Sunglasses shield the lasting physical evidence of the most trying expedition Jill Wheatley has ever endured.
The experience almost claimed her life, but it is now the driving force and fuel behind her six successful summits to the highest mountains in the world, including the mighty K2.
A life-changing injury she calls ‘serendipity’
Wheatley grew up in Ontario and later became a physical education teacher at an international school in Bavaria, Germany.
On the weekends she competed in duathlons around Europe.
But In 2014, life threw her a near deadly blow.
While teaching a Phys-ed class, she was hit in the side of the head with a baseball. The impact was so great it left her with a traumatic brain injury and 70 per cent vision loss, permanently blinding her in one eye. She also developed an eating disorder.
She spent 26 months in seven different hospitals, at times wishing it would just all end.
“I would hide the medication and try to break the monitors and would pull the feeding tubes,” said Wheatley.
“I really did not think that life was worth living with a disability and I tried everything I could do to try and end it,” she said, her voice lowering. “That’s as dark as it gets.”
Treatment in the mountains
She eventually ended up in an intensive care treatment hospital for traumatic brain injuries in Colorado.
The mountains and nature she once loved — a distant memory from her hospital beds — were now once again winking at her from the corner of her room’s open curtain.
“I remember thinking: ‘If they would just let me get out there, I can figure this all out,'” she said.
Despite her steep emotional decline into what she describes as a very dark crevasse, doctors and nurses refused to let her hunker down there. They eventually pulled her to the surface nearly two years after that fateful day at the ball diamond.
“Hundreds of hands and hearts, when all was said and done, who didn’t give up on me when I truly gave up on myself.
“Those are the people; those are the reasons that I’m here today.”
Ten months after getting out of hospital, with no depth perception and just 30 per cent vision in one eye, she set out to find comfort and healing in nature.
Wheatley travelled to Nepal where a friend convinced her to run in the Annapurna 100 with him.
“He knew my strengths, knew what I had been through and really encouraged me and I thought: ‘There’s not a chance.'”
But not only did she cross the finish line, she ended up on the podium.
“I had energy I didn’t know I had, maybe some strength in what is really challenging with the TBI (traumatic brain injury) as the reference point,” she recalls.
Project Vision 8000
The momentum from that race changed the course of her life and eventually had her looking up at the tops of the mountains she had started running around.
Project Vision 8000 was born. And in 2022 she began her mission to stand on top of the world’s 14 highest mountains, towering 8,000 metres above sea level, to show herself and others the power in choice and possibility.
“I didn’t get to choose (my injuries) but I do get the opportunity to choose how I respond.
“I’m choosing to embrace the life I nearly lost in challenging myself in ways I never thought possible,” said Wheatley.
Colours, textures and touch help guide her on the mountain and while she said she requires patience on her descent, she has never once felt too tired to carry on.
“The only thing constant is change, so when the weather gets really bad or a storm is coming in or I’m struggling a little bit with altitude or energy, I know it is going to pass.”
So far, she’s had few problems standing among giants, but she admits she continues to struggle with overcoming what she calls the “mountains of her mind.”
“I look different. The right eye is closed and (I’m) not comfortable without hiding behind my sunglasses, even though I know very well what is truly important has nothing to do with appearance.”
Having already stared death in the face, Wheatley said she has immense respect for the mountains and the mission she is on. But she’s not scared. At every icy summit, she smiles and snaps a quick video with a breathless: “So very thankful” whispered into the thin air.
Wheatley’s successes have now landed her on some impressive record lists, but she’s not interested in that. She is heading back to Nepal to begin the second half of her project, including Mount Everest this spring.
Her motto continues to motivate her: “losing sight to gain vision.”