My senior year at West Point I decided to go after one of the items on my bucket list: Climb Mount Everest.
Some would call it crazy to juggle a demanding school like West Point and pursue such an aspirational goal, and it probably was. With the support of my then fiancé and now wife Rachel, I decided I was going to do everything it took to make it happen.
The thing is, I had no real mountain climbing experience. I’m from the great state of Georgia, where our tallest mountain stands fewer than five thousand feet.
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Even so, I gathered the support of a lot of people who helped me form U.S. Expeditions and Explorations (USX). And in 2016, I had the honor of helping lead the first active-duty team and combat-wounded veteran expedition to the summit of Mount Everest as a means to bring attention to PTSD and veteran suicide.
At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the risk I was taking after just getting married and what it would mean for my wife Rachel and our dream of starting a family. We share our story in the book «A Higher Calling: Pursuing Love, Faith and Mount Everest For a Greater Purpose.» The ascent was harder than I ever could have imagined but the descent was a story all its own.
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Looking back, I think we’re all going through a similar descent as we slowly return to our pre-COVID-19 lives. None of us had experience going into this crisis, and we don’t know what we’re facing as we return to normal. So how do we keep our focus, deal with what’s not in our control and fight for our future? I think coming down the world’s highest mountain taught me some lessons I’ll never forget.
On my descent from Everest, I found myself fighting for every step.
My Sherpa gave a thumbs-up and a nod. “I’m good to go.”
It was time to get moving.
Every step was agony. I tried to block from my thoughts any factor that was not in my personal control.
The vicious gusts of wind that were shoving me off balance and making my bones ache with cold.
Not in my control.
The drunken zombie effect caused by the altitude that was sapping my strength and breath and draining the life from my blood.
Not in my control.
The burning pain in my toes that was giving way to numbness.
Not in my control.
The need to keep moving down the mountain at all costs, no matter how agonizing … that was something I could control. So I focused every ounce of concentration I had on my feet. Everything else fell away as my life narrowed into a single repeated objective: Take a step. Take another step. Take another step.
I thought about Rachel, 9,487 miles away and at this very moment likely worried out of her mind about me. I had passed along a request earlier to some Sherpas heading down from Camp Three for our team’s camp manager to get word to my family that we had safely arrived at the final camp and were going to make the push to the summit. I was not sure if my message ever made it there.
I learned that communication can be the difference between life and death; that when you are in pivotal moments, you must clearly communicate and keep things simple to understand.
The unthinkable reality was that I didn’t know for certain if I was going to make it back. But I viewed that outcome as simply unacceptable. No force in the world was going to keep me from Rachel.
Despite the year I’d spent training for this trip, I was completely unprepared for the reality of being on Everest and the toll it would take on me physically and emotionally. I knew I had to harness every weapon in my physical and spiritual arsenal now. I added a silent mantra with each footstep. Focus. Step. Pray. Every inch of progress was a step closer to Rachel and to our future together. For me, that future was worth climbing every massive peak in the Himalayas.
Our team slowly worked our way off the mountain. We had more than a weeklong journey back to our families. I was heading home to the love of my life, who was waiting for me. She was all I could think about. I’d had a dangerous love affair with a mountain that almost took me away from my wife, and coming out on the other side, I just wanted to see her warm smile and wrap her in my arms.
I learned so many things on that mountain.
I learned that communication can be the difference between life and death; that when you are in pivotal moments, you must clearly communicate and keep things simple to understand. Even if you are right next to someone, it doesn’t mean that communication is actually taking place.
I learned that when I am tired, I am vulnerable to mishaps. Which means I need to take a tactical pause, rest, and then recenter and reengage.
I learned that although our mission comes first (raising awareness for PTSD), it shouldn’t be at the expense of the team or my family.
I learned that as the youngest and least experienced member of my seasoned team, I can always use common sense to help bridge the gap left by the experience I don’t have.
I learned that it is harder to sit and wait helplessly to find out if your loved one is alive or dead than it is to climb the highest mountain in the world.
I also learned, as Rachel told me later, that you can’t just ask God to save the person you love most and leave it at that. This kind of prayer relies only on one-way communication. Instead, Rachel taught me through her own example that you must fully put your faith in God to carry you through the worst, no matter the outcome. That is the essence of true communication with God. It’s the definition of faith in its purest form.
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I will carry these lessons with me and rely on them as I continue to grow as a leader, husband and person.
Just as I began my journey with no prior mountain climbing experience, few of us have experienced a pandemic of this magnitude before. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of climbing and descending this unexpected mountain.
As we make our way out of COVID-19 together, I encourage us all to remain focused, let go of what’s not in our control, and continue to put one foot in front of the other until we’re safely on the other side.