Veterans with disabilities conquered physical and emotional barriers through mountaineering expeditions with Warriors to Summits.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck

Warriors take their final expedition as a team

Members of the 2017 No Barriers Warriors to Summits team faced grizzly bears, sleet, and other difficult conditions as they embarked on their final expedition together.

December 7, 2017

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.

Veterans with disabilities conquer physical and emotional barriers as part of No Barriers USA’s Warriors to Summits Expeditions. (5:31)

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.”

Autumn trees, wildflowers and snowcapped mountains in a vista within Denali National Park & Preserve.
A vista of the diverse terrain of Denali National Park & Preserve.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck

‘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.” 

Sunlight breaks through a cloudy September sky, illuminating the mountains of Denali National Park & Preserve.
The Warriors to Summits team huddles in the morning during the September 2017 Denali expedition.
The Denali expedition takes the team deep into the backcountry of the national park.
An adult grizzly and three cubs cross a mudflat in Denali National Park & Preserve.
The Aurora Borealis illuminates the sky above Denali National Park & Preserve.
U.S. Navy veteran Thomas Payne, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edward Mertz, U.S. Air Force veteran Joni Marquez, expedition guide Jill Millkey, U.S. Navy veteran Reena LaVoie, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Wade Spann, expedition leader Derek Esposito, U.S.
The terrain in Denali’s backcountry includes miles of glaciers and rocks.
U.S. Air Force veteran Joni Marquez smiles as she traverses glacial terrain.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Wade Spann makes his way up a glacier in Denali National Park & Preserve.
U.S. Navy veteran Thomas Payne celebrates after climbing a glacier in Denali National Park & Preserve.
Three members of the Warriors to Summits team trekking through wildflowers as they enter the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve.
A vista of autumn trees, a glacial pond, glaciers, and mountains at Denali National Park & Preserve.
Sunlight breaks through a cloudy September sky, illuminating the mountains of Denali National Park & Preserve.
Photo Credit: Micah Baird
The Warriors to Summits team huddles in the morning during the September 2017 Denali expedition.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
The Denali expedition takes the team deep into the backcountry of the national park.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
Grizzly bears were prevalent during the team’s trip, at times delaying the journey as the team waited for them to pass.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
The Aurora Borealis illuminates the sky above Denali National Park & Preserve.
Photo Credit: Micah Baird
The team traversing miles of rocky terrain.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
U.S. Navy veteran Thomas Payne, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edward Mertz, U.S. Air Force veteran Joni Marquez, expedition guide Jill Millkey, U.S. Navy veteran Reena LaVoie, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Wade Spann, expedition leader Derek Esposito, U.S. Army veteran Eric Johnson.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
The terrain in Denali’s backcountry includes miles of glaciers and rocks.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
U.S. Air Force veteran Joni Marquez smiles as she traverses glacial terrain.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Wade Spann makes his way up a glacier in Denali National Park & Preserve.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
U.S. Navy veteran Thomas Payne celebrates after climbing a glacier in Denali National Park & Preserve.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
Three members of the Warriors to Summits team trekking through wildflowers as they enter the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Photo Credit: Micah Baird
A vista of autumn trees, a glacial pond, glaciers, and mountains at Denali National Park & Preserve.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck

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.”

Expedition guide and U.S. Army veteran David Inbody, U.S. Air Force veteran Joni Marquez, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Edward Mertz, U.S. Army veteran Justin Madore, U.S. Navy veteran Thomas Payne and U.S. Army veteran Bradley Chidester take a break after some glacier climbing.
Photo Credit: Didrik Johnck
Contributors: Jessica Pacek
Tags:
outbrain