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Kirstie Ennis on Serving Her Country, Losing a Leg, and Her Record Breaking Attempt to Summit Everest

Private: Kirstie Ennis — Apr 25, 2019

Journals From Abroad

I was hurt in Afghanistan on my second deployment while serving as a helicopter door gunner in the United States Marine Corps. Injuries resulted in a left-leg above-knee amputation, a traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord damage, which ended my military career in a medical retirement after six years of service.

I was robbed. Or at least I felt like I was. Having joined at 17 all I wanted to do was serve and protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. As I left the military in 2014, I feared for what I would do with the rest of my life. I was stripped of my purpose and now left to find a new one.

To cope with my injuries and sense of loss, I turned to the outdoors. Considering I am from Florida, I was in awe of the snow and mountains as I was introduced to adaptive snowboarding.

Being in the mountains as an amputee is about knowing how to suffer well…”

Kirstie Ennis

I started competing alongside Team USA as I fought for a spot on the Paralympic team. But over time, medals weren’t enough. I didn’t want to be good at boardercross…I wanted to be a good snowboarder, yes, but efficient in the backcountry. So I took to the mountains in other ways, rock climbing and ice climbing, and my curiosity for altitude followed suit.

Mountaineering quickly became an obsession, just as much as a therapy. I made a goal to complete the Seven Summits: the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

I never wanted it to be a display of me beating my chest and saying, “Look at what I can do.” I wanted this goal, this project, to have purpose, heart and passion. I started with Kilimanjaro in March of 2017, in support of the Waterboys, who provide clean water for communities around the globe. And I followed that with Carstensz in July of 2017, in conjunction with the Heroes Project. I attempted Denali in June of 2018 to support Building Homes for Heroes. I summited Elbrus in September 2018 for Glam4Good; and Aconcagua in February 2019 supporting the non-profit Merging Vets and Players.

In the summer of 2018, myself and three other initial board members created The Kirstie Ennis Foundation — a 100-percent volunteer-based organization with a mission to financially support and provide education, opportunity and healing through the outdoors.

In short, that’s what led me to be sitting in the small Indian village of Dingboche, on my way to attempt to summit the highest mountain in Asia, tallest in the world, better known as Everest. I am hoping to write history as the first female, above-knee amputee to summit Everest to inspire others to use more of their potential, push for advancements and accessibility of prosthetics, and promote healing in the outdoors.

So I’m parked on the front bench of a lodge in Dingboche, India, en route to Everest Base Camp. The crisp air bites the tips of my fingers and the end of my leg. I didn’t wear my prosthetic this morning to give what’s left of my left leg a rest before my summit attempt. Looks from locals scream confusion, typically because of my robotic blue knee — but this time it’s clearly my lack of symmetry and the bizarre sticks I am using to crutch around.

Turning to the Outdoors for Recovery

At first the mountains were simply a scapegoat, a way for me to get away from Naval Medical Center San Diego.

It later was a vessel into competitive snowboarding, then ice and rock climbing, and finally mountaineering. I’ve called my endeavors “recreational therapy” for some time, but as I sit and reflect on my experiences, it’s actually quite miserable.

Being in the mountains as an amputee is about knowing how to suffer well, and having the ability to convince yourself to put one foot in front of the other. On every mountain I find myself chewing my way up and leaving behind my tears of frustration and of comparing my body and speed to how it once was. Every climb, pain surges through my body and I find myself envying those around me, of their apparent lack of effort in accomplishing the same things I am.

Every step, I am reminded of my independence and resiliency — and of how hard I fought to stay out of a wheelchair and away from the four walls of my hospital room. And that’s why I am right back here in the mountains; that’s why I continue to climb.

The mantra I repeat to get through my dark days is, “it’s the six inches between my ears and what’s behind my rib cage that dictates what I am capable of.”

We can overcome anything physically, given you keep your head and heart in the right place.  

When I am running on fumes and beating myself up internally, I remind myself that I am motivating others to find their passion and the thing that makes you want to jump out of bed every day. To dream, even when no one else around you believes.To show our youth it is okay to be different; to own what makes you different.

I remind myself that there is always someone watching. Even if I only make a difference in one persons life, it is all worth it. I went from protecting those who can’t protect themselves to truly living my life for others. I could be upset about everything I’ve lost due to my injuries in Afghanistan, including a leg, my memory, my career, and years of my life to recovery, but instead I focus on what I’ve gained.

Here’s to writing history and challenging others to do the same. And here’s to hopefully standing on top of the world — on one leg.

To follow and support what Kirstie is doing, visit her foundation site here.

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