Thursday, May 26, 2011
For a brief moment in time, a team of CMC volunteers engaged in a project much bigger than themselves.~by Rich McAdams
It began with an unsolicited email from the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP) to the Colorado Mountain Club. “Would the CMC, in some capacity, be able to provide some (still to be determined) assistance to improve the odds that several disabled soldiers and Marines could succeed in their effort to summit Kilimanjaro in May of 2011?”
The answer was obviously yes, but then the second question became who, what, and when? Who would determine what our contribution would be, organize a CMC team to invent a program, and then deliver on that promise? I was fortunate enough to get the call.
Over the April 16th and 17th weekend, a unique mix of disabled veterans and CMC members would discuss all the nuances of clothing, equipment, health, and teamwork necessary to scale one of the world’s Seven Summits. Over these two days the team would experience immense camaraderie, emotional joy, and physical discomfort. We would laugh and cry; pose and posture; learn and be learned.
For this one of a kind experience, day two was absolutely our crux. The team would hike 14,265’ Quandary Peak near Breckenridge. Although our veteran’s homes were scattered nationwide, all were from sea level or near sea level, we would give them a full 24 hours to acclimatize; how hard could it be?
Saturday morning, 8:00am, April 16th, 2011, four mysterious individuals walked though the doorway of CMC Conference Room C. They seemed normal enough, perhaps a bit quiet, but open and curious as they met the 10 equally mysterious individuals representing the Colorado Mountain Club.
We looked at them… they looked at us… then the smiles came out. We shook hands; we got coffee; we ate donuts; we were off to a great start. Allow me to introduce the Wounded Warrior Veterans (Kilimanjaro team name… Hard Target):
Mike Wilson – Sergeant USMC. Traumatic brain injury from IED incident in Afghanistan. PTSD.
Mike would like very much to reenlist. Prior to joining the military, Mike was in culinary school and had hopes of opening a restaurant. As a music lover, he especially likes live music but has concerns that that environment could exacerbate his present condition.
Nancy Schiliro – Lance Corporal USMC. Lost right eye from IED incident in Iraq. PTSD.
Nancy is trying to get on with her life. Although she still experiences pain at times, it does not keep her from her priorities: spending time with family and great friends. With an EMT background, she is currently exploring options while working hard and attending school.
Ben Lunak – Lance Corporal USMC – Lost lower leg from IED incident in Iraq. PTSD.
With aspirations to someday open his own cross training gym, he has made his injuries a non-issue. Brought up as an average kid in North Dakota, Ben now has an amazing drive, spirit, and determination. He has become a positive and shining example for others.
Bryan Wagner – Specialist US Army – Lost lower leg from IED incident in Baghdad. PTSD.
With his father as his primary role model, Bryan was a firefighter before joining the Army. Today he is in school working to acquire his degree in physical therapy; this will allow him to achieve his goal which is to assist other vets with their recovery.
Jason Martinez and Jonathan “Sully” Sullivan
These two individuals are the very dedicated Team Leads that help administer the Wounded Warrior Project. They are, in essence, the glue which comingles the camaraderie and team spirit for those vets working through post-recovery issues. Many of us may ask, what is the purpose of the WWP? My reply:
Raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members.
Help injured service members aid and assist each other.
Provide unique programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members.
So, our four vets accompanied by the two WWP Team Leads settled down for a day of mountaineering presentations, discussions, and of course the never ending questions and comments. We worked hard that morning, were offered lunch by the CMC State Board, worked hard again that afternoon, then later in the day spent huge sums of money at REI. Our first evening wound down with the obligatory and highly traditional visit to Woody’s Pizza. It was a great day.
Sunday morning, 8:00am. April 17th, 2011, a team of boisterous and highly confident veterans and their nervous/anxious CMC volunteers arrived at the Quandary Peak trailhead.
The team discussed and immediately decided against using snowshoes as the springtime conditions looked good. With the forecasted storm not at all apparent, spirits were high as we headed up. Although all members of the CMC team have extensive teaching experience with those new to the backcountry, our vets came with a unique set of challenges. How does one stay balanced on a steep snowfield with limited range of motion using a prosthetic lower leg? How does one compensate for limited depth perception with only one working eye? How does one stay focused on challenging terrain when the traumatic brain injury produces confusing and constant background noise?
Well, quite nicely I might answer.
For the most part, having come from near sea level the day before, with no experience at altitude and little experience climbing/hiking in general, each vet exceeded our expectations. Sure, at 11,000 feet at the trailhead everyone was supremely optimistic, but it did not take long for the realities to set in. Although the snow was well packed on the trail, Bryan’s 6’ frame and 200 pounds would not provide an adequate foundation whenever he needed to put all his weight on one foot. Although clearly Army Strong, it was never the less trying. There were times when he needed to remove his prosthetic lower leg to extract his foot from some bottomless posthole.
Mike, with the TBI, preferred to keep his MP3 player at high volume as a mental distraction to stay, ironically, focused on the climb. Nancy would suffer headaches while trying to maintain her depth perception. Ben would have difficulties toward the summit as wind pivoted him off balance and pushed him to the ground.
One hour into the climb, and still below tree line, I could see our team struggle; this would be a short day I thought. Two hours later at 12,000 feet I could clearly see the individual pain and anguish; we could still get to the Breckenridge Brewery by 2pm. However, as the day progressed, no one was in a quitting mood. Finally, at 13,000 feet I could see the walking dead. This became the turnaround point for the team.
Or was it?
While coordinating the descent effort, I looked up the slope and surveyed the final pitch to Quandary’s summit. I saw several climbers continuing up. CMC’s Dave Covill and Warren May were providing encouragement and acting as escorts for Ben. Apparently, Ben was not yet done.
Although no records were set that day on Quandary, each and every member exceeded what would have been anyone’s personal best. The team clawed, struggled, self motivated, and pushed past barriers that would have stopped most of us. At 3pm that afternoon Ben Lunak summitted Quandary Peak. Forty five minutes later Sully summited with the help and encouragement of Deb Kirk. Again, it was a great day.
Sunday afternoon, 5:00pm, Quandary Peak trailhead once again
Ben and Sully were boisterously celebrated by their Hard Target teammates. The team had put two on the summit of Quandary. They had achieved team success; it was a team effort; it was an emotional moment for all. In traditional fashion, as they had done earlier that morning, the veterans huddled in the parking area. A prayer was said and the Hard Target chant was shared. Surprisingly, the CMC volunteers were asked to participate in this most personal experience: the huddle, the prayer, and the Hard Target chant.
Later that afternoon at the Breckenridge Brewery, beers, burgers, and mutual congratulation flowed freely. Soldiers and Marines had once again operated as a team, although not, this time, in combat. It mattered not the least that only two of six summitted, because two of the six did. In reflection, one of our CMC goals was to encourage them to move beyond their comfort level, to a level we believed they could achieve, but in as safe a way as possible.
Following the climb, and following the departure of our new best friends, the CMC folks chatted about the wonderness of being part of a project that was, well, bigger than ourselves. Hoorah!
The WW veteran’s arrived in Tanzania on May 11, 2011, with an anticipated Kilimanjaro summit day of May 18th. You can follow their progress by going to: http://www.believeinheroes.org
For those curious about the Wounded Warrior Project, please refer to: http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
Warren May – As a physical therapist during the Vietnam era, Warren interacted with hundreds of returning soldiers who experienced significant injuries as a result of war. Warren assumed responsibility to develop and present a module on food, water, and nutrition.
Carol Shansby – Currently an assistant instructor in the Wilderness Trekking School, her animated presentation on clothing was very well received by our audience. The presentation not only generated questions and comments, but necessitated a late afternoon whirlwind trip to the REI Flagship store to get the right stuff.
Martha Mustard – Recently awarded Master Instructor for WTS, Martha helped ensure the clothing presentation was relevant and thorough. Her vast experience guaranteed that the soldiers would stay dry and warm, but also have the flexibility to stay cool and comfortable as the Tanzanian weather required.
Deb Kirk – Holding certifications and post-graduate degrees in Therapeutic Recreation, her presentation module discussed the aspects of climbing and touristing in a third world country. Deb discussed the proactive considerations the team would require prior to departure, what they should do while in-country, then activities and suggestions necessary to look out for each other when on the mountain.
Kevin Hass – In the Basic Mountaineering School, Kevin was immersed in the nuances of equipment for hiking, climbing, backpacking, and camping. He used this experience to discuss equipment requirements and considerations. As a volunteer with the Winter Park National Sports Center Program for the Disabled, Kevin also brought skills necessary to assist the team during the high peak climb.
Sharon Kratze – Joining the team with BMS experience as well as the High Altitude Mountaineering School, Sharon assisted with the basic equipment presentation then added additional aspects and considerations necessary to successfully summit a high altitude peak. Sharon, as a Denver Council member acted as our liaison into CMC management.
Dave Covill – During the high peak climb, Dave acted as our on-mountain expert and was instrumental getting the team up the mountain. Dave brought expertise from many different CMC technical schools, experience as an expeditions team leader, and a general enthusiasm that was truly infectious.
Bob Reimann – Bob offered his insight, as successful summitter of Kilimanjaro, as well as a vast number of peaks in Colorado. Bob provided maps and photos of Kilimanjaro that became the highlight of Day One. As the CMC Denver Group Chairperson, Bob also helped gain the support and encouragement with CMC management.
Patty Greyson – Patty was looking to the CMC in hopes of fulfilling a need greater than simple hiking. Mission accomplished. Her willingness to help, along with her organizational skills and commitment, was very much appreciated by all. Thanks.
Rich McAdams – CMC Project Director.