Forget the tiny man-made Space Needle. When it comes to the Washington State icon, one that can be seen from well over 100 miles away, we’re talking about Mt. Rainier. For the 24,000 service members and employees on Joint Base Lewis McChord, which is less than 20 miles from the park, it appears bigger than life and is a dominating, perhaps even scary, monolith seemingly just outside the base fence line. A perfect place for the USAF 50 Summits Challenge.
We couldn’t have a more perfect peak to look upon, for it not only encourages military members to dream and appreciate the beauty of nature, but it also represents a powerful metaphor we use to teach critical life skills: that daunting obstacles can be overcome with fitness, teamwork, and tenacity.
In light of the 22 veterans who commit suicide a day, the 15 years of continuous combat operations our military has provided, and the enhanced difficulties of a life serving the nation in uniform, I knew something more than our well-intentioned, but ineffective, computer based health training needed to be done to keep our service-members resilient. So a group of military climbers and I turned to one tool we personally use to maintain our sanity and energy – nature. It is from this belief, that mountains and nature provide the perfect setting to practice resiliency, that the USAF 50 Summits Challenge was created.
The purpose of the project is to boost the mental, physical, social, and spiritual health of our service members through climbs of each American state’s highest geographical point. Hikes and climbs offer a chance to interact with other service members, expand one’s comfort zone, and tackle a peak that often looks too big to climb- just like big life problems we each face from time to time. Rather than wait for tragedy to strike and then reactively help a military member recover, we aim to “inoculate” participants through outdoor experiences so they are better prepared to cope with tragedy when it inevitably strikes.
That is why on a rainy July afternoon ten Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps members and veterans gathered at Paradise to carry the American Flag to the summit of Mt. Rainier as part of the USAF 50 Summits Challenge climbing team. For many in the group, it was their first time climbing a snowfield or glaciated peak, which invited a hint of trepidation. But the vision of standing together atop Rainier’s summit pushed them beyond their comfort zones and into a life affirming adventure.
I reminded the team that like life’s big problems, it’s best to break this climb down into smaller parts. “Don’t get overwhelmed by the size of the mountain in front of us” I say as we gather. “We’re taking it one step at a time, as a team, and we’ve got each others’ backs.”
Soon the group is making steady progress up the Muir snowfield. And just as quickly as the sweat begins to form, so do the personal stories about life, the successes, and the on-going struggles. On every peak I’ve taken military teams, I have seen how the combination of physical exertion, nature-based setting, and relaxed atmosphere leads even the toughest, most tight-lipped military vets to open up and share difficult, intimate stories of loss, hurt, love, and dreams.
Perhaps the openness comes from sharing a common goal that involves some level of risk or challenge, much like they felt during combat missions, that causes them to open up. Maybe it is simply the spiritually engaged feeling of being among great beauty that does it. Regardless of exactly why, I smile knowing those miles of hiking and climbing is a proven alternative to pharmaceuticals in many cases.
I’m a lucky climber to have a broad network of outdoor contacts that want to help get military members into the outdoors. On this climb of Rainier, I was fortunate to have two members of Seattle Mountain Rescue join us, both of whom are also military veterans. As a volunteer on Seattle’s specialized rescue team, I knew the addition of their technical expertise and calm demeanor would help ensure that our other climbers felt comfortable. Little did I know that they’d be such great teachers, taking on the role of instructing our military climbers on how to self arrest, travel on a rope team, and use tools such as ice axes and crampons. It gave me the time needed to melt snow and cook dinner for a dozen hungry climbers!
With full bellies, the safety skills necessary to function on a rope team, and a calm clear night, we left Camp Muir with eight climbers. Two of our active duty participants made the choice to stay at Muir due to health concerns, which is a wise choice, since symptoms of altitude sickness or other problems only worsen with an ascent. We teach that part of being resilient is to know when to turn around, recoup, and live to fight another day.
When we reached the summit, we took time for a military tradition: pushups to honor the fallen and to highlight the importance of physical fitness. But the one thing I will remember most is the look on our 63-year-old veteran’s face when he looked across Washington from the true summit. I surprised him with a sip of Rainier beer- a little treat I packed up from the car. He soaked in the accomplishment of overcoming this huge obstacle and then tears welled up in his eyes. “This is one I’ll never forget. A true highlight in my life. So allow an old guy like me a few tears of happiness.”
It’s moments like this I thrive on. Even if it’s just one veteran; one service member at a time- it is making a positive difference. Connecting people to nature, to a community they can turn to when the going gets tough, is a win for everyone. And how lucky we are to have the perfect resiliency classroom towering 14,416 feet above us all.
If you’d like to learn more about the USAF 50 Summits Challenge, visit them social media or at their website USAF50Summits.com. Learn more about the all-volunteer, non-profit Seattle Mountain Rescue at their website.
About the Author
Rob is a Queen Anne Hill and Mercer Island native. He commissioned from the Air Force Academy in 2001 and served for 14 years as an Air Force Special Operations pilot, during which he flew the infamous CV-22 Osprey and other aircraft on a myriad of combat, humanitarian and clandestine missions throughout the world. In 2005, Rob created the first American military high-altitude mountaineering team. His goal: get service members into the outdoors and promote healthy lives by climbing the famed 7 Summits- a feat no team had succeed in accomplishing. His mission came to a successful end in 2013 when he led the team to the summit of Mt. Everest, where he set a world record for pushups on the top of the world. Rob has traveled to over 41 countries seeking unique adventures and perspectives and speaks about the importance of taking smart risks, accepting challenges, and overcoming enormous obstacles with teamwork. He now directs the USAF 50 Summits Challenge out of Issaquah, volunteers for Seattle Mountain Rescue and flies part-time for the Air Force Reserve as a C-17 Globemaster III pilot.