It is utterly amazing to witness individuals who push themselves to show the world what determination, teamwork, and a common vision can accomplish.
Imagine cross-country skiing nine miles a day with a total of 208 miles over the course of 16 days in temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit and winds blasting against you at 50mph. To add icing on the cake, put yourself in the shoes of someone pulling 154 pounds on an arctic sledge with your eyes and hearts set on the vision of reaching the South Pole.
As some of you know, this is the 2013 South Pole Allied Challenge, a project No Barriers has taken on. Three teams of wounded servicemen and women are challenging themselves mentally and physically to show the world the courage veterans have after sustaining physical and cognitive injuries. Their ability to take on adversity after serving in the military, and facing life-altering injury is in itself inspirational. The teams departed on November 14, 2013. Their aim is to reach the South Pole around December 17, 2013. Way to go No Barriers and the staff for supporting such a great cause!
Back in August, at the No Barriers Summit in Telluride, I met the entire team. Just last week they were honored to meet the Queen of England. I have been telling my friends I am only two people away from knowing the Queen of England! I am figuring out if I can make this into one of my good jokes or not . . . jury is still out. Either way, it gets me talking about the South Pole Allied Challenge and what a significant expedition this is, to reach across the globe and along the way touch civilians, active service members, and veterans.
My friend, Charley Mace, with whom I climbed Everest, has been training the US Team for the last year. Thanks Charley for helping the Team! The three teams taking on the challenge are the US Team, which No Barriers is supporting, the second is from the UK, and the third is a combination of Australians and Canadians, referred to as the Commonwealth. To show support for veterans, Prince Harry, who is an active duty Captain in the British Army is accompanying the team.
The South Pole Allied Challenge is truly a living testimony of the No Barriers Mindset, “What’s inside of you is stronger than what’s in your way.” To give you an example of one of the individuals on the team, meet Mark Wise.
Mark served as an (Army) infantry officer in the First Battalion. During his time in Afghanistan in 2009 Mark was involved in an IED incident where he suffered from partial hand/forearm amputation, facial damage, and burns. Mark doesn’t see his experience as a reason to take a step back from serving but rather as another reason to keep going. Here is a quote from Mark, “As a leader of soldiers your responsibility never ends. I feel obligated to continue to set the example for those who follow not only in my footsteps as a wounded service member, but also for those returning home from combat.” To learn more about the team click here.
To learn more about the SPAC Challenge of 2013 and see current updates please visit the link to Walking with the Wounded’s website: http://walkingwiththewounded.org.uk/southpole2013/
If you would like to support the US Team please visit the link here: https://nobarriers.fundraise.com/southpole
Below are some of the videos on the South Pole Allied Challenge of 2013
A short video describing the SPAC of 2013: http://www.soldierstosummits.org/The-Program-Allied-South-Pole-2013-Challenge.aspx
Video on the departure of the teams on November 14, 2013: http://walkingwiththewounded.org.uk/southpole2013/video/
A couple weeks ago, I returned from our third Soldiers to Summits expedition high in the Peruvian Andes, with 15 veterans, all with either physical injuries or mental and psychological trauma. I met the team back in August at the No Barriers Summit during their first training session. I got acquainted with Aaron Hale, blind for less than two years. Aaron was leading an Army bomb squad when an IED exploded in his face. It took out his eyes, blew out his eardrums, took away his sense of smell and fractured his cranium and face bones. With the support of his wife and kids, Aaron fought his way back. His life philosophy: “to stop moving is to stop living.” Marine Ryan Garza also made a big impression on me. He was leading sweep teams through four battlefield deployments and was blown up several times before the big one, which shattered his foot into 80 pieces. Doctors said he’d never walk, let alone climb a mountain. However after many surgeries, Ryan felt he was ready to join S2S and push himself to the next step of his life.
The team first headed up to the rural Quechua nation of Q’eros for some service work and cultural exchange where they learned ancient Inca mathematic techniques, and in turn taught basic first aid skills. The team carried heavy rocks to build a cui pen for the locals (Cui is guinea pig, a staple in the Quechua diet.) They also brought and assembled a solar panel for a new school being built and helped paint the structure.
A couple members on the team told me that looking around the village and the indigenous people, it looked remarkably similar to their experience in Afghanistan. One even said he found himself reaching for his firearm as a programmed response and being nervous when it wasn’t there. It made me realize that for many of these men and women, it was the first time they were out of the U.S. without being in a life-threatening situation. How positive was it that this new experience could be a part of rewiring the brain and teaching our team that the world can be a friendly inviting place, full of adventure, instead of danger.
Afterwards, the team trekked forty miles over the week through the Cordillera Vilcanota, past remote llama and alpaca hearding communities. Vilcanota circumnavigates Apu Ausangate, a massive snowy peak with giant hanging seracs and deep crevasses crisscrossing the glacier, as well as being the most important deity for the Quechua people. Throughout, the weather was cold with spells of torrential rain and hail, and many were suffering from altitude sickness. People were pretty exhausted at the end of each long day, and were forced to draw upon their inner strength to keep positive. In the face of those hardships, on a very snowy day and after a long climb, we reached the top of Mariposa, and our four rope teams stood on a tiny mound of space at almost 18,000 feet.
Aaron struggled up to the summit a moment behind me, exhausted but satisfied. He said he started the day feeling low and thought about quitting in the first grueling hour. But his teammates and guides told him to “suck it up.” Being a warrior, Aaron rose to the challenge and kept trudging. I was so impressed by everyone on the team who took turns guiding him throughout, seamlessly stepping in to replace each other with zero prompting, and calling directions for hour after exhausting hour. Ryan Garza came up soon after Aaron, with the encouragement of his rope team and help from his special leg brace and high-tech mountain crutches.
At the summit, Army veteran Pedro Sotelo pulled a very large American Flag from his relatively small pack. Seeing this happen, a couple team members started laughing, and someone said, “I can’t believe you brought that all the way up here.” I’ve found that soldiers are constantly busting on each other and joking around in the face of arduous situations, but not this time. Without hesitation, Pedro shot back, “A lot of good people died for this flag. That’s why I’m here – to honor them and to keep pushing forward.”
As we stood with the giant American flag raised and the tiny No Barriers flag overlaid on top, I reflected on all the struggles we face as human beings, and all the ways we try to push forward. I think No Barriers starts with a belief that every human being has the potential to climb, and that by tapping into the human spirit we can equip ourselves with the toolkit to live a purposeful life.
After the summit we debriefed in the hut, and one veteran opened up and told us, before S2S, he was dangerously close to suicide, but applied, figuring he had nothing to lose. He said he was so glad he did and that he now had a family again to watch his back and to draw strength from. He ended by saying that he now had more hope and confidence that he could lead and serve again.
As I get older, I realize that the pattern of progress perfectly mimics a climb – two steps upward – one slide back. We struggle to take on our demons, to embrace a new life after catastrophic changes, to build something great, or to find purpose in our lives. Daily obstacles wear us down and knock us back, and there are moments we feel we’ve gone backwards and lost our traction. But like Pedro, we keep pushing forward anyway. And if we are true to our extended journey, we also experience those moments of breakthrough, of transformation, and we realize our summits are within our reach.
Thank you to all of you who have supported our Soldiers to Summits team, and on this important holiday, I want to thank those who have served our nation bravely. Veterans Day teaches us all about the kind of men and women who are the truest sense of what we all aspire to be, pioneering, resilient, and persistent in our drive to move forward.
We honor veterans because we know the weight they carry is heavy, and the weight of that flag should be carried by us all, not just by a few.
And last, thanks to my dad, Ed, a Marine, who has inspired me my whole life. Semper fi!
See a powerful video clip that summarizes the expedition and the No Barriers mindset.
Some of you have already heard that an amazing blind guy, Lonnie Bedwell, a Navy Veteran, just kayaked the Grand Canyon. He was part of a descent of the Colorado River with an organization serving veterans, Team River Runner. I’d heard of Lonnie and even met him once at an event for disabled skiers, and he’s humble, and down-to-Earth, as well as courageous.
I also have plans to kayak the GC next year. Last April, I did a trip down the Canyon to get my feet wet and see if a full kayak descent was possible. I exceeded my expectations, managing to kayak most of the major rapids, but taking a motor boat on the flats to save time.
Lonnie’s recent descent is so powerful for the veteran community, for blind people, and especially for folks around the world facing challenges. Increasingly, my life is about encouraging people with challenges to dream big, then to pursue those dreams systematically and with perseverance. I try to personally live a “no barriers mindset” to expand the envelope, to try things that others might feel are difficult or impossible. So I love to see doors opening and people like Lonnie who are also taking on this charge!
This month, I’m heading to the Maranon, the Grand Canyon of South America, to train. I’ll be with my friends and kayaking guides, Harlan Taney, Steven Mace, and Skyler Williams. This is further team preparation towards my kayak descent of the Grand Canyon next September.
A few days ago, I reached out to Lonnie and asked him to be part of this September descent and he seems interested. I hope he comes aboard. Imagine what a message that would send – two blind people taking on one of the world’s most wild and iconic rivers – each in solo kayaks. With one person doing it, there’s always a chance it’s an anomaly, but with two, we move even closer to No Barriers – No Excuses! I’ll keep you posted.
Today I am embarking on a month-long adventure in Peru. First, I’ll be joining a team of injured veterans as part of our third Soldiers to Summits expedition, set high in the Peruvian Andes. S2S is part of my No Barriers organization in which we use mountain journeys as both a metaphor and training ground for setting goals, building world-class teams, innovating through adversity and stepping up to lead and serve others again. Along the trail, we’ll be talking about how to develop a No Barriers mindset to equip us to push through all those obstacles that try to knock us flat as we try to live a purposeful life. Check out this video to learn more about the vision and the mission behind Soldiers to Summits.
We’ve already had two exciting and successful programs, Nepal in 2010 and Ecuador in 2012. For our expedition this year, we’ll be spending much of the first week, trekking through an area in the Andes called the Cordillera Vilacanota and becoming acclimatized to the 15,000 foot elevation. As a capstone to the climbing portion of the program, we’ll be making an attempt on 17,800- foot Mariposa 1, and together facing the challenges of the big mountains. In addition to the climb, the participants will help give back through a service project in a remote village, installing a solar panel for a school-house and building a pedestrian bridge. I’m hoping the participants come together as one team, and that team becomes each other’s support system as they pursue big things ahead.
Stay tuned for periodic updates at www.soldierstosummits.org.
After the high Mountains of the Andes, I’ll be descending to the Rio Maranon, the headwaters of the Amazon River, and often called, the Grand Canyon of South America. The Maranon flows North over about 1/3 of the length of the country of Peru in the central Andes. As it does so, it is squeezed into the bottom of a deep desert canyon. I hear some sections are surrounded by 3,000 m canyon walls – more than double the depth of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. I’ll be meeting up with some of my kayak team to paddle a hundred mile stretch of Class III–IV, whitewater.
Leading our expedition is Rocky Contos, who is one of the foremost explorers of central and South American rivers. He is also a very outspoken advocate of protecting Peru’s rivers. In 2012, on an expedition to study the source of the Amazon, he discovered plans to build more than a dozen hydroelectric dams along the Maranon, thus flooding this amazing canyon and destroying or displacing all who inhabit. Rocky’s hope is that by bringing awareness through expeditions such as the one we are embarking upon, this amazing river can be saved from Peru’s ever growing need for hydropower.
More information about the Maranon, as well as info on the dams can be found in this video:
Or on Rocky’s website:http://www.sierrarios.org/GuidedTrips/RaftTripInfo_Maranon.html
We’ll be posting Facebook updates along the way via satellite and will have a full adventure report upon our return. Wish me good climbing and kayaking!
I come away from every No Barriers Summit energized and inspired to double my efforts to build a community that has the tools and the mindset to break through barriers and make contributions to the world. The recent 4-day event at Telluride was no exception. Here are my highlights:
My friend, Amanda Boxtel, in a wheelchair for 21 years, was part of a panel demonstrating exoskeletons which enable her and other paraplegics to walk upright. Importantly, the existing technology is rapidly advancing. Speakers equated its progress to the once bulky cell phones which today are miniaturized with many applications. It was pretty emotional for me when I heard Amanda’s voice as she approached me, and I realized for the first time she is 5 feet seven inches tall.
At the end of the session, Amanda looked down at her audience, many in wheelchairs, and said, “For those of you in wheelchairs, get ready to walk.” Amanda has recently founded an organization to promote and advance the use of exo skeletons.
We climbed a via ferrata, a traverse along a massive rock wall, hanging from iron rungs in space. Along with me was my friend, Billy Lister who had a stroke as a young teenager. Billy attacks life and took on this activity in classic No Barriers style, completing it with limited use of the left side of his body.
My father, Ed, was looking for Courtney Blasius who like Billy, also suffered a stroke at a young age. With big mobility challenges, Courtney had amazingly climbed to 12,000 feet at our 2011 Summit in Winter Park. When Ed found her at a meal, he told her he had specifically looked for her on the hike that day. She responded that she didn’t go, BECAUSE she had been rock climbing instead. (Courtney, celebrating a summit with some of our South Pole Allied Challenge Team, she is in black in the front row)
Mandy Harvey brought our community to tears at the opening ceremony when she sang in perfect pitch. Mandy had gone deaf as a music student and thought her singing career was over. She said she sings with the voice she hears inside her head, and the result is stunning!
Adrien Anantawan performed at our closing. Despite being born with only half an arm on the right side of his body, he has become a world-class violin player. When asked by an audience member why he chose the violin – an instrument that seems so difficult for a person without the use of an arm, he replied that his parents chose the violin for him at a very young age; they didn’t pick the instrument on the basis of what would be easiest for a child with a handicap, but chose on the basis of what instrument they felt produced the most beautiful sound. Adrien also fulfilled his life-long dream to play his violin atop a mountain.
Kyle Maynard, born as a quadruple amputee, blew us away at the closing ceremony. Kyle, who had tried climbing for the first time at our 2011 Summit, used that as a launching point to evolve his prosthetics technology , and went on to climb Kilimanjaro, tallest peak in Africa . He gave us his thoughts about perseverance. “If you’re not dead, keep going!” I heard from many participants after the summit that they were now using this mantra – when confronting setbacks: getting caught out in the rain on a bike ride, falling down, or feeling overwhelmed or exhausted.
Dr. Hugh Herr, a double-leg amputee himself, co-founder of No Barriers and a scientist at Harvard/MIT, and developer of the most sophisticated ankle prostheses in the world, received Our No Barriers Lifetime Achievement award. Hugh made a bold and memorable statement that “every person has a basic human right to a healthy body… and he predicted that most disabilities would be eliminated by technology by the end of this century.
See this video from the Summit featuring Penn Street, and watch her take on her “fear of speed” as she mountain bikes with our No Barriers Summit team. This is the first of many video vignettes No Barriers will be sharing to continue to ignite in all of us the No Barriers Mindset. Thanks to our videographer Kim Johnson for the great work she did in pulling these together!
The absolute highlight for me was meeting the people who comprise our community, so many of whom surprised me by their stories of courage and perseverance.
I met Bob Woodruff, ABC news correspondent who suffered a traumatic brain injury while covering the Iraq conflict and has used that experience to champion our injured veterans; I met a visually impaired teacher who came alone from Connecticut not knowing a soul; I met a woman with a debilitating disorder who heard about our last summit a week too late and had been waiting ever since; I met a blind teenager who joined us on our hike – his first experience using trekking poles and following a bear bell; I met inventors sharing innovations for quadriplegics to kayak and do adaptive yoga. I met a couple (both little people) who approached me after trying paddle boarding for the first time to tell me how much they connected with our mission and felt at home with our community. The list goes on and on. It reinforced for me how this community is at the heart of our mission.
Congratulations to everybody who contributed. For me personally, I leave the Summit energized to take on the challenges ahead; it fills my cup and becomes a fuel source for all that we can achieve together.
Let’s keep climbing!
If you happen to be in the Portland Oregon area, check out the new Human Plus: Real Lives + Real Engineering exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It features the BrainPort device that I have been testing to let me “see” using a sophisticated camera and tongue display.
Here are some photos of the display.
The No Barriers Summit is just weeks away and I’m getting excited! The line up of speakers, scientists, and entertainers is incredible. This is an event for the whole family, with lots of adventurous activities in beautiful Telluride, Colorado. As a bonus, you’ll save $25 per person if you register before August 1st. You really need to be here August 8th through the 11th!
Here are some of the highlights:
At the Opening Ceremony:
Keynote speaker Bob Woodruff will share about his personal experience of being affected by war as a combat journalist in Iraq. His convoy was hit by a roadside bomb resulting in a Traumatic Brain Injury for Woodruff, who has now become an outspoken supporter of veterans returning from war with all types of injuries and challenges.
Mandy Harvey is a deaf jazz singer based in Denver, CO. As a college student Mandy lost her hearing while working on a degree in music education. Undaunted by this she soon realized that though she couldn’t hear it, she still had perfect pitch.
Comedian, actor and writer Erik Stolhanske has seen mainstream success in cult classic movies such asSuper Troopers, The Sweetest Thing and The Dukes of Hazard. Stolhanske’s success and outlook on life have been influenced by his experience of being born without a fibula and wearing a prosthetic leg his entire life.
At No Barriers University:
As one of the leading minds in creating advanced prosthetics, Hugh Herr’s passion for his work is born out of more than scientific intrigue. His work has been shaped by his own loss of both legs at the knee in a climbing accident. Herr will present some of the latest and greatest advances in prosthetics.
Jen French and Ron Triolo will share how neural prosthesis are re-shaping the landscape of paralysis due to spinal cord injury. French is an everyday user of the technology and Triolo will showcase the scientific impact behind the system.
Amanda Boxtel and Mitch Brogan are first-generation users of exoskeletons, the revolutionary robotic technology enabling people with lower limb paralysis to walk again. Learn about the military origins of exoskeletons and this incredible shift in opportunities for those living in paralysis.
At the Closing Ceremony:
Born as a congenital quadruple amputee, it would have been easy for Kyle Maynard to live life from the sidelines, but his thirst for adventure and “No Excuses” attitude has taken him to heights unimaginable, including the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
And the Clinics!
Adventure Race, Via Ferrata, Tyrolean Traverse, Adaptive Climbing Wall, Photography workshop, Sensational BlackBoard, Painting workshop, Handcycle Road Ride, Downhill 4-Cross Biking, Off-Road Handcycling, Adaptive Road Biking, Bouldering, Spin cast fishing, Fly fishing on the Uncompahgre River, Fly fishing on the San Miguel River, Frisbee golf, Geocaching, Adaptive Golf, Accessible GPS Tour/Treasure Hunt, Hiking, Horseback riding, Introduction to Paddlesports (Kayak, Canoe, Paddleboard), Intermediate Paddlesports (Kayak, Canoe), Rock climbing (ambulatory or wheelchair accessible), Trail Run, Adaptive Sailing, Adaptive SCUBA diving, Adaptive Skateboarding, Adaptive Yoga, Adaptive Tennis.
I’m just sayin’…be here!
National Geographic interviewed me for an article on the World’s Best Hikes. I recommended Peru’s Ancascocha Trail, which is an alternative to the more crowded Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu. Sometimes called the Super Inca Trail, this is a real workout but a great way to visit the world famous ruins. Read more about the hike here (this is the direct link but you may have to copy and paste to get it to work: http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/trips/best-trails/worlds-best-hikes-dream-trails/#/ancascocha-trail-peru-best-hikes_68706_600x450.jpg).
Hope you’re having an adventurous summer!
A gentle reminder for everyone in the North Carolina area that the next What’s Your Everest? climb will feature an ascent of the highest peak on the East Coast, Mount Mitchell. Although I won’t be able to attend this No Barriers event personally, lot’s of my friends will be there, including some of the soldiers who have taken part in our Soldiers to Summits programs. If you want to be inspired, I hope you’ll join this climb and screening of High Ground!
On June 1st, nearly 60 people reached the 14,065-foot summit of Mount Bierstadt here in Colorado. What makes this exceptional is that many of the climbers faced incredible adversity to even get to the base of the mountain. Among the many stories, we had: a blind person who had never climbed a mountain before, a woman who had received a heart transplant, a man who survived two heart attacks (the last just three months ago), a stroke survivor, and several wounded warriors.
No Barriers put together a great little video about our climb that is well worth watching.
This next video has more of the incredible stories from that day.
I’d like to thank all the participants of the 2013 What’s Your Everest? climb!! We raised a significant amount of funds for No Barriers. Most importantly, you all inspire ME to keep reaching for higher goals.
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