By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
To climb or not to climb – That was the question. The one I got a lot. Quite often as a matter of fact. The travails of rock-climbing are easily noted with a few clicks of your mouse and navigation of any number of YouTube links. I failed to do this.
But, anyway, there’s nothing like hanging out with like-minded people. Oh what a feeling! To be around those you can most relate to. This was the feeling of camaraderie and intergalactic oneness I felt this past weekend hanging out with some new friends in Estes Park, Colorado. The USO partnered with Team Red, White and Blue, an organization like the USO, committed to enriching the lives of veterans, and held a rock-climbing camp for said veterans and team members.
Let the fun begin!
First off, if you’ve never been to Colorado you’re in for a particular treat. As those first baby steps outside of the Denver International Airport rain down on the pavement, you may notice an unfamiliar feeling. Or maybe it is…who knows. A feeling like a 350-pound NFL lineman is sitting on your chest and daring you to do something about it. Yes, welcome to the Mile-High city! A mile above sea level yes it’s true. Say it with me… wooooosah! Try to breathe! As I did the duffel bag drag with my luggage, I was IMMEDIATELY out of breath. Little did I realize this would be a familiar theme throughout this trip.
I began the approximately hour-long trek from Denver to a quaint climbing community in Estes Park. Off the bat, I watched my vehicle’s thermometer plummet from 81 degrees to the eventual 59 degrees. Duh, welcome to the mountains! Where cell phone reception is a mere dream, but the scenic view is absolutely priceless. Somehow the massive 45-minute detour around one of the mountains didn’t seem so bad minus the loss of GPS signal and inherent terror of being lost in said mountains with no cell phone signal! I promise I’m not a Millenium baby! After (eventually) arriving and linking up with my group, I surveyed the camp which looked like a beautiful campus. Except at this point, I was now 7,522 above sea level. Needless to say, thinking too fast left me out of breath. After getting orientated (that’s for all the Army folks out there), I settled in for what I thought would be a relaxing day of walking through nature.
The following morning we met and had a warm-up to get our “blood going” for the journey to an area lovingly known as “Jurassic Park.” Needless to say, lung capacity was at a premium as we moved through an assortment of calisthenics and fun exercises. It felt like a regular day of PT at Any Army Unit, USA. It was fun minus the not being able to breathe part.Afterwards, we packed our lunches and headed up to the mountains. We hiked up some pretty challenging terrain and I definitely enjoyed the view. Was it tough? Oh yeah!
Ain’t no mountain high enough, my fourth point of contact! Clearly, Ashford and Simpson (or any of the numerous artists who did cover songs) NEVER visited Estes Park, Colorado. They were PLENTY high! It was an amazing experience watching these veterans learn and apply rock-climbing techniques with little to no time to absorb what they learned first. As one astute vet mentioned, in the Army we’re used to crawl, walk, run where we get classes, rehearsals and practical exercises (maybe even a little death by powerpoint even) before we undertake such things.
But here, at Jurassic Park, these ladies and gentlemen took the crash course and hit the ground running! When they looked to me to do some of that stuff it was like Jurassic Park alright. I was like “Mr. Hammond the phones are working. Tell them to send the damn helicopters!” Not I said the short guy. But watching this group reminded me of the reason these people and others like them are so great. They are often fearless, willing to embrace new challenges at a moment’s notice and have just the right blend of reckless abandon and thrill-seeking. Clearly so, for if hiking up and scaling huge cliff faces weren’t enough, we had the Tyrolean traverse.A wicked looking setup where you zip across a valley of “never look downness” and back that would have Batman humping up those hills in a fit of jealousy. But the real Batman… Christian Bale maybe but definitely not Val or George. Who knows what Ben will do. But I digress. The amazing part was watching these men and women overcome their anxieties and just do it! It was inspirational to see these veterans, many with Post Traumatic Stress and other invisible wounds, relax and enjoy themselves amongst each other. The camaraderie was evident as we spent the day together and we felt like your everyday unit. There was the familiar feeling of suffering through heat, bugs and elevation — for the uninitiated — that brought us all together. It was pretty amazing. An evening of rest was well deserved and we had dinner and heard one of the most amazing stories you’ll hear from an American in or out of uniform.
Tommy Caldwell, one of the most accomplished rock climbers you’ll find, has been through a lot. That’s like saying the president has detractors. Quite the understatement. He only nearly reached the pinnacle of his profession as a trailblazer, got kidnapped by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, escaped nearly killing one captor, severed one of his digits, then persevered after being told his climbing career was essentially over and then just proceeding to eviscerate all doubts of his return in the process. No big deal right. If he were here, you’d never know. Totally unassuming guy. Great person and his dad was too. He’s probably too modest, but if you don’t know who he is I’ll say it for him “Google me!” He’s a tough dude. He, and his dad, Mike, led the actually hands on, no shoot, get-over-here-and-climb-up-these-ropes-and-look-down-at-all-the-gravity-constrained-peons-below. They were an amazing team, and the group of campers were obviously thrilled. Quite evident by the paparazzi style photo-snapping session I was privileged to witness going on at the end of our shindig. Well, Day 2 was just as challenging. We went on a nice hour-long, three-mile hike to two tough climbing spots – the “Pear” and the “Book” at Lumpy Ridge trail. Gorgeous views, but the lack of oxygen was just unacceptable.
I had the “fortune” of humping one entire trail and half of the other and you wanna talk about downtrodden. It was tough, but like my compadres I relished the challenges. We had a great time and some parts sucked – yes. But guess what? They sucked for us all together. So just when it sounds like this has a happy ending ———-à this happens. I’m walking back from the second site alone after doing a quick interview. For reasons unknown to me, I walk looking down at the ground. Perhaps looking for that “discharge on the ground” of urban legend.
While I didn’t see that, I did see something else – SNAKE!!!!
Ok, so I stop in my tracks and tried my damnedest to remember all the Wild Discovery Shows I watched and what to do when confronting a lethal man-eater such as this. Well, as my luck would have it, a hiking couple came upon me as I mulled my next course of action. My options were A. Run by the damn thing. B. Give it the Air Jordan and jump so high over it I’d probably be on radar or C. Run away and get some help.
I might have done Option C….kind of. I pointed to the wayward beast and told the couple “there’s a snake over there.” The fella, named Jesse, I believe, looks over and says “oh yeah that a Garter snake.” Man, look. All I know is it’s laying there and I just had the feeling it was up to no good. It was lying halfway in the path with its head in the grass. I just knew not to trust this snake. I remember the last time someone trusted one – BAM fig leaves for all. Anyway, once he said it was a garter I scrolled my mental rolodex of wildlife creatures…I assure you this took less than a second. I surmised I could get past the creature by simply walking by and giving the brave face. I swelled my chest, cleared my left and my right and proceeded forward. I’ll be damned!!! The second my foot came up off the ground, the snake raises up and lunges at me like one of the sandworms in Return of the Jedi. I responded accordingly. In about as shrill of a pitch as you’ll hear a 200-pound man bellow, I may or may not have elevated myself using the “force” for a significant period of time.
The snake shot into the grass and I landed with the “man I was scared and now I feel dumb” feeling I’m sure everyone has had! My two new acquaintances had a good ol’ time! They chuckled pretty good and I couldn’t help but join them. It was all just so fast. Oh just a Garter. Ok, cool. Hiss. Jump. Shriek. Land. Laugh. Just like that! My only justification was “I did what I had to do.” So that brought the end of the excitement of a great trip. And I also disabused myself of any notions I would be the next Batman, because lemme tell you. If it comes to jumping off rooftops and using Tyrolean traverses…Gotham’s gonna need a helluva lot more than just saving if it comes down to me! Also, I can only wonder if Ashford and Simpson knew just how right and wrong they were. For people like Tommy Caldwell and the veterans and Team RWB peeps I spent this weekend with, there may not be a mountain high enough to satisfy that adrenaline rush and thirst for challenges and adventure. And how wrong they were because every mountain is high enough for someone like me! Feet stay firmly planted on this ground. But I ain’t scared though! Just saying.
(Follow Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Marshall on Twitter:@MarshallDoDNews)
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