Choosing Mountains: Mountaineering with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Diagnosis: Traumatic Brain Injury

Exhausted before it even started, my first expedition was one of survival.

Constant changes in direction, diagnosis, and dialects across seven hospitals in three countries. 70% vision loss, cognitive chaos, murky memory and an abolished appetite—I was both lost for words and a lust for life following 26 stormy months in a constant climb for my life. Every step felt like an unsteady crevasse crossing, my medical team leading me from the edge of death’s doorstep into an avalanche of unknowns.

Adrift amidst the losses, the only sign I could see illuminated was the mountains. They are home, comfort and constant. Mountains allow me to make sense of the confusion that surfaces amongst crowds and questions, stares and cities. Natural colossi—blockades to some, obstacles to others, opportunities to me.

mountaineering gear

Preparing to Climb

Centered and present, mountains grind through the inevitable transitions of every season. Traumatic Brain Injury, a tangible lesson in impermanence, has taught me how to steady myself amidst life’s storms, moments of darkness and light, joy and sorrow. With the minimal eyesight that remains, I stare out the window to the Himalayas, which remain steady through the monsoon storms, unphased by the emergence of a global pandemic. I choose to embody their resilience; embrace the constant that is change.

Mountains remind me to let go of that which I cannot control. Neither stuck nor stagnant, like the flowing glacial rivers, fresh and alive, I aim to let life flow and let go of the losses like a leaf in the running water, to see the possibilities of life’s peaks and potential for growth in the lows in between.

As I gather harnesses and headlamps, poles and pants, boots and belay devices, my mind drifts back to the hospital bed when the unconquered peaks of my future were unfathomable. A global expedition team guided me inward to discover the strength I needed to survive. I pack trail mix and tents, stoves, socks and my summit suit, to become one with the soul of the Himalaya, having already learned well that the most important equipment is within.

climbing the himalayas

Facing the Summit

“This is your Everest,” my doctor calmly claimed as I lay listless in my hospital bed, buried in blankets yet frozen to the core, full of frustration, empty of hope on a cloudless Colorado morning as the sun rose up above the Rockies.

“Expeditions require teamwork. We are your team,” the chief of the hospital spoke slowly at my bedside in a gentle tone as if I were his precious child. Averse to anyone or anything, I had no interest in more false promises and no capacity to engage in conversation, yet his analogy struck like the ball from right field that had put me here in the first place. He didn’t play with overused metaphors about success coming after a steep climb or making a mountain out of a molehill—his words were those of survival. Invisible yet impactful, they morphed onto my soul.

Dr. M. had made a thoughtful connection between my passion for nature and adventure and the steps necessary to create distance from death’s doorstep. Time passes without notice as I kick my crampons and the air thins, yet time stilled as he spoke. Though I was focused only on my longing to become one with the infinite sky while lying trapped in bed, his words etched themselves powerfully deep, waiting to surface years later.

setup MSR mountaineering tent

Choosing Mountains

The mountain has evolved over time and so have I, and yet all she is, is right now—strong and present. She has weathered thousands of years of storms and quakes, though her soul does not live in the past. Life’s climb that nearly broke me prepared me for this. Standing out among the highest of the Himalayas, her name derives from Sanskrit, mansa meaning soul, Manaslu. As I walk into her shadows, trek through her foothills and climb to her serene summit, I strive to become one with her; to embody her strength and resilience.

I choose mountains, those audacious challenges that life has prepared me for. Consistently putting one foot in front of the other, like climbing at altitude, and moving on from a traumatic brain injury and adapting to life with a visual impairment has been slow. Despite meticulous planning, rations and resources, there will always be unpredictable elements that require me to make decisions and reach out for help. I have overcome death hovering above me, yet now I often walk towards the death zone. Power and pride invigorate my steps.

happy on expedition

Lessons From Nature

Discovering the power of perspective, like subtle changes that take years to notice on a mountain face, and shifting my focus from what I lost to what I have gained has been gradual yet constant. Enduring this expedition gave me firsthand experience with all that is impermanence. Whether hiking through the mountain’s skirt of conifers, scrambling up her spiky shale, crossing fields of ice or post-holing toward a summit, I change, the seasons change, all while the mountain stands unwavering. Learning to anchor in life’s storms, knowing light always follows darkness and welcoming, yet not attaching myself to sunshine, I am becoming a mountain.

Assaulted by winds carrying snow and storms, the mountain holds unphased, assured by the certainty that is change. Through spring rains, summer heat and winter whiteouts the mountain is equanimous; rooted, still and silent. Adversity reveals power, patience and persistence—similar lessons learned from climbing mountains.

ice climbing

Extended stretches of constant climbing on vertical walls with the wind blowing around me are analogous to the physical test of brain injury while the mind howls with voices of doubt. From massive mountains can be learned tiny lessons: how a slight adjustment can prolong a day, why removing the tiny rock in a shoe or from under a mattress can save an expedition, and a change of direction does not mean it is the wrong way nor the end.

As we become one, the mountain and I, the sun sets behind her beautiful soul. Cold and dark settle in, a stark reminder that endings can be beautiful and the sun will rise again.

Climbing After Traumatic Brain Injury

mountaineering with traumatic brain injury

Life after TBI Looks Different: An Eye on 8,000m 

Climbing to higher altitudes without safe acclimatization can lead to serious, life-threatening illnesses. There is not concrete evidence that my TBI affects my ability to acclimatize. I am extremely cautious and know, regardless of brain injury, slower can be faster in the long run. Given adequate time, the body can adapt to the decrease in available oxygen molecules.

These are the triggers, changes and warning signs I look for in myself while in the mountains:

Headaches: Common at any altitude, it is essential to go slow and learn to differentiate between what, in my case, has become my normal and what can be associated with high altitude cerebral edema (HACE).

Fatigue: Initially overwhelming, brain injury is not fatigue that you can push through. It keeps getting worse, pushing me backward at times; such fatigue parallels that which altitude instills. Rest moves mountains.

Light Sensitivity: I have trouble with bright, flashing and fluorescent lights and nearly always wear dark protective glasses. Neglecting to use protective eyewear in high-altitude environments can lead to permanent damage. Eye disorders are common among climbers though the risk can be reduced by wearing specialized protective glasses and goggles. Dry eye is very common at altitude and can make your eyes even more sensitive. I always carry moisturizing eye drops to help with the potential discomfort of dry eye caused by altitude.

Sound Sensitivity: Excessive noise is overwhelming and anxiety-provoking for me. In mountains, hooded layers, wind and busy basecamp tents can trigger unease.

Cognitive Change: Memory, word-finding, decision making, and problem-solving all became demoralizing deficits following my TBI. Decisions like what to pack can feel impossible. Making lists, setting timers and breaking down tasks can help with planning and confidence.

Emotional Change: Denial and depression, anxiety, anger and sadness are all common following brain injury. Like the support necessary for an expedition to unfold safely and successfully, finding support to navigate all changes in your life following TBI is essential.

Sleep Patterns: Some people sleep more following TBI while others struggle with insomnia. As lack of rest impedes healing, the body needs more rest at altitude.

Overstimulation: I work to find solace in mountains. Though often an opportunity to be away from much of society’s stimulation, expeditions can at times feel overwhelming with reports, instructions, procedures and talking. I simply shut down when overstimulated. Like a battery run low, everything becomes harder. I use my journal daily until I reach basecamp, then use my phone to make notes to save weight. Chunking, breaking what feels overwhelming down into smaller, manageable parts, is a tool I use to adapt and calm.


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Jill WheatleyJill Wheatley

Jill has been adventuring in the outdoors her entire life, specifically in massifs around the world since 2017. Through mountain running, skiing and climbing, she embraces the 30% eyesight she still has and the life she nearly lost as the result of a traumatic brain injury. After more than 2 stormy years in a constant climb, 7 hospitals in 3 countries, she began to see a shimmer of light shining through her hospital room window from the Colorado Rockies: a spark of inspiration. From Andorra to Argentina, New Zealand to Nepal, from Peru to Patagonia and the Pyrenees, Italy, Iceland, and India, from the Andes to the Annapurnas, from tales of getting lost to finding herself running ridges and climbing up craters and deep in crevasse in lands of fire and ice. Currently in Nepal’s Himalayas, she has just climbed Manaslu (8,163 m), the world’s 8th highest peak. Next she’ll be in Himlung (7,126m) to train for more 8,000-meter climbs in 2022.

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