Heart Transplant Recipient Climbs 10 Teton Peaks

Heart transplant recipient Kelly Perkins said she was already back to her fitness routine just two days after climbing 10 peaks in western Wyoming's famous Teton Range.

Perkins made the series of climbs called the Grand Traverse last week to spread the word that people can be active after undergoing transplants — a message she hopes will encourage more people to be organ donors.

"You don't have to be 100 percent but you can forge along and accomplish some great things," Perkins, 47, said Monday in a phone interview from her home in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "I'm amazed that my body can respond like it does."

Perkins and her husband, Craig Perkins, started climbing Wednesday, conquering both Teewinot Mountain (12,325 feet) and Mount Owen (12,928 feet) while being led by two guides.

On Thursday, the group hiked to the Lower Saddle between Grand Teton and Middle Teton. There, they met up with a team of six cardiac rehabilitation nurses from Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls. Together, they climbed Grand Teton (13,776 feet) Friday. While the nurses headed home, the Perkinses and guides went on to climb Middle Teton (12,804 feet).

They finished Saturday after climbing South Teton (12,514 feet) and five smaller peaks: the Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey Tower, Spalding Peak, Cloudveil Dome and Nez Perce Peak.

Local mountain guides say only about half those who attempt the Grand Traverse succeed, usually due to bad weather. The Perkinses lucked out: Rain socked in the Tetons just before and just after their trek. The sun was out for nearly all of their expedition.

Knocking off so many mountains in four days required as much as 16 hours of hiking, boulder scrambling and technical climbing each day, Perkins said.

"There were times when I was just so out of breath, and I would just have to stop often. It was difficult. But I got through it," she said.

On Monday, Perkins reported that she was back to the ashtanga yoga routine that keeps her fit.

The 5-foot-2, 100-pound Perkins has climbed several of the world's well-known peaks since falling ill with a racing heartbeat in 1992 and undergoing a heart transplant in 1995. They include the Matterhorn in Switzerland, Mount Fuji in Japan, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and, last year, the face of Half Dome in Yosemite.

The cardiac rehabilitation nurses accompanied Perkins up Grand Teton not just to promote her cause, but also to see how she does it. One of the nurses, Mary Duncan, said confronting the mental challenge of climbing a mountain is a lesson she has taken back to the hospital.

"We always tell our patients, 'It's a day at a time — just take it a day at a time,'" Duncan said. "I can liken climbing to that because it's just one pitch at a time, one rope length at a time."

For Perkins, one of the biggest challenges of climbing is how her heart takes a long time to get moving in response to physical activity — typical for heart transplant recipients.

Climbing guide Kevin Mahoney, with Jackson Hole-based Exum Mountain Guides, said Perkins seemed to have less trouble climbing than with stops and starts while hiking and scrambling.

"The more technical it got, the easier it was for her," she said.

He said Perkins did well, soldiering on through difficult situations.

"I was just really impressed with her ability to just always be positive with anything," she said. "She definitely put a smile on her face even though you know it was hard work for her."