Before getting caught up in the destination — the 19,347-foot-high summit of the volcano Cotopaxi — it’s important to back up and look at the journey. That is, after all, what it’s really all about.
“It’s so easy to get fixated on, ‘These guys are climbing Cotopaxi — how rad is that?’ That’s just icing on the cake, you know,” says Charley Mace, a mountaineer and program director for Soldiers to Summits. The “guys” he’s talking about are the members of a team of 17 military men and women, former and current Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and National Guard service members, who are, yes, coming together to climb Cotopaxi.
Some are dealing with physical limitations incurred by injuries to wrists, ankles and knees. Many of them list symptoms of PTSD and TBI. Four are still active duty, and three are still returning to hospitals for treatments. They’re all taking part in the latest program from Soldiers to Summits, run by No Barriers USA.
“These guys are learning so much already, and have changed their lives already, improved their lives so much already, because it’s a long-term, ongoing program,” Mace says. It’s a program, he emphasizes, not a one-time trip and not an expedition. Participants have spent the last six months physically training and working on the “no barriers” mindset, and the goal is for them to complete the expedition with far more than a tick on a checklist of peaks.
“Our organizational mission is to unleash the potential of the human spirit,” says David Shurna, executive director of No Barriers USA. “What we believe is that by championing and instilling the ‘No barriers’ mindset in people through these transformative adventures, we’re unleashing the potential of the human spirit.”
The mindset looks to four key pillars: aiming high, entering the storm, harnessing adversity and doing good.
“On the mountain they’re going to be trying to aim high literally, enter the storm literally, and then harness the challenges that they’re facing right in the moment to make a stronger team,” Shurna says. “The end goal, the fourth pillar of the no barriers mindset, is doing good, so you’re aiming high, you’re entering the storm and why are you doing it? Well, you’re doing good for yourself, you’re doing good for the world.”
Since being accepted to the program, one of the participants has quit a three-packs-a-day smoking habit. Others have made such dramatic lifestyle changes they’ve shed 35 to 40 pounds.
“It’s really not about the climbing,” Mace says. “We’re hoping to provide a tool kit for these guys to overcome whatever barriers and whatever summits are in their lives. As anybody in Colorado knows, climbing a mountain isn’t just about the mountain. It’s how you take the lessons that you learned in that time and apply them back home, otherwise you’ve learned nothing from your time out in the hills.”
Climbing just happens to be the ultimate metaphor for whatever a person is struggling with.
Charley Mace | Photo by Didrik Johnck
“There’s a perfect quote, ‘The summits of the mind are not so easily attained. There is much more than storm and precipice between you and your Everest,’” Mace says, quoting Cecil Day Lewis. “Oftentimes, with this particular population, the real wounds are not the visible wounds, the real summits, the real challenges, are not the visible ones. … Whatever those summits are, whatever those barriers are, we help provide this tool kit that folks can use to face those adversities and turn that lead into gold.”
Soldiers to Summits was sparked by the 2010 trip that 11 veterans and 10 Mount Everest climbers took to Lobuche, a 20,100-foot neighbor to Mount Everest. The trip was to recognize the 10th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest by a blind climber, Eric Weihenmayer. That story was told in the Serac Adventures film High Ground.
“Lobuche was such a powerful trip for all of us, the veterans and the guides,” says Mace, who was on the Lobuche trip as well as with Weihenmayer on his Everest expedition. “It was just too good of a thing not to formalize, so we created Soldiers to Summits.”
Weihenmayer, a board member for No Barriers, drew the pieces together.
This trip to Cotopaxi is their second program. The team includes five mentor members who participated in the 2010 trip to Lobuche: Kathryn Raggazino, Dan Sidles, Justin Moore, Chad Stone and Steve Baskis. Bringing participants back as mentors allows them to keep engaging in the program, to give back, and share their experiences as a way of opening those conversations up for first-time participants.
“It’s really hard to measure the metrics of the success of a program like this,” Mace says. “There’s all sorts of things you might be able to say, like, oh, he’s still employed, or he’s still off heroin, he hasn’t gone back to fighting and drinking in bars, he’s been able to keep his marriage together or not, he hasn’t killed himself yet — the suicide rate for veterans is through the roof. Partly that’s because these guys spend a lot of time looking backwards. One of the things we try to do is help them look forward — what am I going to do tomorrow? What am I going to do with my life? What am I going to be when I grow up? — focusing on something more positive.”
When Boulder Weekly met with first-time participant Tommy Carroll in June, Cotopaxi was the first thing he wanted to talk about — he’d just been accepted to the team.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I’ve never hiked that high.”
After Carroll, a Boulder resident, was discharged from the Army, a motorcycle accident left him with a leg amputated above the knee and a traumatic brain injury.
“What I did three days ago, I don’t know. I know I was on the rock somewhere, or helping vets,” says Carroll, who has ice climbed with Paradox Sports, hiked 14ers with Veterans Expeditions and taught adaptive skiing. “It’s not a matter of giving up. It’s a matter of figuring out how. … My memory is in my hands. My memory is physical. That’s why I climb and ski. When you’re climbing, when you’re doing these things, you don’t have time to think of anything else. You’re just serene — or, I am.”
The team departed for Quito, Ecuador, on Dec. 1. The following Monday morning, they set off on a training hike.
“We are pushing towards the summit of Guagua Pichincha, an active volcano, at the moment, getting everybody up some rock face, doing a little climbing, a little scrambling, so everybody’s getting their appetite whet for climbing that has never done it before, and there’s a lot of smiles, so it’s a good sign,” said Justin Moore, one of the team’s mentor members, in a video blog.
A 12:40 p.m. tweet announced that, after a four-hour scramble up a rocky ridge, the entire team arrived at the 15,695-foot summit.
The team will make their Cotopaxi summit push on Dec. 10.
Soldiers to Summits participants are posting updates to Twitter and Facebook and blogging their progress, in addition to doing conference calls while on their trip. Visit www.soldierstosummits.org for details. No Barriers USA is also still trying to fundraise a dollar for every foot climbed toward the 19,347-foot summit. Information on that it is at www.nobarriers.fundraise.com/onedollar.
After all, the summit isn’t what really matters. It’s each step along the way.