Amanda Wroten used to have handicapped plates on her car. Now, the personalized tag on her 2010 Ford Escape reads, "MY SUMIT."
That message serves to remind her how far she's come.
Once a 200-pound high schooler with hereditary knee problems severe enough to require six surgeries, Wroten, a Mathews native and Old Dominion graduate who teaches at Christopher Newport and is the executive director of the Newport News Green Foundation, returned July 5 from an attempt to climb Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot active volcano near Seattle, Wash.
Wroten didn't reach the summit (just 4,920 of the 10,643 people who tried in 2010 did, according to the National Park Service), but the 3,000 feet she did climb is a fair indication of just how far she's come.
"There's a quote that Sir Edmund Hillary said when he summitted Everest," Wroten said. "He said, 'It's not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.' That's really kind of how I felt about it. I felt like I had really busted through a lot of walls — always feeling like I was the crippled kid who didn't get to play sports, or always feeling like I was the fat kid. … I'm pretty proud of myself."
She has a right to be.
"I used to weigh 240 pounds, and I'm about 135-ish now, depending on whose scale I'm standing on," said Wroten, who turned 30 on July 12. "In addition to that, when most kids were playing sports and joining teams and things, I had six knee surgeries, and two of them were extremely extensive. They sawed bone and moved it over and screwed it back down.
"Most kids go to college and they wonder if they're going to have a car and if they can have on-campus parking. I went with a handicapped plate on my car."
Wroten lost more than 100 pounds through diet and exercise during her second year of college, in 2000, then took on an equally daunting challenge this year. With her 30th birthday looming and a skydiving jaunt when she turned 29 already under her belt, she decided to climb a mountain.
"It was really this turning point for me to embrace what I'd been through physically, and also to kind of do something fun and adventurous one last time before I had to be a big girl," said Wroten, who gained climbing experience while working with the Boy Scouts of America. "When you turn 30, it's all of a sudden this weight of responsibility. … I figured if I was going to go over the hill, I wanted to see the hill and remember all of it."
Her goal fixed and her money down (Wroten made a deposit last summer on the $950 price tag to secure a slot on a climbing team as well as the services of guides and a day of climbing school), Wroten hired a personal trainer and began a rigorous exercise routine. She ran as much as possible, sometimes with the 30-pound pack that she also wore for pushups and jumping jacks, and boxed and kickboxed.
Everything was going according to plan until February, when she was diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack the thyroid gland.
"My body has decided that my thyroid is a foreign object, and it's decided it wants to kill it," Wroten said.
Though the disease is being controlled with medication, there were plenty of mornings when rolling out of bed for a 6 a.m. kickboxing session required Herculean effort.
"There were some days that I would wake up, and I wanted to throw up, wanted to die, didn't care if I went to the mountain," Wroten said.
She always got up.
"If I woke up one morning and I was sick and I didn't feel like going to work, that could be the same morning that I was going to wake up at the hut on Camp Muir (the base camp at Mount Rainier)," Wroten said. "It could be the same morning that I was at 10,000 feet, trying to get further up the mountain. It didn't matter if I was sick, because the mountain wasn't going to care."
Kelli Paul of Boot Camp Fitness in Newport News worked with Wroten to strengthen her legs, back and core.
"She probably had the most powerful drive and commitment to not only being as healthy as possible, but to make her life fun and interesting and adventurous," Paul said. "… I told her, 'If you ever feel it's too much …' Before I could even finish, she said, 'No. I don't care how I feel or what's going on. I will be there.' "
Wroten pressed on, and in late June, she and her husband, Scott Rumpf, left for Mount Rainier.
Wroten had originally read about California's Mount Shasta, but decided that location was too remote. She was attracted to Rainier as a "classic American mountain" that often serves as a training ground for would-be Everest summitters.
Arriving at base camp was "the most incredible experience of my life," Wroten said, and she approached her day of climbing school at Paradise Mountain with building anticipation.
There was also a fair share of nervousness under the watchful eye of the guides.
"They're gauging how well you handle the mountain, how well you handle technical aspects of it, because they have to guide you up safely," she said. "You don't just pay your money and get to go up."
Hampering Wroten's efforts was the record snowfall that made every step an icy adventure, as well as the remnants of all those knee surgeries that made descending the mountain slow, tortuous going.
In the last hour of training school, Wroten's group, roped together for safety, was practicing how to stop falls.
"We were on a very, very steep incline," she said. "Because I have so much trouble descending, I felt like I was going to fall as soon as I looked at it, and I did."
Wroten grabbed her ice axe and slammed it into the ground, righting herself.
"I stopped myself and that was great, until the people below me stumbled a little bit," she said.
As she absorbed the force of that stumble, Wroten fell on her axe, bruising her right arm. The rope wound around her legs, wrenching her knee.
"We think we might have torn a meniscus repair that I have, but I was really quiet about that," Wroten said.
She woke up the next day, the morning of the climb, full of excitement, but knew something was wrong when she strapped on her 45-pound gear pack.
"My whole knee just kind of went wobbly," she said. "I kind of felt like that wasn't going to be a good thing later on, but I knew if I didn't get on the bus, I would really regret it."
Without a word about her injury, Wroten climbed from 4,500 feet to more than 7,500, but on the edge of the Muir Snowfield, she was in too much pain to continue.
"I had reached what I call my summit," she said. " … For me, on that day, that was the highest point I could get to, and it was also the emotionally highest point that I could get to. I really enjoyed it, and I didn't want to turn it into a negative experience."
On the way back down, though, some of Wroten's old self-doubts began surfacing.
"I was really embarrassed," she said. "My guide takes people on mountains in Antarctica. He takes people on Mount McKinley. I kind of thought he was sitting there in his mind, going, 'Right. The fat kid came up here and paid all her money, and now she can't make it up.' "
Instead, the guide proved patient and easy to talk to, sharing all the reasons he loved mountain climbing. Soon, determination banished Wroten's doubt.
"Before I got my foot off the mountain, I decided I was going back," she said. "… It was the first time in my life that I really felt like I was equal to everybody else's physical capabilities, even though I was the weaker member of the team. The mountain treats everybody exactly the same."
A bundled-up Wroten is taking on that mountain in her profile picture on Facebook, where she kept friends updated on her progress. Wroten is also writing a blog, Rainier365.com, documenting her plans to return next summer.
"I had somebody comment on my Facebook page — 'I'm really sorry you didn't make your goal,' " Wroten said. "My goal was never to go to the top of it. I don't think that I ever thought I was going to go to the top of it. My goal was to go, and once I got one foot out of the parking lot, I was as high as I needed to be."
Paul, for one, was mightily impressed.
"I know how hard she's worked," Paul said. "I know how far she's come from where she used to be. It moved me beyond words to see pictures of her on that mountain. It just proved anything can be done."
When Wroten makes it back to the mountain, she'll likely have had at least one more knee surgery. There will be more intangible differences, too.
"I had the good fortune of going to a very, very tall mountain and finding out exactly how small I am in life," Wroten said. "There's a lot more out there than just me, so I'm not self-centered anymore. I also found out how tough I really am, and I found out how kind people really are.
"… I feel like I found my place in the world. I'm not saying that my place in the world is to be on a mountain for the rest of my life, but I really feel centered and balanced and know exactly who I am now, and what I'm capable of."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun