One Navy veteran's journey to climb the world's seven highest summits

Kaylah Jackson
March 22, 2020 - 3:00 pm
Navy veteran completes solo climb up Mt. Aconagua

Courtesy of Amanda Burrill

15 years after sustaining a traumatic brain injury, Amanda Burrill is still recovering, but that hasn't stopped her from working toward her ultimate goal — completing the world’s seven highest summits. 

“I’ve come a really long way from not being able to scroll email, find an itinerary and not even be able to find out what airport I was going through,” said Burrill.

A 2003 head injury while on board a Navy ship left Burril with a challenging transition out of the military. Medical professionals struggled to identify her accompanying diagnoses. Just last year, Burrill learned she suffered from autonomic dysfunction, a condition that results from sustained nerve damage.

However, Burrill prefers not to think of her condition as a permanent hindrance.

“'I have severe brain damage, I have autonomic dysfunction … that affects my neurological systems and this is who I am,' or I can say, 'I am an athlete and I am also handling some medical conditions,'” she said. 

Exercising is what keeps Burrill grounded, but her workouts aren't your typical morning PT. 

In 2018, Burrill climbed Denali, the highest summit in North America, alongside another woman veteran. Last year, she decided to complete the fourth of seven total summits alone.

Sitting at 22,841 feet, Mt Aconcagua is the world’s highest summit outside of the Himalayas. Burrill spent months working with her medical team to prepare for the 21-day trip up the mountain range in Argentina, but one challenge she wasn't expecting was a lack of water.

Amanda Burrill
Courtesy of Amanda Burrill

"Every time I'd see new people going from the check-in and then base camp, I'd ask the same question: 'Oh hey, what did you see as far as snow goes?'" Burrill said. "At the end of the day, no matter how fit I was, no matter how much gear I had, if I couldn't make water, that was the end of the expedition for me."

The logical progression of the summit is to spend time at three different camps before starting the climb, but after noticing large pools of glacial water runoff, and asking others passing by, she found two of the camps had no water. 

One of the side effects of Burrill's injuries is her blood vessels have trouble constricting, often leaving blood to pool at the bottom of her legs, resulting in her experiencing lightheadedness. Without being properly hydrated, this health obstacle could pose even larger problems when coupled with high altitudes.

Focus off of Corona madness and back to #Aconcagua. Wish I’d stayed! /// Day five was an #acclimation #hike up Mt. #Bonete (16,732 ft). I was out #trekking alone for six hours (an additional hour on the #summit plateau hanging with the @grajales.expeditions team I’d met back in Penitentes). I wanted my solo time to be “in the present,” but thoughts surrounding my health saga gripped me like a vice. I design these #adventures to help me escape all that, yet there I was. Compounding the emotional load, views of the surrounding #peaks and back down the #Horcones Valley were breathtaking enough to elicit “different” tears. Sadness (formerly known to me as “anger”) mixed with gratitude for how far I’ve come and the beauty of our planet: The day was a stunning mindfuck. The #outdoors helps me work my shit out. The only way out is through. ✊--

A post shared by Amanda Burrill (@amandauncharted) on

"I'm like 'wait a second, my plan is to go to base camp and then go to camp one and camp two and camp three and then summit the mountain,'" said Burrill. An average person should be drinking about four liters of water a day, but Burrill needs six or seven. On these types of excursions, water is her "lifeline."

Navigating this meant making several hikes to alternate hydration sources to no avail before finally coming to a frozen reservoir, which she broke through with her ice pick. She likened the search to walking around with a metal detector looking for buried treasure.

"I live in an apartment in New York City. My life usually involves, like, subways and people all around and here I am, on a mountain, alone in a tent that I'm pretty sure is gonna blow off the mountain -- like 'yay' for having so many dimensions," Burrill thought to herself.

After nearly a week of camping and making the trek back and forth for water, she made an executive decision.

"It looks like it was going to be a nice day, I had everything I needed as far as nutrition and hydration. I had my hands and my feet, I showed up here super fit. I trained really hard for three months before I went and I just knew it was all coming together," Burrill said. 

Horcones Valley #⛰ An eight hour trek turned into 11 and I ended up thigh-deep in freezing glacial runoff. Commando crawling up onto an eroding “river bank” was hilarious, as was watching one of my trekking poles float downstream. I retrieved it and dried myself out. Great fun! /// On a medical note I get questions about functioning athletically with neuropathic POTS. Proper hydration and electrolytes are key to increasing my blood volume. A typical day at sea level I drink four liters: When I’m on an adventure it’s at least six. I love bringing --@liquidiv packets on trips, which have sodium, potassium and glucose. My multivitamin has magnesium and other trace minerals. Also, I tend to graze on physically demanding days, avoiding the blood rush to the gut that comes with heavy meals. No meds, no excuses, just a lot of attention to detail. Thanks #LiquidIV for #fuelinglifesadventures! . . . . #Aconcagua #AndesMountains #trekking #horcones #hiking #hydrateordie

A post shared by Amanda Burrill (@amandauncharted) on

A series of days often felt like forever climbing up Aconcagua. The weight of her gear on her injuries coupled with the mental stress began to take a toll on Burrill's psyche during the two remaining hours towards the top. But that's what fueled her last few steps.

"That struggle feels so good compared to struggling with brain injury," Burrill said. "When you're struggling but there's no end in sight, that's a painful struggle ... where you run the risk of losing hope. But the struggle towards the summit, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, that's an inspiration struggle."

By the time she reached the peak of Aconcagua, Burrill stayed for a few moments to reflect, even catching herself tearing up. From being alone with just her thoughts to struggling to sleep because of 60 mph winds, she thought back on the naysayers who didn't believe in her goals. 

"I was told that I was permanently and totally disabled. I was told not even to climb Kilimanjaro. I was told all of these things and all I had to do was believe that I could, and obviously put in the work," said Burrill. "I didn't climb as a disabled person, I climbed as a climber."

She thinks of herself as an unofficial advocate for other service members with TBI. Burrill says it's always worth "questioning any limitation people put on you ... There's something about suffering hard enough to get something you want."

Meet the first all-female veteran team to climb Denali without a guide

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