In 2010, to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Eric Weihenmayer’s ascent of Mount Everest as the only blind man to climb the world’s tallest mountain, the same team who went with him reassembled to do a commemorative trip. Their first ascent was completed in what director Michael Brown, who made the documentary on Weihenmayer’s climb, called a time of innocence, just months before September 11th, 2001. For the anniversary trip, he says, they wanted to give something back to the millions of soldiers who have been deployed in the wars that have chased the heels of the events of that day.
So he and his team found 11 veterans willing to fly to Nepal and attempt the summit of Lobuche, a 20,075-foot Himalayan peak. Three of the veterans are amputees, and one is blind.
The documentary that resulted, Brown says, tells a simple story of what it’s like to come back from war.
“We climb this mountain, and that’s sort of a backdrop that provides something to keep the story rolling along,” Brown says. “As we go higher and closer to the mountain, we peel back the layers of who they are and spend time with each veteran getting to know their back story, getting to know who they are, what they’ve been through, where they are now — just through their own words. They just tell us stories and tell us about how they feel.”
It’s not meant to be anti-military.
“It’s not what most people expect. As a matter of fact, I’d say most people have no idea what it’s like to be a veteran coming home from war,” Brown says. “I certainly would have fallen into that cat egory as well before I met these guys. … I had no idea what they go through.”
Not a lot of lessons learned in war translate when a soldier comes home. Very little, in fact, of what a person learns when that person becomes a soldier transfers effectively to the return to civilian life, Brown says. Mountaineering leans on similar lessons, but with different intent.
“The veterans were willing to talk to us — we were part of this big team together and they respected all of us on the guiding side and the filmmaking side because we all had been up Everest,” Brown says. “And even though that’s not war, that’s one of the closest analogous things in the civilian world. One of the most important differences there though, of course, is that the mountains, even though they can kill you, they don’t do it with malice, and that’s a profound difference.”
Chad Jukes previously climbed with Weihenmayer, and Weihenmayer recruited him to the trip.
“It was not about a personal goal of climbing a mountain. It was about a team goal, it was about being able to go out there and have this experience with this team,” Jukes says. “It was phenomenal to be able to complete such a task with all of these other people who had suffered in their own ways.”
Some of those were visible — Jukes was one of the three amputees on the trip — and some not so tangible: Veterans talk, in their interviews, of traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and survivor’s guilt. One of the veterans had been told she would never walk again after surviving an explosion, and she walked up a 20,000-foot-tall mountain.
“All of the veterans had aspects of their lives, physically or mentally or psychologically, that had held them back in one way or another,” Jukes says. “And everybody figured out how to overcome those obstacles not only to do the normal things in life but to do this extraordinary thing, to go climb this mountain that other people wouldn’t dream of climbing.”
The film started as a project for the Outside Adventure Film School. Then Brown had a chance to show the trailer from that footage to Don Hahn, a producer for The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, and Hahn decided to get involved.
Brown went back to the veterans about a year after their summit and interviewed them and collected footage shot by fellow soldiers while on tour. Their experience together on the mountain created the mutual respect and trust necessary for Brown to get incredibly raw and candid footage of these people discussing their injuries from another lifetime. By then, some of them had grown their hair far beyond the military issue limits. One was still in uniform. Some still introduced themselves with their rank.
The audience Jukes says he hopes will be inspired by the film is not just the millions of veterans and the millions of disabled people, but all able-bodied civilians out there who think they could never do something as challenging as climb to 20,000 feet.
And perhaps change a few minds about what disabled people can do and how to approach them.
“People feel like they need to feel sorry for someone with a disability, and that isn’t always the case,” Jukes says. “I feel like what I do, and what I’ve proven capable of doing, can change people’s minds on that. People realize that I’m not somebody they should feel sorry for. I’m not severely limited. I can do whatever I want to do — for the most part, I think tap dancing would be out of the question, but for the most part, I can do anything I want.”