Visually impaired mountaineer’s tall task more than overcoming world’s highest peaks
“Those 26 months in hospitals and so much darkness, that wasn’t a choice, but now I choose to expose myself to these situations that challenge me physically and mentally. I’ve been through worse, not willingly.”
CANMORE – Twenty-six months after the near-death accident that left her with 70 percent of her sight, Jill Wheatley anxiously adjusted to a new reality in which her autonomy was diminished.
When Wheatley left the hospital in 2016, he froze inside. She had suffered severe vision loss, had difficulty working with cognitive functions such as writing a note, memory loss and had to relinquish her driver’s license.
A sudden realization jerked roughly at the collar of the newly discharged patient as her mind raced about what to do next.
“My whole story is so complicated,” Wheatley said. “No novelist could dream it up, and I live it.”
Now in Canmore – if only temporarily – Wheatley reflected on the daunting task she set herself and that has taken her to the Canadian Rockies.
Colossal mountains have always fascinated the outdoor enthusiast in Ontario. After her time in hospitals, she retired to Nepal, one of her favorite destinations, where life – maybe a fresh start – changed everything again.
Fourteen peaks in the world rise above 8,000 meters. For Wheatley, she’s determined to climb them — not for records or fame, but to use them as a tool to inspire and motivate others and break down the stigma she’s faced since the accident.
“I feel like life prepared me for tough things,” Wheatley said. “Those 26 months in hospitals and so much darkness, that wasn’t a choice, but now I choose to expose myself to these situations that challenge me physically and mentally. I’ve been through worse, not willingly.”
Of course, Canmore, a paradise for ice climbers and mountaineers, was the place for her first lessons. As it turns out, the training and community were so good for Wheatley that she decided to return to the city before beginning the second half of Vision 8,000, her project to climb the 14 highest peaks while breaking down barriers.
Renowned local ice guide Sean Isaac helps prepare for frozen peaks and mixed terrain. The miner is diligent in passing on his vast knowledge of the technical side of things, providing the know-how of dealing with the ice and mixed-terrain netting that Wheatley will encounter.
“The climbing she participates in here in the Canadian Rockies is technically much more difficult than anything she might encounter on the 8,000 meter peaks. So if she’s at high altitude and tired and cold, actual climbing difficulty shouldn’t be an issue. ‘ said Isaac. “It will just come down to their fitness and mental toughness.”
One thing Isaac appreciates about Wheatley is her quiet determination.
“I really appreciate her calm, focused nature and her enthusiasm to learn and progress,” he said.
“Adjusting her ice skills in the winter so that she can fully focus on those factors when fatigue, cold and altitude weigh on her, and not be held back by the tech systems.”
The blueprint for Vision 8,000 was born out of shame and painful memories that she no longer wanted to hide. And if she did tell her story, it would be an all-in approach — the reality of a brain injury and internal windstorms.
“I often use the analogy: the avalanche that came after the brain injury,” she said.
“Being vulnerable, being authentic, I think creates connections… I think that’s healthy and breaking down the stigma will only happen if we educate people.
“Even though I’m no longer a teacher in the literal sense, I can teach other people with what I do. I often speak about the power of prospects and opportunities.”
On the day of the sports accident, Wheatley was living in Germany and working as a high school physical education teacher in Bavaria.
Raised in Northern Ontario, Wheatley was raised to lead an active lifestyle. She was often outside.
It was a cold and wet day and some teachers chose to hold their classes indoors, but as she got older, the adventuress moved her classes outside.
It only lasted a fraction of a second.
On this cool and humid September 2014 morning, the class was learning baseball. After warming up, the students split into small groups. The teacher spoke to a group while others played with baseball bats and balls.
Nearby, a student swung a baseball bat and hit a baseball bat, sending a fast line drive at an unsuspecting Wheatley. The teacher was hit by the hard ball on the right side of his head. Things immediately went dark as Wheatley’s right eye closed completely and it felt like her head was about to explode.
Knowing she was badly injured and in dire need of help, she struggled to remain conscious and calmly urged her students to run the school to get help.
Under the doctors’ bright lights, the medics thought her painful injury was nothing more than a simple black eye that would eventually heal. The sort of things that would make for a great conversation starter over the next month.
Still with one eye closed that would never open again, Wheatley told himself to stand firm and accepted the medical verdict; However, she still felt that something life-threatening was happening beneath the surface.
A few days later, she returned to the same hospital and was then quickly transferred to an ambulance and taken to a neurological trauma center.
Upon further examination, doctors found that Wheatley’s skull was fractured and her brain was bleeding and swelling. Because of the dangerous severity of the problem, the medical team focused on Wheatley’s brain rather than her right eye.
The near-death resulted in 70 percent vision loss and a grueling 26 months in seven hospitals in three countries, during which Wheatley described herself as a nightmare patient who threw and smashed anything she could get her hands on, at least toward the end of the 26 months.
In its darkest hour, colossal peaks and frigid challenges called to Wheatley.
Now nearly halfway through Vision 8,000 — climbing mountains like K2 and Makalu in 2022 — the mountaineer is likely to be her last year to tick off the peaks on her list, if Mother Nature cooperates. She uses trusted overseas guides during expeditions, all of whom she said are extremely safe.
Eight mountains remain on Wheatley’s list and two she hopes to scrap soon are Annapurna I in north-central Nepal and the famous Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.
However, Wheatley would avoid the 29,028-foot mammoth circus if she could. In other words, you won’t catch them at the foot of Mount Everest having a cappuccino.
“That part is hard for me that there’s going to be so many people and the commercialization of it,” Wheatley said. “It’s the peaks like Kangchenjunga and Dhaulagiri where there are no other teams. I stand on the summit with no one else. This is my jam.”
Believe it or not, climbing the world’s highest peaks isn’t the hard part of Wheatley’s journey — it’s fundraising.
That’s why a GoFundMe page called Vision 8000 was started for Wheatley as she continues her journey to break down the stigma associated with traumatic brain injuries, vision loss and eating disorders.