Building mountains:Soldiers at Taji find relief hitting the wall
October 3, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - When they get the call to go their heart rate quickens and adrenaline starts rushing through their veins.
There is no time to waste. Get the info, get the facts, get the coordinates and get on the move. Soldiers' lives depend on it.
With mountains of responsibility resting on the shoulders of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division's medical evacuation unit, it's ironic that a mountain is what helps relieve the stressors of their job.
Well, maybe not quite a mountain.
Colorado Springs, Colo., native Spc. Ryan Utz, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief for Company C, 2nd "Lobo" Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st ACB, 1st Cav. Div., has been an avid rock climber for over 10 years and a deployment to Iraq isn't going to stop him - especially when it helps melt away the tension, he said.
That's why Utz, along with the help of fellow climbing enthusiast, Capt. Micah Helser, a MEDEVAC pilot for Co. C., built their own rock climbing wall - a sort of mountain getaway in the middle of Iraq.
"I guess (building the wall) was my idea. Before I came down to MEDEVAC, I was planning on trying to build a rock wall, but didn't know if I'd get the go ahead," said Utz.
"Utz is the one that came up with the harebrained idea. I didn't think it would actually happen, but it did," said Helser who hails from Salem, Ore.
After getting approval from their chain of command, they headed out on the journey to find building materials for their new project, which ended up taking a while to complete, said Utz.
"It took at least a couple of months (to complete the wall). We are still getting new holds in. It's an evolving process," Utz said. "We really had to scrounge for the materials to build it."
The wood they found around camp, sometimes dumpster diving for discarded wood, but the foot and hand holds they ordered online. These modular fittings are made to replicate holds they would find on a rock in nature with one minor exception, said Utz.
"The holds are made to be easily gripped and obviously Mother Nature doesn't think much about that," he said with a smile.
The wall consists of an eight-foot high section about 12 feet in width connected to an inverted climbing surface which in turn leads to another wall that is set at about a 45 degree angle.
Each hold is mounted with a system that allows Utz and his crew to reposition and replace them whichever way they please, said Utz.
What this small wall lacks in height, it makes up with difficulty, said Helser.
"The first thing most people say is that it's not very high. What we do is make it very technical and difficult so that height doesn't matter," he said.
"When we first started doing it, we were totally weak and we could hardly do what we think are now easy problems," he said.
They can constantly change the difficulty by moving the various holds to different locations - many of these holds only allowing two fingers worth of room on them. This creates new and more difficult routes, said Utz.
The more difficult they make it, the more that it challenges them. The more it challenges them, the more it takes them out of Iraq and places them on a rock surrounded by a piney forest, said Helser.
"You can ask anyone. One of the only times I have a smile on my face is after we've been climbing or when I know that I'll be climbing," said Helser.
"The wall is a great release - something to put your mind on instead of what you saw that day," said Utz. "We, on occasion, see some pretty gruesome things - some pretty heart-wrenching things."
In the beginning, there were only two of them climbing, but now Utz and Helser have somewhat of a following of four other novice climbers, Utz said.
One of those Soldiers, Advance, N.C., native Staff Sgt. Eddie Barrier, a flight medic for Co. C, has only been climbing on the rock wall for a month and a half and is already showing tremendous improvement, said Utz.
Along with the benefits of relieving stress, the climbing wall is beneficial to muscular strengthening as well, said Utz.
"When you're on a harder route you really have to focus on what you're doing, what every little muscle is doing, where your feet are, where your hands are, and how you have to turn your body," he said. "It's an all encompassing activity. It's not like running ... on this you have to pay attention to everything."
It isn't only the physical side that gets tested on this small mountain in Iraq; it's also the mental side, said Helser.
"That's one of the most satisfying things out here is when you're working a problem and you physically think you can't do it, but something in your psyche clicks and you tell yourself that you're going to make this move or you're going to do this route," Helser said.
Once the MEDEVAC Soldiers have completed their mission in Iraq, they plan on moving on to slightly larger rocks when they return home, said Utz.
"We're planning on climbing on some real rock together when we get home," he said.
But until then, the Soldiers of Co. C will have to challenge themselves with their private little mountain in the arid land of Iraq.