Jill Wheatley is recovering from pneumonia. She got it while climbing in Annapurna—the most recent mountain of her 14 peaks challenge. Her Kathmandu apartment looks, in Wheatley’s words, “like a bomb went off.” Ice axes, crampons, helmets, shovels, outerwear.

“It’s because I’m unpacking and repacking,” she says.

Vinayak Jaya Malla 

Wheatley most recently summited Annapurna and now she’s dealing with not only the aftermath of pneumonia, but also a sinus infection and bronchitis. It was her toughest climb so far—now her climbing schedule will have to be adjusted.

“I was supposed to be on Everest right now, but then it made sense to pause that, get healthy, and do it later,” she says. If there’s one thing Wheatley knows, it’s that most things don’t go according to plan.

Vinayak Jaya Malla 

Wheatley has just 30 per cent vision, but after a traumatic and turbulent chapter in her life, she has made it her goal to summit all 14 of the world’s tallest mountains that stand above 8,000 metres. Those would be the Himalayan and Karakoram behemoths towering well above the clouds in China, Nepal, Pakistan and India: K2, Kangchenjunga, Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Annapurna I, Broad Peak, Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Shishapangma.

So far, she has completed the first seven on that list. This is a challenge which, as it stands right now, is already impressive for various reasons. Anyone who climbs any peak above 8,000 metres would be considered—by most people’s standards—to have accomplished a major feat. Wheatley, who is from northern Ontario, is also blazing a trail for Canadian women by becoming the first to have completed six of the 8,000-metre-plus peaks, with the intention to complete all of them. She’s also doing it with just 30 per cent vision. That’s testing the limits in many respects.

“Someone said I’m a role model for girls, but I hope for boys too. It was suggested I leave the hospital with a white cane that’s intended for visually impaired people and now I’m using ice tools to get myself up mountains,” says Wheatley. “That’s the way I want to be seen: for the way I’ve chosen to respond to a whole lot of adversity.” 

Vinayak Jaya Malla

September 2014 was when Wheatley’s life took a turn she never would have predicted. Ever the traveller, Wheatley was living the expat life in Germany where she was working as a teacher. Despite challenging weather conditions one day, she took the gym class outside for baseball practice where she wound up getting hit by a ball. It fractured her skull, caused a traumatic brain injury and took most of her vision. What was initially diagnosed as a black eye (that eye has never managed to re-open) actually became a 26-month recovery in seven different hospitals spanning three countries.

For Wheatley, as someone who has always spent her time running, road and mountain biking, skiing, travelling and living independently in remote places, receiving a long-awaited formal diagnosis of 70 per cent vision loss was absolutely devastating. “I had medicine tubes going into my nose, stomach, and my gastrointestinal tube. I was trying to pull everything out because they said if I was unhooked, I wouldn’t survive three days,” Wheatley recalls. “That felt like three days too many.”

Vinayak Jaya Malla 

By December of 2016, Wheatley was discharged and facing all kinds of nightmares related to insurance, visas, residency and having to prove to the German bank that she was in fact still alive. She decided to spend a year in the mountains to reassess in different parts of 13 different mountain ranges. “That one year started in 2017, and now it’s 2023 and I'm still in the mountains,” she says. Nepal has been her homebase for the past few years.

Savannah Cummins 

That idea to seek healing power from craggy peaks in some of the world’s most rugged, far-flung spaces would make sense to anyone who energizes themselves by going into the mountains. There’s the appeal of slowing down and appreciating nature. There’s the temptation to test physical capability in a landscape that provides all the necessary challenges. There’s the absence of certain societal irritations. In Wheatley’s case, heading off to the mountains was probably the best call in that it led to her discovering the world of mountaineering and climbing in a place as captivating as the Himalayas. “That first year I came through Nepal and really fell in love with the Himalayas,” she remembers. A lot of this started with a trail running race in Annapurna.

Imagine losing 70 per cent of your vision, spending two years in the hospital, overcoming a major brain injury and losing most elements of life as you know it—your job, your residency, your independence, your car, certain physical capabilities or where you live. By the time Wheatley was 10 months out of the hospital, a friend of hers asked her to join him in the Annapurna 100 trail race—and she went for it. “Even just registering would have been a win,” says the Canadian mountaineer now.

“But the gun went off, and I just had this energy that I was incredible. It feels like a fairy tale because I ended up just running super strong and super happy,” she says. At the end, the race director told her about one of the next coveted events: a run around Manaslu. “I didn’t even know what Manaslu was … I said, ‘Oh too bad, I’m leaving.’ But that night, I went to bed and thought—wait a second, this sounds so cool. Like an opportunity. I called the next morning, changed my flight and stayed. It was probably a very significant decision in my life because I stayed and I ran the Manaslu Trail Race.”

Dawa G. Sherpa  

That was it: a sample of what Himalayan adventure could be. The trail running experience lends well to giving mountaineering a shot. Now, having bagged seven of the world’s highest peaks, Wheatley has found a new life that fits her well. She’s on track to continue venturing to some of the most untouched parts of the world.

Vinayak Jaya Malla 

You could talk about the records, sure (and many will, this article included), but when Wheatley rattles off just a few of her experiences in these mountains, that slice of Himalayan life is captivating enough to inspire any outdoorsy person. There was the time when, on the way to Nanga Parbat, a group of kids sat outside of her tent, curious and captivated by a female mountaineer. There was reaching the top of Manaslu, her first 8000-metre mountain, and feeling thankful for not giving up during her recovery. There was her strong, confident and energetic final hour on K2, staring at the summit despite knowing about the rumours of how many mountaineers don’t return. There was the time she did Broad Peak five days after K2 and revelled in the quietness of places that most Everest climbers overlook. Or the near miss in Nanga Parbat where an avalanche luckily only took gear and not people.

Speaking of extreme conditions, and severe elements, Annapurna is famous for that, and part of Wheatley’s journey is acknowledging how difficult that mountain was. The treacherous days are part of it—clearly.

Vinayak Jaya Malla 

There’s lots to be said for reaching the summit, of course. But so much of this type of exploration and the commitment to a goal like the 14 peaks exists in those quieter, less-photogenic moments. Take the morning before a big climb, for example. To start, you have to go to the bathroom next to your tent. Mornings are early, before sun breaks, and taken up with the tediousness of boiling water at altitude (for cooking and hydration for the day). Then, there’s eating, getting gear on, doing up the boots, packing up camp and heading out. “We never are out of the tent within two hours,” says Wheatley. “Never.”

Almost nine years after the incident with the baseball, Wheatley’s life has taken a number of crazy turns. She headed to the mountains, and eventually Nepal, seeking relief from the aftermath of a freak accident. She’s still there, having found not just relief, but a sense of purpose, direction and a new perspective. Standing on the top of any of these 8,000-metre mountains, she and her story are tiny. “The mountains put so much into perspective. Like how small the problems are and how insignificant I am when as far as you can see, I'm the only person for millions of square kilometres,” she says. “With new perspective, you can look at that and say, ‘Wow, that would be impossible to climb.’ Or you could look at it and say, ‘Imagine the opportunities there. Imagine all the things that you could do in those mountains.’”

 Dawa G. Sherpa 

Imagine all the things you could do in those mountains, like climbing them with 30 per cent vision and standing on their peaks with a dream to climb all 14 one day soon. If—and when—she does, it'll be incredible. Already, she’s gone from death’s door to the highest places on earth. She goes beyond the prayer flags and through the ice to where the world stops.

Learn more about Jill's story via her Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter or YouTube


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