By Spc. Ryan HallockJuly 22, 2011
MOUNT RAINIER, Wash., July 25, 2011 -- On any clear Washington day, looking to the east will grant the eye of the beholder a majestic view of Mount Rainier, which stands tall over Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The mountain is symbolic of the uphill battle wounded veterans must face after loyally dedicating their lives to defending the freedoms of the United States of America. These courageous war veterans, who have selflessly gone overseas time after time to honor the nation’s values, were given the challenge to overcome the odds, to prove the disbelievers wrong, and to see if they still have what it takes to be on top of the world.
Camp Patriot’s mission is to give back to those brave men and women who have paid a tremendous price for American’s freedoms. Since 2007, the non-profit organization has sponsored the annual climb of Mount Rainier’s 14,411-foot summit. Only 50 percent of climbers reach the summit, proving the significance of the challenge that lies ahead.
On July 9, 2011, a team of wounded warriors, medically retired Staff Sgt. Eric Cowin, Sgt. Derrick Ford and retired Master Sgt. Gil “Mag” Magallanes Jr., joined Camp Patriot to meet this challenge at the foot of the mountain.
“It’s critical in their rehabilitation,” said Micah Clark, founder and executive director of Camp Patriot. “The idea is to stretch the imagination, to get them out there, and create that hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”
Cowin’s uphill climb began on a 130-degree day in Baghdad, Iraq June 9, 2009, with 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. Fifty meters was all that stood between Cowin and the convoy’s completion that day, when his vehicle was struck by an explosively formed penetrator.
“I couldn’t feel my legs,” said Cowin. “I couldn’t feel my whole body.”
Cowin’s left leg was severely injured in the blast. Remaining calm and in charge while in extraordinary pain, he took control of the situation and got his Soldiers back to base.
“I knew what was going on,” said Cowin. “It was my second deployment.”
Cowin’s left foot was amputated June 17, 2009.
Derrick Ford’s journey began in the Kandahar Province in Afghanistan Aug. 14, 2009. His platoon was conducting route reconnaissance when his Stryker armored fighting vehicle rolled over a pressure plate improvised explosive device.
“I only recall dust being thrown everywhere and an incredible pain in my feet,” said Ford.
Before he received medical attention, Ford assessed the situation, crawled out of the top of his Stryker and attempted to secure the convoy.
Spending the next 14 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in rehabilitation, Ford worked to save his leg. He was recently married prior to the deployment, and his wife Michelle was expecting twins.
“After my kids were born, it was kind of a reality check,” said Ford. “I just decided, cut the leg off, I’m walking before my kids do.”
Ford’s left leg was amputated on Oct. 9, 2009, forever changing his life.
“I have made it my mission since I have started walking again that I would make the most of my life and everything I can to prove to myself that I am not disabled, but only wounded,” said Ford. “I hope this climb up Mount Rainier will be another step I take of a long line of adventures in my life.”
Gil “Mag” Magallanes Jr. served 21 years on active duty as a Special Forces Soldier. Magallanes was guarding the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, when he was injured by friendly fire after a 2,000-pound bomb was dropped on his team’s position.
Magallanes sustained multiple injuries to include traumatic brain injury. After a lot of therapy and hard work, he is once again competing in triathlons and exploring the great outdoors.
These three American patriots united by valor on the battlefield, teamed up with Micah Clark and the Camp Patriot team to rise above the clouds.
“At first it was just kind of a bucket list thing,” said Ford. “I’ve been through airborne school, jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, dove at Guantanamo Bay. The next thing was to climb a mountain.”
The adventure kicked off in Ashford, Wash., where members prepared their gear and assembled their teams for the climb early the following morning. The support team was comprised of members of the Special Forces community, led by Staff Sgt. Edward Grondin, 1st Special Forces Group. This team provided support to the Camp Patriot team mission by hauling gear and supplies up Mount Rainier.
For Grondin, this will be his fourth year supporting the climb. He has poured his blood, sweat and tears into the organization and donates the proceeds of his custom woodworking company to further support this mission of outdoor recreational therapy.
“I have very rarely met an organization run by people who genuinely put their entire self into it,” said Grondin. “If I’m able to be here, I’ll be here every year.”
The sun rose the next morning to clear blue skies for the climbers to begin the 4.5-mile hike up the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir, located on the Cowlitz Glacier at an elevation of 10,080 feet. With an average of nearly 75-pounds per rucksack, the teams marched up the steep slopes of Rainier with determination in their hearts.
The mountaineers trudged through the snow, one foot in front of the other, while navigating through clouds and over rocks and ice. After nearly seven grueling hours of climbing, the teams made it to Camp Muir with enough energy left to set up camp.
The next day was focused on summit training, during which four-person rope teams simulated falling down slopes and using themselves as anchors on the edge of the mountain. These new mountaineers got the opportunity to experience being harnessed into the rope, working with ice axes, and traversing up and down the mountain. As the training continued, the visibility diminished as the clouds crept in.
The climb to summit was to begin at 11 p.m. The teams went to sleep that afternoon without knowing if the weather would allow them to face the challenge of navigating the most heavily glaciated peak in the United States.
The anticipation of reaching the summit mounted during the wait. The words of doubters began to ring in Ford’s ears.
“I don’t think you’re ready for Mount Rainier,” someone said to him as he trained for the climb earlier this year.
Mother Nature would soon let Ford know if she would grant him the chance to prove the disbeliever wrong.
Early into the night the weather started to clear up, and the green light was given for the summit challenge to commence.
Like fireflies on a July night, each team member flicked on their headlamp to illuminate the steep, icy path which lay ahead. Ice axes in hand, the teams set off into the dead of night. As their journey elevated them high above the clouds, the temperatures dropped to below freezing.
The piercing sound of the ice axes being plunged into the frozen ground was all that could be heard over the bitter, howling wind that whipped harder and faster as the climbers approached the summit.
The rising of the sun illuminated a whole new world, high above the clouds, for the climbers to experience. After nearly eight hours of continuous inching along, Camp Patriot reached the summit. Just like that, after all the pain and hard work, there was just one more step to take before completing this accomplishment of a lifetime.
“Who needs two legs?” Shouted Ford in jubilation, as he stepped onto the summit. “My injury doesn’t stop me at all.”
Ford and Cowin grabbed Camp Patriot’s flag and raised it high above the clouds of Washington State.
“Every day’s a challenge,” said Cowin. “I was happy I finally made it.”
Magallanes successfully climbed to about 13,000 feet before traversing back down to Camp Muir.
Camp Patriot founder Micah Clark’s goal to create positive, life changing outdoor experiences has once again come to fruition.
These American patriots have not given up on life due to the extent of their injuries, instead they have taken the world by its reins.
“It’s inspirational on so many levels,” said Grondin. “It inspires me to go back to my day-to-day life and appreciate the things I do have and to continue to push myself in my own personal life.”
Open to military veterans from all wars and generations, Camp patriot continues its mission whole heartedly in the attempt to affect more lives.
“We show them that we love them and that we’re patriotic Americans,” said Clark.
For Cowin, Ford, and Magallanes, more thrilling adventures are just around the bend.
Cowin, originally from Grove, Oklahoma, plans to move to Puerto Rico to get his dive instructor certification. Ford, raised in Southern California, plans to get back into scuba diving. Magallanes finished his first 70.3-mile distance triathlon in 2010 and continues cycling as part of his therapy.
For more information on Camp Patriot visit their website at www.camppatriot.org.
For more information about outdoor adventures on Mount Rainier visit www.visitrainier.com.