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Why a mountaineer chose to turn around just 200 meters from Mount Everest's summit


When I think on life lessons that I'd like to teach my children, at the top of the list is never give up. Keep going. Whatever life throws at you, don't quit. I mention that as backdrop for this next conversation with Kirstie Ennis. She has scaled six of the seven summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. The only one left - Mount Everest. Last month, Ennis found herself on Everest about 200 meters from the summit, and she decided to turn back. And this is also, as you are about to hear, about as far as it is possible for a human being to get from being a quitter. When I spoke with Ennis the other day, I asked her to describe that moment.

You're up on Everest, you're 200 meters from the peak, so that's, what, like 600, 650 feet?


KELLY: Yeah. Why turn back?

ENNIS: Well, this time around, it just - you know, it didn't make sense to continue going. You know, I pride myself on being able to put my team first but also just self-preservation. You know, I was at the South summit, and when I looked up at the line going into the summit, I realized that it wasn't worth it. Like, if something got sideways as far as, like, with my prosthetic limb or my prosthetic device, like, I didn't have the right team with me. And there were hundreds, literally hundreds of people ahead of me and below me. So even if my 10-hour summit day, like, hit, and we were successful - like, I made it, didn't run out of oxygen or anything - it would still take me 24 hours to get down. So this time around, there was a point where pride kind of got in the way. You know, I was slightly embarrassed that I had to turn around, but at the same time, I'm very, very proud of the fact that I made that decision 'cause there are...

KELLY: Yeah.

ENNIS: ...A lot of people that got hurt that night. And, you know, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if anybody on my team got hurt.

KELLY: You mentioned your prosthetic. You're a veteran. You're a former Marine, and after a helicopter accident in Afghanistan, you lost your left leg below the knee.

ENNIS: So originally it was below the knee, and then, unfortunately, over time, I suffered avascular necrosis and then also catching MRSA in the hospital during one of my revision surgeries, and so now I'm an above-the-knee amputee.

KELLY: So what extra challenges does that create?

ENNIS: Well, I mean, a lot of it really is just the way that my body moves. You know, so I can't physically put foot over foot anymore, especially, you know, going on an incline. So everything that I do now is essentially like taking a step with my right leg and then having to match it with my left leg, so my left leg is locked out at all times. There is no bending. I can only use it to brace or stabilize myself. There is no, like, forward or - actually, well, any kind of momentum from my left leg whatsoever. And, like, my biggest fear now when I'm out climbing these mountains - it isn't, you know, dying or running out of oxygen - any of those things. It's more so getting frostbite on my residual limb just because of the cold transferring so quickly, like, through the aluminum and steel devices. Like, carbon fiber is a huge component for my prosthetic, and that goes directly onto my skin. So, for me, like, my biggest fear is always frostbite, because if I lose more of my leg right now, that's a game changer.

KELLY: Yeah. Do you swap out the prosthetic? Is it a different attachment if you're meters from the summit on Everest than if you're walking around New York?

ENNIS: Oh, yeah. And so there's different knees, there's different feet that I can use. I'm actually very fortunate that I figured out how to use the same knee for pretty much everything. But, like, the foot that I would wear in New York would just be foot cover with, like, your typical Nike shoe on. But one of the things that I use out on the mountain as a tool is something that I legitimately make in my, like, backyard in a shed, but it's a crampon foot. So I rivet them. I weld them - create them myself, and, yeah, I attach them onto the end of my leg. So it's the crampon that you would see any other, like, able-bodied person using out in the mountain, but just attaches to me a little bit differently.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I will say it is the fact that you turned back that made me want to speak with you. If you had made it, it would have been amazing. It would have been so impressive - like, beyond impressive. But when I read your story, I thought, oh, my gosh, how much courage it must take when you are that close and have worked that hard to say, I don't think this is safe, and we're turning around. Are you able to see it that way yet?

ENNIS: I am, but it took me a while, to be honest.

KELLY: I mean, this was all just last month, right?

ENNIS: Right. Well - and I think the first time - well, I know for a fact, the first time that I actually cried and, like, felt all of the emotions around having to turn around but also being proud that I made the right decision, that I came home to my family, that I still have, you know, what I went out there with - you know, all 10 fingers and five toes of mine. Like, I can still climb. I can still see another day doing the thing that I love. I cried about it for the first time yesterday, so there were so many emotions and so many things that went into me having to process turning around. But I am very proud, and like I said, I'm willing to do it all over again because it's the thing that I love.

KELLY: And did something particular happen yesterday that you finally were able to cry?

ENNIS: I just communicated with some of the people that I have actually taught to climb over the years - people like me, whether they are a veteran, an amputee, or just a woman trying to make their way in the outdoor industry. And, like, everybody's been being very supportive, don't get me wrong. But I think for the first time I was able to receive that love and receive that support, and that's what really, yeah, had me crying and, again, just reinforce the fact that I made the right decision.

KELLY: Well, I'm so glad you're getting that support. I do want to step back and just ask a very basic question. Why do this? I mean, of all the challenges, of all the sports to pick as an amputee, this seems so incredibly hard.

ENNIS: I guess there's two sides to that. So when I was in the hospital, as a woman, you know, I was surrounded by plenty of men who were like me - you know, amputees. And they were all going forth, and they were able to look up to one another. And don't get me wrong, I very much so looked up to them and found inspiration and motivation from them, but, you know, I never had, like, a woman to look up to. You know, I was...

KELLY: Yeah.

ENNIS: ...Always the underdog in everything that I did. I was always the woman in a male-dominated industry, whether it was in the military or the Marine Corps - I mean, I was a helicopter door gunner - or even just in aviation, then moving forth and competing in snowboarding. At a certain point, I just wanted to show the world, first of all, that anything is possible given you're willing to work for it, but then also as a woman, even if you are differently abled or you look different, there is a place for you. On the flip side - like, me personally - there is something so special about suffering and then being able to summit or suffering and being able to succeed in the end. Like, it makes it that much sweeter because you know for a fact how hard you have poured every ounce of your being into making sure that you made it.

KELLY: And I read that, once you get a little bit of rest, I hope, that you want to swim the English Channel next. Is that true?

ENNIS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, so my next goal is, once I finish seven summits, I want to be the first amputee or above-the-knee amputee to swim the English Channel. I also want to do the Great Divide Ride, which is a 2,600-mile transcontinental mountain bike ride, so essentially Canada to Mexico, and then I want to do seven marathons, seven continents in seven days. It's called the World Marathon Challenge (laughter).

KELLY: I was feeling really proud that I got up and ran 3 miles this morning.


ENNIS: Slightly ambitious, but...

KELLY: Well, I wish you luck, rest and health and all the best in achieving the next dream.

ENNIS: Thank you. I appreciate that.

KELLY: That was Kirstie Ennis speaking with us about her decision to turn back on Mount Everest 200 meters from the summit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.