- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

BUENOS AIRES — 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.

Mrs. 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,” Mrs. 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.

Mrs. 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 3 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.”

Mrs. Perkins next went to the top of Japan’s Mount Fuji in 1998, Tanzania’s Mount 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.

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 thought to have been touched by climbers in technical gear.

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.”

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