Retired 1st Lt. Nicholas Morris is a man on an extraordinary mission. His goal is to climb all 53 of Colorado’s fourteeners, plus the five other high peaks not on the fourteeners’ list — and become the first amputee to climb all 58 mountain peaks.
Injured in Afghanistan in June 2011 while on a resupply mission, Morris has come a long way in recovery.
An unexpected pressure plate explosive device blew up under his seat, injuring four other soldiers and killing their interpreter. After his condition was stabilized in the field, Morris was eventually transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. where he endured 30 surgeries in three months.
Despite valiant medical efforts to save his right leg, it had to be amputated below the knee. Morris also wears a brace on his left leg. He suffered a broken back and jaw, lung damage and a severe traumatic brain injury in the explosion.
He said he had never met an amputee, but “in a split second, he was one.”
He spent many hours over the next five years lifting weights and gaining his strength back.
That, too, was a fight. Morris tore his right bicep tendon, which required surgery putting him “out for four months.”
“So, I went on a hike,” he said — and that was the beginning of his extraordinary mission.
He focused on strengthening his body so he could hike 10-16 miles.
“Every climb is a challenge no matter how hard,” he explained. “I hold myself to a higher standard and to be an example to all the other amputees, to show them they can do it.”
He added “everyone has their own adversities and I want to be a person to show them. Don’t give up. You can do anything you want.”
Morris said hiking was a struggle at first and he had to train for it. He wants to not only inspire veterans, but to inspire all hikers. So, he talks to hikers he meets on the trail encouraging them to make it to the top.
“Just put one foot in front of the other and you will make it,” he tells them. “Look where you are now! Keep pushing. Don’t quit. There is always hope.”
He wants to do it the right way, he said, “to earn respect from other climbers, and motivate them and myself.” Morris said he also hopes to inspire other amputees “to stop complaining and get up off the couch and out into nature.”
At first, he had breathing problems climbing due to the injury to his lungs.
“Now I do controlled breathing. It’s the best therapy ever, both mental and physical. I push myself. I don’t quit.”
Morris also hikes with partners who encourage him to keep going.
Mt. Belford and Mt. Oxford are now off his list — he accomplished both climbs this past week, taking his total for the year to 11. He carries his own gear, including an extra prosthetic. That’s important: On this last climb, his prosthetic broke in two.
Morris also aims to start a non-profit organization to help people overcome adversity. He is working with another veteran in laying the groundwork for this new mission.
He said he would like to work with children, veterans, and others who are dealing with hardships.
“I want to use my goals to inspire others,” he said. “Words mean nothing,” he added. “It’s actions that count.”
Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, not far from Monticello, Morris was inspired by Thomas Jefferson who believed that “without a healthy body a person can’t have a healthy mind.”
Morris encourages everyone to stay in shape, go outside, and do athletics for team building.
“You will get better. You will succeed. Failure is quitting,” he said.
Montrose will soon gain this ambitious fighter. Morris is moving here in the next year to live in his own adapted home, courtesy, Homes for Our Troops, a program that provides disabled veterans with their own homes. Each house is adapted to the needs of the specific veteran.
“I am so grateful for this home. This program helps vets get their lives together,” Morris said.
“I am looking forward to a one-story home with an open layout and a special shower I can easily get into.” He says the one-level house will make it easier to use his wheelchair and rest his legs.
Plus, he’ll be living near the San Juan mountains — and all their hiking opportunities. Morris is also planning to ice-climb in the winter in Ouray.
He’ll keep climbing mountains, and not just here. Denali “perhaps” awaits, he said.
“If not me, then who?”
Arlyn Macdonald is a freelance writer for the Montrose Daily Press. She has been writing for many years.