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Kirstie Ennis Takes on Mt. Denali to Help House Veterans

Pelican Professional Aug 24, 2018

My name is Kirstie Ennis. I have not been on this Earth long, but I have been through more than most would in a lifetime. I served six years in the United States Marine Corps as a helicopter door gunner and airframes mechanic. On June 23, 2012, during my last deployment to Afghanistan, I was involved in a helicopter crash and suffered a traumatic brain injury, severe facial trauma, a left leg above the amputation, damage to my cervical spine and my upper arms. It was the defining moment in my life.

I joined the Marine Corps to serve people and repurpose myself, then a mere 23 years old. Now, at 27 years old, I am still serving people, just in a different capacity. My mission today is to be the first combat veteran amputee to complete the Seven Summits (the highest point on each of the seven continents) as well as the North and South Pole. Behind each mountain, I will raise funding for a non- profit that has a mission I can genuinely stand behind, including those that have helped family, friends or myself. As of today, I have climbed Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft), the highest point in Africa, and Carstenzs (16,024 ft), the highest point in Indonesia- also known as the most technical and volatile of the Seven Summits.

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The Beast

Looking back, I can say without uncertainty that May 30, 2014 was one of the hardest days of my life, as it was the day I was forced into medical retirement from the Marine Corp. Fast-forward four years later to May 30, 2018, I sat at the base camp of the highest point in North America- Denali (20,310 ft) along with my rope team of three other badass women. And, this mountain, oh, she’s a beast.

I used to think Carstenzs was the mountain that terrified me, but Denali is the one. She is known to be temperamental and to not like to play well with climbers. I studied the route and prepared for the last two years, but it is easy to wonder if I prepared enough, or in the right ways. We fabricated custom prosthetics, dialed emergency systems should something go wrong. We planned for the worst but were hoping for the best. I was ready to go, however our guides decided to stay at camp and rest through the next day in order to get us on a night schedule, to ensure we would walk on a completely frozen ground, avoiding any crevasse falls.

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The next night we embarked, and my team threw me out front initially thinking that on one leg, I would master the long slog slow pace with no problem. That was absolutely not the case; I was chomping at the bit when they opened the gate. In hopes to slow me down, they threw on my sled, but it was useless. We ended up at the 7,800 ft camp at the base of ski hill in a fast 5 hours and before we knew it, we were up to 9,800 ft camp the next day, 11,000 ft camp the day after that, followed by 14,000 ft camp the next. We had done something right- the weather Gods were smiling down on us.

We made it to 14,000 ft camp in record time. Initially, we planned to have intermediate camps along the way to cater to my prosthetic and limb needs, but we didn’t need them. The plan now was to spend four days at 14,000 to acclimatize before setting off for the ridge and summit, and the team was definitely feeling the change in elevation.

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Then Denali showed her true colors – all on the white and grey scale. The weather rolled in and wreaked havoc on us. Heavy snow and high winds…for 17 days. Sure, there was a (small) break from time to time, enough to run out and grab a few minutes of sunshine, but it never lasted long. Some days, it was 2 hours of sleeping, 90 minutes of digging snow, then back to sleep, only to do it all again. We were pinned, there was no moving up. Our team watched as an Argentinian team tried to move up to the ridge at 16,000 ft only to come back down, then a Japanese team, followed by a couple others – each team attempting to get to the ridge to no avail, and with many returning climbers scoured with frostbite. The 14,000 ft camp started to look like a ghost town. At one time it seemed as though there were 100 tents, and now there were 6. We started to run out of food and supplies. As teams turned around, we scavenged to make ends meet. We were running out of time…fast.

On June 22, we made the decision to push up to the fixed lines and camp on the 16,000 ft ridge before we ascending to high camp at 17,00 feet. Climbing those 2,000 feet, I cried. I thought, “Where the f*ck did this deep snow come from?” Some of the only terrain that is truly difficult for me is deep snow, as it diminishes my control over my already uncontrollable left side. “How disabled do I have to make myself feel before I turn around? How much easier would this be had I had two legs? Hell, what if I just had two knees?” We pushed. I grumbled. Finally, we made it to the fixed lines – which gave us about 100 yards of fixed protection up to the ridge. I resorted to jugging, ditching my forearm crutches, AKA my “front hooves”. I was most efficient using the ascender and we cruised up, my arms were on fire and my groin was bleeding from the prosthetic. But, we made it. We worked up to the 16,000 ft camp and it was one of the most scenic and beautiful parts of the entire expedition.

June twenty-third, my “Alive Day”. In 2012 it was a turning point in my life, the day where everything I knew was flipped upside down, and every year since it’s been a somber day. On my Alive Day anniversary, June 23rd, 2018, we moved toward high camp. This was by far the most technical section of the expedition and even though it took the vast majority of my energy to maneuver the steepness, scrambling, ascending fixed lines, and more, I was happy. I was happy on my Alive Day. One of the greatest gifts Denali could have ever given me was taking June 23rd and instead of associating it with bad memories, replacing them with amazing memories.

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We made it to high camp at 17,000 feet. Vomit and blood stained the snow. People have clearly struggled here. Most teams rest for a day, but we simply didn’t have time. It was now or never. We would sleep one night and move across the “Autobahn” early next morning. The Autobahn. The most fatal area of Denali. It had towered over me and daunted me. I had known this was where I would struggle the most. About an hour in, and I used ice axes to pull myself up with my side stix strapped to my back. I chewed my way up the insanely steep traverse, but there was nothing that could stop me. I was hungry, no - I was starving to make the summit. I left my blood, sweat, and tears on the Autobahn.

We reached Denali Pass at 18,200 feet. One of the four women on my rope team needed to go down, and soon. She was struggling with AMS (acute mountain sickness)– and she was one of the guides. We needed her to move up. As we tried to come up with a plan, the weather moved in quickly. The sky was now heavy and dark grey, and the winds screamed at 50 miles per hour. It started to snow, and our exposed skin started to sting with the lows creeping into -25 degrees. We were spinning. It was final: 18,200 would be our “summit.”

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My head fell into my hands and I cried. The hardest thing to do is turn around, especially when in a situation you cannot control. I was devastated. I kept apologizing to the expedition sponsors. Two years of training and preparation, and nearly thirty days of waiting on this mountain for my shot, and now I was heading down.

The descent was far worse than the ascent. There was no real technique for me; more like pure forward momentum. Kirsten Kremer, another one of the guides, and all things crusher in the outdoors, was about six feet behind me on the rope, while the other two were far behind. She was ultimately my safety – and my right hand. I slipped and tumbled, and she braced. My ice axe became an extension of me and I perfected the butt scoot to get back to high camp. Thirty minutes from camp, my leg would absolutely not stay on. It was coming off – all of it, the socket and the liner. I would now expose the most sensitive part of me to the harshest of elements. My skin turned white and starting to burn, then go numb. Kirsten for the first time looked scared, and I felt panic. After some time fighting my leg, we got it back on and stumbled our way to our tents in a white out. As I sat in my tent, I processed what had just happened in waves. I couldn’t tell you how long I cried.

The following day, we pushed back down to 14,000 feet and this was where I found Jesus all over again. The wind beat us up, the fresh, blown-in snow covered our boot pack which was already hidden by rocks. It was my time to lead us out, and the heavy snowfall greatly decreased my visibility. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. If I fell on this knife ridge, it could be the end for my entire team. We went full send and crushed it as fast as possible the whole way down. Admittedly, just above camp at 14,000 feet, I definitely took a few somersaults downhill in the soft snow, at the very least providing us some entertainment. Strangely, I was thankful to be at 14,000 feet again, but I knew for damn sure that I didn’t want to stay longer than a night. This was the final stretch - 14,000 feet all the way back down to 7,200 feet to base camp and our flight out. It was misery, misery at its finest. Purely exhausted, our skin-leathered from the wind and sun, my residual limb bloody and in severe pain from exertion, we rolled into base camp after 24 hours of moving with only short breaks for a nap, water, and a snack.

The flight out was bittersweet. I left a piece of my heart on Denali, and I will be back for it in 2020. My sights now look forward to Elbrus (18,310 feet, Russia), the highest point in Europe, which I will climb in September. Here’s to onwards and upwards.

Pelican proudly outfitted Kirstie and her team for the climb, providing a custom 1607 Air Case engineered with custom molding for Kirstie’s prosthetics, 1525 Air Case, iM2050 Storm Case, and 2760 headlamps, 18 oz bottles, and 20L Backpacks for the team.

The climb raised nearly $28,000 from 54 individual donors, including the FDNY, as well as additional major contributions from corporate sponsors Advanced Auto Parts & RBC Wealth Management. News of the Denali climb reached 4.3 million people, helping to spread the word about Service to Summit’s important work of building homes for our Nation’s injured Military Heroes and Gold Star Families.

The climb raised nearly $28,000 from 54 individual donors, including the FDNY, as well as additional major contributions from corporate sponsors Advanced Auto Parts & RBC Wealth Management. News of the Denali climb reached 4.3 million people, helping to spread the word about Service to Summit’s important work of building homes for our Nation’s injured Military Heroes and Gold Star Families.

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