As Jeff Palenske took his final steps down Mount Whitney one year ago, he knew his life had changed forever. The climb up and down the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states with a team of fellow wounded veterans had tested him physically and mentally.
A year after summiting California’s Mount Whitney as part of the 2014 Soldiers to Summits team, Jeff and two of his teammates once again came together to take on a new challenge — Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. At an elevation of 19,341 feet, the mountain is the highest in Africa.
The flight from Chicago, where Jeff lives, to Tanzania was the longest flight he’s taken since his deployment in Iraq. Jeff, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in combat and deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, says, “Before Mount Whitney, I was stuck in a rut. I had a hard time leaving the house and couldn’t live my life the way I know I need to. I’ve learned that I need to keep pushing myself to try new things, and Kilimanjaro was the perfect challenge.”
Soldiers to Summits, now called Warriors to Summits, is a program of No Barriers USA, a nonprofit helping people facing adversity overcome personal obstacles. The program, sponsored by Wells Fargo since 2014, uses mountains as a metaphor to help wounded veterans overcome barriers in their personal lives.
“Warriors to Summits changed my life, but was really just the start of my journey,” says David Inbody, a medically retired U.S. Army infantry officer whose vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The explosion damaged his foot and ankle, which were amputated. He’s able to walk and climb with the help of prosthesis.
By the time David returned home from Mount Whitney to his wife and three kids, he was determined to keep climbing and ready to take on Kilimanjaro. He says, “I served in the infantry and it feels very natural to sling on my backpack and work toward a shared goal. It was overwhelming to reach the summit at Mount Whitney and it felt good to be part of a team again. I wanted to take on the next mountain with members of that team.”
David, Jeff, and Bob “Diggs” Brown, all U.S. Army veterans who served in the Middle East, climbed Kilimanjaro in seven days in August 2015 on a trip led by Jeff Evans, the leader of the 2014 and 2015 Warriors to Summits climbs. The Kilimanjaro trip was organized through MountainVision, Jeff Evan’s climbing company.
Jeff Palenske says he made lasting friendships through Mission: Mt. Whitney that helped to fill a void since his Army days. He says that he’s become especially close with Diggs, who served in the Army and Army Special Forces for 34 years. Diggs also has post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Jeff says, “Diggs understands exactly what I’ve been through, and it’s hard to find that. We really have each other’s backs, and I see us climbing many more mountains together.”
After climbing Kilimanjaro in August, Jeff, David, and Diggs returned to see the Warriors to Summits team start their journey up Gannet Peak in Wyoming; the team plans to reach the top of Gannet Peak on Sept. 11.
David says, “This is just the beginning. I hope to take on even bigger mountains around the world.”