Meet the first all-female veteran team to climb Denali without a guide

Kaylah Jackson
June 21, 2018 - 12:49 pm

Photo courtesy of Naomi Schware

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“I’m pulling the rope and pulling her in and I drop the rope, I open my arms like ‘we did it.’ I want this huge hug, she doesn’t even see what I’m doing, she goes down on to her knees and she started sobbing.”

That’s how Amanda Burrill described reaching the top of  Denali, along with her climbing partner, Naomi Schware. After both of them got out of the military, mountainteering became a sort of therapy and as of Mayy 22nd, they became the first all-female team to summit the mountain without a guide.

So, how exactly do two women veterans end up making the 25-day expedition up the highest peak in the United States?

Their journey started even before mounting the summit. Schware grew up in what she calls a “comfort zone” in Boulder, Colorado and she felt the need to do something more meaninful in the world.

A trip to Israel where she worked in a farming commune and the desire to be further connected with her Jewish roots led her to join the Israeli Defense Force in 2011 as a sniper, during a time when the United States military was not enlisting women in combat units.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Schware

“I wanna do exactly what the guys were doing, I want to pick up a gun and actually fight terror. I don’t want to do anything else,” recalls Schware.

And for her, fighting terror on the front lines lived up to her expectation of escaping the white picket fence life she left at home.

After serving, returning to the states was rough for Schware. Disconnected from  Americans' emphasis on consumerism, she found peace in the outdoors.

“I crawled into a tent and I swear in that tent I did a lot of work on myself and connecting to the wilderness and living there allowed me to be such a functional member of society,” said Schware.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Burrill

Her interest in the wilderness led her take a mountaineering course specifically for women veterans. There, she met her now climbing counterpart, Amanda Burrill, who was simultaneously working through her own transition from the U.S. Navy.

Burrill, who commissioned as Surface Warfare at Boston University, felt a similar pull towards a job that wasn’t exactly customary for women in the military. She became a rescue swimmer.

During her time in the Navy, Burrill experienced two brain injuries which left her unable to converge her eyes and read, not exactly an ideal situation for an officer in charge of hundreds of sailors.

“My balance system was completely derailed. I had a couple vision issues, my hands weren’t working very well and that stemmed from damage to the spine,“ said Burrill. She still has no recollection of how the injury happened or the recovery in the months following.

Her initial diagnosis were muscle spasms and possible migraines but by the time she got out of the Navy, she was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia even though Burrill says that’s not what she had.

As a triathlete, her injuries made it painful to continue the exercises she was accumstomed to. She even had to have surgery which she describes as “gutting her foot." It was so severe she was unsure if she’d be able to run again.

For her own mental health, she searched for an endurance sport and having always admired mountain climbers from afar, this new outdoor endeavor seemed like the way to go.

When Burrill and Schware met at the Alaska Mountaineering School, the connection was instant. They learned the basics of mountaineering, and after training on Mt. Elbrus in Russia, and Mt. Rainier in Washington, they felt ready to take on the big mountain. The duo was deteremind to do the treacherous climb up Denali on their own.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Burrill

“We made a conscious decision to go do this climb at a time of year you have the least summits, with the lowest summit success rate, with the least people, we would rather take our chances with the weather than to be there with so many people,” said Burrill.

Battling subzero temperatures and enduring injuries, the summit was no easy task, but the waiting proved to be one of the most difficult parts.

“There is some action but in between that, you might lose your mind with the stuff that’s boring…the hard work involved in climbing was the least of our problems.” said Burrill.

Deciding the ideal time to set up camp and waiting out week-long storms was intense. And when you factor in spending 25 days in a tent with one person, the mission almost seems impossible but for these two veterans, quitting was not an option.

Burrill says she even thought to herself, "if I lose some of my fingertips, how am I still going to make it to the top?

So, what’s next for the only female team to complete the summit during one of its most difficult seasons? They want to get other women veterans in on the fun.

They recently started Valkyries of Valor, a Facebook meet-up group for women veterans and first responders interested in the outdoors.

Schware acknowledges that hearing “women veterans meet up” makes some women cringe but encourages them to try it out first.

And don't worry, requirements don’t include having climbed up nation’s tallest peak. From motorcycle riding, hiking, or just meeting up for a beer, they want to create a community of support for women veterans. The outdoors create a healthy space, mentally and physically where they can do that.

Burrill says, “That’s what a lot of people in transition need, is support. Motivation is a wonderful thing but if you’re not feeling supported it’s gonna be hard to feel motivated by anything.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Schware

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