Mount Everest Climb Was Personal for Fort Carson Officer

Elyse Ping Medvigy on Mount Everest (Photo: USX)
Elyse Ping Medvigy on Mount Everest (Photo: USX)

An intestinal infection had left her feeling sicker than ever, and once again Gary Medvigy and Christine Ping tried to persuade their daughter to not climb Mount Everest.

Talking to her parents via a satellite phone late last week from a camp about 21,000 feet up Earth's highest mountain, Army Capt. Elyse Ping said she was not stopping.

Three days later, another call came.

At 7:48 a.m. Everest time Tuesday, through bitter cold and blistering wind, Ping Medvigy stood on the 29,029-foot summit.

The Fort Carson captain from Sebastopol, Calif., started up the mountain's north — and most challenging — side on April 25 as part of a team of current and former soldiers. They took on the mission for U.S. Expeditions and Explorations, a nonprofit that aims to raise awareness of the mental pain military members face every day.

Ping Medvigy was soon joined on the summit by 2nd Lt. Harold Earls. About an hour later they were joined by Dave Ohlson, a filmmaker documenting the ascent, and Chad Jukes, a retired Army staff sergeant from Ridgway who 10 years ago lost his right leg during combat in Iraq.

The nonprofit believes Ping Medvigy, 26, is the first active-duty female soldier to scale Everest.

"Titles have always been irrelevant to me, none more so than this climb," she wrote in an email to The Gazette on Thursday, from a camp at 17,000 feet where she rested during her descent. "My goal was to bring to light the amount of suffering still in our armed forces and to honor the memory of soldiers in my unit."

Ping Medvigy carried photos of Pfc. Keith Williams and Staff Sgt. Benjamin Prange with her on Everest. She befriended them as their company fire support officer during a 2014 deployment in Afghanistan. They were killed by an IED.

"I took their deaths personally," Ping Medvigy wrote in the email. "We were a tight-knit infantry unit, and losing our own hit hard."

She says she isn't suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but she knows plenty who do.

"The cause was the only thing that really got my support," said Gary Medvigy, a recently retired Army Reserve major general who along with his wife was "horrified" when their daughter first told them about Everest.

"As a member of the military family, you're so concerned about all these suicides," Medvigy said by phone from the family's home in California. "As a commander myself, I did everything I could but wasn't successful in saving every soldier. This is such an important message to get out to the public."

According to U.S. Expeditions and Explorations, more than 22 U.S. veterans kill themselves every day.

"PTSD is a subject very near and dear to Elyse's heart," said Maj. Joe Thomas, Ping Medvigy's boss at Fort Carson. He granted her leave for the Everest mission.

In the months leading up to the trip, she used her weekends to train on Colorado's peaks, rising at 3 a.m. and heading to the Mosquito and Sawatch ranges to scale a fourteener or two. After that, she'd take to 14,293-foot Mount Lincoln to practice on its icy slopes.

"I would imagine most people train for Mount Everest expeditions full time," Thomas said, "but she was still here working, being a soldier. Elyse is completely and totally dedicated."

Her parents detected that determination from an early age. As an infant, they'd check in on their sleeping daughter, alarmed to find that she was climbing out of that crib.

"She sort of skipped the crawling stage and went right to running," Christine Ping said.

She'd go on hikes with her father through California's mountains. He'd struggle to keep up. When she was 8, he recalled, she ran ahead of him to the top of Half Dome, the granite crest almost 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley's floor.

She was doing more pullups than any of the boys in gym class and made a hobby of scaling local rock climbing walls. At 12, she read a book about Denali and yearned for such challenges.

She got them during college at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where she joined a rock climbing club. While stationed in South Korea, she found another club and traveled with its non-English-speaking members. By the time she deployed to Afghanistan as the Army's first female fire support officer with a light infantry unit, she had conquered some of the world's highest summits. Among them: Denali, North America's highest mountain; Elbrus, Europe's highest; Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest; and Aconcagua, the highest of the Southern and Western hemispheres.

Of all her climbs, none was as personal as Everest, she said.

Atop the summit Tuesday, Ping Medvigy she sat alone for about 5 minutes, holding in her frozen hands the two photos she had kept for weeks in a coat pocket over her heart.

Editor's note: This story was updated to remove what the subject said was an inaccurate quote and description of the extent of her illness.

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