Kelly Perkins
Dorte Pietron  /  AP
Kelly Perkins, who had a heart transplant in November 1995, has climbed the Matterhorn, Japan's Mount Fuji and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa with another heart beating in her chest.
updated 3/4/2007 11:18:38 AM ET 2007-03-04T16:18:38

She’s a climber with heart, and it’s not even her own.

Kelly Perkins, a 45-year-old Californian who had a heart transplant more than a decade ago, has added a dangerous free climb in the Andes to a string of mountaineering feats.

Perkins, the first person to climb the Matterhorn, Mount Fuji and Mount Kilimanjaro with another person’s heart beating in her chest, recently completed a challenging roped ascent with her husband, Craig, up the side of an unexplored peak in the South American chain.

She dubbed the route the “Charmed Heart” as she led her team up one of several unnamed peaks in the remote Cajon de Arenales region near Argentina’s border with Chile, more than 650 miles west of Buenos Aires.

“It was another planet, the landscape was so beautiful,” Perkins said. “There are not a lot of places in the world that are so pristine and untouched.”

Aside from her donated heart, the only thing setting her apart from the others on the trip was a backpack jammed with prescription drugs, medical supplies and a blood-pressure monitor.

Perkins grew up around Lake Tahoe, Calif., acquiring a love for the outdoors that led to annual backpacking trips with friends. Her zeal for mountain trekking and climbing only increased after her transplant on Nov. 20, 1995. Any fears about stressing her new heart were overwhelmed by a desire to rebuild her strength.

Some 3½ years earlier, she had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy — a disease in which heart muscle becomes inflamed — which doctors blamed on a virus. For more than three years, she and her husband shuttled in and out of hospitals seeking a donor heart.

About 10 months after her operation, she hiked up the backside of Half Dome peak in Yosemite National Park, a 4,100-foot ascent up to the 8,842-foot elevation.

“I wanted to do something significant to help change the image that friends and family had developed of me, and also the image I had formed of myself,” she said, adding she found inspiration during her recovery from a classic Ansel Adams photo of Half Dome hanging in her home.

“It was something I looked at every day and was ever-present in my mind, and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to do a long hike and because we had never done Half Dome before,” she said. “Craig and my relationship was established in the mountains, and I felt if I could rebuild my strength and regain at least some of my former athleticism, an improved image would naturally follow.”

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Perkins next went to the top of Japan’s Mount Fuji in 1998, Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro in 2001 and Switzerland’s Matterhorn in 2003. She used ropes in 2005 to ascend Yosemite’s El Capitan — 3,000 feet up the granite monolith.

Charting unknown territory
The Andes adventure was all free climbing, using ropes and protective gear only for safety’s sake as she moved up the rock under her own power, using only hands and feet to find natural holds in the crevices of the rock. She said the climb was much more physically demanding than El Capitan, and more difficult because of the thinner levels of oxygen at base camp of 10,000 feet. The altitude forced her to stop frequently to catch her breath and let her heart rest.

From there she stared up in awe at several peaks towering around a high valley. The group spent days exploring rocky slopes never believed to have been touched by climbers in technical gear.

The group advanced slowly, grabbing toe and fingerholds while placing protective devices in the rocks as she led the so-called “sharp end of the rope.” Along the way, the climbers used pitons and spring-loaded camming devices to inch ever higher. On the way down they removed all the gear, save some bolts drilled or hammered into rocks at belaying points that could be used for safe ascents and rappelling by future climbers.

“On El Capitan we climbed the ropes to get to the top, but here we were very much using our arms, hands and feet to move up the wall,” Perkins said.

She also said it was a challenge going up an unexplored rock face.

“Every other mountain we’ve done, the routes had already been established,” Perkins said.

She said charting unknown territory left her musing on the first pioneering heart transplants decades ago and later medical breakthroughs that have saved many lives. Without such discoveries, she said, “I wouldn’t be alive today.”

“When I first got my heart, my life expectancy was 10 years, so I feel very fortunate,” Perkins said.

“Needless to say, for me, going from needing to be carried up the stairs in our home at night to climbing and exploring new mountains is unimaginable. This we owe to donors, doctors, drugs and new technologies, and I am thankful to benefit from all the medical milestones that have made this all possible.”

Perkins and her husband were joined on the climb by Argentine guide Ramiro Calvo. A Boulder, Colo.-based documentary filmmaker, Michael Brown, filmed the ascent while climbing in a parallel group with two other people.

Calvo said he was amazed by Kelly Perkins’ prowess.

“At the beginning, I was a little concerned, but then I saw her start to climb and it surprised me how well she climbed. She is impressive. I didn’t feel she was any different from anyone else,” he said.

Calvo also said Craig Perkins was instrumental to the team’s success.

“These two have an attitude about life that is just incredible,” the guide said. “He takes such great care of her, and they just give off really great vibes.”

The climbers tested their teamwork in warmup climbs, discarding one attempted route as too dangerous because of loose rock. They ultimately settled on a sheer mountain face with a difficult route up hundreds of yards of rock face roughly shaped like the letter “C.”

Perkins said the “C” route reminded her of the word “corazon” — Spanish for “heart” — and she led the initial ascent.

“We found a line and made a way up the best we could,” she added, noting chunks of rock broke off easily and every toehold and fingerhold had to be taken with extreme care.

Craig Perkins, who has given his wife a gold charm for every major mountain climbed since her transplant, gave her another atop the “Charmed Heart” route — this one of a woman mountaineer leaping for a peak and grabbing it by one hand. A tiny sparkling ruby represents her heart.

Craig Perkins said he hopes his wife’s accomplishments encourage others who have gone through life-changing surgery or organ transplants to not give up.

“Kelly had a heart transplant on Nov. 20, 1995. A little over a decade later and she’s opening new routes and doing some amazing things you’d never expect,” he said. “Even after a transplant you can be a very, very strong person, and Kelly is a prime example of that.”

Asked what mountain she’ll target next, Perkins said she hasn’t thought that far ahead. But she added, “I’m going to keep on going as long as I can. ... I’m going to go as long as my body will let me.”

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