A friend online yesterday said I must be body weary but soul happy. I couldn’t have said it better myself. After 9 miles and 4000 feet of elevation gain/loss in 6 hours, I was certainly body weary. But I had spent an amazing day among the pine and manzanita, above the clouds in the sunshine. And more importantly, I was a patriot supporting U.S. Veterans who had sacrificed so much for our country. True heroes.
Soul happy, indeed.
This journey began over a month ago when I read an article by mountaineer Tim Medvetz detailing his trip to the southern continent of Antarctica with Corporal Kionte Storey. You see, Cpl. Storey lost his leg in Afghanistan while serving with the United States Marine Corps, but that wasn’t going to stop him from summiting 16,050’ Mt. Vinson. And that was the point. Our service men and women sacrifice so much. In Cpl. Storey’s case, he sacrificed more than he should have. He lost his limb to an IED. But coming home from war isn’t the end of the journey for our military personnel.
Tim’s organization, The Heroes Project, illustrates this point beautifully and effectively. Tim’s mission is to provide new opportunities and direction by teaching wounded Veterans how to climb mountains. Because sacrificing themselves for our country and coming home from war isn’t the end of the story. Coming home is just the beginning. And The Heroes Project does all it can to provide a new beginning.
Tim’s group combines two passions for me, support of our troops and a love of the mountains. In his article he makes a plea for people to show up at the trailhead in support of this cause. I was hooked. I soon learned about the fundraising effort Climb for Heroes, where supporters would be challenged to climb Mt. Baldy and help raise money and awareness for this cause. Mt. Baldy. My home mountain. I quickly established my team. Me, my beautiful wife Sandra, and my climbing partner and best friend, Brett.
My friend Toby Beyer with Brooks Running played a huge role in building our team. She was kind and generous enough to donate Brooks gear for us to give away as prizes for those who donated to our team. Brook’s motto “Run Happy” was modified, and we named our team “Hike Happy”. With the team name and team members set, we started soliciting donations.
Family and friends helped out a bunch as well. Overall, we were able to far exceed our initial goal of $1,000.00! I’m so incredibly proud of Sandra and Brett for helping the Hike Happy team make it as one of the Top 5 fundraising teams for the event. That is a personal source of pride for me. And after it was all said and done and the money came in, it was time for the event.
Sunday, April 14th began early for us. It was a cold, overcast and quite dreary day. As Sandra and I drove down the freeway to get closer to the mountain, we couldn’t even see the top because it was obscured by cloud cover. We were preparing ourselves for a cold and maybe even a wet day. We were blessed and happy and surprised when we broke through the clouds nearly ½ way to the starting point of the climb. Above us stood majestic mountain peaks, clear blue skies and warm, beautiful sunshine.
We parked, checked in and met up with Brett at the starting point. We were ready to climb a mountain. We checked in to log our start time and we were off. I hadn’t even eaten breakfast because of all of the nervous energy I had, but it didn’t matter. I was ready. The nerves subsided, the day smiled at us and we steadily made our way up the road toward the trailhead.
It’s a trail I’ve been on countless times. And though normally I like my time with Mother Nature to be quiet and without crowds, I was excited to see so many people turn out in support. It was a festive, party atmosphere. We were all thrilled to be there. And a more beautiful day could not be had. My wife gave me a kiss and a hug on the trail and returned to help work the registration booth, and Brett and I continued on.
There are two styles to climbing big mountains. Expedition style and Alpine style. Expedition style is mostly reserved for the world’s tallest mountains, and involves establishing camps along the way to the summit. As climbers get higher and higher, they stop and rest at each camp, where extra supplies and tents have been set up to replenish and provide shelter. Alpine styles involves the climber carrying with him or her everything they are going to need while on the mountain. Tent, food, clothing, etc. If they are on the mountain a week, they have a week’s worth of supplies on their back. Mt. Baldy is a day hike or climb (depending on conditions and route) and is done Alpine style. But for the Climb for Heroes event, four camps were established along the route as check in points. Each camp provided climbers with a logoed poker chip that could be used back at base camp to earn swag like hats, travel cups and more. We got to keep the poker chips as a memento which I’m excited about.
The best part is that a few of the camps were manned by wounded U.S. Veterans who have participated in climbs with Tim and The Heroes Project. At Camp 2 I met Corporal Brad Ivanchan, who successfully summited Mt. Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak at 22,937’. At Camp 3 I met Corporal Kionte Storey. I was stoked! His story was the reason I got involved, and I tracked his progress and his success. Of course I got my picture taken with him…
Half-way between Camp 3 and the summit Brett, his friend Alex and I came upon Staff Sergeant Mark Zambon. SSgt. Zambon is a double amputee, having lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan in January 2011. On one of the most difficult sections of the climb, if not the most difficult, SSgt. Zambon was making his way using every bit of his prosthetics and his hands. It was one of the most emotional things I have ever seen. My heart filled with pride and joy and even a little sorrow to see this young man persevere through odds that seemed stacked against him. I cried openly.
After witnessing this incredible moment we continued. We were now moments away from the top, and as Brett and I, side by side, reached the peak we were amazed to see the party that was taking place on the windswept summit. At least 50 people milled about, congratulating one another, taking pictures and eating.
About 40 minutes later SSgt. Mark Zambon caught up to us at the top, making his first summit of Mt. Baldy (he had successfully summited Mt. Kilimanjaro the year before, and had trained on Baldy but never summited). He made the last final steps toward the summit marker amidst the roar and applause of all who were there. We were witnessing the very courage and spirit that embodies The Heroes Project.
The hike down was a celebration. We celebrated the heart of these heroes. We celebrated each other, and we celebrated life. Upon reaching base camp after 6 hours of hiking we ate and told our stories. The fellowship with fellow climbers was heartwarming. Before I left I got an opportunity to thank Tim for the event. I’m looking forward to more.
Body weary but soul happy…