Vets Mark Sept. 11 Anniversary With Yosemite Climb

Sep 11, 2013
Originally published on September 12, 2013 10:40 am

Fifteen Iraq and Afghanistan vets, many of them disabled, climbed Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on Sept. 11. The climb is the culmination of a three-day hike, which for many of the vets has had the therapeutic effect of reproducing a combat patrol — just without the bombs or bullets.

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Today, a group of more than two dozen veterans is marking the 9/11 anniversary by climbing. They're summiting two peaks in Yosemite National Park. Why climbing? They say to experience the comradery they've missed since they left the service. It's also worth noting that many suffered terrible injuries while fighting in Afghanistan and are climbing without the use of a leg or an arm or with the extra burden of post-traumatic stress.

NPR's Quil Lawrence is also at Yosemite, halfway up Half Dome with some of these vets. Hey there, Quil.


CORNISH: So to start, how's the view? Describe the scene.

LAWRENCE: The view is stunning. We started walking up to the base just after 3:00 a.m. and we're now - I guess we're at about 8,500 feet elevation, they're telling me. But more importantly to me, right now, is that we're all hanging off - about 800 feet up the Snake Dyke, which is a pretty sheer rock face and we're looking out at a gorgeous view of Yosemite.

The smoke is coming in a little bit from that rim forest fire, but it's gorgeous looking around, and I won't waste any more time. I'm gonna hand you over to Nate Watson, who is hanging off a rope next to me. Here you go.

CORNISH: Hi there, Nate Watson?

NATE WATSON: Yes, ma'am.

CORNISH: So how's the climb?

WATSON: It's great. It's beautiful up here. The weather's perfect and we're hanging off the side of a mountain at about 800 feet.

CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned earlier, you are a veteran who's suffered an injury and I was wondering if you could tell us what happened to you and how you reached this point where you're kind of hanging off the face of a mountain.

WATSON: Yes, ma'am. On August 17th, 2009, I was shot in the left forearm by a Taliban insurgent with an AK-47. It tore through the medial and ulnar nerve of my left arm and as a result I lost movement and feeling in my left arm and hand. And really, the way I ended up doing this, my friend Andrew Sullens has been on a couple of hikes with Paradox Sports and he asked me if I'd be interested in coming this year.

And I'm always up for another challenge, so this seemed like the perfect way to spend 9/11 and celebrate the triumph over what happened on this day 12 years ago.

CORNISH: And you mentioned Paradox Sports and maybe we could talk to Andrew Sullens more about that?

WATSON: That would be great.

CORNISH: Thank you so much.

ANDREW SULLENS: Which end do I speak into? Hello.

CORNISH: Hi, Andrew Sullins, this is Audie. How are you?

SULLENS: Hey, hey, Audie, this is Sully. How you doing?

CORNISH: Good. So I hear you are a part of Paradox Sports. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what that organization does and how you got involved.

SULLENS: Paradox Sports is an adaptive climbing nonprofit out of Boulder, Colorado, and what they do is they believe in empowering people with disabilities through the sport of climbing. Climbing, in itself, is sort of a - it's really just a series of problems when you're climbing up the side of a mountain. And, you know, that's kind of the same way that people that have certain, you know, to make adaptations or have certain disabilities that they got to get over, you know, everything's a problem that they got to just learn how to work through. That's kind of the way climbing is.

CORNISH: Andrew, tell us a little bit about your disabilities. I read here that you lost a leg and that you're climbing with a prosthetic.

SULLENS: Yeah. I have a below-the-knee amputation of my right leg, and I was in a IUD blast in 2009 where - I was in Afghanistan, not far from where Nate was working, to be quite honest with you. And we ran over a bomb that was shoved up in a culvert and I was in a gun turret and wound up taking a nice little ride out of it. And I landed in the roadway and it busted me up pretty bad.

CORNISH: How do you feel that this honors other veterans like yourself and those who have fallen in the wars?

SULLENS: You know, 9/11 is something that - we all lost a little bit of something in 9/11. If we didn't lose a family member, we lost, you know, we lost at least some type of innocence in the whole attack. And what - hang on. I'm adjusting on this rock real quick.

LAWRENCE: Audie, hold on a second. We just got to adjust him so he doesn't fall off the cliff for a second.

WATSON: Yeah, we got to rig.

SULLENS: Yeah, did you get that?

WATSON: Yeah, against that, dude.

SULLENS: Hang on just a second.


WATSON: Turn around, actually, and face us.

SULLENS: Okay. I'm good now. Sorry. Had to adjust. I guess just really hoping to conspire with the people that make good, you know, good steps forward, good strides forward to improving their life and taking on these challenges and seeing what - there is life after injury and, you know, they can be that person.

CORNISH: What is it like for you to climb with a prosthetic? I mean, hearing you make the adjustments there, I'd love to get some idea of what this process is like for you.

SULLENS: It's - I guess for lack of better words, it's just a constant adaptation. You know, climbing, you know, it takes a lot of thinking, a lot of chest type work, I guess you could say, and learning how to trust the prosthetic and knowing what it can do and what it can't do, because it's nothing like trusting your true, you know, your muscle and your bone, and you know, it's not your real body. So it's just a constant challenge for me.

And it's just really just a constant - it's really just a constant gut check, nerve check for me, really.

CORNISH: A nerve check? Really? After all you've been through?

SULLENS: Yeah, it is. I mean, when you think of everything I've been through, I mean, I didn't set out that gate knowing that I was gonna get hurt that day, but we set out anyways. So I mean, in a sense, you know, death is kind of around the corner just about everywhere you go. So I mean, you can't never choose how you're gonna go, but you can choose how you're going to live, and this is how I choose to live.

CORNISH: Well, Andrew, thank you so much for speaking with me. And I know you have a few more folks to pass the phone to.

SULLENS: Oh, yeah, I do.

LAWRENCE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Hey there.

LAWRENCE: It's Quil again.

CORNISH: Hi, Quil. How are you?

LAWRENCE: I'm fine.

CORNISH: So do you need to buckle something or drop a rope or something?

LAWRENCE: No. I just...

CORNISH: Obviously I'm not very knowledgeable here.

LAWRENCE: Neither am I. I've been buckled in the whole time, though. These guys are taking real good care of me. I'm now leaning back and walking backwards down the cliff, which they tell me is safe, and I'm about to pass you, in just one second, to DJ Skelton(ph), who is a co-founder of Paradox Sports and a still active U.S. Army major, right?


LAWRENCE: Good. And I'm now going to hand you over to DJ.

SKELTON: Got the phone? Hello.

CORNISH: Hi, this is Audie Cornish. Are you in a safe space to talk?


SKELTON: Of course. How are you doing?

CORNISH: Great. Now, tell me a little bit about how the idea of Paradox Sports came to you, 'cause you're still active duty even though you sustained major injuries.

SKELTON: That is correct. You know, in 2004, I was wounded in the second battle of Fallujah and immediately was medevaced back to the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, and spent about five months as an inpatient care. And...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you comfy?

SKELTON: I'm comfy. Yeah, thanks.

CORNISH: And at that time, what kind of - at that time what kind of injuries did you have and, you know, was climbing really something you felt you could do?

SKELTON: So I had grown up with a bunch of family and friends in the climbing and outdoor community. So I was blessed to have that background. When I got injured I lost the use of my left arm. I lost my left eye. I lost the use of my right ankle. And I lost my upper palate and the upper roof and upper jaw of my mouth.

So even though my injuries were - I guess - pretty severe, I had a rather quick recovery and decided to figure out how to get back to the things that I loved doing growing out, but doing it differently.

CORNISH: Now, people have talked about obviously the camaraderie of being in the service. And for you, how does this - how is this similar to that? How does that re-create that experience or make it as a kind of therapeutic experience?

SKELTON: You know, the climbing community, outdoor community, this whole notion of community - this is a really powerful thing. Like, I feel all of us especially here in America have this power to belong to something greater than ourselves. And recreational communities are one of the easiest ways to do that.

As a veteran, it's amazing. I've never served with any of the other brothers and sisters in arms that are out here, the other vets. But we speak the same language. And we sit around the campfire at night and we tell stories that only we can relate to. And the climbers around us just sit and listen. And in turn, the climbers talk a different language. So to combine all of that experience, that brings us all together, is pretty powerful.

Here, sitting halfway up Snake Dike, which is one of the greatest rock climbs in America, and to do it relying on your belayer, relying on your fellow members of the climbing team, is absolutely no different than that feeling you get when you're out with your fire team or your squad, your platoon or company and you're downrange and you're relying your life on somebody else. It creates a bond that is very unique.

CORNISH: Well, DJ Skelton, thank you for your service and thank you for talking with us.

SKELTON: You bet.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, guys.


CORNISH: That: Thanks, guys, was our own Quill Lawrence. He's climbing in Yosemite National Park with a group of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each year, their group marks the 9/11 Anniversary with a climb.

We heard from DJ Skelton, Andrew Sullens and Nate Watson. And to see a picture of Andrew Sullens climbing Half Dome with his prosthetic leg, visit Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.