Four years after her life was torn apart, Mandy Horvath found peace above the clouds.
Since she set out on a June evening four days before, Horvath had fought the wicked terrain and poor visibility of Pikes Peak on nothing more than her two hands. Her swollen palms and raging frustration attempted to keep her leashed to the trailhead below. But Horvath was no stranger to fighting the uphill battle.
Her legs, after all, had been nonexistent for nearly four years.
At the time, the loss of her limbs in a train collision had devastated her not only physically but mentally. Climbing out of her deep depression had brought her to Colorado to scale mountains — both literal and figurative — to confront her new realities and find the strength to start anew.
Pikes Peak had nothing on her.
Provided by Mandy Horvath
Mandy Horvath grew up in Smithville, Mo., as the oldest of two kids. A rocky relationship with her parents pushed her to graduate from high school at the age of 16 and move out of her childhood home to work as a chef in a local restaurant.
She was 21 years old the day the world went black. While camping with some friends outside Steele City in southeast Nebraska in late July 2014, she says, she was drugged while at a local bar. Left on the railroad tracks unconscious, Horvath was struck by a train traveling 50 mph, losing both of her legs above the knee
Police assumed it was a suicide attempt. And the life-threatening nature of her injuries meant that her blood was not tested for the presence of drugs.
“I woke up in the ambulance and was like a little kid threatening a temper tantrum, kicking my legs,” Horvath said.
Horvath’s heart stopped three times within the first 24 hours of being hit by the train, she said, and was given a 50 percent chance to live after being placed in a medically-induced coma.
Although Horvath survived the night, the traumatic amputation of her legs meant routine treatments were not an option. Over the next year, Horvath underwent intense therapy and suffered from severe medical complications time and time again. On Christmas Day 2015, an additional part of her legs was amputated to prevent further injury and ensure a clean cut with hopes of a smoother recovery.
In and out of the hospital, Horvath succumbed to a deep depression matched by only her anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d ever walk, work, have a boyfriend or drive again,” Horvath said.
At the height of her depression, she was taking 22 medications, had gained weight and was at risk of kidney and liver failure. She struggled to find motivation and rarely left the house.
It took her dad’s tough love and insistence that she was on the road to nowhere for Horvath to turn her life around. She checked herself into rehab to get off her medications. Around the same time she got a tattoo scrawled across her chest that read: “Tell me that I can’t and I’ll show you that I can.”
With a new perspective on life, she was ready for a fresh start.
In January 2016, Horvath moved to Colorado where she is now a student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Despite her initial fears, she returned to the kitchen at a steakhouse and is now exploring the possibility of opening a new restaurant.
In an ironic turn of events, last month Horvath and some friends began scouting out an old Colorado Springs railroad depot as a potential location for the restaurant. She says starting the next phase of her life in a train station would bring everything full circle.
“Pain is relative,” she said, reflecting on the whirlwind of the last four years. “Life isn’t a pissing contest. You have to surround yourself with people who can carry you even when you can’t carry yourself.”
But since moving to Colorado, Horvath has needed fewer and fewer people to prop her up as she began to discover the inner strength she thought she’d never get back.
In April, a little over a year after re-settling in Colorado, Horvath took her new “I can” outlook on life to the next level, climbing the Manitou Incline in honor of Limb Loss Awareness month.
For anyone who has ever visited Manitou Springs, the Incline is hard to miss. It is classified as an extreme hike and not for the faint of heart. Constructed out of railroad ties and gaining nearly 2,000 feet in elevation in less than a mile (with the summit at 8,500 feet), the 2,744-step trail has been called the “holy grail of cardio” by Visit Pikes Peak. And it goes without saying that it is far from ADA accessible.
Without training, Horvath hoisted herself up using only her upper-body in five and a half hours.
“I thought people were going to laugh at me and some did,” Horvath said. “But a lot of people were thoroughly accepting of my choice to be a little crazy.”
Her victory in April was only the start. She completed her four-day conquest Pikes Peak in June and, next October, Achilles International, a nonprofit that works to enable and empower disabled athletes, has invited Horvath to scale Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Horvath says she may need to try climbing a few mountains in Hawaii to mirror the drastic altitude shifts before she commits to such a feat.
But no matter where she ends up, the summit of the Manitou Incline will forever mark a turning point in Horvath’s life — a physical representation of her struggle to get back. At the top, she smiled down at Colorado Springs.