By Olivia Ausnehmer
David Ashley summited Mt. Everest last month with one kidney, hoping to inspire others to consider living organ donations.
With that climb, he completed the extraordinary effort to summit the highest peaks on seven continents. Ashley is the first living kidney donor to accomplish all seven of the challenging climbs.
Ashley is a graduate of the Loudoun Valley High School class of 1992 and attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1997.
In 2016, one of Ashley’s West Point classmates was in a dire need of a kidney, and Ashley volunteered to get tested to see if he was a match. After finding out he was a match, he decided to go through with the donation, even though he didn’t know much about the process or the lasting impacts he would experience.
“The one question I couldn’t find in my research was what my physical capacity would be when I’m done,” Ashley said.
Ashley has been an athlete his entire life, more specially an endurance athlete participating in the sport of adventure racing. The multidisciplinary—run, bike, paddle, navigate—team sport races take anywhere from four hours to seven days, with sleep optional.
“With only one kidney, I wasn’t sure if I was putting myself in danger, or if I’d not be competitive anymore. At the national level, I was a competitive racer and I just had to accept that I’m not going to get an answer to that before donating,” Ashley said.
In 2017, Ashley went through a successful kidney donation. Two months later, he participated in his first short race and won. A month after that he completed an ultra-marathon in the West Virginia mountains, and seven months after the donation he competed in the seven-day adventure racing world championship, proving to himself that he can still accomplish his goals without a kidney.
“Clearly there’s no impact, why don’t more people know about this?” Ashley said he asked himself. He then decided he wanted to do something “epic,” something that nobody else could say they have done before, which was to climb the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents as a living organ donor. Also known as the Seven Summits, the climbs include the challenging peak Mount Everest, which brought to light a new goal: “1 Kidney, Seven Summits,” a slogan for Ashley.
After retiring from the military in 2019, Ashley began his new journey of mountaineering. He started training for the highest mountains in the world climbing Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, and glaciated peaks in Chile and Ecuador.
Coronavirus put a temporary halt to his journey, but with the world on pause and isolated, Ashley decided he wanted to continue saving lives through organ donation. In May 2020, Ashley took part in a non-directed donation of part of his liver.
After a year of recovery from the liver donation, Ashley was back to climbing the tallest mountains in the world. Last June, Ashley climbed Mount Denali (North America), followed by Mount Elbrus (Europe) and Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa) in September 2021.
Last winter, Ashley climbed Mount Vinson (Antarctica) and Mount Aconcagua (South America) and this spring, Ashley completed the seven summits conquering Mount Kosciuszko (Australia) and Mount Everest (Asia).
Ashley completed all seven climbs on the first try.
Most people take years to finish the seven summits, but Ashley completed all climbs in under one year—335 days. “Despite all of the travel, time zones, and the schedule of being gone half of the year climbing mountains, there were no limitations to me physically by being an organ donor,” Ashley said.
Many dream of climbing Mt. Everest, but the preparation is not easy. Ashley recommends climbing challenging glaciated mountains with similar terrain and high elevation to train for the highest mountain in the world. Prior to the climb, anywhere from two to six weeks is dedicated to allowing the body to adjust to the altitude.
Ashley spent six days climbing from base camp to the summit, and back down safely.
“I love mountaineering,” Ashley said. “It gives me a lot of time outside to feel connected with the earth and people on my team.”
Ashley wants to continue his love of mountaineering, the outdoors, and staying active. He plans to be an adventure guide and share his experiences to help others learn and complete mountain climbs as well as to conquer the high points in each state. “I want to do what I love and share it with other people,” Ashley said.
“There’s nothing like putting in real hard work for a good reward, and when you get to the top of the mountain, even if it’s not a clear day, you have accomplished something, you know you’ve made it. All of the suffering, time and money invested is worthwhile,” Ashley said.
“My biggest goal is to inspire somebody to become a living donor, or provide some additional information for people who need a donated kidney. When they are trying to find a living donor they can now answer the question: Are there any physical repressions? Am I going to be handicapped for life?’” Ashley said. Clearly, the answer is no.
Pete Holden, Ashley’s father and a Lincoln resident, said he is proud of what his son has accomplished.
“He’s amazing, I can’t believe he does what he does. He deserves to be recognized for all of his hard work,” Holden said.
Kidney donations are needed, as there are roughly 100,00 people in the United States waiting for a donated organ. Three nonprofits that have helped Ashley in his process of donating a kidney and that he recommends for more information on kidney donations are The National Kidney Foundation (kidney.org), the National Kidney Registry (kidneyregistry.org) and DOVE transplant (dovetransplant.org).
Olivia Ausnehmer is a rising junior at Penn State interning at Loudoun Now.