In 2012, Kirstie Ennis was on her second tour as a helicopter door gunner in Afghanistan when her chopper crashed. She lost her left leg, sustained spinal injuries and brain trauma, and had extensive facial lacerations. Four years and 43 surgeries later, she took her first step. “It was the moment I knew it was going to be OK,” she says.
Ennis, now 28, didn’t grow up as an outdoor athlete; she played team sports as a kid. But after her recovery she started climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding, and mountaineering near her home in Glenwood Springs, Colorado—anything to get away from hospitals and pain meds. She spent hours welding and tinkering with prosthetics to better suit her increasingly ambitious goals. In 2017, she decided to complete the Explorers Grand Slam (climbing all Seven Summits and reaching the North and South Poles), in addition to swimming the English Channel, biking the 3,084-mile Great Divide route, and running a marathon on all seven continents in seven days. All by 2022. “These endurance feats aren’t being done by the adaptive community, because the prosthetics don’t exist,” Ennis says. “The design of my mountain-bike leg took ages before I came up with a system that worked.” There’s also a lack of role models, she says. Ennis wants to fix both problems.
She has already climbed Aconcagua, Carstensz Pyramid, Mount Elbrus, and Kilimanjaro. In May, she was on Everest, just 650 feet from the summit when she made the call to turn around. Her team members were running out of supplemental oxygen, and she wasn’t going to leave them behind. “It wasn’t lining up,” she says, “and there’s no dollar amount that’s worth death. I’ll scrape my pennies together and do it again.”