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Finding Strength Climber Stacy Allsion Tells Of Finding The Strength To Fight Domestic Abuse

No question, Stacy Allison is a strong woman.

It takes strength to climb Mount Everest, a feat that Allison achieved in 1988, making her the first American woman to do so.

It takes strength both of body and mind, and Allison has an excess of both.

But character is a curious thing. In Buddhist terms, every yin has a yang, every strength a weakness. And so no one, no matter how strong, is without weakness.

Including Stacy Allison.

She learned that the very first time her former husband hit her.

That initial blow landed nearly 15 years ago. It occurred some six years before she forged to the summit of Mount Everest, and more than a dozen years before she began to have children with her second husband in what she says is a truly happy marriage.

Allison will talk about her abusive first marriage, her conquest of Everest and more in a March 26 breakfast talk called “Reaching New Heights of Service to the Community.” The event is a benefit for the YWCA.

Allison is fortunate in one respect. Many, if not most people, are unable to see how the disparate, and often contradictory, parts of their characters fit together.

“Tying it into climbing,” she says, “I think that my strength was my weakness in my first marriage … I guess on some level I thought I could handle being in an abusive relationship. And I couldn’t.”

Finding something she couldn’t handle was a shock to Allison. Now 37 and the mother of two boys, ages 17 months and 7 weeks, the Portland resident began climbing while attending Oregon State University in 1977.

She and a friend answered an ad by a fellow student who was planning to spend spring vacation rock climbing in Utah’s Zion National Park.

“It was a fluke, actually,” Allison says. “I didn’t know anything about climbing … and we ended up staying a week longer than we’d planned.”

The reason for the extension is simple: “It became my passion almost immediately. That first little climb I did, I knew that this was what I was meant to do.”

Some of the draw was the physical aspect of the sport, parts of which resemble the dance lessons that she’d taken as a child. “It’s a cliche,” she says, “but you often hear that rock climbing is like ballet on a vertical plane. Well, I understand that.”

The other attraction, which may be more important, was pure mental. For, as Allison says, rock climbing - and its more demanding cousin, mountaineering - requires strength, grace, balance, stamina …

“And relaxation,” she adds. “You wouldn’t think that you could be relaxed when you’re hanging on for your very life. But you have to be in order to have that endurance.”

That’s a lesson she picked up on her first mountaineering expedition, a trek up Oregon’s 7,794-foot Mount Washington - in blizzard conditions.

“I learned how the mind takes over and compensates for the body,” Allison says. “Physically, I didn’t have an ounce of energy left. But my mind was pushing me beyond what I thought was possible.”

Given this seemingly unshakable sense of self-confidence, the question beckons: Why, as soon as her first husband hit her, didn’t she leave?

The answer: She did. For two weeks. Then she came back.

“What happened in my situation was that he agreed (to see a therapist), I went back and so I set the pattern,” she says.

“I kept thinking things were going to get better. It’s pretty hard not to want to believe the man when he’s down on his knees groveling, crying, spilling his heart out that it won’t happen again. Women want to believe that. So I stayed, because I wanted to believe it.”

He didn’t change, though, and as time wore on, her sense of self plummeted. After four and a half years of abuse that was periodically physical and regularly emotional - “which can be just as devastating,” Allison says - the marriage ended.

Even then, it was he who left her. For another woman.

“He told me, ‘You’ll thank me for this,”’ Allison says. “And I don’t thank him for it, but I’m glad he did because I’m not sure I would have had the strength to.”

There’s that word again. And here’s another: irony.

For it was the very character traits that Allison was so proud of that helped keep her stuck in such an abusive situation.

To complicate matters, what went on behind closed doors became their dirty little secret.

“I felt terribly isolated,” she says. “Because I have always thought of myself as a strong person, mentally and emotionally, that to have this happen to me, well, I felt incredibly humiliated. … And before I knew it, my self-esteem had been whittled away to absolutely nothing. … I thought, ‘No one will ever love me again. I’m ugly. I’m stupid. I’m absolutely worthless. I’ll never amount to anything. …”’

None of those feelings, clearly, was true, but especially false was that last one.

For within a year of the breakup, in 1987, Allison was invited to join an Everest expedition (her ex-husband, she says, was uninvited). And when she failed to reach the summit on that attempt, she got a second chance the very next year.

Thus it came to be that on a clear September morning, after winning a lottery to see who among her five-person team would attempt the last 1,000-foot climb to the top, Allison and her Sherpa guide stood atop the highest peak in the world.

She admits that part of her success was being in the right place at the right time. But, too, she recognizes that despite all she’d been through, all her doubts, she was ready to take advantage when fate shone on her.

Allison hopes other women take comfort from her story.

“I want people to realize that I’m no different from anybody else,” she says. “And it’s especially important for domestic-violence survivors to know that I’m just like them.

“I climbed this big mountain, but big deal. I still have the same pain, the same fear, the same challenges and obstacles to overcome.”

The key, she says, is in having a goal. Working to achieve that goal can give you the will to survive.

“I continued climbing through those years that we were married,” Allison says. “When I was out on a mountain or on a rock cliff, that was the only thing he could not touch.

“That was where I felt my strength. In the mountains or on cliffs were the only places that I felt truly strong.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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