It was May 12, 2018, the day before Mother’s Day. It would’ve been Ilana Jesse’s first Mother’s Day with her firstborn.
But while little Amari was home in Colorado Springs, her mother was camped out with a team of five on a remote, snowswept glacier in Alaska.
Conditions had kept them from their ultimate prize of Mount Hayes, the highest summit of the state’s eastern range. They turned their sights on 10,315-foot Mount Skarland, modest by their alpine standards.
“It was very, very mellow compared to things we normally did,” said Katie Bono, Jesse’s close companion who had notched a speed record on Denali the prior year. “I still think nine times out of 10 in that scenario, nothing happens.”
But somewhere near 1,500 feet, something happened. Bono spotted a boulder crashing down the mountainside — down to where Jesse was.
“Rock!” Jesse heard someone yell.
“My heart sunk.”
And that was the last sensation she recalled before blacking out.
It couldn’t have been long; when she came to, she heard her partners calling for her. She looked left, right. She called back, thinking she was OK.
Then she glanced down at her left hand.
It looked filleted, the skin folding over a mess of crushed bones and tendons, blood pouring.
What followed was a helicopter whirring overhead and doctors beside her shuffling to figure out what remained of the hand and contemplating amputation, as they continued to do in the months after. At times Jesse wished it, when she would jolt up in the middle of the night screaming in pain. After 10 surgeries, the hand was spared, though muscles were lost and nerves shot.
But in that moment on the mountain, as Jesse wrapped herself in a makeshift tourniquet using her ski straps, as she tried to channel her skills as a nurse and just breathe while awaiting evacuation, only one thought occurred to her:
“What the hell had I done?”
One day Jesse, 37, was hearing out a mother and ice climber. Her friend sounded distraught.
“She’s like, ‘I identify myself as this badass ice climber,’” Jesse recalled, “’but now I don’t want to go.’”
Jesse had sympathy, but that would not be her. It was a tired, old trope in the world of outdoor athletics: a high- octane woman becomes a mother and settles down.
No, Jesse would continue her pursuits. She would be an example for her child.
“I wanted to give someone what I felt I didn’t have in my childhood,” she said, “and I wanted to watch the life that I started discover their love for the outdoors.”
For Jesse, it started in Maui, where she vacationed with some college girlfriends. A tourist magazine showed someone rappelling from the side of a waterfall. The instructor had written a guidebook on climbing in Utah, Jesse learned, and that’s where she would meet him to learn more.
Her wanderlust also took her to Thailand, where she broke into sport climbing, and to Joshua Tree National Park, where she had a friend show her some of the classic lines. She went on to prove herself on Mount Whitney. Later in 2011, she followed her husband to Europe, where he was stationed with the Air Force.
Eric was a devoted mountaineer as well. And for every weekend, Ilana would propose a mission that would take them to new heights — to the legendary reaches of the Alps.
“I would raise my eyebrows and be like, ‘OK,’ a bit skeptically,” Eric said.
The Dolomites. The Matterhorn. The north face of the Eiger. That last one would take several tries, but Ilana never wavered. She was driven by the challenge.
And she was driven all the more when the military moved the couple to Colorado Springs in 2014. She’d train two or three times a week on Longs Peak’s vaunted Diamond route. There in Rocky Mountain National Park she’d conquer the Glacier Gorge Traverse, covering 20 miles over technical, high-altitude terrain. For the Grand Traverse, she tagged the signature peaks of the Tetons.
By 2017, she was ready for motherhood. Amari was born that July.
Nothing would change. So Ilana thought.
When it came time for Alaska, she didn’t want to go.
“Within a few weeks before leaving, I found myself rocking my daughter to sleep in tears,” she said. “I had this impending doom feeling.”
She willed herself to the airport. She hugged Eric and Amari before they parted. “Same thing, in tears,” she said. “I kissed her so many times.”
Back home, the mangled hand made it hard to hold Amari, almost impossible to change her diaper and bathe her. It definitely wasn’t going to climb any time soon. Maybe never, Ilana thought.
Eric saw a shadow overcome his wife.
“A normal PTSD arch almost,” he said, “where there’s a lot of self-doubt and anger and frustration about it happening. There was definitely an amount of coping and depression that she had to get through.”
Ilana was no stranger to trauma, the kind common to nurses like her based in emergency rooms. She’d seen limbs lost, children abused, terminal diagnoses brought on families, death.
The mountains were her happy place. Now they were the backdrop of a nightmare.
“It was an identity crisis,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do anymore.”
Eric thought of a challenge that wouldn’t require her hand. He signed her up for a marathon.
Running felt good. So she started running more.
She started running on trails, allowing herself back to the mountains, feeling herself getting stronger, faster, higher to the places that once again felt relieving, not scary.
And this past summer, she got hooked on another route: Nolan’s 14, which journeys over 14, 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado’s Sawatch Range.
She connected with “Sunny” Stroeer, a well-known, van-living mountain runner drawn to such cult adventures. Stroeer was going for the speed record of under 60 hours.
Ilana’s power and knowledge would make her an ideal partner, Stroeer knew. But something was up: “She would be moving much more tentatively and slower than what she’s physically capable of.”
Going uphill, Ilana would request the two staying side by side. Same for going down, or she was fine staying behind. She would not be in the way of potential rock fall.
No, she wasn’t rid of the trauma. But it didn’t stop her from the record attempt, nor did a sudden illness.
It wasn’t in the cards that day. Stroeer also pulled back.
Ilana plans to return. “I have no doubt she’s going to crush it,” Stroeer said.
It would be “a symbol,” she said, “that she’s made a full comeback from the accident and come out of it stronger.”
But the record isn’t the top priority. “I just want to finish it,” Ilana said.
And her daughter will know that she did.
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