Colorado climber conquers Antarctica’s tallest peak and closes in on ‘Seven Summits’

After rebounding from a devastating injury, Kim Hess climbed Mt. Vinson in December. Now, just one easy summit remains in her goal of climbing the seven tallest peaks on each continent.
December 30th, 2017

Kim Hess is nearing the end of a seven-part dream that has taken years to unfold.

The latest episode wrapped up in December when Hess summited Mount Vinson (elevation 16,050 feet) in Antarctica. The 19-day exploit left the Steamboat Springs adventurer just one climb shy of meeting her long-held goal of conquering the Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each continent. Only Australia’s Mount Kosciusko remains – a mere 7,310-foot peak. Hess sees that one as a “day hike” that she plans to take with her parents in late February or early March.

Kim Hess and her brother, Steven, created a sign out of iceblocks that said, "Vinson 2017." Their expeditions have illustrated the challenges of climbing 'Seven Summits.'
Hess and her brother, Steven, give Mount Vinson a tribute in snowblocks. (Photo courtesy of Kim Hess.)

The Kosciusko closer is a relative breather for Hess, but it was hard earned. The Mount Vinson climb, which she described as “a perfect way to end all the big expeditions,” took roughly double the usual time required to reach the summit because of heavy winds, snow and clouds.

Hess and her nine-person climbing team, which included her brother Steven, scaled the mountain in perpetual daylight, but when the sun went behind clouds, temperatures could quickly swing 60 degrees. The mercury plunged at times to 30 degrees below zero, sending the climbers scurrying into their tents. During the climb, they toiled through an eerie world of white and blue and gazed at an endless horizon. Time stood still without a setting sun.

Three words summed up the rhythm of their days, Hess said: “Climb, sleep, eat.”

Not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure. But for Hess, it was a rare chance to experience one of the world’s last unspoiled regions.

“Mankind has yet to scar it,” she said. “You fly over a place that no one has touched. There aren’t many like that left on the planet.”

Steep challenges of climbing ‘Seven Summits’

To fully appreciate the satisfaction Hess takes in completing the Seven Summits challenge, it’s necessary to understand what she went through to reach this point. In June 2013, Hess was descending Denali in Alaska when she slipped. Her left arm caught in the fixed line that was holding her. The rope snapped her wrist and broke bones in her hand. She spent nearly two days in agonizing pain waiting for an airlift off the mountain.

After a stay at an Anchorage hospital, Hess returned to Denver, where she eventually wound up in the care of Michael Gordon, MD, a hand surgeon at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Gordon was surprised when the distraught Hess told him he needed to make her hand perfect again because she planned to climb Mount Everest next year.

Kim Hess holds a sign that says "UCHealth" as she kneels in the snow with Mount Vinson in the background. Wild swings in temperatures were among the challenges of climbing 'Seven Summits.'
Kim Hess takes time out from her climb to the summit of Mount Vinson in Antarctica to give UCHealth a little love. (Photo courtesy of Kim Hess.)

Replying that he, too, is a perfectionist, Gordon performed a six-and-a-half-hour surgery to piece Hess’s hand and wrist back together with plates and screws. That was only the beginning of a long ordeal. It would be a year before Gordon removed plates in Hess’s radial and ulna bones. She persevered through a challenging and frustrating occupational and physical therapy regimen at Yampa Valley SportsMed Clinic – Steamboat Springs with certified hand therapist Emily Tjosvold.

Comeback to setback and back again

The work with Tjosvold paid off. Early in 2015, Gordon cleared Hess to attempt her ascent of Everest. In April she began her long-delayed try only to face another disaster: an earthquake that shook Nepal, devastated Kathmandu and killed nearly two dozen climbers. Hess escaped without injury and returned to Colorado, mourning those who died on Everest and in the towns and villages of Nepal.

But the tragedy did not deter her from another Everest effort, and in May 2016, Hess stood at the 29,029-foot summit. The lesson for all, she said, is “to be resilient, whatever the setback in life,” but also always to be willing to accept the help of others.

“Dr. Gordon and Emily were just as dedicated to my recovery as I was and without them I wouldn’t be sharing my story the same way,” she said. “I’m happy to report that today I don’t even think about my injury. It’s now just a blip on the radar.”

She did, however, get an unexpected reminder of the terrible day on Denali during the Mount Vinson expedition. She calls it “a perfect ending to the story.”

Blast from the past

The cargo plane bringing Hess and her team to the mountain landed on a blue-ice glacier. They disembarked and were waiting for a shuttle to take them to the spot where they would set up their tents when Hess heard a familiar voice. It was her assistant guide from Denali, a guy named Larry.

Kim Hess shows a Denver Broncos flag with Mount Vinson in Antarctica in the background.
The Broncos have had a tough year, but they were on top of the world in Antarctica, thanks to Hess. (Photo courtesy of Kim Hess.)

“The last time I saw Larry, we were pulling traction on my arm,” Hess said.

The two of them climbed down together and waited for the helicopter to take her off Denali. She didn’t see him again until the random meeting in Antarctica, of all places.

Hess had never forgotten Larry. She mentioned him often during presentations she makes to groups about her experiences.

“I talk about him all the time because he’s such a big part of my story,” she said. “He was right there. He was the first person to talk to me as my hand was facing in the wrong direction. I’ve always felt this bond with him. I gave him a big hug and thanked him again for helping me. Listening to him tell his side of the story was therapeutic. It wrapped up these trips and I came full circle.”

On to the next

As Hess nears accomplishing a goal that has consumed her, she said she feels “a mixed bag of emotions,” from relief to pride to sadness.

“It’s what I think about when I get up in morning and the reason I don’t sleep at night,” she said.

What’s next is “the million-dollar question,” she added. She’d like to complete the “Explorers Grand Slam,” which adds traversing the North Pole and South Pole to climbing the Seven Summits. That will require a break for fundraising.

“There will be an adjustment period,” she said. “But then I think I’ll just keep dreaming and setting goals and pushing my own personal limits and seeing what else the planet has to offer.”

About the author

Tyler Smith is a freelance writer based in metro Denver.