Can Outdoor Adventure Heal the Wounds of War?

Can you imagine coming back from fighting on the front lines only to feel like a stranger in your own country? Perhaps you’ve been wounded, are disfigured, or can’t walk. Or, maybe worse, you have such severe post-traumatic stress disorder that you can’t function normally even though you have no visible injury. Could you tackle a technical 20,000-foot peak? Do you think the experience would help you?

Enter Soldiers to Summits, a program that debuted in 2010 to help injured veterans overcome barriers and reclaim their lives using mountaineering as a tool. For their first trick, they thought they’d lead a group of 11 very disabled veterans—some blind, some amputees, some with head injuries, all psychologically wounded—up 20,075-foot Lobuche Peak in Nepal. And make a movie about it. Talk about gutsy.

You have to take into account that the idea was hatched by the team that made the first ascent of Everest with a blind climber, Erik Weihenmayer. So they know a thing or two about achieving the seemingly impossible.

Now the world can see the story of this amazing journey. The movie High Ground debuted earlier this month. Check it out if you can. It’s powerful stuff. Director Michael Brown of Serac Adventure Films created a tremendously impactful film that opens your eyes to the deep wounds of war and the challenges veterans face.

You’d think humping up the side of a mountain with a prosthetic limb, or blind, would be pretty darn tough. Weihenmayer, who was one of the expedition guides, said his blindness helped him relate to the vets’ challenges. But he knew nothing of the trauma they experienced at war, which proved to be a more daunting hurdle than physical ailments.

Expedition leader Jeff Evans explained that the mountains are the perfect venue to create the atmosphere and camaraderie to heal. Climbing a peak requires teamwork and fellowship, which helped reconnect the soldiers with themselves and humanity.

After an arduous climb that required them to overcome physical obstacles—and inner demons—eight of the soldiers summited. Now the question is, how can they harness the experience to improve their lives and even step up and serve others?

One of the vets, Chad Stone, is an inspirational example of the program’s success. Stone hasn’t exactly had it easy. First, he had to leave the Army after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a training accident. After he got home, he was in a terrible car wreck that resulted in his right leg being amputated below the knee. Talk about a one-two punch.

It’s safe to say that Stone had some pretty dark days. The climb up Lobuche helped kick-start his life again. Now he’s a mentor for the Soldiers to Summits program (he’s accompanying the new team on an expedition up Cotopaxi in Ecuador next month) and has a motivational speaking career.

Summarizing the impact of Lobuche and the Soldiers to Summits program, Stone said, “This experience was life-changing and has helped me reassess my future and all I can achieve, which I feared had been lost.”

Kudos to Michael Brown for creating an amazing film that draws attention to the difficulties veterans face. And to the entire Soldiers to Summits team for coming up with the idea, and pouring so much of their hearts and minds into helping those who have sacrificed for our country.

It seems clear that outdoor adventure has the potential to rebuild broken lives. And there are lots of groups using time in the wild to help people recover from setbacks and create better futures. Outward Bound offers wilderness courses for veterans, focusing on the healing benefit of teamwork and challenge in nature, as well as programs for troubled youth. Big City Mountaineers (BCM) is another group that uses wilderness expeditions to transform the lives of urban youth, who might otherwise drop out of school, abuse drugs, or get caught up in crime. Outdoor Nation is focused on cultivating young outdoor ambassadors and leaders, including inner city kids who might not otherwise be exposed to nature.

There’s so much to learn on a mountain or out in the wilderness. By committing to a goal, preparing for the journey, facing adversity, solving challenges, and working as a team, you can not only achieve a summit, you can break through physical and mental barriers and create a life filled with purpose, satisfaction and happiness.

Veterans Day is around the corner. No matter what our opinion on any given war, I think we can all agree we should support our troops. If outdoor adventures can help in any small way, by all means, let’s find ways to promote such efforts.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich