“Halt!” The sled train came to an abrupt stop. Behind me, through the lodgepole pine forest, I could see men and one woman in digital-print army fatigues fumbling with snowshoes, lashing jackets and large grey packs to cargo sleds, and swigging water out of bottles in red nylon insulators. Third from the front, I looked up at Chris, the pace setter on the fourth day of this Colorado Outward Bound winter expedition for an Army Special Operations unit.
“Chris,” I said, It’s really going to be a bummer if you stop on this hill.”
“Cisco,” he replied to me, shaking his sweaty face, “I’m all about bummers.” Then he stood tall and perked up to see to the back of the 11-person crew. “Captain!” he shouted. “I don’t mean to intimidate you, Sir, but we got a hell of a climb coming up ahead.”
The Captain adjusted his sled’s hip belt and didn’t look up. “Well, bring it on then. I’m ready. I want this hill.”
“We’re up in thirty!” came the call from the back of the line. The crew passed the message forward and the train chugged on up the packed-snow logging road towards camp.
With four Veteran’s courses under my belt, this was my first experience working with an intact unit. I already admired the military culture’s integrity, camaraderie, and, as they say, ability to “embrace the suck.” This crew, which included pilots and crews that have been at war since 2001 and seen between 14 and 20 tours of combative duty, brought that admiration to a new level. From washing dishes in the dining hall to packing food and gear in the warehouse to digging out tent platforms and snow kitchens in the Colorado backcountry, they worked hard, laughed loud and were not late for anything. Ever.
This groups came to Leadville, Colorado looking for some awareness of and experience in a high altitude, mountainous, winter environment, much like the one they see in the mountains of Afghanistan. They also wanted to build some awareness of their team dynamics and leaderships structures which, unlike some military units, tends to blur the line between ranks as situationally appropriate. They also wanted some retreat style time out of their normal routine to spend time with team members who they don’t work with regularly. We spent one day on low ropes initiatives like the Mohawk Walk and Tension Triangle. Then we went ice climbing at Chalk Creek falls, where a 40-foot pour over freezes into an ideal vertical play ground. We explored avalanche rescue and avalanche terrain management and finally headed up into the backcountry for an overnight expedition to experience the winter environment at its fullest and practice with constructing improvised snow shelters.
At the end of the week I had learned as much as this group of unique students. The opportunity to work with our nation’s soldiers has been a highlight of my Outward Bound career, and I am continually inspired by, heartbroken by, and entertained by their stories. Mainly, I’ve learned that OB staff and participants and Military staff share common trials and tribulations: the deep fulfillment of meaningful work, the personal stress of spending long periods of time away from home, friends, and family; the difficulty of sharing what our experiences are like with those who weren’t there; and the unparalleled community that arises amongst people who share intense challenge. It has been my experience that soldiers past and present truly serve, strive, and do not yield.
Of course, before the crew headed home, we held a pin ceremony and handed out certifications, patches and compass rose stickers. This course was different, though. The students held a “pin ceremony” for us in return. In thanks for our week’s work, the captain of the unit awarded my co-instructor and I coins, which is a military tradition of honor and respect. He also awarded a coin to one of the week’s stand-out participants. In closing, I spoke to the group from my heart. “Thank you,” I said for your service to our country. Outward Bound has a rich history in relationship to with the military, and I am so proud that our organization has maintained it. I think the veteran’s program is OB at its very best. Outward Bound is my way of serving our country and our world. It has truly been an honor to serve you in this capacity.”
In fitting style we held the sentimental experience for a brief moment, and then the silence was broken by a rough joke, raucous laughter and the commotion of the next mission: washing dishes.