Eric Johnson has loved climbing mountains ever since his best friend showed him the ropes while they were in the U.S. Army and stationed together in Alaska. After his friend died from a heart attack when they were serving in Iraq in 2006, every opportunity to be on a mountain makes Johnson feel closer to his friend, he said.
“It makes me feel like everything is going to be okay again,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a loan adjustor for Wells Fargo in Des Moines, Iowa, will return to Alaska this fall as a member of a group of veterans with disabilities participating in the No Barriers Warriors to Summits Expedition. No Barriers Warriors — one of the nonprofit’s three programs, and the one responsible for the expedition — “improves the lives of veterans with disabilities through curriculum-based experiences in challenging environments,” according to the organization. The program offers multiple expeditions that mentally, physically, and emotionally challenge veterans — the longest and most rigorous of which is the Warriors to Summits Expedition.
“The Warriors to Summits program is unique, compared to other No Barriers expeditions, in that the participants get more time together over the course of multiple expeditions,” said Derek Esposito, Warriors to Summits expedition leader and No Barriers Warriors staff member.
Members of the team met in June for a training session in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and they will train in July in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. During their final expedition, Sept. 6-18, the team will climb Mount Brooks in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
“I am unbelievably excited to continue each leg of the expedition,” Johnson said.
Wade Spann, a member of the team who served in the U.S. Marines and is from Falls Church, Virginia, agreed. “The whole experience has been great,” Spann said. “I love the camaraderie. That’s something you lose when you’re out of the Marines — the closeness. On the first summit in Colorado, I was thriving. It took me back to the Marines. We were all struggling during the climb, but we were embracing it and making the most of it.”
This year’s team includes men and women from all walks of life and from across the country who have served in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy. Many of the participants have traumatic brain injuries, and 75 percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to No Barriers.
“This is a healing opportunity,” Spann said. “I’m working toward some goals. I’m very humbled to be selected. When I found out I was selected, I was very emotional.”
Throughout the year, participants train individually and in groups during their multiple expeditions. Johnson said he has been working out since February, just a few weeks after he applied for the Warriors to Summits team. He has hiked trails near his home, carrying 40-60 pounds of weight, and changed his diet. “I knew that I had to return to stellar shape in order to be at an acceptable fitness level — not only for the safety of myself, but others that would be guiding the expeditions,” he said.
Spann said he has been focusing on cardio and lower leg and back workouts. “This has given me a goal to drive toward,” he said. “I can’t wait to be at the top of Mount Brooks in Denali. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it.”
This is the fourth year that Wells Fargo has sponsored Warriors to Summits. “We are proud to sponsor Warriors to Summits again,” said Jerry Quinn, military affairs program manager for Wells Fargo. “Since 2014, more than 50 veterans with disabilities have climbed Mount Whitney in California, Gannett Peak in Wyoming, and Mount Sneffels in Colorado. We’ve seen how this program transforms the lives of the participants and look forward to the impact it will have on this year’s veterans and their families.”
Wells Fargo team members support participating veterans by walking with them virtually through the Walk with the Warriors fundraising site.
“One of the great things about No Barriers is the opportunity for our team members to engage in the organization directly,” said Jamie Moldafsky, chief marketing officer for Wells Fargo. “We really have tremendous respect for all of those veterans who have, in the past and present, joined the Warriors to Summits program. It’s an incredible experience to come into contact with those individuals and see just how strong they are.”
The support is appreciated, said Dave Inbody, expedition leader for No Barriers Warriors.
“Obviously there is a direct impact on these veterans, but there is a ripple effect that moves out from them through their families, circles of friends, and communities that I don’t think can be measured, but is certainly felt,” Inbody said. “These veterans will talk to other veterans and share experiences, and even if those veterans can’t participate in a No Barriers Warriors event, seeing a fellow veteran in a better place — a healthier place — is an example of what is possible.”