November 10, 2010
I’m finally home from my Soldiers to the Summit expedition after what seems like a long time away. I’ve actually been home for a week now dealing with a case of giardia (a nasty waterborne parasite) on the expedition that manifested itself during my last few days in country. As they say, you can leave Nepal, but it doesn’t leave you. So I’ve been laying low over the last week trying to kick this tough illness. Seems there’s often a price to pay for reaching for big things.
Over a year ago, my Everest teammate, Jeff Evans, and I were contemplating a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Mount Everest ascent. Our brainstorming session quickly began to morph into something bigger than any one person. In 2001, I came home from Everest a hero who was met in the airport by a gaggle of reporters and featured on the cover of magazines. It seemed like a more innocent time. However, a few months after our success, the events of 9-11 changed our whole country and radically affected so many of our men and women in uniform. Without question, these valiant people served their country, often enduring horrific circumstances that are hard to imagine, and there was no heroic homecoming for them—no magazine covers. Just hospital beds and long, arduous roads ahead. So as Jeff and I discussed how to celebrate, an auspicious collision of events, circumstances, teams, and personalities fell into place.
Jeff Evans climbing Lobuche. Photo by Didrik Johnck.
Eight other members of my Everest team signed on immediately. Although climbers are often perceived as adrenaline-junkie dirt bags, we all have deep respect for the drive and sacrifice of military men and women. We understand the fact that we are provided the opportunity to make a living in the mountains, or live whatever kind of dream we choose, as a result of our freedom and the bounty that is provided to us living in America. These opportunities are in part available to us as a result of the genuine sacrifice made by service men and women. As Jeff Evans, who took on role of team leader, put it, “We aren't very good at many things...but we are really good at getting folks up and down mountains. So this is our way of giving back.”
Our expedition began with our warriors trekking for seven days through the Khumbu region of Nepal to the dramatic Lobuche Base Camp at 16,269 feet. After a day of rest, the team climbed steep, slabby terraces beneath the main glaciers of the Southeast Face of the mountain to establish High Camp at 17,305 feet from which to attempt our summit bid.
We set out at 1:00 AM, climbing up steep, rock slabs and the 50-degree snow and ice of the narrow South Ridge of the mountain. The final day took over fifteen hours as many team members fought altitude sickness and the tough terrain. Ultimately, eight of the eleven soldiers reached the summit. Our teammate, Nicolette Maroulis, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq when a building collapsed upon her, spent 3-1/2 years in a wheel chair not knowing if she would ever be able to walk again. She admitted me she was counting on this climb being a mental and emotional test, but she wasn’t as prepared for the intense physical challenge. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she revealed to the team afterwards.
Jeff tells a great story that really speaks to me: He was working to get Steve Baskis, our blind vet (he lost his vision only two short years ago to IED) to the summit. Jeff said, “Brad Bull was in front of Steve and I was behind. We were tag teaming the guide commands for hours up steep rock in the dark and cold. Steve was clearly beat up early on but Brad and I pushed him in every way possible…physically and psychologically. We heard Steve utter things like, ‘I can't do this…I didn't train hard enough…I want to go home…This is too hard.’ He was hurtin’ for certain. After five hours of our coaxing, we started to joke that Steve had heard all of our tricks and motivational clichés. But we got in Steve’s head and pushed him as hard as we could. After running out of nice things to say, I said ‘Steve, this is not about you. Quit being selfish. This is about all of your recently injured comrades—and those that are yet to be injured. You are doing this for them. Now knuckle down and get it done.’ Steve had no response for this, and he got after it. He summited with us hours later in great style. I am so proud of him.”
Matt Nyman, who lost his leg in a helicopter crash, started feeling listless on the long descent. Our medical team diagnosed cerebral edema, a potentially life-threatening swelling of the brain. Charley Mace, along with other team members, got him down with a lot of effort. Matt could barely talk and was only barely able to make hand gestures. He was incredibly tough, gutting his way down to camp where intravenous fluid and a Gamow bag awaited. We all took turns throughout the night pumping the bag to keep the air pressure high and consistent, giving Matt more oxygen to breathe. I had the 4:00 AM shift and it was kind of fun bouncing up and down on the foot pump to the beat of my iPod. The next day Jeff and a few soldiers helped Matt down to flatter ground where a horse waited to assist him the rest of the way.
This was an adventure even the most fit, able-bodied athletes would find daunting, so adding the extra challenges of blindness, amputations, brain injury, and post-traumatic stress into the mix was a big reach for everyone. My Everest team worked very hard to get everyone to the summit and back down safely. In the end, we got as much out of the experience as our military teammates. World TEAM Sports was a big contributor too; helping with the organization and fund raising aspects of the expedition. WTS puts together soul-stirring events to showcase what inclusive and diverse teams can achieve when they link behind a common vision.
Our military teammates have extraordinary stories of survival, challenge, recovery, and transformation that were captured on HD video by Michael Brown, the same filmmaker who made our Everest documentary, Farther Than the Eye Can See. We are hoping to have a feature film about this grueling journey ready to premier this Spring.
I only hope this expedition provided a medium for healing and helping these heroes reintegrate back into their communities. And we hope it will show the thousands of other returning soldiers with bodies and minds in need of repair that their best days are ahead, not behind.
If you haven’t already, check out the expedition website www.soldierstothesummit.org.
Here is the trailer for the upcoming film. Get psyched!