We’re at 10,188 feet on the mountain when I start to worry. The numbness in my toes has crept into my ankles and is now climbing up my shins toward my knees. My hands are clumsy for lack of blood, and icy water is running down my back and attempting to breach my waistline. I’m painfully cold and getting colder fast. Brutal wind and sheets of snow punish every step I take toward Mount Rainier’s summit, still more than 4,000 feet above our small column of Army and Marine Corps veterans. The last command given by both my wife and my editor suddenly echoes in my head: “Don’t fucking die up there.”

At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest peak in Washington and the most glaciated mountain in the contiguous United States. Known to locals simply as “The Mountain,” Rainier dominates the Seattle skyline. More than 10,000 climbers visit the mountain every year, and about half successfully reach the summit, most of them with the help of guides.

We’re eight hours into the climb and battling a blizzard high up in the clouds when the reality of our extreme isolation really hits me. We’re on our own, hours away from the nearest piece of dry clothing or warmth, and no one is coming to help. No magic switch can be flipped that will stop the wind and rain, no portal to transport us back to our cars and dry clothes at the base of the mountain. It’s up to us to figure something out. If we don’t, we risk freezing to death.

The realization both terrifies and thrills me. This is the scenario that the same part of my brain that misses combat was hoping for. The rest of my brain — probably the part not rattled around by IEDs — is scared shitless.

24 Hours Earlier

It’s June 12, 2021, and strewn across the lawn of the modest rancher in Puyallup, Washington, is every kind of climbing gear one might possibly need to climb the mountain. Tents, packs, ice axes, crampons, glacier glasses, goggles, freeze-dried food, water bottles, insulation pads, sleeping bags, ropes, harnesses, and cold-weather clothing all lie in the grass like the aftermath of a miniature tornado.

Our team of climbers — several experienced, most of us inexperienced — come from two veteran service organizations: Patrol Base Abbate and Veterans Adventure Group, or VAG. Leading the climb are two Army veterans, Justin Matejcek — the founder of VAG — and Austin McCall, a former Ranger and the most experienced climber on the team. The rest of us are mostly Marines. There’s Michael Spivey, a former combat engineer and Paralympian who left one of his arms in Sangin, Afghanistan; Kevin Fallon, a stocky, active-duty Marine infantry officer; and Jordan Laird, a former scout sniper who served alongside Spivey through some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Afghan War.

“We’ve still got team gear that needs to get packed up,” Matejcek says to no one in particular. He’s reminding us this is not a guided climb, and everyone has to chip in to lug the essentials more than 10,000 feet up to Camp Muir. No Himalayan Sherpas or Samwise Gamgees will be carrying gear for us. Everyone is his own mule.

Matejcek is a former sniper from the 101st Airborne’s Pathfinder Company and an avid outdoorsman. In 2016, he founded VAG to give veterans opportunities to try extreme sports, including an annual climb of Mount Rainier. He has taken 128 veterans up the mountain, with 85% reaching the summit — a much higher success rate than the park’s 45% average for independent climbers. In just a few short hours, Matejcek will live up to his promise of placing us all in an extreme environment where “veterans thrive and most people merely try to survive,” as he puts it.

Most of our team is here through Patrol Base Abbate. The organization’s namesake, Matt Abbate, earned the Navy Cross in October 2010 while serving as a Marine scout sniper in Sangin, Afghanistan, where he was later killed in action. Among the climbers gearing up around me are three of Abbate’s former comrades, including Laird.

“Hey brotha! I told you you’d be getting a hug when I met you!” Laird says, wrapping me up in an uninvited bear hug. “I’m Jordan, your new favorite hippie scout sniper.”

From the moment he hugs me to when he drops me off at the airport four days later, the smile never leaves his face. His positive attitude infects the whole team, but beneath the outward positivity, Laird has been struggling. Following his years in the Corps, Laird dabbled in security contracting but ultimately hung up his M40 sniper rifle. He tells me he’s freelance writing for a few publications but is still looking for a more fulfilling career. When another Marine veteran — who is scheduled to go on a different climb after us — finds out Laird was in 3/5, he practically bombards him with loose connections to Abbate.

“I worked with a guy who went to school with Abbate! Real stand-up Marine,” the guy says, unaware of Laird’s close relationship with Abbate.

“Oh, nice man,” Laird says politely. He nods along respectfully until the guy gets tired and moves on to bother someone else.

“That kind of stuff really frustrates me, dude,” Laird says to me. “Why do guys feel like they have to validate their service by making up some connection to guys like Matt?”

I don’t have an answer for him, but I nod in agreement. A year earlier, a friend of mine killed himself. He was an experienced combat leader who lost his leg to an improvised explosive device less than a month into my first deployment. He had become an outspoken figure regarding mental health and gathered a substantial online following within the veteran community before he decided one day to put a pistol in his mouth and tragically end his life. There was a tidal wave of false sympathy on the internet. Droves of people commented on various social media platforms, gushing about how great of a man he was, elbowing each other over who had the deepest connection. It was all bullshit. The truth was, he wasn’t a great man. He wasn’t even a great Marine. And the massive social media presence he had created ultimately failed to fill whatever void he was burdened with. The forced connections people felt the need to brag about after his death irked me the same way this guy irked Laird.

After final gear checks, we retire to our respective air mattresses and couches for an early bedtime. The sun is still high in the sky at 9 p.m., but we’ve got an early start tomorrow. I scarf down another helping of spaghetti for the extra carbs, then pull my sweatshirt over my head for some darkness.


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