Authors Note: You may remember about a week ago we posted an article about the unstoppable Kelly Perkins who, with the help of husband Craig and Scott Stowe of the Yosemite Mountaineering School climbed the face of Half Dome. This was quite an inspirational feat as Kelly was the recipient of a heart transplant in 1995. This past weekend Kelly was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for me. Here is the interview unedited in its entirety. Thanks Kelly for taking the time to do the interview.
Loyd: What do you feel was the hardest part of the climb?
I try to go into a climb with the mindset that I will do my very best, push my edge, but be safe. Because Half Dome is symbolic to me in so many ways, I could not separate my emotions from it. To explain, when Craig and I got married, our good friends gave us a framed poster of Half Dome that hung midway in our staircase. I looked at it every day, before, during, and after my illness. When I was really weak, Craig had to carry me up the stairs, past this photo. Its meaning changed as my health deteriorated and again when I was able to recover and rebuild. To me, Half Dome is broken, yet is stands tall and prominent, just like the surrounding peaks. That is how I felt – broken. There was a huge spirit building message in its visual appearance and I hung hope on that symbolism. So, when the time of the climb approached, I wanted desperately to stand on top ~ I wanted to prove my affirmation and to see it realized.
Besides getting to the base of the wall (grueling…..huff, huff), I would say managing what seemed like a mountainous amount of ropes, specifically, during the lower out for the Robbins Traverse. To add excitement to a fun (tricky pitch), we didn’t get to it until around midnight. I felt as thought I was dangling in space above the abyss only to find I was tangled in ropes. Trying to surmise the mess while tired and hungry in the dark with just the light of my headlamp, took the challenge of taking apart the snarl to a whole new level.
Loyd: What advice would you offer to other transplant recipients?
Kelly: Twelve years ago I hiked the backside (mist trail to cables), which was 10 months after my heart transplant. I was heavily medicated (steroids) and still getting to know my heart (transplanted heart function is very different than birth heart). I made it to the top, however, on the way down is when my troubles began and I ended up in the hospital. Looking back, I was admittedly physically too frail. On the other hand, for my head, distancing me from the medical world was my very best medicine.
With that in mind, to go back again, physically stronger than I have ever been and do the hike and the climb in a strong fashion, meaning going for pizza afterwards vs. the clinic or hospital, is a strong testimonial to what is possible. I would like transplant recipients and anyone battling a medical challenge to know this…..what may not be physically possible for you today, may be possible down the road. It takes passion and hard work, but if I can do it, you can too!
Loyd: What are some of the climbs you are planning to do in the future?
Kelly: Next is Peru in late September. The primary reason we are going is to help a UCLA doctor and his team who are performing surgery for kids with congenial heart disease. Taking advantage of the opportunity, are extending our trip to do some climbing. Our plan is to have a base in Huaraz, and from there climb in Huanchac, Llaca Valley, and Jatumachay area. Beyond that, I am exploring new ideas.
Loyd: Out of all the climbs you’ve done, which is your favorite?
Kelly: Not a fair question. Right this moment, I am still under the vortex of Half Dome’s magic!
Loyd: Which did you like better, climbing El Cap or Half Dome?
Kelly: Both experiences are uniquely very different. I can’t say one over the other, because they are so different. I am always about team spirit, and I had basically the same team for both walls. El Cap (Muir Wall) was my first…..we all know about firsts! It has amazing exposure and is dramatic in every aspect from the climbing, the bivy’s, and the hauling. Half Dome is shorter, I was more competent (rope management, etc), and I were able to do a lot of free climbing.
As far as the symbolism of each wall, for El Cap, my goal was to climb straight through the heart (the natural feature of the southwest wall); for Half Dome, we created our own heart (human supporters wearing red tee shirts). What was cool about Half Dome was that it was as much a celebration for those who hiked the backside and met us at the top as it was for us. The excitement was infectious.
Loyd: Do you think you’ll climb either again?
Kelly: For each climb, symbolism is a big part of what I do ~ I like the climb to carry with it a message. So, if the opportunity arose, I would definitely consider it. Yet in saying this, I will put my energy and focus on projects that would present a fresh message for my cause.
Loyd: Anything else you’d like to mention?
Kelly: Yes, for the purist climbing community, you may see pictures of climbing (or jummaring) and you think – wow, that’s cool, or I can do that move – to me this climb and the others represents something entirely different. When you are coming from the perspective of a heart patient – you are thinking of arrhythmias, blood pressure swings, possible cardiac arrest, medication side effects, and fear of being out of the range of immediate emergency response… I lived for a good 4 years, afraid to go out of driving range from my hospital.
So, climbing for me isn’t about the climb as much as the freedom and confidence in my health that gives me the willingingness to explore my capabilities, and therefore, climbs. So this is not about medical, not about climbing – it’s about the in between – from the lowest of lows to the highs.
Lastly, thank you to the climbing community who gave me the support to help me achieve my goals.
For more information on Kelly, her climbs, her philosophy, photos from her climbs and her great cause check out her website at craigandkelly.com