JDCHS alumna learns life lessons climbing Ecuadoran stratovolcano

Friday, Nov. 18, 2022
JDCHS alumna learns life lessons climbing Ecuadoran stratovolcano + Enlarge
Juan Diego alumna Heidi Strickler stands at the summit of the Cotopaxi Volcano, at 19,347 feet (you can see the active vent of the volcano behind her).
By Linda Petersen
Intermountain Catholic

SALT LAKE CITY — In October, Juan Diego Catholic High School alumna Heidi Laabs-Johnson Strickler traveled to Ecuador as part of the Range of Motion Project’s Cotopaxi Climb Team. While there, the 20-member team summited the 19,347-foot Cotopaxi stratovolcano.

The Range of Motion Project is an international, non-profit organization dedicated to improving the mobility of people with amputations. It sponsors the annual climb as a way to highlight the challenges these individuals face and to raise funds for prosthetic care for people with amputations living in Guatemala, Ecuador and the United States.

Although she has been an athlete her whole life, Strickler had never attempted a climb like that before, and the experience was life changing, she said.

What made the climb so different was that the team was comprised primarily of amputees and/or adaptive athletes.

A sports dietician who spends all her free time outdoors, Strickler first became aware of the needs of athletes with amputations when she became friends with Nicole Ver Kuilen, who lost her leg to cancer when she was 10.  Ver Kuilen is the founder of Forrest Stump, a nonprofit organization that promotes “equitable access to physical activity for individuals with disabilities,” according to its website.

Through Ver Kuilen, Strickler became involved with ROMP; Ver Kuilen, who had previously climbed Cotopaxi with the organization, nominated her for this year’s climb.

“The scale of the mountain was just enticing, but then I had learned so much through Nicole about the inequity that amputees face,” Strickler said.

Physical activity is such a core part of her identity that she couldn’t imagine being prevented from participating, but that is the reality for most amputees, she said. Although most insurance plans cover basic walking limbs, a prosthesis suitable for running, cycling or climbing can cost more than $10,000.

“Anybody that wants to be active in the outdoors in any capacity is going to have to pay out of pocket for an appropriate prosthetic,” she said. “Those prices are just inaccessible for a lot of people, and that disparity to me seemed really jarring. So, I was inspired to get involved in any way I could.”

During their time in Ecuador, the ROMP team stayed at a lodge just outside Cotopaxi National Park. Over the course of a week, they did several training hikes in and around the park before attempting the summit. On Oct. 6 the team of 10 people with amputations and seven other climbers took on Cotopaxi. Most of the climb took place at night in 8 to 12 inches of snow.

The glacier must be crossed at night because sunlight can cause it to become unstable, Strickler said.

“Why we start summiting in the middle of the night is to ideally reach the summit around sunrise and then get off the mountain by the time the sun is strong,” she said.

Strickler’s three-member rope team began their climb at 11:30 p.m. and reached the summit at 7:10 a.m. the following day. Every ROMP member in the group made the summit – a first for the organization. However, several of the people with amputations experienced challenges, including some with their prosthetics. For example, Strickler’s partner Kyle had to sidestep down the entire glacier because his prosthetics computer got overworked on the climb up, leaving him unable to change the resistance of the knee joint, she said.

“There’s so many things like that that someone with working legs doesn’t have to think about,” she said.

The Cotopaxi climb was an unbelievable experience, Strickler said. “I think the topography, the geography, the hospitality of Los Martinos [the lodge] and the people that ran it, the people who I met and my teammates – essentially a random group of people from around the U.S. – it was such an incredible connection and time together, learning from each other and sharing stories, supporting each other, it was life changing, no question.”

“For me it was so eye-opening to see how they have to adjust their body movement and just deal with a prosthetic,” she said of the amputees on the team. “I learned more about the power of the human mind and the resiliency of the human body” and experienced “very tangibly what prosthetic access can do for people in terms of achieving their goals and dreams.”

Although she graduated from Juan Diego CHS 14 years ago and now lives in Seattle, Strickler has fond memories of her alma mater.

“I really blossomed there as a human, as an athlete, as a student,” she said. “I think I learned a lot of lessons there including the importance of hard work, of being an honest, good human. At the end of the day, being proud of the person you are is the most important.”

Strickler and her team will collect donations for ROMP until the organization’s year-end celebration on Dec. 8. For information, visit https://give.rompglobal.org/fundraiser/3760728.

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