This summer, two major life events were taking shape on the horizon for team member Joe Sinnwell, a Wells Fargo business support consultant in Customer Account Management.
He was becoming a father for the first time, and honorably retiring from the military after more than nine years of active service and National Guard duty, which included hundreds of rescue missions in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan as a U.S. Army medical evacuation helicopter crew chief.
The transition from regularly sustaining lives in the back of a helicopter to working his desk job had him feeling anxious, irritable, and depressed. He was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, on top of a lingering back injury from his time in the service.
“I felt that I had done the most meaningful things in my life, already, at such a young age,” Sinnwell said. “I struggled with, ‘What next?’”
So he figured that attempting to summit Mount Whitney — a peak of more than 14,500 feet — would cap off his eventful summer. It would help him get back in shape and mentally prepare to be an effective father.
It would also prove to be a recovery mission for the self-identity he felt he’d lost.
Leaving his comfort zone
During the selection process, Sinnwell told interviewers from the No Barriers program that he believed the expedition would “provide a much-needed reminder of the grit and determination I possess to overcome obstacles.”
The No Barriers Warriors program focuses on improving the lives of veterans with disabilities through transformative, curriculum-based expeditions designed to push veterans mentally and physically in challenging wilderness settings. Expeditions like the Whitney summit take place annually. Wells Fargo has been a sponsor of No Barriers Warriors since 2014 and has sponsored the No Barriers Summit since 2015.
“The emphasis is on what veterans are capable of accomplishing, even when faced with difficult challenges,” said Wells Fargo Military Affairs Program Manager Jerry Quinn.
Not a habitual hiker, backpacker, or outdoorsman, Sinnwell said some of his friends laughed at the thought of him attempting such a serious summit. He prepared by biking and practicing hiking in his mostly flat hometown of Waukee, Iowa, with the heaviest thing that was readily available to him — a bag of fertilizer.
He was reluctant to participate in the program at first, thinking that it was better suited for veterans who had undergone life-altering physical trauma, resulting in amputations or blindness. He also worried about leaving just weeks after the birth of his son.
His fiancée was supportive, however, and Sinnwell was motivated by the idea of being able to later tell his son about it. He also realized he was eager to reconnect with other veterans.
Before he embarked on the trip, he didn’t really understand the isolation he was feeling, he said. But he would soon gain a much better understanding of what an insurmountable obstacle it could be.
‘I showed up there with 13 strangers and walked back down with new family members’
Sinnwell lost about 20 pounds in preparation for the climb, and started getting to know some of the other veterans selected for the 2018 expedition during introductory conference calls. But nothing, Sinnwell said, quite prepared him for the six-day, 60-mile journey that awaited him in California’s Inyo National Park.
“There wasn’t anything about the climb that was fun,” Sinnwell said. “It was easily — by far — the hardest physical thing I have ever done.”
Sinnwell fell victim to altitude sickness on the way up the mountain, and also caught a cold. But, he said, in the familiar style of the military, his group had his back.
“I showed up there with 13 strangers and walked back down with new family members,” Sinnwell said. “It was incredible.”
The expedition gave them opportunities to talk about their combat experiences and injuries, ranging from lost limbs to PTSD. One of Sinnwell’s fellow veterans described his PTSD as the feeling that he was “in a hole.” Through that connection, Sinnwell said not only did he find the right term for the isolation he had been feeling, but he was comforted to realize he was not experiencing that isolation alone.
Aggravated injuries and illness forced one person in the group (and another to assist) to turn back before the summit, but everyone stressed that it did not mean they had failed.
“It’s not always about the high point,” Sinnwell said. “They did the best they could, and there was no shame in that.”
The trip became more about the relationships they were building, Sinnwell said. “When we reached the summit, it was incredibly emotional. I was not ready for that.”
“But I also thought: ‘Man, this is only halfway! We gotta go back down.’”
The view from the other side
Sinnwell said he could hardly wait to get out of the backcountry and back to cell phone service, and leave the mountain behind — which was easy to do on the rainy, cold, seventh day of the trek.
But the descent would turn out to be a low point in more than one sense, when Sinnwell received a text message with devastating news: One of his military friends from a tour in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Rudy Gomez, had committed suicide.
“I couldn’t help but think that maybe if he had had that experience, and the ability to connect with veterans like I had — people who had become my tribe and my rope team — maybe he would not have made that decision,” Sinnwell said.
The whole experience helped him more clearly see his next mission: identifying as a father and as a retired veteran who can help others heal.
“It widened my lens to realize that my military service was a fraction of my entire lifespan,” Sinnwell said. “I can never change what happened to Rudy, but by sharing my story and encouraging others to participate in experiences like No Barriers, I can elevate my community and continue to save lives in a different capacity,” Sinnwell said. “I now truly believe this program can change people’s lives.”