October 1, 2015
I’m a summit guy. I love summits. They exist on top of mountains, and I’m not satisfied with anything less. In fact, when my kids were little and learning to rock climb, it drove me crazy when they’d stop half way up the wall and say, “I want to come down.” “Keep going,” I’d yell back. “You’re not at the top.”
So it was particularly hard to hear the news that we wouldn’t be summiting on our recent No Barriers Warriors expedition to Gannett Peak in Wyoming. After six months of extensive training and a 28 mile rugged hike into the wilderness, our team of ten reached a barrier – a wide, open crevasse, and beyond, a steep section of ice. Just 20 meters of ice separated the group from the summit.
Glacial ice separates us from the Summit. Photo Credit: Jeff Evans
The day before, Jeff and two other guides climbed from our high camp towards the top. As leaders, we’d all been worried. Since Charley and Josh scouted the route in July, the seasonal snow had all melted away at record pace leaving thousand-year-old desiccated glacial ice - hard, gray, and crumbling. As we feared, they came down with the report that the crevasse, combined with the ice face, would end our ascent. The summit was out! Everyone had been prepped repeatedly that Mother Nature is fickle. Conditions change, and there was value in the journey itself. But despite that, the team took it as a blow. As Jeff gave the news, they went silent, heads hanging low. One member banged rocks together, the auditory manifestation of the internal anguish everyone was feeling. 9/11 was to be our summit day. For most of the team, now suffering from the emotional and physical injuries of war, the events surrounding 9/11 had been the reason for serving.
The guides all left the circle and asked the team to figure out what to do. Some wanted to pack it up and head down immediately, but when the debate was finished, they’d made their decision. They’d climb Gannett as high as they could. Pushing up the mountain, my heart ached with the knowledge that they'd be stopped by yet another barrier in their lives.
I thought back to our first training session on James Peak in the spring. On our first hike, we were moving less than a mile per hour. Some of the team members were very over-weight. The amputees were struggling, their prosthetic legs were malfunctioning and their socks that encased their stumps were rubbing and causing bloody blisters. It was clear we had a long way to go to get ready. Near the end of the training, we faced an even bigger trial. Just as we were beginning to build the bonds of a team, one of our soldiers abruptly decided to quit. He accused others of being hypocrites, of not being true to each other. He gave a tirade of reasons why the process was flawed. Sadly, I’d seen this before, a new participant in a fragile fearful state lashing out at the world around him instead of shining a light within. Some struggle to keep their hearts open and find a way to fight through, but others erect prison bars in their minds and retreat behind them, sabotaging the process almost before it begins.
In the midst of the turmoil, some were shaken and beginning to doubt their own place on the team. After getting down from James Peak, we gathered everyone together for an emergency meeting. As we sat by the hotel pool, squeezed into patio chairs, I started by asking each to honestly answer the question “why are you here?” Each person took turns responding – “to honor my fallen comrades,” “to help other soldiers who are struggling,” “to challenge myself and show that my life still matters.” As they spoke, it became clear that this climb was bigger than all of us. We could either find reasons to close ourselves off behind prison bars, or we could figure out how to use Alchemy to become stronger together. By the time everyone left for home, they’d made their decisions.
It takes a team.
At our second training at the No Barriers Summit in July, the team listened to incredible pioneers like Mick Ebeling, who despite being overwhelmed and ill equipped, found a way to build prosthetic arms for children of Sudan who’d been injured by war. They listened to JR Martinez, a veteran who despite being burned over 90% of his body, pushed forward, ultimately winning Dancing With the Stars. They interacted with hundreds of everyday people, all struggling with their own challenges of physical disability, obesity, trauma, and fear, yet all searching for the insights to live a No Barriers Life. The team’s eyes were beginning to open to the broader context of their own struggles and starting to glimpse what was possible ahead.
Over the course of our trainings, I witnessed the team getting stronger. Some gave up alcohol and soda. Mark, an above-the-knee amputee, trained by walking every evening. He lost 65 pounds, and got an unexpected gift: his wife decided to walk with him. “My marriage,” he said, “is the best it’s ever been.”
After all the preparation, we headed out on September 4 on the long trail to Gannett. Despite the hard days, everyone was in the present. Countless times, the teammate guiding me would stop on the side of the trail and, in a quiet humbled voice, describe the huge expanses of forest, alpine meadows and surrounding skylines of granite ridges – with the Wyoming wind scouring the grasses and rocking the trees. We even spotted herds of deer and elk, and up higher - a couple wolverines.
Arriving at camp on day 2, covered in soft pine needles and surrounded by Ponderosa Pines, Kyle, an expert fly fisherman, caught some Cutthroat trout in a nearby mountain stream. He took turns giving folks lessons on how to cast and how fly-fishing was a game of patience as you wait for a strike.
Every night, we’d play games that the team called, the Gannett Olympics. They’d consist of shot-putting boulders, throwing branches like javelins, and flipping fallen tree-trunks. One evening as the sun set, we played a game of charades. Going blind at age 13, I’d never learned, and was reluctant to join in, but a few soldiers patiently taught me the signals, how to pull my ear to say, “sounds like,” and how to bring my thumb and forefinger together to say, “shorter word.” I sat back in amusement as these veterans, often so stoic, came out of their shells to dance crazily on a pile of rocks trying to act out some 80’s TV show.
In the midst of the fun, the weight of the expedition was never far away. At each camp, our No Barriers flags encircled boulders and hung from ropes. Some had written on them the names of those friends they were honoring with this climb. Like Tibetan prayer flags, which send messages to the heavens, the flags flapped in the wind, sending tribute to the fallen. One night, a soldier awoke screaming, and it was a long time before many got back to sleep. I stayed awake, pondering all the barriers that knock us flat - addiction, alienation, survivors’ guilt, and the horrors that send the mind spiraling into an endless loop of pain and futility. At a rest-stop the next day, I leaned against a tuft of grass, sitting next to Paul, a teammate who had been guiding me all day. “I’ve wasted a lot of time beating myself up,” he said. “I know now I need a life of purpose… I’m making some big changes when I get back.”
On the morning of day 4, Josh told the team soberly that ahead was “where it got real.” A mile-and-a-half wide field of boulders with rocks the size of buses would be our first real obstacle. Josh said, “There are holes between the rocks so deep, if you fall into one, you won’t be seen.”
He reminded us to dig deep and work together. “This is where all your training and prep matters.”
Navigating the boulder field.
Gina, one of our leg-amputees, was very intimidated. Leaving camp, her anxiety and stress were showing, and as she got closer, she asked one of our guides, Nick, what to do. “I can’t make this decision for you,” he said. “This has to be your struggle, whether to go on or stop right here.”
Gina took a deep breath and pressed on. While others grabbed the packs from the slower people like Gina and me, making several laps back and forth, Gina scrambled, slid, and scraped her way across the chaos. Three hours later, she emerged into our high camp and broke into tears. “Today,” she said proudly, “ is my summit.”
Gina Kothe - My summit.
At high camp, Mark, who’d lost weight and worked so hard to get there, began feeling sick. He was throwing up and feeling increasingly dizzy. The next morning, 9/11, Mark was showing no signs of improvement, so Jeff made the hard decision to get him down. Mark was incredibly tough and wanted desperately to go up, but he knew this would have to be his high point. For the next five hours, three guides struggled with Mark through the boulder fields. Below, he stumbled forward exhaustedly for several more hours until a horse arrived. The next morning, he rode out 20 miles, staying on the horse the entire day, thinking if he got off, he wouldn’t be able to get back on. One of our leaders, John, told Mark that 9/11 was a day of tragedy; but Mark had changed that memory forever. “Now, when I think of 9/11, I’ll think of you, and I’ll think of courage.”
While Mark and the three guides were struggling through the boulders, the rest of the team had reached their high point. They gathered up and stared into the darkness of a deep crevasse. Their eyes rose 20 meters up the ice wall that blocked their way to the summit. Their silence spoke a thousand words. “I’m tired of getting close yet falling short in my life,” Paul said. “I’m going to summit something… Just one thing… I promise.”
A few war stories were shared around the circle. A lot of tears were shed. “I’m not going to be defined by the war anymore,” Jim said.
Then Ryan picked up a rock and threw it into the crevasse. “That represents my nightmares, and I’m putting them behind me.”
Photo Credit: Jeff Evans
Earlier, Jeff had said to the team that when they reached their high point and turned around, they were moving forward into the future. So as the team began their descent, one turned back to the ice face and called out a name of a fallen friend. Then others began calling out names, and those men and women killed in battle echoed off the glacier and rang out over the mountains like a 21 gun salute. They said one last goodbye and headed down, staring ahead towards a massive expanse of jagged rocky peaks, and beyond, the endless Wyoming grasslands sweeping into the distance.
Later, back in the hotel, Charley told a story of climbing legend Willi Unsoeld. He was on the first team to climb the West Face of Mt. Everest. It was unprecedented. The team met the President and were lauded around the world. Years later, Willy brought his grown daughter to another peak in India. Tragically, she died on the mountain. When he returned, a reporter said, “The mountains have given you the highest highs and the lowest lows.” “The mountains are indifferent,” Willy replied. “What’s important is how we take the lessons of the mountains and apply them back at home.”
It would be convenient if our Gannett Peak experience could be distilled into a motivational slogan like, if you believe it, you can achieve it, but life is not a story book, and its lessons are shifting and contradictory. Our paths lead us both towards suffering, and from time to time, towards the beginnings of change. We confront the reality that real barriers exist in the world, inside and out, like staring into 20 meters of ice and accepting that today, at least, this will be our summit. However, we never stop reaching for those lessons to carry forward and ingrain in our lives. So the most arduous, yet rewarding, part of the expedition begins now. Bring those lessons home and get to work.
A huge thank you to our program sponsor Wells Fargo for making this journey possible.
NYC Wells Fargo. Photo Credit: Skyler Williams
No expedition of this magnitude is successful without the proper gear. We also recognize our gear sponsors: Mountain Hardwear, Tasc Performance, LEKI, and LifeProof.