Training Soldiers in Colorado

Last week, our Soldiers To The Summit team (http://soldierstothesummit.org/) got everyone together for an amazing training session here in Colorado. Though we've all been in virtual contact for the past few months, this was the first opportunity for everyone on the expedition to meet in person. (The only climber missing was Luis Benitez. But since he was still heading home from an attempt on K2, we'll cut him some slack!)

We started off by meeting at Bent Gate Mountaineering in Golden, which is a great outdoor retailer that has been helping us with their expertise on gear. This is where we distributed the clothing that has been generously donated by our sponsors (ADS Tactical, Polartec, and Mountain Hardwear). The soldiers were also fitted with boots provided by La Sportiva. We are still working on rounding up some more equipment for the team (climbing gear, sleeping bags, trekking poles, etc.) but it's looking like our soldiers will be well protected.

The next day, we headed up to St. Mary's Glacier, which is a steep snowfield (it lost it's official glacier status decades ago but the name hasn't changed) at about 11,000 feet west of Denver. Although a couple of our soldiers--the two Hanging Chads and Matt--have experience climbing on snow and ice, the majority have never used an ice axe or worn crampons. Here we practiced skills such as ascending and descending fixed lines, self-arresting on snowslopes, and the basics of how to walk with 12 sharp points strapped to the bottom of each foot. I think most of our soldiers found this an eye-opening, and breathtaking, experience!

Our group camped for two nights at the base of the glacier. This gave us a chance to escape the "real world" down below and get to know each other better. While all the training is vital, this quite time is also an important part of building a team.

The next morning, we got an early start to climb James Peak, a 13,294 feet mountain that requires climbing the snowfield, trekking across the tundra, and then a final scramble up the summit pyramid. Though not technically hard, this gave everyone a chance to experience rugged, off-trail hiking and thin air. Unfortunately, Matt's temporary prosthetic broke so he had to stay in camp, which is why these shake-down trips are essential before big expeditions. The rest of us made the summit and returned to camp in about six hours; a pretty good pace.

In short, this training trip was a huge success! We accomplished our mission, began to make connections with one another, figured out what works, discovered what doesn't, sorted out gear details, and had a lot of fun. A phone call from President Bush was a great bonus. Organizing this expedition to Lobuche has been a lot of work for many of us. And I'm starting to feel like it's going to pay off hugely. Can't wait till we leave in October!

Here are some photos of the training courtesy of our team photographer Didrik Johnck.

Everest climbers Chris Morris and Charlie Mace set the rope on St. Mary's glacier.

Soldier Zach Martinez practices a self-arrest on a mellow slope before progressing to steeper terrain. Yes, he did have the ice axe tucked up by his chest.

Soldier Nicolette Maroulis tops out after climbing a very steep 60-foot snow and ice slope on St. Mary's glacier.

Soldier Katherine Ragazzino tops out after climbing a very steep 60-foot snow and ice slope on St. Mary's glacier.

Yours truly in my stealth gray outfit. The photographers insist I'll be wearing less boring colors in the future.

Solider Ike Isaacson gets aggro while learning the art of picking your way up a snow slope with crampons, ice axe, and ascender.

The Soldiers to the Summit team is made of up people with varying disabilities including amputees.

Soldier Chad Butrick prepares to rappelling down the glacier.

The Soldiers to the Summit team in lock step at 12,000 feet on the slopes of James Peak on a nice summer day.

Soldiers Dan Sidles, Ike Isaacson, Cody Miranda, and Steve Baskis (left to right) celebrate the summit of James Peak at 13,294 feet.