It is 3:45 a.m. on Thursday morning.The cool air and the brisk wind try hard to keep activity at bay. The stars illuminate the sky with the absence of city lights and the nearest neighbors are local moose forging for a snack before light brings life to this remote valley. On a normal day, the serenity is not interrupted. But this day is different. The whisper of fuel burning is matched by the scent of freshly brewed coffee and the sounds of tent zippers echo through camp. Words are not spoken but the energy is high. It’s summit day!
As the team ascends from camp to an old miner’s cabin, a warm glow from the east appears as if providing an encouraging nudge before lungs are robbed of oxygen and aching legs are only powered by the mental fortitude of a strong mind. The team presses on. As the lush pine forest breaks the rays of the sunshine illuminating the mist from the morning dew, the team dances in and out of the shadows, reflecting on the journey to this point.
For Sgt. Nathan Guilde, who served as a Combat Engineer in the U.S. Army, his early steps on the delicate rock are reminiscent of his time spent tiptoeing through the desert clearing explosive devices and enabling safe passage for other troops on the ground—a heavy responsibility in which he takes tremendous pride, but struggles to let go.
“In Afghanistan, I was responsible for the safety of hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow military personnel,” says Sgt. Guilde. “Now that I’m home, my days consist puppy care and applying for school. I joined the military to serve a purpose greater than myself. I feel like I’ve lost that purpose and I’m surrounded by civilians who don’t fully understand my discontent.”
Constantly on high alert, Sgt. Guilde finds himself scanning his surroundings. He kicks a rock, exposing nothing but smooth Rocky Mountain trail. But this time he is not scanning for bombs, he is blazing trail for his new teammate, Garrett, a young man who lost most of his vision after the safe removal of a life-threatening brain tumor at the age of five. Just one day prior, the team emotionally celebrated Garrett’s fifteenth Alive Day on a snowy bank deep in the Rocky Mountains.
“My brain tumor was removed fifteen years ago and I don’t really remember much from that experience,” claims Rush-Miller. “But, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of pride and camaraderie knowing this team has my back!”
“For all intents and purposes, Garrett should not be with us right now, but he’s out here climbing up these mountains like a goat! I’m truly honored to be here with him to celebrate his life and help show him the way,” says Sgt. Guilde. “It feels good to serve again!”
The morning song birds are quickly interrupted by the sound of moving water. The late spring snow melt has yielded an influx of frigid water on its summer journey to the mighty Colorado River. The mountains are alive with the changing of the seasons and are doing their best to prevent the team’s progress. Corp. Rory McVey jumps up front and begins calling out commands to ensure the entire team crosses safely.
A motor vehicle operator for the USMC, Corp. McVey is a natural leader. While currently a banker in Chicago, every word he speaks and action he takes is proof that being a Marine is not something of which you let go. With every foot of elevation Corp. McVey climbs, his psyche improves. He is coming to life in the mountains.
“There are plenty of bad things I wish to forget about my time in the Marines, but I would give anything to serve with my guys again,” says Corp. McVey. “My days are now spent surrounded by cubicle walls and I feel like it’s killing me faster than my time in the service. My job is great, but I miss serving with my squad. I want to get back to that feeling.”
Corp. McVey directs the team safely across the creek and continues up the mountain. His lungs are beginning to burn with the lack of oxygen but the pride can be seen in his eyes. The pine forest soon gives way to long-range views and he describes the surroundings to his partner. With great detail, Corp. McVey paints a picture on the canvas of Ricky Ruzicka’s mind. Ricky began losing his sight in 2013. While his disability has not prevented him from being active, he values his time with Corp. McVey.
“The smells and the sounds are great but I love the description of what lies in the distance…if Rory was a bit faster, I’d be able to witness it and not just listen to him talk about it all day,” Ruzicka says with a laugh. “Rory and I give each other a hard time, but it’s because we’re brothers now. I know he’s learned a lot from working with me, but I feel like I’ve learned just as much from him as a veteran. This program truly makes a difference mentally and physically for any individual.”
As the team makes it to 12,000 feet, the summit is in reach. However, the summit is no longer the mountain in the distance. It is the summit within. Every climber on this team arrived in Colorado with a different mountain to climb and the inability to climb it alone. Mountains are the great equalizer and summiting them requires teamwork and accountability; it requires a squad built from a bond not replicated in civilian life. And with every step forward, this is no longer a team of climbers, but a squad of brothers.
“It is really cool to see the dynamic of the group change with every new obstacle we face,” says SSG. Nick DeLong. “I always find myself missing my squad in the military, and tackling this mountain brings that feeling back. I have a new squad now and I can’t wait to help each other climb all of the mountains life puts in our way.”
As the team traverses the ridge, the wind delivers a final punch in an attempt to slow them down. It is too little too late as the mountain is no match for the new squad.
Peace of Adventure brought six strangers to the mountains of Colorado, but the summit was never the goal. The goal was always, and will always, be in the journey. Peace of Adventure believes in the power of serving others and empowers veterans to serve civilians with disabilities in an effort to create squads dedicated to health and well-being of each member. As the team descended to camp, the spirit of the group was only matched sense of brotherly love.
“As I sit by the fire, listening to the crackling sounds masked by the laughter of those around me,” describes Lewis Burdette, a climber with almost total vision loss, “I’m overwhelmed by the sense of accomplishment. I enjoyed pushing myself beyond what I thought I could do, but I’m more impressed by those who led the way. These three veterans served our country so that I am able to climb in these beautiful spaces, and now they’re here with me. I’m honored and humbled to walk with them and look forward to walking alongside all of them for the remainder of our days.”
On June 22-27, 2015, Peace of Adventure partnered with The Adaptive Sports Center of Crested Butte to take three veterans and three civilians with visual impairments into the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains. For five days, the team explored some of the most remote regions of Colorado learning technical mountaineering skills working as a team to climb high in the alpine. Peace of Adventure is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering veterans to serve civilians with disabilities through outdoor recreation. By bringing participants together from the same community, Peace of Adventure aims to create the squad-type feeling often missed by military veterans. Peace of Adventure believes that creating squads dedicated to mutual accountability has the potential to improve the mental and physical health of each member.