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Climbing for Warriors

Program helping Airmen overcome their obstacles

62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Published: 02:55PM August 1st, 2013
130720-F-GM792-004

Staff Sgt. Jason Truskowski

Master Sgt. Doug Neville and Staff Sgt. Brian Wadtke share snacks during one of the rest stops along the route to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier.

For most of us, hiking and climbing in harsh conditions is arduous work to be avoided.

But two Airmen from McChord Field recently took on a local climbing challenge, summiting Mount Rainier and returning in four days — 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.

Major 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 the 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 suffered numerous injuries while deployed to Southwest Asia and is unable to return to duty. He has served for 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.”

Wadtke and Neville have undergone months of physical therapy and strength building exercises 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 the Seven Summits Team in Ashford, Wash. July 19. The evening began with a relaxed dinner and shared personal stories about a troubling time in all of their lives and how they overcame or are currently overcoming those boundaries.

After collecting gear from a local Ashford mountain-guide outfitter the team leader for the Mount Rainier summit, Uberuaga, and other team members told 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 a proud smile on his face.

With trekking poles in hand, Wadtke and Neville joined the hiking line headed toward Camp Muir. Early morning, many small groups of four hikers headed for Muir. They hit the trail trying to get a jump start on the looming warmer temperatures. The sun was bright and visibility was limitless at 5,400 feet in elevation at the visitor’s center. One of the team members was heard saying, “I can only imagine what the view will be from Muir!”

The trek to Camp Muir took about six hours with the team taking 10-minute comfort breaks each hour to eat snacks, hydrate and make clothing adjustments.

Major Grayden Muller, a helicopter pilot from the 6th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., taught pressure breathing, how to walk on snow, and trail etiquette at predetermined stops.

Arriving at the Muir Snow Field the pace turned almost into a crawl as the elevation steepened drastically. Team members carryied 40 to 50 pound packs. Every step forward was planned and executed carefully. 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 moonlit 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, Washington July 23.