Disabled vets rise above injuries with Yosemite climb
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Shot through the arm and spouting arterial blood, Cpl. Nate Watson survived a firefight and was helicoptered out of the mountains in northern Afghanistan four years ago.
Somehow, despite losing the use of his left hand, he’s headed back to some different mountains this week.
Watson, 34, plans to observe the 9/11 anniversary by scaling the scary Half Dome monolith in Yosemite National Park.
Why does a veteran who survived a Taliban ambush want to hang by a string off a 4,000-foot cliff?
Credit the persuasive power of Andrew “Sully” Sullens, 30, who did something similar last year, when he climbed one of the Grand Tetons on Sept. 11.
Sullens and Watson were buddies — part of the same Charlie Troop in the 48th Brigade of the Georgia Army National Guard — and they were wounded in separate incidents only three months apart.
In May 2009, Sullens was driving in a security convoy when his truck ran over a bomb, blowing him out of the gun turret and destroying much of his right leg, which was eventually amputated below the knee.
With the encouragement of Eric Gray, whose Atlanta-based non-profit Catalyst Sports helps wounded veterans get involved in outdoor pursuits, Sullens took up kayaking and rock climbing. He made the Grand Tetons climb with the help of Paradox Sports, a similar outfit based in Boulder, Colo.
This year Sullens talked Watson into coming along. They will be among the 20 wounded veterans that Paradox is taking to the Yosemite expedition. Sullens and Watson will make a two-day climb up the iconic rock face, rising before dawn on Wednesday to haul themselves skyward through eight strenuous pitches, each pitch generally being the length of a climbing rope.
Watson makes it sound like a picnic. “I get to go to Yosemite and see some beautiful views, hang out with my best friend and do something that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
What’s not to like?
Well, there is a problem of the forest fire, which has chewed up more than 200,000 acres of the park. That fire will be contained by Thursday, said Timmy ONeill, CEO of Paradox Sports.
Climbing one-handed? Let the legs do the work, said Watson, who will use his impaired left hand mostly for balance. On last year’s climb Sullens’ battery-powered prosthetic leg failed, which reduced the quality of the vacuum that holds the prosthetic tight to his stump.
“It took more of a beating and banging then it was designed for,” said Sullens, a student at North Georgia State College and University in Dahlonega and a member of the university’s police force.
This year he will probably conserve power by keeping the leg switched off until the descent. The two, who will be roped together during the intense, technical half of the climb, have been training with Gray at Stone Summit in Chamblee-Tucker.
Both see the climb as a way to shrug off their wounds and step forward.
“Getting shot is not the defining moment in my life,” said Watson. “That was something that happened to me. Some good and some bad came out of it, but I’m not going to let it ruin who I am.”