Injured veterans conquer Grand Teton
ATOP THE GRAND TETON – Chad Jukes’ bugle pierces the somber silence at the top of the world, 11 years after America gasped through the sudden, wrenching throes of terror. The peg-legged veteran’s heart-swelling “Taps” rouses a team of injured soldiers and their supporters from an intense, emotional moment of recollection palpable with aching loss, inspiration and achievement.
“Recognizing all the people who have stepped up to defend their country. Recognizing all the sacrifices that were made. Just an amazing moment,” said Nico Maroulis.
The 35-year-old from Austin, Texas, doesn’t discuss the 2003 explosion that changed her life, but she remembers glimpses of her recovery at Brooks Army Medical Center, where the morning cannon blast sent her scrambling from her bed, seeking cover. On Tuesday, after almost a decade of surgeries and three years in a wheelchair, Maroulis fought her way up and down the iconic Grand Teton in Wyoming. The grueling ascent — led by retired Special Forces guides from the 81-year-old Exum Mountain Guides — saw three injured veterans overcoming not just vertiginous, exposed granite, but a litany of physical, mental and spiritual challenges that can haunt an injured soldier’s war-ravaged life.
It was a committed team, organized by Boulder’s adaptive-focused Paradox Sports and sponsored by Florida entrepreneur and veteran’s advocate Kip Speyer’s website, mybrightmountain.com. The raging wildfire skirting Jackson Holeand choking the valley, the bitter and blasting winds and the first ice of the season failed to thwart the veterans’ audacious mountaineering mission.
“There is no bad weather. There is no good weather,” said the indefatigable Jukes as he leaned into a steady 40-mph blast that harangued the inspiring two-day ascent of the 13,700-foot peak. “It’s just weather.”
Jukes, whose custom plaid prosthetic stamped saucer-sized smiley faces in pockets of sand on the rocky trail up Grand Teton National Park’s Garnet Canyon, lost his right leg in December 2006 in Iraq.
Since then, the nimble 28-year-old has climbed massive peaks in the U.S. and Nepal and cycled across the country, living a purposely active life designed to spark outdoor vitality among his disabled military brethren.
“Getting into the mountains and climbing … grants a really remarkable sense of self dependence,” said Jukes, describing the loss of vital independence that plagues injured veterans. “The ability to experience that again really puts someone on a path to wholeness and self-fulfillment. It can really change lives.”
The veterans bonded on the climb, delving into deep discussions about prosthetics, recovery and battle. They relished their camaraderie, interacting with kin who carry the same scars. They worked as a team under a constant barrage of motivational praise, roped together in whipping winds as they labored upward. The resonance of Sept. 11 — forever a pivotal point in American life — fueled the war-torn soldiers.
“That day has always brought up a lot of emotions for me,” said Maroulis, who enlisted in the Navy the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I’ve always wanted to put those emotions into action.”
Lives were fundamentally changed on the Grand Teton on Tuesday, as mountainous barriers collapsed under a purposeful, expertly executed attack.
“My best days of guiding ever,” said Exum guide Mike Kirby, a rock-solid Army Ranger who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two months after leaving the military in 2011, the mountaineer was caught in a surprise fall blizzard on Longs Peak, forcing the eventual amputation of part of his frostbitten right foot.
Kirby birthed the idea of an injured veterans climb in June, joining Paradox Sports chief Timmy O’Neill in assembling the team of guides and veterans for the 9-11 ascent of the Grand Teton. The goal was bigger than a single mountain.
“Paradox creates an incredible feeling, but our message is about building a platform that everyone in the world — including the 98 percent who have never known injury — can learn and grow from,” said O’Neill, an enigmatic, energetic force behind countless adventures.
And the 9-11 push on the Grand Teton was larger than a handful of healing veterans. The hope is that the day’s inspiration reaches a community beyond struggling soldiers.
“Our sense of service doesn’t end with our injury,” said Andrew Sullens, whose right leg was mangled in May 2010 when his truck hit an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, eventually forcing amputation below the knee.
Sullens, a brawny, tattooed former sheriff’s deputy from Georgia, who never lost his infectious grin throughout the arduous 12-hour ascent, sports a technologically advanced prosthetic that enables him to burst into a sprint. Today, his mission has moved beyond the battlefield: a relentless drive to “get people out there doing it.”
“It’s about empowering people and showing everyone it’s possible and it comes back to being something bigger than yourself,” said Sullens as he absorbed the breathtaking vista spilling from the Grand Teton summit. “If I can show people they don’t have to accept defeat or compromise, if people can realize that, they’ll be surprised by what they can achieve in their life. That’s why I do what I do. I’m trying to create an idea and IEDs can’t blow that up. Bullets can’t hurt it.”
Chad Jukes draws laughs from climbers as he warms up his bugle on the hike to the Lower Saddle of theGrand Teton. He played “Taps” at the summit.