Monday, February 20, 2012

Soldiers to Summits Q&A

High Ground, the documentary film that showcased our 2010 Soldiers to Summits climb in Nepal, had a stellar showing at the Boulder International Film Festival this weekend. Those of us behind the Soldiers to Summits project are so very proud of the Serac Adventure Films crew for creating such a wonderful film that showcases the challenges that all vets face when returning from service.

When Erik Weihenmayer, Jeff Messner and I came up with the "S2S" project in 2009, we knew that bringing a film crew to document our ascent with a group of injured vets would be an important aspect of providing a rehabilitative tool for freshly injured soldiers once we returned from our expedition. We believe that once High Ground does it's film festival rounds it will be used in just such a way... around the country at all of the Warrior Transition Units and rehab hospitals such as Walter Reed. The power of film is immeasurable. We are thrilled to see this all come together before our eyes.

Soldiers to Summits is not a "one off" climbing trip. We have expanded our concept and are set to take our next set of injured vet participants to climb Cotopaxi this December. What is important to remember is that this isn't actually about 'climbing mountains with some injured soldiers' at all.
We believe that by using the mountains as a venue and incorporating a strong, rehabilitative curriculum for our vets, we are providing them the opportunity to reclaim something that perhaps was taken from them while in combat. Whether the vet suffers from physical or emotional injuries, we believe that providing a setting that encourages leadership, self reliance and teamwork will be a catalyst for recovery. We have seen it in last years participants and are excited about going forward.

I thought this would be a good time to post a Q&A I did with a military focused magazine last year as we were returning from our trip last year...

How did you come up with the concept of Soldiers to the Summit?


For years now, I have worked with an organization called World TEAM Sports, which works in bringing together 'able bodied' and 'disabled' for sporting efforts around the world. Back in 2009, I was collaborating with the Executive Director, Jeff Messner on a potential project for 2010 where we would bring together wounded soldiers for a trekking or climbing project in some far away land. In a strange twist of fate, I learned of a family relative that was killed in combat while fighting in Afghanistan over this same period. This jumped us in to motion quickly and committed us to creating and executing a project that would be set in Nepal and involve climbing a peak. Also at this time I introduced the idea to my long time climbing partner Erik Weihenmayer...the blind climber that I have guided on mountains around the world, including Everest in 2001. Erik, in his typical fashion suggested we "go big" and climb a peak over 20,000 ft...and so it began. As 2011 is the 10 year anniversary of our Everest summit, we saw this as an opportunity to be a part of a project that would be based on something bigger than "our Everest team". Next year will also be the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 and the beginning of full scale international conflict which would effect so many of our men and women in uniform. We knew that the full length documentary would be released in the timing for a project of this nature was perfect. So, it was a very auspicious meeting of several events and personalities that planted the seed for this project.

Also of note...each of our "Everest Team" has a deep and profound respect for the drive and sacrifice of military men and women. Each of us, along with every other citizen of this wonderful country respects the fact that we are provided the opportunity to make a living at climbing mountains as a result of our freedom and the bounty that is provided to us living in the US. These opportunities are in part available to us as a result of the genuine sacrifice made my service men and women. And we aren't very good at many things...but we are good at getting folks up and down mountains. We are indebted and wanted to provide a medium for healing if at all possible.

We had quite a mixed bag of men and women with a wide range of injuries from TBI to PTS (D). Also one blind soldier (from an IED) and 3 below the knee amputees. Regarding their motivations...several of them would probably tell you this was simply an opportunity to go have an adventure and climb a mountain in Nepal whereas there are a few that perceived this trip as an instrument of healing. PTS and TBI are very nebulous injuries...that remain difficult to treat. A journey into the Himalaya is a wonderful medium to allow one to look inside and be somewhat reflective about previous events and hopeful future endeavors. I feel confident that each soldiers pushed themselves physically and emotionally well beyond what they thought capable.


You have a unique perspective on disability, whether physical or emotional, would you care to share your thoughts about people with disabilities? Do you think all of us have disabilities?


I don't see it as much that we all have disabilities as much as those with physical and psychological injuries are simply more challenged. I have been guiding Erik for close to 20 years now and I would be hard pressed to call his blindness a disability. I have been a part of him accomplishing things that 99% of the worlds "able bodied" population would crump on. He accepts his "disability" as an adversity advantage. I have seen this happen with countless individuals over the years of working in the physically challenged community. Folks accept their injury and use it as fuel to be better than they ever could have imagined prior to the event. One of the amputees on the Nepal trip told me, "loosing my leg was the best thing that ever happened to me, because now I get to come do things like this.". It's a matter of do each of us use the tools and equipment we have to be the best we can optimize our effort, disability or not.


It takes an enormous amount of will power, personal drive and motivation to accomplish things that others say are literally impossible. Yet you've done the "impossible;" you've accomplished things that others could never even dream of achieving. How do you do it, and what advice would you offer to others, particularly those wounded warriors, who want to give up?


More of what I mention above. I have used two tools to get things done in my life...

#1) surrounding myself with a solid team that is not self absorbed and have a team first attitude (and are very skilled at what they do). This goes for my climbing team as well the network of professionals that I work with. But most importantly my wife. She is my most skilled and important team member. Always in it for the team.

#2) Believing that any project worth doing is at least worth an attempt. Too many folks sit around and conceptualize objectives until they are blue in the face. The true alchemists are the ones who then get up and spite of the fear of falling. So I have tried to create a situation in my life where I'm not afraid to execute...where I let myself down if I don't at least try. Then it becomes amazing how much can get done with that attitude.


Can you share an instance or two on this last ascent where you motivated others to carry on and they achieved their goal?


On summit night on Lobuche (20,100ft) in Nepal on this most recent trip, I was personally guiding one of the soldiers, Steve Baskis. My great friend an climbing partner Brad Bull was in front of Steve and I was behind...tag teaming the guide commands for hours up steep rock in the dark and cold. Steve was clearly beat up early on...but Brad and I pushed him in every way possible...physically and psychologically. We heard Steve utter things like, "I can't do this. I didn't train hard enough. I want to go home. This is too hard." He was hurtin for certain.

We started to joke after 5 hours of this that Steve had heard all of our tricks and motivational cliches...that he needed some new material. But we got in Steve's head and pushed him as hard as we could. I think one of the truly motivating lines was, after running out of nice things to say to Steve to motivate him, I said "Steve, this is not about you. Quit being selfish. This is about all of your recently injured comrades...and those that are yet to be injured. You are doing this for them. Now knuckle down and get it done". Steve had no response for this and he got after it. Summited with us hours later in great style. I am so proud of him.