Merging medicine and mountains

The Class of 2007’s Jennie Draper, M.D., says getting off the grid and on the mountains helps her return to her OB-GYN practice energized and grateful.

Jennie Draper, M'07, climbs above the clouds in Washington state. Contributed photo.

By Lisa Crutchfield School of Medicine

October 24, 2023

In 2021, Jennie Draper, M’07, bagged her first fourteener – climbing vernacular for summiting a peak higher than 14,000 feet.  

It was the start of something bigger.

For Draper, an OB-GYN at Virginia Physicians for Women in Richmond, the lessons she’s learned in the mountains go far beyond achieving those fourteeners and adventure. Instead, she says, they’re making her a better physician and leader – and an advocate for women’s sports, especially trekking and climbing.

“As an OB-GYN, my whole goal is to empower women,” Draper says. “Mountaineering really lacks a presence of women in that sport, particularly female guides.”

Though she’s no stranger to extreme sports – Draper has completed marathons, Ironman triathlons and 50k endurance races – mountaineering poses different challenges for women, she says. For starters, women have different hydration and nutritional needs than men, especially at altitude.

“I learn something and I can help the next woman be successful on her hike or her backpacking,” Draper says. “I feel something powerful about that, that we’re recruiting more women to the sport. The skills you learn in mountain sports are similar to those from my residency days: you see one, you do one, you teach one.”

Draper leads training hikes in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and this fall completed an advanced wilderness life support skills course. She’s also taken a two-week intensive alpine skills course in the North Cascades of Washington state — complete with glacier skills, ice crevasse rescue, technical rock climbing and safety.

But that’s not the only training that has benefited her mountaineering. She adds that the rigor of medical school and residency also served her well. “You’re used to long hours and not sleeping or eating on a regular schedule.”

Recently, Draper tackled Everest Base Camp in Nepal, glacier climbing in Iceland (serving as assistant guide on the expedition) and a sub-freezing trek in the Altai range of Mongolia in September.

While there, Draper met famed female climber Gangaamaa Badamgarav, the first Mongolian to complete the Seven Summits (the highest peak of each continent). Badamgarav’s perseverance inspired Draper during what turned out to be a much more grueling trip than expected. Conditions were tough, including 10-mile treks to and from a base camp located at 10,000 feet in the deep snow.

A teammate on the Mongolia trek sees Draper as a natural leader. "Jennie brings some raw material to the mountains, including resilience and tenacity – it's inspiring,” says Jeff Reynolds, owner of S2Mountaineering. “It's impressive to see the influence she can have on individuals and the team dynamic. Hearing that contagious laugh from across base camp is a fun wake-up call on a cold morning at altitude, too."   

Draper’s connection to the mountains goes back to her childhood in western Virginia, where she grew up camping and hiking. A prolific journal writer, she often reflects on how her mountain accomplishments relate to medicine. “The ‘suffering’ you do in mountain sports makes me more empathetic to my job taking care of my patients. While it’s not the same thing as having an illness or condition, I really understand the state of not feeling in control and not always understanding what is going to happen.”

Getting off the grid helps her return to her practice energized and grateful, and she’s already planning her next climb: Mount Kilimanjaro in early 2024.

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