Whether tackling the wilderness in Alaska or facing the anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder, overcoming obstacles is sometimes even more difficult than it appears. Joni Marquez, a U.S. Air Force veteran from California, understands this now. “When I started the Warriors to Summits experience, I thought it was just going to be a bunch of veterans getting together to hike,” she said. “I’m a civilian now, and yet I had something challenge me so much that I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue.”
Despite all challenges, she and other members of the 2017 No Barriers Warriors to Summits team completed their third and final expedition. No Barriers Warriors, one of many programs the nonprofit No Barriers USA offers, “improves the lives of veterans with disabilities through curriculum-based experiences in challenging environments,” according to the organization. This is the fourth year that Wells Fargo has sponsored Warriors to Summits.
After meeting in June for a training session in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, the Warriors to Summits team trained in July in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. During the final expedition, Sept. 6-18, the team attempted to summit Mount Brooks in Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska.
“Each phase that we went on made me think more and more, and it allowed me to come back home and open up more to my wife,” said Justin Madore, a U.S. Army veteran from South Carolina. “It allowed me to open up more to my kids and more to my family, and it just makes me feel a little bit more whole.”
‘We all knew we were going to come out OK’
When the team first arrived in Alaska, the weather was beautiful, said Eric Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran and liquidations specialist for Wells Fargo in Des Moines, Iowa. “We’re like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a cakewalk,’” he said. “Day two, we ran into several grizzly bears. We had to wait a long time for them to pass. I lived in Alaska for four years, so I know that the environment tells you what you’re going to do — whether you have a plan or not. It’s great to have a plan, but you’re in Alaska’s backyard, and it’s unforgiving.”
During the team’s expedition, the team members also encountered unexpectedly cold temperatures, intense wind, rain, and sleet, which delayed them by a week and ultimately prevented them from reaching the summit of Mount Brooks. However, they hiked around Anchorage, Alaska, and used the skills they learned to complete a glacier climb. Overall, their team experience in the raw wilderness still had great meaning.
“No matter what happened in the backcountry of Denali, we all knew we were going to come out OK, no matter what, even if we didn’t climb the mountain,” Johnson said. “Just the opportunity to spend a few days back there was, I think, definitely more than climbing the mountain.”
While the team members were disappointed they didn’t summit Mount Brooks, they appreciated the beauty of Denali National Park, their overall experience, and the fact that they were together for Sept. 11.
“I had an emotional breakdown while we were on our expedition in Alaska, which was very difficult for me,” said Bradley Chidester, a U.S. Army veteran from Utah. “It was near Sept. 11, and I just started to go to some of those deeper places — to some of those places that really touched many of us here within our nation — and so I was dwelling on comrades that were killed and things around that time. And I just broke down crying. And it was so supportive to have not only fellow military personnel, but our civilian family there, in the form of the guides, to really help pick me up and help hold my heart together and help me to heal some of those deep, dark things that happened 10 years ago or more.”
Having the expedition around Sept. 11 was important to Marquez, as well, and provided perspective on the entire Warriors to Summits experience, which will continue even after the expedition through check-ins and events in the future.
“Sept. 11 was kind of the crux, or the main date, that we were focusing on to summit, and that was just beautiful in and of itself to have that going on at the same time,” Marquez said. “The definition of ‘summit’ for me changed. It wasn’t just achieving the summit of a mountain. It’s more of what you’re trying to do in your life — what you can do for yourself — not just physically, but personally. I think that having those goals are more realistic, and it brings you back to what’s more important in life. I really had that moment every time I went out there. It just brought me back home to myself.”