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The last reading on Kirstie Ennis’s GPS tracker that day in 2019 was 8,648 meters. The summit of Everest is 8,848 meters. Two hundred meters to go: so close, she jokes, “I could throw a rock up there,” yet still two or three hours away. She faced a tough call.
Consider it another step in a long journey, one of many setbacks but much promise, for Ennis, 31, from Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Ennis is a military veteran and above-knee (AK) amputee. Ten years ago, on her second deployment to Afghanistan, she was serving as a helicopter gunner when her helicopter went down. Ennis, 21, suffered a traumatic brain injury, a shattered jaw, shoulder damage, spinal injuries, and a severely broken left leg. What followed were 44 surgeries and four progressively higher amputations of her left leg (at first she kept her knee, which makes a great difference), the last amputation in 2016.
There was a time she did not want to live; Ennis has survived a suicide attempt as well as catastrophic injury. Yet she is now living a life that demonstrates what people can do, “to inspire people to do more with our lives and use more of their potential … encourage them to get up and do more. I don’t care if it’s someone on the couch getting up and moving for 10 minute or an amputee like me doing these things.”
Her mission now is to climb the Seven Summits, raising money for nonprofit causes (she has created a foundation in her name) and serving as a role model—with a special affinity for little girls facing limb loss.
On Everest, Ennis was with her friend Rob Gowler, a mountain guide; a cinematographer, Chris Pollak; and Sherpa Sange, a guide. Ennis is a very strategic climber, as she puts it, who must avoid crowds and any situation of waiting lest she incur frostbite due to cold transfer from the materials in her prosthetic, and lose any more of her femur. Her team went early in the season, and that day they were the first party up. “We put in the boot pack,” she says. But postholing is time-consuming, and especially hard for her. “It took us a long time to get up there, and I ended up making the call to turn around because my partners ran out of oxygen.” She had paid for extra oxygen for herself, because she “runs hot” due to increased circulation post-amputation, and her efforts as an AK amputee are exceptionally strenuous. She says, “I would never want to jeopardize anybody else.”
Ennis had learned to know when to stop during a wise retreat on Denali. She subsequently climbed Denali and is going back to Everest, the last of her Seven Summits, next year.
Standing Tall is now streaming for Outside+ Members. Join and watch with the Outside App, available on all streaming platforms, and find the film here.