MSUB's Axel Spends Off-Season Unlike Anyone
Lisa Axel at the Grand Canyon, continuing her 24-hour journey.
Lisa Axel at the Grand Canyon, continuing her 24-hour journey.
Axel on top of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013.
Axel on top of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013.

Friday, August 7, 2015
by Evan O'Kelly - MSUB Sports Information

One step at a time.
By the time Montana State University Billings head volleyball coach Lisa Axel was 21 hours into her excursion at the Grand Canyon on May 24, those five words seemed to be the only constant in her life. Exhaustion was setting in, every muscle in her body pleading a more and more believable case that her next step would be her last.
But giving in and settling for almost making it isn't in Axel's nature. She had expertly navigated 39.5 miles of rocky terrain, while experiencing an elevation change of more than 15,000 feet. With 7.5 miles and 4,350 feet upwards to go, Axel knew there was only one way out of one of the world's most extravagant natural wonders.
"There was a point where I thought I wouldn't make it," Axel said.
With just over a mile separating her from the parking lot she had set off from 23 hours earlier, Axel had reached the final landmark of her adventure. Along with a water refill station, a 911-emergency phone was within Axel's reach. The callbox captivated her gaze for awhile, her better judgment kicking off a heated debate with her competitive fire to finish what she had started unassisted.
"I knew that wasn't how I was going to get out of that canyon," Axel said regarding the emergency phone. "I just kept going."
Just as she had politely ignored the warning sign to not hike from the south rim of the canyon to the river and back in one day, Axel declined what would be her final resource available and left the phone on the hook. Her knees now nudged their way to the front of the debate she was having with herself, loudly warning that if she did not begin moving forward again that they would lock up and drop her to the ground in her tracks.


Axel had set out to achieve a daring feat, one referred to in the extreme adventure world as "Rim to Rim to Rim."
This excursion is not to be mistaken with the more readily found "Rim to Rim", a challenge most commonly sought after by runners with the goal of trekking the canyon from top to bottom and back up again.
The challenge Axel faced took it to the next level. Not only did she plan to hike from the south rim down to the canyon floor and back up to the north rim on the opposite side, but without missing a step she would turn around and double her trek all the way back to the south rim.
Her timeline for completing the seemingly impossible journey: 24 hours.
"It is getting to be more popular with ultra runners, but they can do it a lot faster than I could have because they aren't carrying anything," Axel said regarding the emerging challenge now simply known as, 'R2R2R'. "I set my goal as 24 hours as a hiker, and I started researching it. A lot of websites talked about how people do the south rim to the north, stay a night and then come back the next day. Not many hikers do the whole thing continuously."
Considering the hike covers 47 miles and more than 20,000 feet in elevation change, it is easy to see why Axel was hard-pressed to find many examples of hikers taking it on within a single day.
Leading up to the monstrous task that lay ahead of her, Axel had to hike 50-60 miles per week while at the same time simulating drastic and sudden elevation changes. Expertly upping her mileage and then tapering off gradually as the date grew nearer, Axel felt that she was physically well-prepared for the grueling climb that lay ahead.
A meticulously packed bag on her back, with the exact amount of calories she would need secured along with an extra change of clothes, Axel's vision started turning into a reality.
"The day we arrived the canyon was completely clouded in, and you could only see about 10 feet off of the canyon wall," Axel commented. "It kept us for a day just thinking about what we were getting ourselves into."
Along with Axel were her friends Mira and Harsha, who planned to act as Axel's support group throughout the journey. The duo planned to hike to the north rim in advance of Axel and stay the evening before joining up with her on the way back.
With the thick overcast layer however, a small sense of uncertainty began to creep into the back of Axel's mind. It was not the first time Axel had spent months preparing for such an adventure however, and in a way her latest challenge was driven by a near miss a year earlier.


Less than 1,000 feet away from the summit of the tallest mountain outside of Asia, Axel was overcome with frustration. What had been a 16-day expedition and a climb of nearly 23,000 feet had come to a bitter end, as Axel helplessly sat just short of the crux of the mission.
Nearly two weeks earlier, Axel and a group of ambitious climbers set out to scale Aconcagua, a mountain in Argentina identified as the highest point in the Southern Hemisphere. Before even reaching the first camp, three of the climbers were rescued via Medevac due to the intense conditions.

Even after her fourth extensive surgery on her left foot, Axel was confident she was ready to take on what would be the highest ascent of her life. But as she battled through the incredible adversity and found herself on the cusp of achieving her goal, she was reminded of the frustration and helplessness that served as her original motivation to take on extreme mountain climbing.

Growing up as a volleyball player, Axel soon emerged as a standout on the court and developed into a highly-touted college prospect. Hailing from Buffalo, Minn., Axel pursued her athletic career at Division I University of Minnesota, where she was a four-year starter and led the Golden Gophers to a Big Ten Championship in 2002.
Her success as a player led her to pursue her current career path of coaching, however she admits that it was hard to spend any significant time away from the court when she competed at the top collegiate level.
"I always loved the outdoors but I never had the opportunity to get into mountain climbing," Axel said regarding her childhood and early adult life. "I played volleyball until my body said, 'no,' and then I had to find something else I could compete at. Climbing mountains was the only thing where I could push myself to my limit; where I could train and compete against myself."
Battling through back injuries related to her career as a volleyball player, Axel refused to accept the diagnosis of a doctor who suggested she shift to a less active lifestyle because of the degeneration in her back. "I went to get a second opinion and a couple of back surgeries later I was capable of getting into climbing," Axel said. "There are more than 50 peaks in Colorado taller than 14,000 feet, and I have done 25 of them. My goal is to eventually do them all."
While Axel still has the 50-plus "14ers" in Colorado on her list, her competitive edge pushed her to seek out a bigger challenge.

At times Axel's recovery from back surgery was disheartening. She could barely muster the strength to lift herself out of bed, let alone take on a flight of stairs. But as she regained her strength little by little every day, she knew she needed an end goal in mind to work towards.
"It couldn't just be a mountain in the U.S.," Axel said regarding her plans for a post-surgery adventure. "I needed something dangling in front of me to help get me through the recovery."
In January of 2013, Axel rose to the top of Africa as she successfully navigated to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The peak, famous for being the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, stands at 19,341 feet above sea level and became Axel's first iconic notch in her adventure belt.

"I wanted to do big mountains, but I didn't really have the technical skills yet," Axel said on her first thoughts of tackling Kilimanjaro. "That one is hard because of the altitude, but there wasn't a big technical aspect to it."
Upon reaching the summit, Axel was reassured that all of the pain and grueling recovery she had gone through had been worth it. When she arrived in her hotel room after descending Kilimanjaro, Axel was already thinking about what was next.
"Aconcagua was higher and was one more step in the technical aspect," said Axel. "It was an actual expedition. I had made it up 19,000 feet, but I wanted to see if I could get a little bit higher."
While Axel ultimately surpassed the 20,000-foot mark on her climb up the Argentinian giant, she couldn't help but feel disappointed that she didn't quite reach the peak.
"I knew right away that I needed to do something and that I couldn't wait two years," Axel said. "I turned back to looking at what I could do in the U.S. that was extremely challenging and where I could push myself. As soon as I got back from Argentina I started researching the hardest hikes in the U.S. and that's when I found the rim to rim to rim challenge. The Grand Canyon was one of the few places I had never been, and that combined with the challenge made me decide to do it."
"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." – T. S. Elliot
If Axel had learned anything from her two previous major excursions, it was that the success of the trip laid within the preparation and planning. Similar to the mindset she holds as head coach of the Yellowjackets, she figured that if the prep work had been done properly, then come gameday it was just a matter of execution.
If there were ever a parallel between the volleyball court and the red dirt of the Grand Canyon however, it would be adapting to unforeseen circumstances and adjusting on the fly.
Axel's knees continued to fight her every step, each one suggesting she should have picked up the emergency phone when she had the chance a half hour earlier.
Out the window was the plan to link up with her friends on the way back to the south rim, as it had taken Axel longer than expected to reach the other side and Mira and Harsha were unprepared to hike after sunset.
Gone was the light from her headlamp, the last symbol of her will to continue flickering out. There was no chance of stopping to replace it, for her knees would have followed the lead of the headlamp's batteries and finally run out of juice.
Now it was just Axel, three miles separating her from achieving what had become her toughest challenge to date. As she battled onward, refusing to succumb to the terrain, she remembered the feeling of frustration she had battled to get to this point. The inability to step out of her hospital bed post-surgery. The heartbreak of coming impossibly close to the peak of Aconcagua before turning back.
This story had to have a different ending.
The more Axel's body began shutting down, the more her brain became unresponsive. By her final steps, the lone thought occupying her mind was to lift her foot and put it in front of the other. "When I saw the sign reflecting off of my light, I was very confused," Axel said.
Though she was incapable of comprehending the sight of the lower parking area, Axel had arrived at her final destination. "The first thing I did was call my parents and tell them I made it and that I was safe," Axel said. "I was in pretty bad shape, and everything was focused on what I had to do to get back to the hotel."

Axel's friends were awaiting her arrival anxiously at the parking lot, and managed to safely get her back to their hotel.
With the sense of achievement once again restored, Axel already has plans for the next adventure on her horizon. "I have been considering the seven volcanic summits, which are the highest volcanoes on each continent," Axel said when asked about the details of her next excursion. "The one in South America is a couple hundred feet shorter than Aconcagua, and I think I will do that one first. I'd like to do it around Christmas of this year."
If nothing else, Axel has proven she is capable of achieving whatever she sets her mind to. Her competitive edge continues to shine through as she pushes herself to her limits, and there is no end in sight to her ambitious adventures.
Whether scaling the world's highest peaks, or working on her game plan for the Yellowjackets' next match, Axel's approach remains consistent: One step at a time.