Soldiers To Summits Kicks Off

Our second Soldiers To Summits program has been gearing up for months. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard on fund raising, developing the curriculum, and selecting the new team. Countless hours have gone into preparing for this new S2S program but until the entire team comes together, it almost doesn’t feel real.

Last week, the reality—and the importance—of our mission sank in for everyone as we held our first training session in Colorado. The events kicked off Friday evening with an informal meet and greet at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, followed by dinner provided by my favorite restaurant, the Sherpa House. After dinner, the guide team told the new soldiers about our Everest climb and how it became the inspiration for S2S.

On Saturday, the guides, mentors, and soldiers started to get to know each other with a warm up hike on Chief Mountain (11,709 ft.). But the real highlight was a concert in Denver by country music stars Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Tim is a huge supporter of veterans and brain injury research and his Tug McGraw Foundation arranged for our entire team to meet him and get great seats.

With the celebratory stuff out of the way, our entire team caravanned up to the Outward Bound Base Camp in Leadville for the serious work. Thanks to Luis Benitez for making this available! S2S is unlike other injured veteran programs in that our goal is not to just climb a mountain. While reaching the summit of Cotopaxi is an important component, it is the process of getting there and breaking through the barriers we’ll face along the trail where real progress is made.

Indeed, the framework for S2S is based on the concept of the Heroic Journey monomyth developed by Joseph Campbell. There are many parallels that soldiers make as they journey from the civilian world to the military and then back to civilian life. Similarly, mountaineers go through this cycle when we go off on expeditions and then return home.

This diagram sums up the path that soldiers and climbers follow as we take on both an external challenge and an internal journey. (See the explanation at the end of this post for more details.) We use these stages of the journey in S2S both as points of discussion and a way of broaching new ideas with our soldiers.

Where many veterans struggle is that transition back to civilian life, where 99% of the population have no concept of what service in Iraq and Afghanistan is like. In The Adversity Advantage, which I co-wrote with Dr. Paul Stoltz, we talk about people who get to this point in life and either become “Quitters” who just give up, or “Campers” who get shoved to the sidelines and ultimately stagnate, or the few who become “Climbers” and rise above and start a whole new journey.

Too many veterans have become Quitters, either through drugs or suicide. And many become Campers because they don’t have the tools and resources to move upwards. Our goal with S2S is to make everyone Climbers, in the literal and figurative sense.

By the time we arrived in Leadville, all of us had gone through the first four phases of the Heroic Journey including accepting the call to adventure, preparing, and struggling with the doubters and self-doubts. That afternoon, we laid out the S2S program in detail and that evening, the mentors from the first S2S introduced High Ground, the incredible documentary film about their journey on and off the mountain, which had a real impact on all the soldiers.

Monday was devoted to team building exercises. This included the classic problem-solving task of how to get the entire team over an eight-foot wall by standing on shoulders and pulling people up. Another activity was crossing an “acid river” by laying boards across platforms so the entire team can get over. The high ropes course was challenging too, and a bit frightening, since we were 30 feet off the forest floor. Of course, with some blind folks, amputees, and people with traumatic brain injuries and other challenges, problem solving and communication was even more critical.

These activities were meant to be fun, but more importantly, to facilitate the four stages of team development: Forming, when the team first gets to know one another; Storming, when conflicts arise as boundaries are tested; Norming, when the team becomes cohesive and embraces a vision; and, hopefully, Performing, when the trust in one another allows superior team performance.

The challenge courses were a good start but, of course, my favorite part of the training program was our climb of Mt. Sherman (14,036 feet) on Tuesday. This is a relatively moderate hike so it gave me the opportunity to get to know team members and recognize voices as different vets took turns leading me up the trail.

That night, we wrapped up the training program with a debriefing and I gave a short presentation about the No Barriers mindset and how adversity can become the fuel that drives us to great things instead of an obstacle which stops us flat.

One story from our many deep discussions of the week has stuck with me. One of our young participants told us he was lying in the hospital bed broken after a major injury. The hospital staff was taking care of him since he was pretty much helpless. As broken and helpless as he was, he said he wanted to shout out, “I’m still a Marine!” That burning desire to push forward, no matter what happens to you, is at the heart of the No Barriers mindset.

This year’s team includes a range of soldiers, from a 20-year-old active duty Marine to a 46-year-old retired Army vet with an above-the-knee amputation. You can read more about the team at http://soldierstosummits.org/The-Team-Soldiers.aspx

We are also fortunate to have six returning mentors, all of whom I have gotten to know well during and after our Lobuche expedition. These team members are helping to lead the next journey as they try to harness their own adversities and use them to help others.

Our mentors have really stepped up and are making a difference already. At one point, one of the new soldiers was feeling overwhelmed and left the group. A couple of the mentors went over to let him vent his frustration and convinced him to stay in the program—something I’m not sure a civilian could have done. Our mentors can relate to both worlds better than us Everest climbers and that is a huge asset.

It was a very powerful six days and we all left energized and excited for the next training session in September and the expedition to Cotopaxi in December. We will keep in touch over the next couple months and foster the concepts introduced.

Thanks for reading and for your support!
Erik
PS special thanks to professional photographer Didrik Johnck for his great images. You can view many more photos from this training session here.

 

Explaining the Heroic Journey Diagram

1.      Begin the Journey

2. 
    Preparation is everything. Become strong—in body, mind, heart and spirit.

3.      Discern with care the call to adventure. See possibility in precipitating events.

4.      When we cross the threshold, we surrender to choice, and we must have a good answer for the Guardians at the Gate who question our intentions and convictions.

5.      On the Road of Challenges, we meet our new teachers and our hardest assignments. This is where we will surely be tested.

6.      The Gift or the Accomplishment
 is the moment when we know why we have come, when our skills have matched the challenges, and we are filled with purpose and joy!

7. 
    Upon our Return, we are elated with our accomplishments. But we are also at risk of the dangers of the down-climb.

8. 
    When we Come Home, our self-focused elation meets the Guardians of the Gate, who once again question our intentions and convictions.

9.      Finding the balance between our Two Worlds, we return home to our point of origin with a better sense of who we are, what we have been through and what we can go through.

10.    We begin the next journey with learning from the last, and this time we seek and recognize the allies everywhere to help us. The greatest gift of all is when we realize we can serve as allies for others.