Each wounded warrior was assigned his own rope team of expert guides and support volunteers. Our 21-member expedition took four days.
Boots on the ground — make that volcano. Instead of “sea legs,” we get our “snow legs” by learning proper foot placement and rest-steps during the four-mile long, 4,500 foot incline from Paradise up the Muir Snowfield to our base camp. Think about Ryan doing this blind. How do you tackle something as overwhelming as a 14,441-foot volcano? As a team.
“I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity …” – SEAL creed.
Watching Ryan navigating obstacles up ahead motivated me to stay mentally tough during this endurance test. I tried to remember lines from various Special Operations creeds, which my late mentor, Medal of Honor recipient Col. Robert L. Howard (“Ranger Bob”), had tried to teach me before I went to Iraq and got hurt. Warrior creeds are codes of conduct for Special Operations units on and off the battlefield.
Our rope team’s climbing experts closely monitored each wounded warrior, but let them do their jobs on their own. To help Ryan gauge distance as he climbed blind, volunteer guides Fawley and Rausch regularly tapped their Leki hiking poles.
“Think outside the box. Go over, under, around, through every obstacle to get the job done….” – Special Forces mantra.
Numerous other volunteers helped our team get the job done. Off-duty Green Berets from the 1st Special Forces Group, “Night Stalkers” from 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and members of the Oregon Air National Guard all schlepped extra food and gear to our base camp at 10,000 feet.
“Their help and great attitudes were indispensible in assisting us climbers,” Fawley later reflected.
We trained seriously as a group on the Cowlitz Glacier for our summit attempt that night.
We practiced cramponing, team rope techniques, clipping and harnessing, ice axe self arrest, team arrest and even rope knots. The military members excelled at the latter; this reporter did not.
All the same, these would be the skills that hopefully would keep us alive in the event a team member fell into a crevasse, an avalanche struck or a melting glacier suddenly gave way.
The training was sobering. No longer was this merely a lovely hike amongst stunning vistas. This was for real. Like war, someone might not make it back. It was during this “train-like-you-fight” scenario that Ryan excelled. Over and over again, he threw himself into the snow practicing self-arrest.
“My training is never complete …” – SEAL creed.
It was also during this training that country singer and climbing team volunteer Keni Thomas stood out as a leader. Keni was a former Ranger who had served in Mogadishu in what later became known as the “Black Hawk Down” mission. This was his first Mount Rainier climb, too. Without being asked, he stepped up to help teach those of us with little rope experience.
Each one of us believed that more sweat during training would hopefully mean less blood on the battlefield — or, in this case, snowfield.
Quietly contemplating the mission ahead, the three teams tucked in and attempted to catch a wink of sleep.