Former Marine Corps Sgt. Kirstie Ennis poses for a portrait at the trail head of Grizzly Creek trail in Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 1, 2024.

Former Marine Corps Sgt. Kirstie Ennis poses for a portrait at the trail head of Grizzly Creek trail in Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 1, 2024. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — Kirstie Ennis has made a life out of getting back up.

The Glenwood Springs, Colo., resident is a Marine Corps veteran who lost her left leg and suffered other serious injuries in a helicopter crash on her second tour in Afghanistan in 2012. But in the wake of that life-altering trauma, the 33-year-old found a calling as a world-class mountaineer, competitive snowboarder and leader of a non-profit focused on outdoor therapy.

Ennis has conquered six of the Seven Summits, and her newfound fire on the mountain was evident, falls and all, from her first big climb at Mount Kilimanjaro in 2017.

“You would hear her fall or stumble, and it would sound like it hurt,” recalled ex-NFLer Chris Long, who climbed Kilimanjaro with Ennis as part of a group with the non-profit Waterboys. “But in Kirstie fashion, it was like, help her up at your own risk. Because she was going to be like, ‘Get the (expletive) out of my way.’

“On the descent, we had to get down a scree and walk through a bunch of ravines and dry creeks that are difficult for anybody, and for an amputee, it’s not very fun at all. … But she just put her head down. She was motoring through it and she was not going to be denied. That’s the way she was from the time she stepped on the mountain to the time she got down to the parking lot. And that’s the way she lives her life.”

Ennis’ Marine roots

Ennis joined the Marine Corps at 17 and got her parents to sign her enlistment paperwork by telling them she was going to take a desk job.

That was a lie.

Ennis became a helicopter door gunner and airframe mechanic instead, rising to the rank of sergeant. The daughter of two Marines, Ennis was set on a lifetime of service in the corps, but that all changed on June 23, 2012, when her CH-53D helicopter crashed during a mission in the Helmand province.

Ennis suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash. It destroyed her jaw and teeth, tore her shoulders from their sockets, blew out her eardrums, fractured her spine in multiple spots, and mangled and snapped her left leg so badly that it eventually resulted in amputation below the knee.

From her hospital bed in San Diego, Ennis struggled to process her injuries.

“Initially the petty side of me wasn’t worried about whether I was going to go forward and have a career,” Ennis recalled. “I’m thinking about, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m totally disfigured, what’s my life going to look like? Who is going to find me attractive? Can I wear a dress? Can I wear heels?’”

Ennis said she didn’t get the emotional support she needed while in the hospital, and on her first “alive day” — one year to the date of the crash — she attempted to kill herself.

“I didn’t see a point in putting myself through any more suffering or potentially make any other people suffer,” Ennis said. “When I was unsuccessful, my dad came to visit me, crying. He’s a big, tough dude who doesn’t do that. He said to me, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. The enemy couldn’t kill you, so now you’re going to do it for them?’

“That’s when the light bulb went off. … If I can’t live for myself, then I damn sure need to live for (other American soldiers) who never made it home.”

Reclaiming her life

From that nadir, Ennis started reclaiming her life.

She began by trying snowboarding, a foreign sport for someone who spent much of her youth in Florida. She was immediately hooked and took a leap of faith by moving to Winter Park in 2014 to train with the National Sports Center for the Disabled.

In her new home state, Ennis flourished in snowboarding and hoped to compete in the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang. But that dream was derailed late in 2015 when a slate of infections in her residual limb nearly took her life.

She had surgery on Dec. 23 of that year to have her knee removed. Doctors told her they might need to amputate all the way up through her hip.

When Ennis awoke on Christmas, she still had her hip, but she was now an above-knee amputee. That brought a new set of challenges. But even with that setback, she persevered.

“I knew I could be upset about everything that I’ve lost, including my knee, but now I have to make the conscious choice every single day to focus on what I’ve gained,” Ennis said. “All the possibilities of life were still there. Everything that I do, it doesn’t have to look like everybody else. It might take me a little bit longer, or it might look a little bit different, but I can still accomplish what everybody else is doing. I just have to take the time to figure it out.”

That’s exactly what Ennis has done, even as she’s endured 48 surgeries since that fateful crash and twice had to re-learn how to walk.

When doctors wouldn’t clear her to return to competitive snowboarding about 15 months after the surgery to remove her knee, Ennis turned to mountaineering. That’s when she summited Kilimanjaro, and then Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia not long after that.

Even with the stability challenges on the mountain, and other painful side-effects such as blistering from her prosthetic, Ennis discovered she was a natural in extreme hiking environments.

“When I realized that Kilimanjaro and Carstensz were two the Seven Summits,” Ennis said, referencing the highest mountains on each of Earth’s seven continents, “I wasn’t going to stop.”

A different form of service

As Ennis got going on her climbing journey, she also started her own non-profit. The Kirstie Ennis Foundation launched in 2018, and the 501(c)(3) focuses on recreational therapy clinics and expeditions as well as providing prosthetics to underserved communities.

“My passion is being in the outdoors and looking at mobility, and movement in general, as medicine,” Ennis said. “I don’t think healing has to take place within four walls of a hospital. That definitely didn’t work for me, and neither did traditional therapy. What saved my life was getting outside.”

After her medical retirement from the Marine Corps left Ennis feeling directionless, her foundation provided a north star.

It’s a different form of service than she imagined when she first enlisted in the Marines, but one that fulfills her desire to show “anybody who was ever been the underdog (that) we can overcome whatever life throws at us.”

The foundation puts on annual clinics for women’s veteran snowboarders and amputee rock climbers. It’s also hosted clinics for amputee/veteran mountain bikers, adaptive off-roaders and sit-skiers. Foundation coordinator Megan Salisbury said clinics for paddle boarding and jujitsu are also under consideration.

Participation in the clinics is funded by the foundation, including travel, food, lodging and gear to take home. Hundreds apply and about five are selected for each clinic. To pay for the clinics and other therapeutic expeditions and services, the foundation spent an average of $121,044 from 2020-22, according to Colorado Secretary of State records.

“We don’t want them to think about anything other than being here to bond, and heal, and experience it, and we want to help them find outlets to get them back to living how they deserve to,” Salisbury said. “We’ve had some climbing clinic participants now competing in national and international events, and we’ve had other amputee climbers who came through the clinic who are now creating clinics in their hometown for adaptive athletes to be able to get out and move their bodies and push what’s possible.”

Both Allie Redshaw and Amanda Tallman are examples of the long-term impact Ennis’ clinics have.

Redshaw, a 34-year-old chef from Virginia, lost her right hand in a meat grinder in 2017. She attended one of Ennis’ adaptive rock climbing clinics in 2018, the first time she tried the sport. Redshaw said Ennis “meets you where you are in your healing journey,” and that Ennis’ follow-up with her after the clinic fueled her rise in the sport.

Over the last six years, Redshaw’s become a competitive climber, including for Team USA paraclimbing and in IFSC World Cups.

“I got a call from Kirstie after the clinic, who just said, ‘I see something in you. If you like climbing, I think climbing likes you, and I think you should keep doing it. I can help guide you through that experience, whatever that looks like,’” Redshaw said.

“And I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve called Kirstie and been like, ‘I think I should give this up. I’m terrible at this. I’m not getting first, so I’m last.’ She’s helped me to navigate that really well. … She helps remind me that I’m not going to be perfect at it, but I need to keep showing up.”

For Tallman, a 36-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Arizona, her participation in Ennis’ first women’s veteran snowboarding clinic in 2020 changed her life. Tallman said the experience gave her purpose when she was struggling with her mental health after medically retiring from the Army, and it eventually motivated her to found her own non-profit to help veterans.

“I fell so many times during that trip and I thought I would never learn how to snowboard,” Tallman recalled. “But Kirstie just had this essence of like, you fall down, you get back up. … I just had to get up and keep going down the mountain, whatever that looked like, and that mindset is because of Kirstie and the inspiration she instilled in me.”

Ennis’ future on the mountain

Aside from her mountaineering exploits, Ennis has plenty of other pursuits to keep her busy.

Described by Long as a “renaissance woman,” Ennis’ primary income comes from motivational speaking. She’s also earned three master’s degrees, is working on a doctorate, serves as a volunteer firefighter and has started the process of getting her pilot’s license as part of a pursuit to become an aerial firefighter.

She once walked 1,000 miles over 72 days through the United Kingdom in honor of fallen Marines. She was a stuntwoman in the movie “Patriots Day.” And all along, she’s been the face of the limb-different movement, appearing on the cover of the ESPN Body Issue and garnering induction into the International Sports Hall of Fame.

But as Long emphasizes, Ennis’ fiery Type A personality is mirrored by a different side, one defined by empathy.

“I remember her connecting with the young girls in the villages (along the Kilimanjaro hike),” Long said. “The little girls would flock to her and thought she was the coolest person in the world. So there’s ‘Kirstie on the mountain,’ and ‘Kirstie in the village.’ ‘Kirstie on the mountain’ is why she’s powerful, but ‘Kirstie in the village’ is why she resonates with so many people.”

Kirstie on the mountain still has one last summit to scale.

In 2025, she’ll make her third attempt at Everest, the final of the Seven Summits she needs to achieve. It will likely be a speed climb, over one month instead of the usual two. She had to turn back about 600 feet from the summit on each of her first two cracks at the world’s tallest mountain.

In 2019, it was because her climbing partners ran out of oxygen. Last year, 55-mph winds and temperatures as frigid as 35 degrees below zero forced her to turn back.

“The first time I turned around was to protect my team,” Ennis said. “Last time, I turned around in self-preservation.”

Ennis is still hoping for her snowboarding shot, with eyes on making the 2026 Winter Paralympics in Italy. She recently rejoined the Team USA snowboarding development pipeline and will need to perform well on the race circuit over the next couple of winters in order to have a chance at qualifying.

Through all of her individual goals, Redshaw and others close to Ennis believe she’s just getting started “as an ambassador on the front line of survivors.”

“Metaphorically, her next step could be to go to the moon,” said LP Panasewicz, Ennis’ friend and the director of development for the non-profit Range of Motion Project. “She’s already helped or impacted thousands of people, and she’ll surely reach thousands more. She’ll accomplish anything she wants to.”

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