Traversing a glacier is no small feat. Our team pushes themselves to accomplish the mission even though the river might be higher than expected, or the pain gets pretty bad. They all pushed through and made a difference for themselves and others.
A special team of wounded veterans has notched another achievement.
Members of the Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge reached the summit of Aconcagua, one of the highest mountains in the world.
“It was a desert-type climate and it was straight up,” says wounded veteran Pete Quintanilla describing the mountain in Argentina.
The summit is nearly 23,000 feet, the highest spot in the Western Hemisphere.
Quintanilla was wearing a specially designed prosthetic leg made of carbon fiber as he climbed it. Based on its performance during the climb, he’ll provide feedback to the designer to improve new prosthetics for others.
CHALLENGE AND INSPIRE
The nine-man team was organized at the group’s headquarters in Tarpon Springs. They unloaded their backpacks after the month-long expedition to Argentina.
Billy Costello also lost part of a leg while in the army, but he’s participated in several of these challenges, including a trip to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro last year.
“Mission success to us is challenge, research and inspire,” said Costello.
Team members always invite other combat wounded veterans to join them.
“This is what I’m doing. You can do it too,” says Quintanilla.
Some in the challenge climbed with wounds not so easy to see, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Psychologist Carrie Elk, PhD, founder of the Elk Institute, assists with counseling and performs case studies to help find out how factors like altitude and group dynamics affect them.
“The issues they’re having are certainly going to be stirred up when you’re trying to accomplish something in a team,” she said.
Several in the team said they feel more confident with each challenge. Plans are in the works for underwater challenges this summer in the Florida Keys.
The team departed Mendoza Friday bound for Penitentes. The CWVC Aconcagua Challenge team spent the night at the ski resort at nearly 8500’ last night, so this move up by mini bus is an important acclimatization day and night for them. As you can see from the photos with water bottles in hand, they are doing a good job keeping hydrated. as this helps their bodies acclimatize better.
Saturday they had already hit the trail where they passed by some scenery with an alpine lake, over small bridges, tall trees and into higher alpine and dry river bed landscapes. Our team of combat wounded and injured warriors have already started the ascent on Aconcagua. Safe travels team and we look forward to receiving daily updates.
Some of the pictures shared with us by Caitlin (Alaska Mountaineering School) are below: (Thanks Caitlin!!!)
According to Wikipedia, “Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Western and Southern Hemispheres at 6,960.8 metres (22,837 ft). It is located in the Andes mountain range, in the province of Mendoza, Argentina, and lies 112 kilometres (70 mi) northwest of its capital, the city of Mendoza. The summit is also located about 5 kilometres from San Juan Province and 15 kilometres from the international border with Chile; its nearest higher neighbor is Tirich Mir in the Hindu Kush, 16,520 kilometres (10,270 mi) away. It is one of the Seven Summits.
Aconcagua is bounded by the Valle de las Vacas to the north and east and the Valle de los Horcones Inferior to the West and South. The mountain and its surroundings are part of the Aconcagua Provincial Park. The mountain has a number of glaciers. The largest glacier is the Ventisquero Horcones Inferior at about 10 km long, which descends from the south face to about 3600 m altitude near the Confluencia camp. Two other large glacier systems are the Ventisquero de las Vacas Sur and Glaciar Este/Ventisquero Relinchos system at about 5 km long. The most well-known is the north-eastern or Polish Glacier, as it is a common route of ascent.
The mountain was created by the subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South American plate during the geologically recent Andean orogeny; but it is not a volcano. The origin of the name is contested; it is either from the Arauca Aconca-Hue, which refers to the Aconcagua River and means “comes from the other side”,the Quechua Ackon Cahuak, meaning “‘Sentinel of Stone”, or Quechua Anco Cahuac, “White Sentinel” or the Aymara Janq’u Q’awa, “White Ravine”, “White Brook”. ”
Why are we climbing it?
Because it’s there!!
Our Challenge Warriors are climbing Aconcagua in 2015 to conduct research on prosthetic limbs, residual limbs, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post traumatic stress (PTS).
What will be researched during the Challenge?
The prosthetists and other members of the research team will test prosthetics in extreme and unique conditions, the effects extreme conditions (long climb, high altitude, extreme temperatures, etc.) will have on traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress related issues. Their research will improve prosthetics (components and technology) for amputees and contribute to treatment options for those suffering from post traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury.
Dan Swank lies down on a big ottoman in the living room of a waterfront estate and rolls up his pants.
“I’m nervous,” he says as a St. Petersburg College graduate student measures the stump of his right leg. “Wicked nervous.”
Nine years ago, an insurgent in Afghanistan tossed a grenade into Swank’s Humvee. The injuries forced amputation below the right knee and severely damaged his left leg.
Now, in about 48 hours, Swank and 13 others will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.
He is part of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, which leaves from Tampa today to conduct groundbreaking research on the effects of stress, extreme weather and altitude on prosthetics, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Swank has some concerns about how the stress of the trek will affect his stump, which is sealed with skin grafts.
“The skin grafts break easily,” he says.
But concern doesn’t mean hesitation.
“I don’t know how my body will handle this,” Swank says. “But I’m going.”
On a chilly Friday morning, the gated estate off Anclote Road owned by Carol Martin has been turned into a de facto military encampment.
Gear is piled up, and last-minute instructions are given.
Martin, a private benefactor who has bankrolled the expeditions, says she doesn’t mind.
“These men have sacrificed so much,” says Martin, who will travel to Tanzania but not climb.
“This is like any other military mission,” says Dave Olson, the retired Navy captain from Palm Harbor who created the organization and is in charge of the trek, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday and end on Jan. 29. “There is purpose, mission and end state.”
Because of severe weather and extreme altitude, a trek up 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro is arduous for an average climber. But this group consists of men missing limbs, one suffering from traumatic brain injury, and most experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The terrain is not that demanding if you have two functioning legs,” says Colby Coombs, founder of the Alaska Mountaineering School, who will lead the climb up the peak they call Kili. “But it is quite demanding if you have prosthetics.”
With driving rains, blinding snow, howling winds and a lack of oxygen at high altitude, climbing Kili “is like trying to shovel your driveway while wearing a garbage bag over your head,” Coombs says.
It is challenging enough to serve as a remote lab for Arlene Gilles, program director for the J.E. Hanger College of Orthotics and Prosthetics at St. Petersburg College.
Gilles and graduate student Ted Graves, 31, an Air Force veteran, are going along to measure the effects of extreme heat, cold, stress and altitude on the prosthetics.
The veterans taking part have some of the most advanced artificial limbs available — like the X2 system being used by Army Staff Sgt. Tom Costello, 30, who lost his right leg above the knee to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Sept. 20, 2011.
The most sensitive part of the artificial limb is the socket that fits over the stump.
Though they are form-fitted, prosthetics don’t adjust to the rigors of exertion. As the stump swells and shrinks, the skin can become chaffed and bleed and, in some cases, the artificial limb can fall off because of changes in the size of the stump.
Gilles and Graves are taking along an electronic device that will measure the stump sizes. The measurements will be taken twice a day to help researchers one day devise adjustable sockets.
Coombs stands on the estate’s wraparound porch inspecting the wide array of equipment the climbers will take with them, everything from several layers of clothing to sunscreen, lip balm, gloves, hats and toilet paper.
Kneeling down, going through his kit, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Rodriguez points out an unusual piece of gear: his son’s Kindle Fire e-reader.
During the climb, Rodriguez will use the Kindle to answer a series of questions that will test his cognitive skills and memory.
“Over the course of my 20 years in the military, I have experienced traumatic brain injury,” Rodriguez says.
The damage is so severe that his eyes don’t focus together, he has trouble hearing and his memory is hazy.
Rodriguez will turn over the data he collects to Stephen Scott, director of the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, who will use it to help find treatments for traumatic brain injury.
Most members of theteam have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, either as the result of combat, adjusting to life after injury or both.
Tom Barnhill, working toward a master’s degree in adventure-based therapy at Prescott College in Arizona, is going along to study whether the climb has any therapeutic benefits for those with PTSD.
The hypothesis, says Barnhill, is that for those who experienced combat, getting together as a team — under physical and mental stress to reach a common goal — will be “beneficial for the reduction of PTSD symptoms.”Barnhill conducted “baseline” studies of the climbers before leaving, checking for resilience, depression and adjustment to injury. He will conduct the same tests after the climbers return and again probably six months later.
Barnhill is well-suited for the trip.
He has more than two decades of wilderness adventure experience, spending his free time climbing, skiing, snowboarding, paddling and surfing. He spent nearly a year in Antarctica with Operation Deep Freeze, U.S. military operations in the South Pole.
Gilles, on the other hand, is making her first mountain climb.
“Yes, I am nervous,” she says in between measuring the prosthetic strides of Costello, retired Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Will Wilson, 52, retired Army Staff Sgt. Pete Quintanilla, 32, and Swank. “But I am leaving my family and the comforts of my home because these men gave so much for me.”
The climbers are going to carry an Explorers Club flag to the summit.
“Founded in New York City in 1904, The Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space” through support of scientific research, according to the group’s website.
Aida “Idee” Belau, the club’s Florida chapter chairwoman, says the Kilimanjaro mission was approved by the club after a rigorous selection process because the studies being undertaken are so important.
Belau is going along, too, but not just as an Explorers Club official.
“I am going to be lugging a lot of photographic equipment.”
The trip to Kilimanjaro is the second major expedition for Olson’s Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. In 2011, there was the Mount Denali climb in Alaska.
Also on that mission were Wilson, who lost his right leg below the knee after an accident in 2003 aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, and retired Army Staff Sgt. Victor “Yeti” Thibeault, who was in the Humvee with Swank and lost most of his left hand.
They have advice for the new climbers.
“Don’t keep secrets,” Wilson says.
Everyone has different skills, different strengths and will have bad moments, he says. By sharing what they are experiencing, the team will be safer and stronger.
“I’m just glad there are no crevasses,” says Thibeault, 31, who fell into several on Denali.
In addition to the science, he says, this climb is about hope.
“There are a lot of wounded in hospitals who have no idea they can do this,” he says. “We are showing that it can be done.”
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