Climbing group helps injured vets reach new heights — all 13,770 feet
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Editor's note: Second Tour, an ongoing ABC News series, profiles military veterans excelling in the civilian world. It is republished with permission. Read more from the series here.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — Veterans often struggle to reintegrate into civilian life. Finding the special bonds, friendships and camaraderie they once experienced in the military can be difficult. They share similar stories — most of them are disabled, some were injured in combat, others diagnosed with illnesses — but their desire and courage to overcome their obstacles is extraordinary.
That’s the story of a group of disabled veterans who conquered a two-day rock climb in one of the most breathtaking places in America, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The climb to the Grand Teton Peak was organized by Paradox Sports, an adaptive-focus organization that provides backpacking, mountaineering, river rafting and rock climbing trips with the intention of empowering disabled veterans to help them reintegrate into civilian life.
“On these trips we have people talk. Being vulnerable, saying, ‘I need help,’ saying, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ and by expressing your vulnerability it encourages courage,” said Timmy O’Neill, who co-founded the Boulder, Colo., non-profit organization in 2007 with DJ Skeleton, an Army captain injured in Iraq.
U.S. Army veteran Nick Colgin, 29, suffered a serious traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan in 2007 after the Humvee he was riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The former Bravo Company 82nd Airborne Combat Medic and Bronze Star recipient was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He could barely speak, write and walk but he started to reach out to nonprofits seeking help. “I did my physical, occupational and speech therapy through the VA, but what really changed my life was organizations like Paradox Sports,” he said. “Climbing for the first time with a community of veterans I didn’t know really changed my life.”
Colgin fell in love with climbing and has been doing it ever since. “It’s good to feel your heart pumping. It’s good to know you’re alive,” says Colgin, who saved a French soldier who was shot in the head and helped 42 people escape from a flooding river.
Colgin and other veterans spent a week training and ultimately climbing the 13,770-foot mountain. The main goal, however, was healing, sharing their stories and finding themselves during the journey.
Paradox Sports’ mission is to challenge veterans to find their potential and strength and to understand that they can live a productive life regardless of disabilities. It schedules several trips throughout the year for veterans.
“When we do these trips, we want to spread the joy of wilderness and the personal resiliency of climbing a mountain and inform people that the decisions they make in their life every day govern the result of that life,” organization founder O’Neill said.
For former U.S. Air Force jet mechanic and military training instructor Kurt Volker, 44, this was the second time he attempted to climb Grand Teton. This father of four suffers from Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can affect hearing and balance.
“You can get more therapy from simply going on a nature walk with a bunch of guys then a year’s worth sitting inside a head shrink’s office. We talk about what is bothering us. We understand why it’s bothering us,” said Volker, who lives in Boise, Idaho.
Rock-climbing requires a lot of preparation, and some of the Teton cliffs can test a person’s limits. But it also empowers and can be an extraordinary experience. Leading the 7-mile, 5,000-foot approach was Exum Mountain Guides, which partnered with Paradox Sports for this trip.
“It is all about the journey. You’re so focused with the task at hand that nothing hurts,” Volker says. “These mountains and these rock climbs and these walls are a metaphor. You can stop and stare at that wall, you can’t go around it. The only thing to do is to go over it.”
Elizabeth Christie, 42, suffers from severe fibromyalgia and this is her first time climbing Grand Teton. The former U.S. Air Force weather observer found out about her condition while in service.
At one point, Christie was taking about 20 prescription drugs to cope with migraines, fatigue, sciatica and interstitial cystitis, she said. “I was different. I started to get sick and by the time I got out, I was visiting the emergency room twice a week. I didn’t know the new me,” said the resident of Bass Lake, Calif.
Christie started to walk and hike in Yosemite National Park and slowly regained confidence. “I will get home and realize that I never thought about my fibromyalgia all day and I was living and enjoying my success,” she said.
Climbing with other veterans is as important for her as reaching the summit. She likes to share her success with them. “It is great to be with people that understand you, they went through the transition issues and I can talk to them. I can talk to a blind climber and he still gets me. We don’t have to have the same disabilities,” she said.
“There’s that part of me that says, ‘Come on Liz, you have fibromyalgia; what are you doing?’ It’s amazing. I almost wonder if that person could do what I do now. It’s made me embrace ... the strength that the disease gives me,” she said.
There are risks associated with rock climbing but nothing this group couldn’t handle. “Just regular hiking is exciting but when you take hiking and you add a giant peak like the Grand Teton and you introduce risk, it becomes much more applicable to the veteran mindset,” said O’Neill, who is a professional climber.
For O’Neill, providing an outlet for veterans where they can find support and gain confidence is important. “If you can have somebody say, ‘This program saved my life,’ then it was completely worth it. When you have people saying, ‘Being on this trip has allowed me to make the decisions in my life that now goes towards well-being,’ you’re successful.”
ABC News’ video editor Arthur Niemynski contributed to this report.