JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- For some, hiking and climbing for days, and sometimes months, through some of the harshest environments known to man, would seem like an arduous task.
Two Airmen from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., experienced just that as they summited Mount Rainier, Wash., July 19 through 22. Staff Sgt. Brian Wadtke and Master Sgt. Doug Neville, combat controllers assigned to the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron, participated in the first trip of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, "Climbing for Warriors" project. Maj. Rob Marshall, a CV-22 Osprey acceptance pilot, and Maj. Mark Uberuaga, an Air Command and Staff College student, are the co-founders of the team and are part-masterminds behind "Climbing for Warriors."
"This new program is aimed at helping Airmen overcome physical and mental challenges and to introduce them to the healing powers of the mountains," Marshall said. "Whether they have been wounded in combat, sustained a work-related injury or are just battling seasonal depression and tough times, we want to teach them the coping skills that come from time in the high mountains."
Wadtke went through numerous surgeries to repair his shoulder and nose after a combat incident and a routine training mission accident.
"This is a test to show myself I can still perform despite being injured," he said.
Neville incurred numerous injuries while deployed to Southwest Asia and is unable to return to duty. He has served 19 years in the military and is only four months away from retirement.
"Getting back into a camaraderie-style atmosphere and being a part of the Seven Summits Team is awesome," he said. "This team accomplished a lot and promotes everything the Air Force stands for."
Both Wadtke and Neville have undergone months of physical therapy and strength building exercises in an effort to regain their ability to serve in the military at peak performance.
"I speak for Doug and me, but we want to thank the 22nd STS medical staff, strength coach and physical therapist," Wadtke said. "They are the reason we could both do this hike." Wadtke and Neville met up with the Seven Summits Team in Ashford, Wash., July 19. The evening began with a relaxed dinner and shared personal stories about troubling times in all of their lives and how they overcame or are currently overcoming those boundaries.
After collecting gear from a local Ashford, Wash., mountain guide outfitter the team leader for the Mount Rainier summit, Uberuaga, and other team members instructed Wadtke and Neville how to do gear functional checks and properly stuff their packs for proper weight distribution and comfort.
The next day began early with breakfast and one final pack check before carpooling 20 miles to Paradise, Mount Rainier. Arriving at Paradise, the team registered for their summit and overnight accommodations at Camp Muir and marched with their packs, single-file, toward the visitor's center.
Marshall, with his Seven Summits Challenge T-shirt, rallied the 12-man team and took a knee as he read one of his favorite inspirational quotes from an old tattered tan-colored book. Marshall carries the book with him on his trips to help inspire him and others as they face challenges on the mountains.
The U.S. flag and Air Force flag were held up for group shots and everyone on the team smiled bright as a volunteer took the group's photo. Those passing by stopped and tried to figure out what was going on.
"We are an unofficial Air Force climbing team and are embarking on our first trip in a new program for wounded warriors," said Marshall. With trekking poles in hand, Wadtke and Neville joined the hiking line headed toward Camp Muir. The trek to Camp Muir took roughly six hours with the team taking 10-minute comfort breaks each hour to eat snacks, hydrate and make clothing adjustments.
Maj. Grayden Muller, a helicopter pilot from the 6th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., taught pressure breathing, the proper way to walk on snow and trail etiquette at each of the predetermined stops.
Arriving at the Muir Snow Field, the pace turned almost into a crawl as the elevation steepened drastically. Team members were carrying 40 to 50 pound packs depending on what they were required to carry. Every step forward was planned and executed carefully. Overall, the trek up was slow, but steady as the team traveled the 4.5 miles with a total elevation gain of 4,680 feet.
Staff Sgt. Savanna Wadtke, a member of the 627th Force Support Squadron commander's support staff, joined her husband on the hike up to Camp Muir. "This is something that my husband has had on his 'bucket list' and he wanted me to join him for moral and inspirational support," she said. "I felt proud of him because he had that huge pack and even with his injury he kept on going. It was great to see him overcome those obstacles."
The entire team made it to Camp Muir just before dinner time and began setting up tents at the snow covered camp July 21. The team recovered from their previous day's arduous hike and various team members taught Wadtke and Neville self-arrest techniques (stopping yourself if you fall on snow/ice), crampon skills and crevasse travel/rescue.
At midnight July 22, the team hit the moon lit snow with headlamps and required gear as they made the final push to the 14,411-foot summit. They returned from Camp Muir to Ashford, Wash., July 23.