Retired Marine Sergeant Kirstie Ennis has tackled a number of mountains in her life and continues to tackle them. But she is also interested in helping others tackle mountains as well. As a U.S. Marine, she was a door gunner an airframes mechanic. While on her second deployment, to Afghanistan, the helicopter she was manning crashed. It was June 23, 2012.
She suffered some trauma to her right shoulder, disc damage, traumatic brain injury, and after going through a period of trying to salvage her left leg, ultimately had to have it amputated above the knee.
A little over a year after that incident though, she was learning to snowboard with Disabled Sports USA at the annual Ski Spectacular event in Breckenridge, Colorado. She grew up in Florida, where there is no snow, but actively played sports including softball. But she easily picked up snowboarding. “It wasn’t hard,” Ennis said. “I had a phenomenal teacher.” She would go back to Ski Spec in 2014 and 2017. Her ability caught the eye of Miah Wheeler, the former head Paralympic Snowboard Coach for the United States Paralympic Committee, who told others to “watch this girl ride.” “He told me to not stop snowboarding.” Ennis would even relocate to Winter Park, Colorado to train with the National Sports Center for the Disabled, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA.
Snowboarding though, at least for now, has taken a back seat to mountaineering. Ennis is on a mission to summit all seven peaks (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). On February 1st, she reached the summit of Aconcagua in South America. She invited a fellow veteran, David Rendon, to make the 22,841 foot climb.
They flew to Argentina on January 17th, and the entire endeavor took about three weeks. After a three day trek into basecamp (which is at 14K), they began the ascent. “It was brutally hot… the main thing to do is just keep your head down and walk,” Ennis said. “You have to make sure your head and heart is in the right place. You see what you can put your body through.” On Summit Day, February 1st, they started moving around 4:00 a.m. and it took approximately 14 hours to go up and six hours to get back down. “Mountaineering is a risky sport. “It is just as much a mental battle as it is physical,” Ennis said.
To prep for the experience, she focused on getting her heart rate up. “As much as you can, you have to be at altitude, so spending time on the mountain is helpful.” It helps that she lives at 7,000 feet above sea level, versus a lower elevation. “As a left leg amputee, I also needed my shoulders and my right quad, so I did thousands of triceps dips and right leg lunges.”
Aconcagua was her fourth summit. Previously, she had attempted Denali. This Spring, she is going to Mount Everest with the hopes to successfully reach the top. “Every one of them (the seven mountains) is so different.” For Everest, more technical skills are required. “To get ready, I focused on my technical system and my prosthetics. Sometimes I am making it up as I go, but I am making sure I will be safe.” She also focused on strength and conditioning three times a week and interval training at least once a week, followed by a period of active recovery.
After Everest, Ennis plans to climb Mt Vinson in Antarctica. She had already previously summited Kilimanjaro. ”Every mountain teaches you something different,” she said. “You find out exactly who you are and what you are capable of. But her “Seven Summits Project” also provides an opportunity to raise funds for the Kirstie Ennis Foundation, which she established to inspire others, help other amputees, and change the game for prosthetics. “I joined the Marine Corps to serve people. Now I want to improve people’s lives,” she said. “I want the next generation of amputees to say ‘Kirstie did it. I can do it better, faster, stronger.’” After each climb, the all-volunteer organization meets to distribute the funds. “The idea is we want everyone to push their boundaries.”
Outside of her sports activities and foundation, Ennis is involved in a few business ventures including a t-shirt company, salon, an art studio, and also sells real estate. In addition, she just completed the first semester of a doctorate in education program (she already holds three graduate degrees, in Psychology, Public Administration, and Business Administration). There is also a potential documentary in the works.
In terms of snowboarding, she may go back to focusing on it, but climbing is the priority. There was even the thought of a Paralympic pursuit. “I want to be good at snowboarding,” she said. Not necessarily at border-cross.”
NOTE: This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Challenge magazine. Photos courtesy of Bill Danielewski, Eliza Earle and Cody Sowa.