January 23, 2013
It has been a month since I returned from Cotopaxi as part of our Soldiers to Summits program and I am still processing this intense and memorable trip. Our S2S expedition left at the beginning of December to climb the second highest peak in Ecuador.
Overall, it was a very rewarding trip with the participants being a highlight, but it wasn't without adversity. As our second effort, the program still needs some work to achieve the desired outcomes.
Most of our soldiers experience post-traumatic stress and are in varying degrees of recovery. All of them want to do more with their lives but have met some catastrophic obstacles that shoved them to the sidelines, and their lives fell into holding patterns. Our S2S program is designed to turn these “campers” into “climbers” by giving them the tools and inspiration to reach higher.
One participant, Nick Colgin, suffered a traumatic brain injury and PTSD when he was an Army medic in Afghanistan. Despite over 700 combat patrols and earning a Bronze Star, he was unable to return to work at home in the medical field. Though he now works for a non-profit that helps veterans, Nick came to S2S in hopes of finding new opportunities. In the process for getting ready for Cotopaxi, Nick lost over 50 pounds and completed a three-week NOLS program!
Another participant who suffers from TBI and PTSD is Margaux Mange, a Sergeant in the Army whose vehicle was hit by an explosion that left her with crippling headaches. Not only did Margaux reach the summit of Cotopaxi but she also was recently accepted on an S2S South Pole Expedition scheduled for later this year. Soon, she and her team will head to Iceland as preparation, which gives her a lot to look forward to.
One member of the team who made a herculean effort to reach the summit was Army veteran, Matt Burgess. Like Margo and Nick, he too has TBI and PTSD yet pushed himself incredibly hard to the top. The effort did take a toll, since he was pretty sick afterwards. However, I know he is very proud of his achievement, and he managed to quit smoking as an added bonus!
A powerful aspect of S2S for all the soldiers involved is that they must focus their attention looking forward instead of reflecting backwards on all the trauma of the past. Our program is about creating hope and moving towards a better future. We teach them to build a support team around them and to build a “no barriers” mindset.
An example of this is Dan Sidles, who was in our first Lobuche program and served as a mentor in our recent program. Back in 2009, his PTSD was crippling, keeping him from functioning in the civilian world. But now he is pursuing a career as a mountain guide and presently is making an attempt on Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. He still struggles with his past, and says he always will, but is now on a more hopeful track.
Another mentor/soldier who makes me proud is Kathryn Raggazino. When she joined our Lobuche program, Kate was also dealing with PTSD that left her lost, in pain, and full of self-doubts. Now she is working on disaster relief for the Hurricane Sandy victims and inspiring others.
One disappointment was that only half of our team reached the summit of Cotopaxi, in part due to an extremely long day and some miscommunications regarding our turn-around time. The day started out with some excitement as we hit the glacier about 2:30 AM, when one of the soldiers fell because his crampons couldn’t penetrate the bulletproof-hard ice. I was impressed that his three rope-mates reacted in a textbook fashion by arresting his fall with their ice axes.
Due to global warming, the glacier was broken up with huge crevasses that are wider than normal. There was even a section where the mountainside had collapsed, and someone said it looked like giant white popcorn, which we weaved through for hours. One of the guides, Jeff Evans, said it reminded him of the Khumbu Icefall on Everest so we started calling this the Khumbu-Paxi Icefall.
The two rope teams that summited took about twelve hours and another six hours back down…and those were the fast groups. My rope team including Tommy Carroll, Rudy Moreno, and Kate Raggazino, had to abandon our ascent not long after sunrise when it became obvious we weren’t moving fast enough. Another rope team made the heart-breaking decision to turn back not far from the summit when the local guides became concerned that it was getting too warm for a safe return to base.
Over the next few months, we will be evaluating the entire S2S program and tweaking it extensively. We all learned a lot on this trip and we intend to make future efforts even better. Our goal is to make it as smooth running as the other No Barriers programs and have our participants look back and say this was a transformative experience that helped them push forward to the next level in their life.
One aspect that has worked really well is partnering each veteran with corporate sponsors such as AT&T, Circadence, and Swift Transportation. This provides the company with a deeper connection to the project and it gives the veterans both a sense of community and a support network.
For me, the single most meaningful experience of the trip came after the climb when we were all back in the city again. Some members of the team were feeling down because they hadn’t summited and needed a spiritual lift. Since this was right before Christmas, we all went to a home for disabled children who were living in poverty. It was meant as a nice gesture to hand out gifts to those less fortunate than us and cheer them up with singing and dancing.
One little boy was very sick and had a rudimentary prosthetic leg that went nearly to his hip. When Tommy Carroll asked him what he wanted for Christmas, the boy replied that he wanted to walk without crutches. As Tommy gave him a present, he pulled his own pant leg up to reveal that he too was missing a leg above the knee. For the next three minutes, that little boy and that big veteran sat hugging each other and crying.
This episode is what symbolized what S2S should be. The program is about service and stepping outside ourselves. Despite our doubts, our fears, our limitations, the crazy thoughts that go through our minds, the struggles that we've had, and the things that hold us back…forget all that. S2S is about looking forward and reconnecting with the world in profound and beautiful ways. And by doing this, we help ourselves and begin a new path to growth and recovery.
PS many thanks to Didrik Johnck for his great photography!