for your life. It starts getting hard when you are lying in a comfortable hospital bed. If you lay back and say, “Well, I’m not going to go to the gym because it’s hard to get there and I have to hold crutches and everyone stares at me;” that’s when it starts getting harder.

Isabel in the hospital and practicing her climbing hold

Why go back to climbing so quickly and against doctor’s orders? 

In a way it was my anchor to life and to sanity. It was also a way of making the universe more graspable and understandable. I took such a fall and then was rescued and everything had suddenly changed. I was always used to having a tremendously healthy and well-trained body. To not be able to walk all of a sudden is a very severe change. If you can at least keep on doing things that are really important to you, for instance climbing, it helps you not to lose your mind.

Isabel climbing a rock wall with a leg cast.
Isabel climbing a rock wall with a leg cast.

How did you motivate yourself to begin again?

It wasn’t a choice. I have always felt that climbing is my identity. If I stopped climbing then I wouldn’t be myself anymore. If you lose your identity, then it’s almost as if you have died.

The summit of Illampu, Bolivia
The summit of Illampu, Bolivia

Your climbing partner’s injuries resulted in death. Just saying that is difficult.

There has always been a sense that the best tribute to a friend who didn’t make it off the mountain is to keep on climbing.  I don’t want to dwell on his death. In the past, I lost a friend who took a 2,000-foot fall. That was very horrible and it was the first time I had any contact with anything serious happening on a mountain. I was very devastated. I started to get better when I went back to the mountain. I knew that I needed to do that this time, too. I had to spend several days and nights fighting for my life and I also had to deal with serious physical injury myself. Having to fight so much for your life, somehow you also start dealing with the other person’s death. Even today, it still does not seem real.

Isabel climbing in Brazil
Isabel climbing in Brazil

Back on rock, did you feel that you were risking it all to climb?

There is a story my first grade teacher told us. Two little worms were living under the earth and they knew that if they went outside to enjoy the sunshine it would be dangerous. One went and enjoyed the sun and got eaten by a bird and the other stayed underground. I always thought it would be better to go out and enjoy the sunshine than die underground.

Where does this spunk come from?

Spunk? What is spunk? I do not know this word. [insert short explanation]. Oh, I was just born that way. My grandfather taught me to climb but he was a different type of adventurer. My grandfather had two passionate loves. One was mountains and the other was my grandmother. When Germany was defeated, he was stationed near the Black Sea, near the front lines. He got the note that the German army was defeated. He thought, “Great! I can finally go home.” He left immediately and walked all the way from the Black Sea back to Germany [approximately 1,500 kilometres]. That was in 1945. No Gortex, no high end gear. He had to be careful so he was not caught. He had no food and had to hide in the woods so he would not become a Prisoner of War. I asked him, “How did you survive?” His response was, “Well, I wanted to see my rocks again!”

Isabel and her grandfather in 1980.
Isabel and her grandfather in 1980.

Over the years, he kept on climbing and was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease. They gave him one year of life. He kept on climbing and stayed alive for more than 25 years. The day he couldn’t put on his harness anymore is when he shut down and just died.

I say the germ for climbing I got from him and grandmother but really my life changed after I moved to Argentina. I had never even conceived it would be possible to go to the mountains without my grandparents. Living in Buenos Aires, I had extra vacation time and I had been saving money to buy a fridge. I didn’t have one in my apartment. Fall was coming so I decided I could just put my food on my balcony and use my money to go on a trip. So I bought a flight to Patagonia. I didn’t even have proper gear.

I went trekking around El Chaltén. It was fall so I was the only person around. It was snowing and really cold. I had on corduroy pants and had nothing that would be used for mountaineering but I thought, “Hey, this is what I want to do.” And I just kept doing it. And this is how it all started.

Your grandfather, Walter Lenk, was famous in East Germany’s climbing world.

He was a locally famous climber. He definitely was not world-renowned. I was six years old when my grandparents took me rock climbing for the first time. I was going on easy treks ever since I was born. My parents and grandparents took me on picnics before I could walk. They took me to rocks in Southern Germany and then after the Berlin wall fell they took me to Eastern Germany. My grandparents are from Eastern Germany but they fled when the Russians built the Berlin Wall. When I was 11, they took me back there.

Isabel's grandfather leading a climb in 1947.
1947: Isabel’s grandfather leading a climb

When I was 19, I graduated from high school in Germany and moved to New Jersey on a scholarship for my undergraduate studies and finished in two and a half years. When I was about to finish, Bush was elected president and I said, “Okay, that’s it! I am leaving this country!” I wanted to see more of the world. I had taught myself Spanish so I thought, “Where shall I go for graduate studies?” I had been to Spain so I wanted to see something else. I saw the name Argentina and all I knew was that the capital was named Buenos Aires, it was in South America and there were some writers I liked from there. That’s how I got to Buenos Aires. I started to do longer expeditions after I moved to Argentina.

Living in Buenos Aires, you are surrounded by millions of people and are not close to mountains. Are you a city person at heart?

Living in Mahwah, New Jersey, I was going into the city every Saturday and to the art museums all the time but the problem was there were no mountains. Mountains are perfect if you are only into outdoors stuff.  The city is perfect if you are only into culture and having a cultural life. But if you need to have some of both worlds then your life is complicated. I was about to sign up to do a PhD in Argentina and in the end I wrote the research project and everything. To be honest, my life is not supposed to be trapped in the library. I need to learn and have contact to cultured people but I need the mountains. I knew I wouldn’t dedicate myself to research the way I would need to. I moved to Mendoza and survived by translating menus for restaurants and doing mountain guiding. Living in Mendoza, I always missed something. It was contact to culture and to people who can talk about artists like Van Gogh. I still haven’t found the perfect place but I do miss Argentina a lot.

Where do you consider home?

Nowadays, since I have had to be away from Argentina because of medical conditions, I have been traveling and living in my tent. Right now, I am visiting my dad in Munich (he doesn’t make me stay in a tent here!) but my permanent address is my tent.

A makeshift "tent" during a sand storm in the desert (USA)
A makeshift “tent” during a sand storm in the desert (USA)

 When doctors told you that you would never climb again, did you think, “Heck yes, I will!”

I actually did not believe it for one second. I just couldn’t. When I was on the glacier, it took me more than 12 hours to realize I was losing a lot of blood. I kept thinking it looked like a lot but it couldn’t be that bad because I would be dead by now. I had to be careful and wanted to avoid frostbite so I didn’t take my shoe off. I accepted the loss of blood. I needed my foot. I didn’t get frostbite at all. Nowadays, I know even if I had lost my foot, I would still go climbing. I don’t know how the surgeries are going to turn out but I know that if I can’t climb the way I want, then amputating might be an option because it is true that sometimes you can be better off amputating a limb and using a prosthetic than keeping a limb. I have a friend who had to make this decision. He said, “Well, better to be an amputee than a cripple,” and chopped off his foot. He goes rock climbing and ice climbing. I am not saying that’s an easy decision. I’d much rather not have to make that decision but I know should I have to, I will take it.

East face of Vallecitos. Photo Máximo Kausch (2009)
East face of Vallecitos. Photo Máximo Kausch (2009)

How many surgeries have you had since your fall in 2010?

 After the accident, I spent six months unable to walk. Then I learned how to walk. Then they had to operate again. That was a one-month recovery. Then I walked again. After that, I had three more surgeries in Spain. January 25th was surgery fourteen. This surgery will have a three month recovery and then I have to learn how to walk again. That also takes time.

Isabel making the best out of a hospital stay. Photo by Ian Grant
Isabel making the best out of a hospital stay. Photo by Ian Grant

As the first woman to solo climb Nevado the Cachi, you became one of the “firsts.” Is this important to you as a woman?

Actually, no. It was important to me not because I was the first woman. Not because it was solo. That climb wasn’t technically difficult. It was just high and isolated. Climbing Nevado the Cachi was important to me because I was standing up there on my two feet and on my crutches after the doctor told me I wasn’t going to be able to go back to the mountain, especially at high altitude. That was the important thing. If you look at the important climbs, this was a very easy mountain. It’s true that it is very isolated so if anything happens, forget about it. No one will find you for a long time after you are dead. It takes several days of walking to return to civilization. The wind is very, very extreme and temperatures are extreme but it is not a vertical climb. I guess no woman has ever done it on her own because of fear or the loneliness. It requires a lot of exposure.

One of your best known climbs is the new route you created on your birthday, after the accident.

I felt that it was much more important to open the new route in Bolivia with Robert on the anniversary of the accident. It was included in the American Alpine Journal as one of the world’s greatest climbs. That was one of my greatest accomplishments. After a year of hospital and rehab, I hadn’t meant to do anything that difficult. I wanted to do something but not the classic climbs because I had done almost all of them and they are too crowded. He said, “Oh yea! I know what we can do. I have not been to this climb. Let’s go there!” He is a really crazy guy. He knew what I was getting into. He had climbed on crutches before, too. I am sure he thought, “She climbs on crutches. I like that, so I will take her.” What I liked about him is that he is the only one mad enough to trust a climbing partner on crutches.

Isabel and Robert called their line "The Birthday of The Broken Leg" (TD+/ED), which climbs 500 meters up the southwest face of Serkhe Khollu in Bolivia. Photo by Isabel Suppe´
Isabel and Robert at the summit of Serkhe Khollu, Bolivia on their line “The Birthday of The Broken Leg.” Photo by Isabel Suppe´

 Do you see yourself as a “female climber” or a climber?

Just as a climber. I don’t think it’s necessary to separate that out. If you really want to change something or feel that more women should be represented, it’s better to set an example than it is to blame. In most athletic disciplines, women compete among women because, of course, there are biological differences. We have different bodies and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that but for everything else – there are parts of the world where it is still important for women to fight for their rights but in the United States or Europe it is less the case. I’m, of course, against patriarchy, but I don’t want a matriarchy either.

When I was about to get into my PhD program, my director wanted me to get into gender studies and I said no way. It’s not my cup of tea. Cycling across the US, I thought about this a lot. It’s really true that it’s all linked – human rights. It’s not women’s rights. It’s human rights. Mental issues, gay rights, environmental issues – those things are linked because whenever there are rights that are abused, everyone suffers.

Isabel and Rocinante on the George Washington Bridge, NYC
Isabel and Rocinante on the George Washington Bridge, NYC

What do you have to say to those people who are just dreamin’ to quit it all and go?

Dream. Ask yourself what do you want and how do you go about making that dream come true? What is really important? Sometimes, if you take a close look, it’s not really all that important to worry about a broken dishwasher. Sometimes, if you look at it closely, you can live pretty well without a dishwasher. You can say, “Screw the dishwasher! I can hand wash my plate for a while or buy a new one but this weekend I want to have a good time.” You can go anywhere.

 Tell us about Rocinante.

Rocinante, the bicycle
Rocinante, the bicycle

Rocinante is the name I gave my bicycle. [Rocinante was Don Quijote’s horse] It is actually my German grandmother´s old bicycle. I was at the German-Swiss border to Spain. I needed to get to Spain and thought the air flight was expensive. The doctor said I should cycle a lot to help in rehabilitating so I thought I could just cycle there. It is just tremendously depressing after you have been through so many surgeries to be told that you have a non-reversible condition and it can only get worse. So, you need to do something positive. I thought, “Hey, I am going to cycle there and try a new method of treatment.”

After Spain, I needed to get to an airport with a really cheap flight back to Germany. On my way, I found a sign that said ferry to Africa. I thought that was really cool and thought it would be great to cycle there. I called my brother and they had cheap flights to the southern tip of Spain. I asked my brother if he would like cycling through Morocco together. We started in Morocco and then cycled from Marrakesh to the Sahara Desert. After I finished that, we returned to Germany and I went to Spain to present my book and then left for the US and finally cycled across the US. On September 29, 2012, I finished.

What was it like riding across the US and coming across other cyclists?

Isabel with Rocinante in Colorado
Isabel with Rocinante in Colorado

I really didn’t meet any cyclists. I met this one guy who had no weight on his bike and his wife was driving behind him handing him soft drinks and booking his hotels for him. I thought that was funny. I cycled across Nevada on a really lonely road. I went through Tonopah and took the Extraterrestrial (ET) Highway and ended up in St. George, Utah. Then, I did a presentation in Boulder, Colorado and went through Nebraska and traveled as far north as Niagara Falls and then headed towards New York City.

US Cycling Tour - Photo by Chris Anthony
US Cycling Tour – Photo by Chris Anthony

I was traveling and doing these presentations. In Nebraska, I found myself speaking to local farmers in a barn. I had to give the speech in my cycling outfit because my clothes had been shipped ahead and I was just passing through. I spent two hours answering questions. Along the way, I spent some nights camping in a ditch or a bathroom and other nights in a millionaire’s mansion. Everything is relative.

In Boulder, I had met a climbing partner and he said he would climb in Devil’s Lake but I would have to skip some of the Midwest because of climbing. I said, “Okay! Let’s go for climbing!” I crossed all of Michigan and Ontario and re-entered the US at Niagara Falls and then dropped into New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. I finished the ride in front of Van Gogh’s, Starry Night at the MoMa. [Starry Night is the name of Isabel’s book about her climbing accident and recovery]

Isabel in front of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh at NYC MoMA
Isabel in front of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh at NYC MoMA

Why travel around the world? Why visit all of those places?

 I haven’t traveled around the world. I’ve just traveled a lot. To me, it is about living the way you want to live. It’s sometimes good that more people are not like me because no one would work in the office or …well you wouldn’t be able to visit your friends anymore. They would all be traveling and you would have nowhere to stay! I love that I’m a nomad and I always know where to find my friends. It’s so hard to get left behind.

Isabel on ice
Isabel on ice

TP: Crumple or Fold?

I have never stopped to think about it. It seems too trivial! I bet I am not an orderly person. I bet I would crumple it.

isabel suppe profile pictureIsabel Suppé is a high-altitude climber, writer, and motivational speaker. Her book, Starry Night, is being released in English in April 2013. She is a true survivor and nomad who follows her love of climbing all over the world.


For more information on Isabel and her adventurous life, visit her website.

Isabel will begin her US TOUR in June, 2013. Stay tuned for notifications on events in your area. 

To read the full story, order a copy of Isabel’s book, Starry Night. Click the Buy Now below.

$16.50 + shippingBook Cover - Starry Night“A daring reimagination of the typical disaster narrative, Starry Night portrays a world in which pain and unsettling beauty become inextricably intertwined.” – Katie Ives, Editor of Alpinist Magazine

Shipping Date: May 8, 2013

Emma Frisch: In the Kitchen and on the Peaks

by Christine Perigen | January 16, 2013

Emma Frisch’s joy is contagious. Her big smile jumps through the phone and makes you think about her delicious cupcakes and the good work she’s doing through her organization, PEAKS. Just married and having just attended her twin sister’s wedding in the same year, Emma’s had a lot of reasons to smile, laugh, and celebrate.

Your wedding photos looked like they were straight out of Wedding Magazine – you couldn’t have had a more fun and gorgeous time. Tell us about the event.

I’m lucky to have married my partner of eight years, Bobby Frisch. We met while we were both at University of Pennsylvania. He is my fellow business partner and project dreamer. We’ve travelled all over the world together and created all sorts of cool things. He started a hotel that I helped him work on and that’s where I opened my first and only restaurant, to date. He’s now getting an MBA at Cornell, which is how we came to Ithaca. It’s a place we both love.

Did you know you’d be planning such a large wedding?

Absolutely not. I thought it would be small with an intimate group of people. It just didn’t turn out that way. We both come from enormous families that we love. We had 125 people attend and the majority were family members. We still managed to stay true to our values. We had the wedding at Millstone Farm, a place I worked at for several years and I’m really close with the owners and farmers. All the food was prepared by our friend who is a chef that partners with the farm and uses food grown from Millstone. All the guests were given a tour of the farm. The wedding tent was made out of used sail cloths. We were married in the horse field amongst horse jumps with a blue grass band playing. We celebrated until the morning with all the people we loved the most.

Your identical twin sister just got married in the same year?!?

Emma and identical twin, Dimity

Yes! This was a totally unexpected coincidence. Her husband, Nolan, was planning to propose the same day Bobby proposed to me but Bobby got to it first. So, Nolan pocketed the ring for another four months. Neither of us were expecting it so it was really special to share that process. She had the opposite wedding: a city wedding, half the size of mine, at the Brooklyn Winery. We enjoyed great food and drinks with a multi-cultural and eclectic, amazing group of people.

Twins: is it true that they are telepathic with one another?

It’s true that we are definitely connected. We think and feel the same way. When we share things, we are sharing the joy, burden or sadness. Our lives are uncannily in sync. An example of that was getting engaged and married at the same time. Similar things are always going on like that in our lives. We’re connected beyond being best friends. She is part of me. I feel that people don’t fully know me until they have met her.


You started an organization called PEAKS. How did it all start?

PEAKS started, quite literally, with the idea of reaching new heights and overcoming major obstacles. My colleagues and fellow mountain hikers, Steve and Chris, and myself saw a unique opportunity to raise money for EkoRural, a small non-profit in Ecuador working on climate change issues with indigenous mountain farmers. Thousands of adventure tourists were pouring into the Andes, with little awareness that the trails they hiked on were farmers’ footpaths. We found a way to bridge these two worlds by launching our first climb-a-thon.

At the summit of Volcano Cotopaxi, Ecuador 

In September of 2010, PEAKS was officially launched. I climbed to the summit of Volcano Cotopaxi, which is nearly 20,000 ft. Steve and two friends ran the “seven hills run” in the Netherlands. Another group of climbers in Colorado climbed a series of peaks. We shared our stories and pictures with family and friends through the PEAKS website, and collectively raised over $10,000 for EkoRural. For me, PEAKS was a way to combine two of my greatest passions: climbing and agriculture. After our launch, I took on the lead role for PEAKS development.

What have you learned from starting your own company?

The biggest lesson for me is this: you need to have a really committed and solid team working together to achieve success. I felt like I was flailing on my own alongside a full time job for quite some time; our volunteers and board members were incredible, but having salaried team members that you can depend on is critical for growth. The past six months of growth have proven this for me. But I am really appreciative of the people who have helped build PEAKS since the start. PEAK has been a team effort through and through.

What are the most successful campaigns on Peaks?

 Sustainable Neighborhoods Nicaragua, a student group that is part of Cornell University’s Sustainable Design Program, recently raised $25,000 to build an ecological housing community in Nicaragua. Eight days into their PEAKS Campaign they raised over $5,000, and hit their $25,000 goal in less than 45 days. We didn’t have a single customer support question from over 60 Champions and nearly 300 donors!

You have a side project that I love reading about: Cayuga St. Kitchen.

Food is my biggest passion. More so than rock climbing or anything outdoors.

Emma climbing

It’s my creative outlet where I can share food adventures I have with family and friends. I love cooking and I love eating even more. I’ve been involved in farming systems since I was 18 and in college. Cayuga St. Kitchen is a fun way to bring all that experience together and give myself an excuse to keep learning…and cook more food.

What has been the most fun dish you have created?

Gluten Free & Vegan Almond and Candied Orange Cupcakes

This past weekend we made vegan and gluten free cupcakes for a friend’s birthday. It was like learning how to cook for the first time. I had to use totally new ingredients. Gluten free cooking is a totally different pantry. I found myself cooking with potato starch and xanthan gum. I had to clear the whole food bank and start from scratch and use my own flavors. I was determined to not stick to the recipe. The frosting was supposed to be a vanilla frosting but I turned the frosting into almond cream. It was fun to light all of them with candles and eat them together and celebrate.

Where do you find your ingredients?

 Food is so much about the story and where it comes from. It’s important to cook with quality ingredients; it makes a difference. The food I use always has story or is connected to people I know. I love going to The Piggery and I know Heather, the owner. She tells me about the meats and they raise these incredible pigs in environmentally and animal friendly way. I’m always asking where the best Brie is or where the best food comes from. I try to buy food from anywhere and everywhere: Asian market, Ithaca Farmer’s Market, I’m always looking to try something new. It’s an adventure every time.

What change do you want to bring to the world?

It’s hard to know if you are actually creating change. The change I want to create is helping people feel empowered to make change happen themselves. Giving people tools and space to feel confident in making their dream and mission come alive.

Reaching New Heights: Emma climbing in New Paltz

Through Peaks, it is those little encounters that happen now and then that make you realize you are making change happen. Sometimes there are weeks or months where I feel that this is a dream in my head and it’s not actually creating any change but then someone will write us a letter and let us know that they think it’s amazing and they met their goal and they’ll thank us. There are lots of moments that show it is the little things that matter and if you keep plugging forward with your dream then you can create change.

What is your travel essential when you are on the road?
My advice is to pack as light as possible and be open to any new experience. One thing I have to bring with me…[long pause]…I know!! My fanny pack. Dead serious. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. I have the coolest one. Everyone should have a classy little fanny pack to store all your valuables and what you need on hand. None of that stuff under your waistband.

When in Ecuador…do you Crumple or Fold?
I’m a crumpler. I wish I was a folder. I’d probably use less. I guess I could be an in between but I’m more of a crumpler.

Emma Frisch is the Director and Co-Founder of PEAKS, an organization that provides the platform and audience for your fundraising campaigns. She also manages her food blog, Cayuga St. Kitchen and continually is experimenting with ingredients to make new dishes. She lives in Ithaca with her husband, Bobby.

For more information on Emma, PEAKS, or Cayuga St. Kitchen, click on the links!

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Noel Knecht Shares Survival and Adventures

 September 20, 2012

Meet Noel Knecht, a 10-year cancer survivor, fashion merchandiser, marathon runner, soon to be Half Ironman finisher, and the only woman and only cancer survivor to ride every year in Tour de Pink since it’s inception in 2004.  Noel has cycled and explored destinations all over the world and is one of the most humble and understated people I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. The more Noel talks, the more you want to listen. And listen I did.

A woman who met you at Tour de Pink recommended you for our Amazing Women series because you are considered, well, amazing.

Only special kids play with Winnebegos and dream of traveling…

I never considered myself special. I consider myself ordinary but I’ll take it.

I was diagnosed [with cancer] on January 15th, ten years ago. Basically, I look back at that year and I have to laugh because it was just one of those pretty crazy years.

July of that year I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years. Then a couple weeks after that, I lost my job and then, I actually enjoyed my summer. It was a transition time and then September 11th happened and I lived right in New Jersey right across the river and experienced and lived that whole event.

After all that, I met someone who I really liked. At the same time, I started going through some tests. My gynecologist had found a lump. I always hated my OBGYN so I kept going to a different one and a different one. I always felt guilty talking to them – they were these old guys…and so I found a woman and she found a lump. I said, “Oh it’s just fibrous. I’m young and athletic.” She said, “No, I want you to go check it out.”

I went to Hackensack University Medical Center, which I feel blessed that I went there because it was just so amazing. I went through all these crazy tests.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, my doctor said, “You are going to fight it, you are going to beat it, and you are going to live a long life.”

I had gone alone because I thought it was just a routine test. My breast surgeon sat me down and said, “Well, you have cancer.” I looked at her with disbelief. The first thought was, “I’m going to die.” I didn’t cry or anything but then she said, “You need to call someone. I am not letting you drive home.” I called my mom and I couldn’t even tell her. I started crying. It was a big change.

I remember going into surgery and all the nurses called me while I was on the table and said, “You know, we’re thinking about you.”

How has this experience changed you?

It’s amazing how many people you meet that have been touched by cancer. I think in my whole circle of friends everyone knows someone close to them that has been affected by it. You naturally find your support group. It just kind of happens. It’s the one lucky thing that happened.

West Coast Tour de Pink 2011, Noel with her lovely friends pedaling for a cause.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, my doctor said, “You are going to fight it, you are going to beat it, and you are going to live a long life.”

Noel and friend, Diana, who is also a Breast Cancer Survivor. Having met through the Young Survival Coalition and Tour de Pink, both share the passion of travel and headed across the pond to cycle southern Ireland together.

I ended up having over two centimeters of tumor on the left side. On my right side, it was like a Christmas tree lit up. I was infested with calcifications. I had a double mastectomy and then had a positive result on a lymph node which led me to the oncologist who gave me the same diagnosis. She said that the best doctor to help was the one I had been seeing in Hackensack so I stayed with Dr. Capko. Dr. Capko and Dr. Alter, my oncologist, are both amazing people. I look forward to seeing Dr. Alter every year for my check ups.

I became friends with the nurses and I remember going into surgery and all the nurses called me while I was on the table and said, “You know, we’re thinking about you.” It was a great feeling. I was 32 and my diagnosis meant a more aggressive form of treatment for chemotherapy. I did chemotherapy for 6 months. At the same time I was going through expansions for breast reconstruction and getting those filled up. I think the hardest part was losing the hair. I didn’t care about my breasts; it was more about the hair. I don’t know why, I think it was just more visible.

 I ended up having over two centimeters of tumor on the left side. On my right side, it was like a Christmas tree lit up.

Everything you read says that day 14 is when you lose your hair. I was on a date with a guy I had been seeing and he went over to kiss and caress me and he put his hand through my hair and a clump came out. I was horrified. He was great. He had dated someone before who had cancer. This was also why he ended up breaking up with me. He just couldn’t handle going through it again. It was good for me because it was almost a soul searching time for me. I was always with someone and I learned a lot about myself and gained a lot of independence through it.

When I die, I don’t want to be known for working 80 hours a week. I want to know that I lived my life to the fullest.

That’s where I started to thrive as a person. It changed my outlook a little bit. I think I ran every day up until my last two weeks of chemo. I was so tired. I stopped running. I stopped running for a couple of years. I just let it get away from me.

Cycling Morocco. A stop to pose with a shepard and his son. Notice the goats in the tree!

When you lost the ability to run, what did you find to replace it?

From Noel’s trip: Women of a Women’s Argan Oil collective in Morocco. They work and manage their own business. Talk about inspiration.

The new thing I did was started traveling alone. I always have to have something on the calendar. My life is empty without it! I can be very shy at times and I have a lot of friends that were shocked that I just would go and do it. It’s like my own little challenge to myself that I can do it. I can go to a foreign country where no one speaks English and survive and see new things and meet new people. That’s how I’m living life now. I live to travel. I don’t over work myself anymore. I think that’s the other thing I learned. I have my job and I like my job but it’s not my end all be all. When I die, I don’t want to be known for working 80 hours a week. I want to know that I lived my life to the fullest.

What made you move from trying to become healthy to wanting to complete a Half Ironman?

I’m training for my first half triathlon. I have a new found respect for people who are doing these things because it is HARD. It’s such a commitment. I hired a coach [shout out to Shawn and Aly!] and everything. It takes a lot of time and it’s exhausting. I just want to finish it and that’s it. I’m doing that on September 23rd in California. I figured if I am going to do a triathlon then I want to have a nice view and enjoy the scenery.

Route 66 Medal – Corny or rad??

I also ran my first marathon in January. I am probably going to do another one – this is the corny piece of me. There was one here in Oklahoma [the Route 66 Marathon] and I really liked the medal they have so I really want to do it. It’s really corny but at least it motivates me.

You have a tremendous commitment to ride every year in the TdP. What makes you come back every year?

I think it’s the people. When I did the first year, it was more about the challenge and kicking cancer’s butt. Saying, you know, you aren’t going to stop me. The first year there were only five of us. We went from Boston to NY (Original YSC story). It was really grass roots because we stayed at peoples’ homes. I’d ridden a bike before but never really cycled seriously before. I don’t think I even really trained for it. I just did it.

Noel just doing it.

There is a unique attitude for women that are going out and riding bikes for the first time. They are so proud to just be riding.

You know, each year it grows and grows but each year you meet these amazing people that have these amazing stories. I think when you are a survivor you can think you have it the worst and you meet others and you hear their stories and they handle them differently and they are all so important and amazing and inspiring. I think that’s the part that keeps you going.

There are a lot of cancer organizations and events. Why did you choose to bike?

There is a unique attitude for women that are going out and riding bikes for the first time. They are so proud to just be riding. Every year, it feels like a family reunion. You won’t talk to someone all year but then you see them for Tour de Pink and it’s like you saw them yesterday. They are family.

2011 West Coast Tour de Pink completion in Santa Barbara, CA.

You are riding through these towns and people are asking you what you are doing and we tell them we are riding for the Young Survival Coalition focused on young women with breast cancer and they tell you their stories.

Photo courtesy of YSC Tour de Pink

They ask for information and we pass it on; we get donations while we are on the bikes. It keeps me focused and healthy as a survivor. Meeting new survivors that come and do the ride I’m able to work with them and inspire them to keep moving on.

It’s incredible how many men do the ride. I think because it is a cycling event it attracts men and they have stories as well that their wives or sisters or someone they know has been affected. For them to hear each other or meet other women that are survivors gives them hope and an extra kick. It’s pretty amazing.

How did you become affiliated with the Young Survival Coalition?

I feel like I owe the YSC a lot because it’s the first organization I found when I started looking for support when I was diagnosed. It’s difficult enough to go online and research cancer – you have to be careful what you find – it can be depressing. Besides the American Cancer Society, YSC is the only other organization I found. I partnered with them and I remember seeing the request for Tour de Pink and they were planning to do this whole ride. I thought, “Okay, let’s do it.” I made some really amazing friends and connected to really great resources through them. Now, I share it with everyone else. It can be scary when you are young.

Noel after completing her first marathon celebrating her 10 year anniversary of being diagnosed.

Cancer can be the best thing that ever happened to me. If I never had cancer I never would have met all these people that are in my life. It sucks that we had cancer but we got to be in each others’ lives. My boyfriend, Dustin, I met at a Tour de Pink event. His ex-fiance (cyclist and friend to many in the industry, Michelle Weiser), passed from cancer. We talk a lot about her to keep her memory alive. It’s interesting how all these things interconnect.

As a traveling adventurer, do you have another trip ahead of you?

I’m planning to go away in December. It’s a trip that Dustin and I are looking at – Thailand. We just did a trip to the British Virgin Islands. We went to a different island every day and explored. For me, I have to see something new every day and explore. I can’t just sit in a hotel. We went to Virgin Gorda and there is this small café on top of this mountain. I swear, it was something out of a little post card. It was this little white shack.

Follow your dreams: Mad Dog Cafe

A woman from the US opened it and she just makes sandwiches and serves the best piña colada ever. Some of the locals would go there with their dogs and hang out. Sitting and talking to this woman was amazing. She had just decided to come to the island with her husband and there she was. I was almost envious because she was so happy. I just remember the breeze and perfect blue sky and the sun and the view was stellar and amazing.

When I travel, I love architecture and buildings but really it’s just the people. The people are amazing.

What is a good morsel of travel advice?

People don’t travel enough. They need to get out and meet these people to get over these pre-dispositions for what these people are. Some of the best experiences I have had were in Muslim countries. You need to travel because it will totally change what you think. The people you meet are amazing and you’ll be surprised by how they open up their homes and meals to you.

You meet the most wonderful people….this man didn’t know his age. He was such a happy, content man.

I did a back roads trip in Morocco and Portugal on a bicycle and I got to see so much. I spent a couple of days in Marrakesh by myself. I had one issue with one gentleman not letting me in because I was a woman but everyone else was so friendly and wonderful.

 People don’t travel enough. They need to get out and meet these people to get over these pre-dispositions for what these people are.

When I was in Turkey I got to celebrate Ramadan. These people I met said I needed to come and celebrate. I was nervous because I didn’t know what it meant but for them to open their homes and share this with me was so cool.

Your story is incredibly inspiring to people. Many people say, “I wish I could do what you are doing.” What advice would you give to those wanting to make their life more meaningful?

You can do it. It’s all about finding who you are and being brave. It might be starting small and doing small things every day first. If I think about how I formed and did a lot of these independent things it started small like, going to the movies alone. Or going to eat dinner alone. And going to a restaurant and sitting. I think it’s also starting to love yourself and really taking care of yourself. I was always putting everyone ahead of me and it probably hurt me. I think it’s going deep within and saying, “Yeah, I can do it.”

Talking to your friends about it and say, “Hey, I did this today.” That’s what kept me going. The first vacation I did by myself, I was nervous. The first Tour de Pink I did, I was nervous. When it came down to it, it didn’t matter. It was about going there and meeting people and having that support because you naturally find that support where you least expect it.

Letting the adventurous side through to the other side of the Atlantic – Noel in Valencia

It’s amazing where and how people want to help other people and they are there and no one is judging you. I think people need that extra push and someone to say, “You know, you are going to be okay.” I was nervous and am still nervous but it’s not going to stop me. I think once you start telling people your stories they get it. I even think about this whole triathlon thing and the training. It was so hard to start and to find the time and someone else told me, “You’ll find the time.” I dedicated time to it and I get tired and would rather stay in bed sometimes but I have found the time.

A few on the road questions: What’s the best meal you’ve made on the road?

I make this crazy salad. I call it my “antioxidant omega three salad.” I love cherry tomatoes. I like to take those and cut them up and get English cucumbers and chop them up with avocado and dark meat tuna. Then I add anchovies. I like them, I don’t know why. And then I add some peppers, olive oil, and red wine vinegar with sunflower seeds. It’s easy, refreshing and super healthy with protein. It always makes me feel energized.

TP Question: Crumple or fold?

I’m a crumpler. I thought you were going to ask me if I was over or under. I am probably not very sustainable in my tp needs. I don’t know what a lot is when it comes to tp because to be sustainable does anyone really use one sheet? Honestly, but I live alone and I go through a lot of tp. Maybe I just don’t keep track. I might not be doing the environment very well.

Noel Knecht is an adventurer, cyclist, cancer-survivor, and amazing woman. She is currently training for her first half triathlon and the Route 66 Marathon. Preparing for the 2012 Tour de Pink (both East AND West), Noel continues to bring people together and awareness to cancer.

To follow Noel (or better yet hit the side lines and cheer her on), here are some upcoming events:

September 23: Orange Man Triathlon, Dana Point, CA

September 28-30: YSC East Coast Tour de Pink, Philadelphia to DC

October 12-14: YSC West Coast Tour de Pink, Foothill Ranch to Oakley, CA

November 18: Route 66 Marathon, Tulsa, OK

To fight cancer and be a part of the YSC Tour de Pink this year, donate to Noel’s fundraising page . All proceeds go to the Young Survival Coalition and helps young women fight and f*ck cancer up.

To learn more about Dustin’s story (Noel’s dude) and about more ways to help the fight,  visit

Roam Life: Roam Your Soul’s Amazing Women Series began with one small story about one amazing woman. Since then, we’ve interviewed many every day women doing amazing things and have shared all of our stories here. To learn more about Roam Your Soul, visit

copyright 2012 * Roam Life, Inc.

A 2014 Olympic Hopeful: Kimber Gabryszak

Amazing Women
Doing Amazing Things:


Kimber is an athlete that has a natural yet friendly determination to be the best. Whether it’s mountain biking, skeleton racing, or her newest hobby, curling (yes, curling!), Kimber quickly becomes competitive.  What I found interesting about Kimber is that she has tried all of these sports based on chance, invitation, and word of mouth. Kimber’s adventurous spirit and fun-loving personality make it easy for you to invite her along on your journey as well. The Roam Life team was able to catch up with Kimber right after her return from her Cabo wedding.

You just got married! Your husband seems to be a big support for you in your career. Who’s the lucky dude and how did the two of you meet?

Kimber & Brad

Brad [Stewart] and I met on in the fall of 2004 and we have been together ever since. He’s a huge support and I try to be one for him. We do skeleton together and we try to keep it balanced so that when we’re both competing we try to stay out of each other’s way but if one person is competing the other is their hugest fan.

Kimber & Brad sporting 2009 Regional Championship belts with pride.

What’s it like to be dating a fellow Skeleton racer?

We’ve been together for over 7 ½ years. Brad does a lot of new ventures and tries new things all the time. We like to travel together and scuba dive.

We went to a couple weddings last summer and realized that weddings kind of suck.

One thing that is really cute is that we adopted a dog when we were together about a year and I’ll come home from work and find Brad in his office with Jean Luc (a 60 pound dog) in his lap in an office chair. Our dog is totally not spoiled (wink).

Tell us about your Cabo wedding.

It was awesome. It was perfect. We had originally planned a wedding here in Park City, Utah. When we started planning the wedding it was kind of a blessing and a curse to know a bazillion people all over the world. People we knew from work, skeleton, and family, really every aspect of our lives started merging into this huge wedding. We were trying to cut down a list of over 300 people to something manageable – like 150. We were having the hardest time ever cutting people out and scratching them off the list.

Kimber, a beautiful and sporty bride

We went to a couple weddings last summer and realized that weddings kind of suck. They are great in some ways and in others they just suck. Not to mention that you don’t really get to see the bride and groom so we just pulled the plug on the whole thing and booked an all inclusive resort in Cabo and didn’t invite anyone except our parents. It was nice to have the parents there but we didn’t invite any siblings or friends or husbands or any of the other people that we didn’t even know that well. We kind of said, “You are all not invited. All of your feelings can be hurt equally.”

When I was growing up, my home was 40 miles from the nearest road in Alaska. We had an outhouse and a hand pump well…

How was it to have the parents at your wedding and on your honeymoon?

My parents never have really had a real vacation so to see them relax and have fun was awesome and we all enjoyed the beach together. The two sets of parents were able to get to know each other. Three hours before the wedding we were all sitting by the pool relaxing together. It was the perfect wedding.

Speaking of your parents, you had a pretty unique childhood living in the mountains of Alaska. What was it like to grow up at the Station House?

When I was growing up, my home was 40 miles from the nearest road in Alaska. We had an outhouse and a hand pump well and solar panels for electricity. Before electricity, we had ice house and ice blocks – it was very 1800’s-esque. I was home schooled and didn’t really have any access to sports. I didn’t discover sports until my early 20’s. I was always pushing myself hard academically and I think that transferred over, along with a lifestyle of hard labor (shoveling snow, cutting firewood) into athletics.

You somehow went from living in the wild forest of Alaska to joining civilization. How did that happen?

When I started college in Alaska, I was technically a high school drop out because I didn’t finish home schooling. I went to community college and then the University of Anchorage. A friend and I were on a fundraising walk for a non-profit and we were rounding the bend of a major road and we were talking about where our next trip would be and decided it would be China. So the next semester I registered for a Chinese class. Fast forward a few years later and I got my Associates in Chinese and obtained an internship on a cruise ship in China!

You were a pretty rad pro mountain biker. Tell us about how you got involved in mountain biking?

Kimber, 2008

A lot of our friends mountain biked so a good friend of ours convinced me to register for a downhill race at Deer Valley on my cross country bike. It turns out I was the only beginner so won by default but my time was better than some of the sport girls so I got hooked. I got my first “squooshy” bike after that. The bike had seven inches of travel and a few of us girls went around to a bunch of races and we kept moving up in ranking and moving up again. In women’s downhill mountain biking, there was a lot of camaraderie. We supported each other and really encouraged each other. It’s not the same in skeleton.

In women’s downhill mountain biking, there was a lot of camaraderie. We supported each other and really encouraged each other.

Kimber, riding for Velo Bella, 2008

From heading downhill on a mountain bike, you ended up going head first into skeleton. At what point did your (then boyfriend) Brad convince you that pummeling head first down an icy shoot was a great idea?

Kimber, doing her thing

Brad and I had been dating for about 6 months and he worked at the Olympic Park part time. He came back from work one day and said, “I think I want to take this skeleton class.” I didn’t even know what skeleton was and said, “Yeah! That sounds fun.” He couldn’t talk me into it then so he took the intro class himself, which was four days of sliding. He was so excited and grinning ear to ear that he finally managed to talk me into trying it.

I was thinking, “What the hell did I just fall into?”

Skeleton racing looks intimidating, but it’s more like flying.

The following November I took my first run down and I was thinking, “What the hell did I just fall into?” It was the scariest thing I had done in my life. The instructor gives you a little push and you start pummeling down at 55 mph. For me, that was all she wrote. I was hooked. I joined a local club and we slid for fun and then we were getting better and better and started competing. Then, we were all of a sudden going to US national races. We thought about quitting here and there because it’s really difficult to make money at skeleton and it can be expensive to compete but instead we’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices to keep at it.

It is so fun to skeleton and as a competitor you are an ambassador for your country. When you are at a race you are surrounded by people from all around the world. When else do you get so many different nations in a room? When you make friends and are joking around together…you really are an ambassador. The potential to go to the Olympics is phenomenal. 

When did you realize that you were an Olympic hopeful? 

Once you do well enough at regionals (Western or Eastern), you qualify for team trials and then work up the ranks from there. The top 2 or 3 people at team trials go to the Olympics. You start thinking, “It’s a possibility.” If you manage to make that leap into the top loop then you know you have a chance.  One thing we encounter a lot with skeleton is that people think it is easy and that if you keep sliding and sliding you’ll get better. You will, but there is also a physical component you have to have and you have to cultivate an athletic talent to make it. If you don’t push yourself and train then you won’t make it from the C or B group up to the A group.

I do it because I love skeleton. It’s the closest thing to flying you’ll ever get to.

We made the choice to really train for it. The results have shown themselves. Last year I struggled on tour because I had some hamstring issues but I was 1/10 of a second off from the puck (head pusher) which showed I had potential. I worked out 3 hours today – before work and after work. It’s a huge time and energy commitment. I do it because I love skeleton. It’s the closest thing to flying you’ll ever get to.

Where’s the most unique place you’ve competed?

Without hesitation, Switzerland. Every year the Saint Moritz build a track from scratch. Usually a skeleton track is concrete with a layer of ice over it and a refrigeration system keeps it all together. In Switzerland, they take ice from the river and make the track from scratch every year, purely of ice.  You slide at 85-90 mph but it feels like you aren’t going that fast at all because it’s so quiet and your runners feel like they aren’t touching anything…you feel weightless.

 We made the choice to really train for it. The results have shown themselves.

Is it easy to get into skeleton racing?

Most people don’t know what skeleton is. We, as competitors, have to first overcome the question of “What is skeleton?” in order to gain support. I started taking skeleton seriously in 2006. You pay a fee into a club for the year and you can use a rental sled. I bought my first sled at the end of 2006 and bought a new sled this last year. Thanks to help from a couple of local people and fundraising, I was able to cover half the cost of a new sled. I was also grateful to have won a grant from the Women’s Sports Foundation for a portion of the sled. A sled can cost between $7,500 and $10,000.

What makes skeleton racing unique?

The fact that it is unique. You can only do it on certain tracks in the world. The rush, the speed, how challenging it is are all unique to the sport. If you turn your head one way or flex your quad and something happens, the sled moves direction while your careening down a track at 80 mph. I ski and snowboard and do all the other winter sports but skeleton is unique in and of itself. Not a lot of people get to do it.

 You travel a lot to compete. Any must know travel tips?

We don’t get to do a lot of sightseeing for the most part. We’ll drive to a race site and then have one day to settle in and train and then three days of official training and then we race and drive to the next location. Some of the coolest experiences have been in Germany and Austria during pre-Christmas time. They have crazy customs where they dress up in hand-made monster masks and run around the streets. There are parades where they bless people who have been punished. The Christmas markets are amazing. Germany and Austria around Christmas are phenomenal.

Through your travels, who have you met that has been most inspiring?

There are a lot of really inspiring people in the sport and around it. A conglomeration of small acts of kindness and helpfulness from a lot of people all over has been inspiring. Martins Dukurs is the top man in the world and is pretty much unbeatable but he’ll still do things like hurry to get his sled on the truck because you have to change your runners at the top. He’ll inconvenience himself a little to help you out a little and it’s impressive that he’ll do that. You’ll see things like that all the time.

Martins Dukurs, Olympic Medalist

Any travel snack indulgences you tend to hide away in your pack while on the road?

There are a couple of things. One thing I travel with is Werther’s originals. I love caramel. I love chocolate too but if it’s chocolate with caramel I’m hosed. I also pack a little tea kettle and herbal tea. Once in a while I get a hankering for a box of Corn Chex. I love Corn Chex.

TP question: Folder or crumpler?

I’m actually both. I start off folding and I end up crumpling. I am one of those that tries to start off organized and then it just falls apart at the end.

Kimber Gabryszak is a member of the US National Skeleton Team and is a 2014 Winter Olympic hopeful. She lives in Park City, Utah with her husband, Brad and her dog, Jean Luc.