- Jeffrey Denning (WarriorSOS.com)
- I'm the author of four books: Warrior SOS, The Work of Death, Together Forever, and Leaders Wanted. I'm in the doc film Please Remove Your Shoes. I've blogged for The Washington Times, and I write for Guns.com. I've worked for the high-profile U.S.-led Roadmap to Mideast Peace in Israel and Palestine. I've also worked as a SWAT team leader, a Federal Air Marshal and a sole-source training instructor on a classified contract with a U.S. government customer. My master's degree is in Military Studies and terrorism. I'm a former noncommissioned and commissioned Army officer, with service in Iraq. I've been Scuba diving and skydiving; I have trained with members of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, and I'm an FBI-trained crisis negotiator. My interests lie in helping others and in strengthening America through inspiring moral courage, government fiscal responsibility and accountability, and maintaining principles that have made--and will continue to make--the United States of America a blessed and prosperous country. I'm a father of six, a husband, and a police officer. I reside in Utah, and I'm a Mormon. See also www.WarriorSOS.com.
November 3, 2010
Exclusive Interview with Expedition Leader for Soldiers to the Summit
Military veteran amputee, "Jukes"
Photo © Didrik Johnck 2010 / www.johnckmedia.com
Photo © Didrik Johnck 2010 / www.johnckmedia.com
Three legs on the trail
To read amazing interviews with warriors, check out Warrior SOS: Interviews, Insights and Inspiration, the book on Amazon.com. Here's the link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D3WO7VK
Jeff Evans, the founder of MountainVision Inc., and author of Mountain Vision: Lessons Beyond the Summit—a must read for every warrior. He is perhaps most well known for guiding the first blind climber, Erik Weihenmayer, to the summit of Mt Everest in 2001. Jeff most recently served as the Expedition Leader for the monumental Soldiers To The Summit Himalayan Expedition in Nepal. Along with his team, Jeff succeeded in planning and executing an expedition that would put seven injured US soldiers on the summit of a 20,100 ft Himalayan peak. A major ground breaking documentary film will follow in the Spring of 2011. (A full bio on Jeff Evans follows the interview below.)
Warrior SOS: How did you get connected with this project and what was your motivating factor for pursuing it?
Evans: For years now, I have worked with an organization called World TEAM Sports, which works in bringing together 'able bodied' and 'disabled' for sporting efforts around the world. Back in 2009, I was collaborating with the Executive Director, Jeff Messner on a potential project for 2010 where we would bring together wounded soldiers for a trekking or climbing project in some far away land. In a strange twist of fate, I learned of a family relative that was killed in combat while fighting in Afghanastan over this same period. This jumped us in to motion quickly and commited us to creating and executing a project that would be set in Nepal and involve climbing a peak. Also at this time I introduced the idea to my long time climbing partner Erik Weihenmayer...the blind climber that I have guided on mountains around the world, including Everest in 2001. Erik, in his typical fashion suggested we "go big" and climb a peak over 20,000 ft...and so it began.
As 2011 is the 10 year anniversary of our Everest summit, we saw this as an opportunity to be a part of a project that would be based on something bigger than "our Everest team". Next year will also be the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 and the beginning of full scale international conflict which would effect so many of our men and women in uniform. We knew that the full length documentary would be released in 2011...so the timing for a project of this nature was perfect. So, it was a very auspicious meeting of several events and personalities that planted the seed for this project.
Also of note...each of our "Everest Team" has a deep and profound respect for the drive and sacrifice of military men and women. Each of us, along with every other citizen of this wonderful country respects the fact that we are provided the opportunity to make a living at climbing mountains as a result of our freedom and the bounty that is provided to us living in the US. These opportunities are in part available to us as a result of the genuine sacrifice made my service men and women. And we aren't very good at many things...but we are good at getting folks up and down mountains. We are indebted and wanted to provide a medium for healing if at all possible.
Warrior SOS: Can you give us an idea of some of the veterans -- their motivations as well as their disabilities?
Evans: We had quite a mixed bag of men and women with a wide range of injuries from TBI to PTS (D). Also one blind soldier (from an IED) and 3 below the knee amputees. Regarding their motivations...several of them would probably tell you this was simply an opportunity to go have an adventure and climb a mountain in Nepal whereas there are a few that perceived this trip as an instrument of healing. PTS and TBI are very nebulous injuries...that remain difficult to treat. A journey into the Himalaya is a wonderful medium to allow one to look inside and be somewhat reflective about previous events and hopeful future endeavors. I feel confident that each soldiers pushed themselves physically and emotionally well beyond what they thought capable.
Warrior SOS: You have a unique perspective on disability, whether physical or emotional, would you care to share your thoughts about people with disabilities? Do you think all of us have disabilities?
Evans: I don't see it as much that we all have disabilities as much as those with physical and psychological injuries are simply more challenged. I have been guiding Erik for close to 20 years now and I would be hard pressed to call his blindness a disability. I have been a part of him accomplishing things that 99% of the worlds "able bodied" population would crump on. He accepts his "disability" as an adversity advantage. I have seen this happen with countless individuals over the years of working in the physically challenged community. Folks accept their injury and use it as fuel to be better than they ever could have imagined prior to the event. One of the amputees on the Nepal trip told me, "loosing my leg was the best thing that ever happened to me, because now I get to come do things like this.". It's a matter of perception...how do each of us use the tools and equipment we have to be the best we can be...to optimize our effort, disability or not.
Warrior SOS: It takes an enormous amount of will power, personal drive and motivation to accomplish things that others say are literally impossible. Yet you've done the "impossible;" you've accomplished things that others could never even dream of achieving. How do you do it, and what advice would you offer to others, particularly those wounded warriors, who want to give up?
Evans: More of what I mention above. I have used two tools to get things done in my life...
#1) surrounding myself with a solid team that are not self absorbed and have a team first attitude (and are very skilled at what they do). This goes for my climbing team as well the network of professionals that I work with. But most importantly my wife. She is my most skilled and important team member. Always in it for the team.
#2)Believing that any project worth doing is at least worth an attempt. Too many folks sit around and conceptualize objectives until they are blue in the face. The true alchemists are the ones who then get up and execute....in spite of the fear of falling. So I have tried to create a situation in my life where I'm not afraid to execute...where I let myself down if I don't at least try. Then it becomes amazing how much can get done with that attitude.
Warrior SOS: Can you share an instance or two on this last ascent where you motivated others to carry on and they achieved their goal?
Evans: On summit night on Lobuche (20,100ft) in Nepal on this most recent trip, I was personally guiding one of the soldiers, Steve Baskis. My great friend an climbing partner Brad Bull was in front of Steve and I was behind...tag teaming the guide commands for hours up steep rock in the dark and cold. Steve was clearly beat up early on...but Brad and I pushed him in every way possible...physically and psychologically. We heard Steve utter things like, "I can't do this. I didn't train hard enough. I want to go home. This is too hard." He was hurtin for certain.
We started to joke after 5 hours of this that Steve had heard all of our tricks and motivational cliches...that he needed some new material. But we got in Steve's head and pushed him as hard as we could. I think one of the truly motivating lines was, after running out of nice things to say to Steve to motivate him, I said "Steve, this is not about you. Quit being selfish. This is about all of your recently injured comrades...and those that are yet to be injured. You are doing this for them. Now knuckle down and get it done". Steve had no response for this and he got after it. Summited with us hours later in great style. I am so proud of him.
Warrior SOS: There are so many injured men and women who feel they have nothing left to carry on. They feel abandoned, forlorn and hopeless. What advice would you give them?
Evans: One of the aspirations of this trip was to provide a tool for injured military to hear of this story and see the upcoming film to see how their colleagues have accepted their injuries and ventured forth. It's a matter of seeking out challenging projects to keep busy and satisfied. A complacent life is a dangerous one. The film trailer can be viewed here: http://www.vimeo.com/16394684
Warrior SOS: What is the secret to overcoming all odds?
Evans: I don't have any secret. It's a matter of establishing compelling projects and objectives...putting a fence up in your yard, building your kid a treehouse or reaching a sales quota. Just something that's not easy and satisfying. Then surrounding yourself with people that believe in you and support your mission. Then executing. And doing in a way that inspires the people around you.
Warrior SOS: Lastly, how has working with these military veterans helped you? Is it true in your experience that selfless service and sacrificing for others makes life sweeter and helps us heal from our own struggles or our own personal wounds or disabilities?
Evans: I am still processing the things I have learned from this trip. Initially I thought it would be a trip about physical injuries but quickly learned that it would be more about the emotional challenges that would dominate the trip. Each of them showed me, in a very profound way, the genuine nature of sacrifice. We go away and risk our lives on mountains for selfish reasons. These soldiers have gone away and risked their lives for selfless reasons...for country and honor.
Warrior SOS: Will you share an example from your own life -- perhaps when you summited Everest in 2001?
Evans: [Here's an excerpt in my book, Mountain Vision: Lessons Beyond the Summit]
We filed out one by one into the darkness, leaving Camp IV behind. The sense of anticipation and nervousness that had been with us as we made our preparations soon melted into the hours of trudging up steep snow slopes and across rocky bulges. The wind beat down on us, but we moved efficiently, following each step with a few resting breaths. The object was to keep making progress upward through the packed snow and ice surface below ,while holding on to enough strength to see the night through. Even though our whole team was in a line moving upward, the setting was intensely isolating. The only thing I could see was the small pocket of light immediately in front of me provided by my headlamp, past that it seemed like the rest of the world had gone away. I found myself lost in my own thoughts, Erik trudging along happily behind me in some of his favorite terrain.
It was as we were packing our equipment that I first noticed a strong sensation in my chest. It was hardly noticeable at first, but as we made our final preparations and set off into the cold night, it grew stronger. It wasn’t a pain, but a tingle that was welling up inside me. With my medical training, I knew the cardiovascular risks we’d taken by being at altitude so long, but I didn’t feel afraid. The sensation wasn’t hurting me, it felt more like it was giving me strength. Now, making our way over the ice bulge, I could feel it increasing. The farther we buried ourselves into the thick, stormy night, the better I felt.
Instead of fading down, the storm that had accompanied us since we woke seemed to be picking up strength. We could hear thunder through the roaring wind, and we weren’t sure how much further we’d be able to keep going. Lightning is a very rare event on Everest, but with climbing gear and metal oxygen tanks strapped to our bodies, it wasn’t something to take lightly. As the rough weather drew nearer, we kept an ongoing discussion on our radios, eventually deciding to go just a little farther and see if it would fizzle out.
Despite our worries about the weather, I found myself continuing to feel better and stronger. The sensation in my chest was driving me on, and my pace started to pick up. Chris and Erik, who were immediately behind me, urged me to forge on ahead, so I let my legs go free and started passing some of my team members. Eventually I found myself at the front of the group and decided to venture out ahead a couple dozen yards.
I recognized a rock feature that would mark our halfway point to the summit. We had agreed we should stop there to assess whether we’d be able to continue. The thunderstorm we feared was still raging in the distance, but things seemed to be going very well otherwise. Despite the fact that we’d spent an extra day at Camp IV in the death zone, we were in a groove.
Everyone was moving along at a brisk pace. I stopped to look ahead. Behind the electric flashes, a small dot of light was peeking through. As I waited for the rest of the group to arrive, it grew larger and brighter, until I could make out the outline of perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The sun was rising just over the Everest summit, casting an inviting glow over the mountain. I spent a few awestricken minutes, taking it in before I turned to face my team. We all nodded to each other and, without a word, went on.
The feeling in my chest was like a small fire now, driving me farther ahead. My strides came quickly and easily, outpacing those of my teammates. Under the glow of the sun, I was free to wander farther ahead and remain roped in and within site. As I pushed higher, the storm that had threatened to engulf us had fallen just short. It was sitting a few dozen yards below our feet, spread out like a carpet under the ridge we were working up. The clouds were nearly perfectly flat, the lightning popping like squares on a disco floor. It was spectacular, but I wondered if my brain was suffering from oxygen deficiency. As a medical professional and someone who’s seen 107 Grateful Dead shows, I know that not everything your mind conjures up under those conditions exists in the outside world. But, to my relief, my teammates were amazed at the same awesome sight. For those few minutes, we walked on the clouds.
All through the night, we’d been following a set of ropes left by a previous team who had chosen the same route. We didn’t need them necessarily to find the way, but they would be critical for the descent if a storm were to move in and disorient us. At that altitude, a nice 80 mile-an-hour gust could push a climber directly off the side of the mountain and into a halfmile fall. Likewise, we could use them on the way back down from the summit. In white-out conditions, a climber could lose his orientation and step right off the side of a cliff, as one had done the previous day.
I’d reached a point, however, where the ropes stopped. We were about a quarter of a mile from the south summit, a peak just a few hundred vertical feet and a couple of hours from the actual summit. The way forward was obvious, but the ropes were buried under a couple feet of snow. A new rope had been fixed, veering off onto a different path 40 feet to the left that led through a field of rocky shale.
I had come to what I call my leadership moment. It was my chance to choose the easy way, or to sacrifice for my team. I had been feeling great, and the short detour on the left would have given me a fairly quick trip up to the south summit, with the final summit just a short journey beyond.
The sun had come out and burned away the clouds, leaving us with a clear, windless morning. This would be the best chance I could ever hope for to achieve every climber’s dream, reaching the top of the highest mountain. But I knew from my years of guiding Erik that the detour route would be very difficult for him. The ground was almost completely loose shale. It would be like walking on broken dish plates, taking a few steps forward not only to get ahead, but to fight the tendency to slide backward. That kind of ground was exhausting for him, and I knew he might not be able to navigate it and still have the strength to push for the summit. The way ahead would be great going for him, but it would mean digging out the ropes. In the thin mountain air, the effort would be excruciating. It would mean more than an hour of work, and I’d certainly be too exhausted to go on afterward. I finally understood what that feeling in my chest was, and what it was for. I took one more look to my left and the easy path. I followed it with my eyes up the south summit, through the small ridge beyond, and up to the goal that had been a dream for so many years. Then, I took a deep breath and let it go. It was time to dig.
I was surprised to find that I wasn’t bothered by my decision. I’d come to Everest to help Erik get to the top, my aspirations were secondary. I had done my job and would probably make it to the south summit. It wasn’t the summit, but it was close, and I didn’t need to take it any farther than that. I think it was in that moment I finally understood what leadership is all about. It’s not defined by a title or a role, or how many people answer to you. It’s about seeking opportunities to step up and showing your team you’re willing to put their success above your own. These chances come every day, whether working on a mountain or in a cubicle, you just have to take them. With the decision made, I started to chop into the ice and pull the ropes free. It was tedious and tiring, but also comforting to know my long trip was near an end. I knew with certainty I would not be able to continue on. My arms burned from the effort, and my lungs screamed as I drove my ice axe down again and again, freeing a few inches of rope with each blow.
Finally, I neared the end of the digging as the team caught up from behind. As the first climbers came within a few yards, I broke the last block of ice, springing the rope up in a taught line to the south summit. The work was finished, and so was I. I could barely breath, and even the sensation in my chest that had given me such a deep well of strength was exhausted.
I fell down to my knees. I looked back to my climbing partners and a huge wave of satisfaction rolled over me. One by one, they came to me as they realized what had happened, and offered their thanks. Erik had been last on the line and was the final teammate to reach me. He asked if I could go on, although he had to have known I was depleted. Looking across the ridge, I knew I couldn’t make it. It was possible I’d reach the top, but I’d never have the strength to get back down. Beneath my mask, I tried to force a smile. “Tagging the summit is optional,” I answered, “but going home isn’t.” Neither of us spoke for a moment. After everything we’d gone through together, it was finally time to reach the highest point, and I’d given it up for him.
Erik looked back to me. “Can you get down?” he asked, the pain evident in his voice. I told him I could. He seemed to be trying to undo the moment, not wanting to accept the situation. And then, my friend did the only thing he could: he thanked me, gave me a hug, and went to finish his ascent.
I sat on my knees watching Chris and Erik catch up with the rest of the group at the south summit. From there, it would be a two hour climb across a daunting ridge, followed by a short climb to the top. I couldn’t believe he was actually going to do it. After all the experts and critics had told us why it would be impossible, he was going to beat this thing. I was in no hurry to make my way down, just taking in the calm and quiet of the setting. The summit pyramid seemed so close I could touch it, sitting like a jewel with the moon hanging just above it. From so near the top, I could see the deep shadow it cast over Nepal, holding miles and miles in darkness hours after daybreak. I wondered if Everest would cast a shadow in my life as well, knowing I’d made it so close to the top without succeeding.
As I pondered this, the group reached the south summit. Erik turned back one last time to wave in my direction, and then continued on. I knew he was going to reach the top, and I wanted more than anything to share that moment with him. At the risk of sounding mystical, I feel that life gives you a nudge sometimes. I’ve always tried to keep watch for those times when the world seems to be speaking to me, and this was one of them. After sitting in resignation for nearly 5 minutes, some of my strength had returned. I didn’t know if it was enough for me to make it, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering. With my last bit of strength, I rose to meet and followed behind.
Beyond the south summit, you follow a ridge towards the top that becomes very steep very quickly. One wrong step to the right wins you a 10,000 foot drop into Tibet, while the prize for slipping to the left is a 6,000 foot fall into Nepal. If I fell, I was convinced it was probably going to hurt pretty badly. I thought of this as I tried to settle my rubbery legs and make my way through. It only took about an hour to catch up to the rest of the group. I fell in behind Erik and Chris. If there were any questions about why I’d changed my mind, my teammates kept them to themselves. We were all too exhausted to have the conversation. Past the ridge lay the Hillary Step, the most famous 40 feet of climbing granite in the world.
When Sir Edmund and his team first scaled the mountain in 1953, the Englishman relied on aerial reconnaissance to map out routes to the top. The photos available at the time had masked the short rock face that serves as the last barrier to the summit. With no way around it, he simply powered his way over it to reach the top. The face has borne his name ever since.
I had always thought if I reached the Step, I would climb it gracefully. I wanted to approach it like a work of art, a sort of climbing ballet. In reality, by the time I arrived, my body felt beat up and ruined. Unable to muster any technique or finesse, I embarked upon the ugliest piece of climbing you’ve ever seen. I flopped my arms upward, like a fish on the deck of a boat, hoping my hand would find some grip. Slowly and painfully, I heaved and convulsed my way up over the granite face in grotesque exhibition. I think I even tried to use Erik’s foot as a hold a couple of times. In the end it didn’t matter, because 30 minutes later I was standing on top of the world with a blind man.
Warrior SOS: Jeff Evans, thank you so very much for this inspiring interview. You're an inspiration to so many people, among them warriors needing a boost. In fact, your book should be mandatory reading for every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. We're inspired by the fact that you recently helped out so many wounded veterans on your recent adventure.
Evans: Thanks. It was an honor to be the expedition leader for this trip. I am the one who benefited the most for sure.
Jeff Evans is an inspiring, dynamic public speaker. Contact him today to come speak and motivate your group with his incredible insight and stories on leadership, courage and motivation in the face of death and danger.
For more information, see:
Jeff Evans, founder of MountainVision Inc., grew up scampering around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina but soon found that the higher mountains of Colorado would be the ideal setting to challenge himself as a mountain guide. At the age of 19, Jeff packed up his truck and relocated to the Colorado Front Range – beginning his love affair with the Rocky Mountains.
Since that time, Jeff has spent years exploring and working in the mountains cultivating the necessary skills to become a world-class mountain guide and member of the prestigious Explorers Club. Jeff spent five summers on Alaska's Mt. McKinley both as a guide and as a Search and Rescue Ranger for the National Park Service. Jeff attributes these years as critical development in his abilities to handle challenging situations at extreme altitudes.
But the turning point in Jeff's guiding abilities came in the early 1990s when he embraced the responsibilities to guide a then unknown and blind climber, Erik Weihenmayer. Together, they problem solved methods of adventure, travel, and communication to tackle the most challenging climbing and mountaineering endeavors ever attempted by a disabled athlete. Some of their more notable ascents include Mt McKinley, El Capitan, Leaning Tower, Aconcagua, culminating with a successful summit of Mt Everest in 2001 that gained much international attention as the first successful blind summit of the highest mountain in the world.
Somewhere squeezed between his years of mountain guiding, Jeff found time to finish his training as an Emergency Medicine Physician Assistant. He has focused his medical training even more with an emphasis on travel and altitude medicine, stressing safety and health on every one of his MountainVision trips.
Jeff most recently served as the Expedition Leader for the monumental Soldiers To The Summit Himalayan Expedition in Nepal. Along with his team, Jeff succeeded in planning and executing an expedition that would put seven injured US soldiers on the summit of a 20,100 ft Himalayan peak. A major ground breaking documentary film will follow in the Spring of 2011.
However, Jeff’s main passion is bringing the lessons he has learned from his experience as a world class mountain guide to the presentations and training he provides to companies and organizations worldwide. MountainVision Presentations brings a dynamic message that resonates with corporate and civic groups throughout a wide spectrum of industries.
Jeff founded MountainVision Expeditions (MVX) to provide adventurous persons the opportunity to challenge themselves on some of the most well known global treks and expeditions around the world. Jeff's objective on every trip is to inspire his new friends to accept the challenges of the natural world, discover the wonder of new cultures and find new levels of personal growth.
Jeff is the published author of MountainVision: Lessons Beyond the Summit and has appeared as one of the main characters in two different award winning documentaries, Farther Than the Eye Can See and Blindsight.
Jeff is a graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder (Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies) and Drexel Medical School in Pennsylvania. He also attended the University of Guadalajara in Mexico where he spent a term studying Latin American Culture and Spanish. He resides in Boulder, CO with his wife Merry Beth and son Jace.
To read amazing interviews with warriors, check out Warrior SOS: Interviews, Insights and Inspiration, the book on Amazon.com. Here's the link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00D3WO7VK