ARLINGTON, Va. — The beauty of Crested Butte, Colorado is truly staggering no matter what time of year it is. During wintertime, the snow-capped mountain towers over the East River Valley, while in the summer wildflowers burst into bloom, blanketing its slopes.
But it's more than a beautiful location — Crested Butte has become a pilgrimage of sorts for Soldiers from the Fort Carson Soldier Recovery Unit looking to tackle their personal challenges by conquering the imposing mountain, which tops out at 12,170 feet above sea level.
It takes more than three hours to drive out to the mountain from Fort Carson, but it's worth it to the Soldiers, who have started making it a regular trip multiple times throughout the year.
Marc Cattapan, adaptive reconditioning support specialist at the Fort Carson SRU, said the trips are made possible thanks to a nonprofit in the Crested Butte area. The SRU takes around three or four trips per year — generally, split between summer and winter, with the trips lasting a little less than a week.
COVID-19 has made everything a lot more complicated, but the trips have continued despite the pandemic by taking multiple precautions in accordance with federal guidelines. Everyone had to take tests and jump through other hoops. The SRU went through all the protocols, ensuring everyone was wearing masks and shared surfaces were being sanitized.
During their summer trip last year, Soldiers went mountain biking, climbed rocks, and even enjoyed water sports. In December, they participated in ski biking, snowboarding, and skiing.
"The soldiers love the trips," Cattapan said. "You're in the heart of the Rockies for three days up in the mountains, away from the Army base and in an area that's amazingly beautiful."
Sgt. 1st Class Dwayne Conkle was an avid skier and cyclist before his injury, and he was glad the trip gave him an opportunity to enjoy those things again.
“I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to discover that my days on the slopes can continue after my injury," he said. "After breaking my back, I never imagined that I could continue to have fun shredding on the slopes. The ski bike was the perfect tool for me to adapt to my injuries safely."
Staff Sgt. Mark Menapace said the trip was vital to his mental health after undergoing surgery.
"It also contributed to my physical rehabilitation in the sense that I was able to work on building up my cardiovascular, leg and core strength after surgery while mountain biking the many trails Crested Butte had to offer," he said.
Cattapan said the Soldiers "like to push the limits on adventure," and aren't afraid to take on a rock face or ride a challenging bike trail — even at thousands of feet of elevation where the air is thin.
"We did a 10-mile descent that was just amazing," Cattapan said. "It fulfills them psychologically, physically, emotionally, and socially. And once you're out in the wilderness, you could argue that's a spiritual boost as well."
It’s an experience like no other, he said.
"We've seen eagles swoop down and grab a trout, pulling it out of the water right in front of us," he said. "We were a mile away from a lake and a moose decided to cross the road, so of course everybody whipped out their cameras."
The Army Warrior Care and Transition Program is now the Army Recovery Care Program. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to provide quality complex case management to the Army's wounded, ill and injured Soldiers.