By Sydney Sauber
It took a million years for glaciers to carve Yosemite Valley, but it only takes two days for its three-thousand-foot white granite faces to transform climbers into a family at the Paradox Sports Yosemite Veterans program. There’s something about mixing the cultures of climbing and the military that ties people together, long after the task is done. Maybe we’re all gear-heads who like to use stuff to do cool things with our buddies, that we could never do alone. Or perhaps, organizing gear at the base of a cliff, while reviewing the day’s big moments and near misses, feels a little like maintaining equipment back at the base, having the same kind of conversation with the team at the end of a big mission.
I’m not a veteran, so I’m not the usual Yosemite Veterans program participant. I didn’t acquire a disability, but I was born with AD/HD and learning disorders, so I know how it feels to have a brain that doesn’t always follow orders. I became a teacher, then a brain researcher, and a writer. In 2008, I met my husband, Steve, who has a spinal cord injury. He recruited me for the 2018 climbing trip to Yosemite Valley over 9/11, which commemorates veterans and service members.
Veterans + 9/11+ Climbing + Yosemite = there’s nothing else like it.
I’ve climbed in Yosemite more than fifty times. Late morning light casts rainbows in mid-air by bouncing off white granite walls through meadow-colored mist. Evening sun paints them fire orange.
Climbers stretch their bodies on the nose of El Capitan. Even when viewed through a telescope, they look like ants. The bears, the waterfalls, the cliffs, its bigness against my smallness makes me cry, on the rock or in a meadow, looking up at a wall of rock-cloud-sky. At every trip’s end, I feel rejuvenated. But in 2018, the trip transformed me.
I went from knowing nothing about the honor of, “a veteran who… at some point in her or his life, wrote a blank check made payable to, ‘The United States of America,’ for an amount of, ‘up to and including my life,’” [Author Unknown] to a sister in the fight to protect their rights to appreciation; compassion; social, medical, educational and spiritual services; and financial compensation for all manner of harm that comes to their bodies, minds and spirits as a result of serving us with honor.
What happens while rock climbing at Paradox Sports’ program in Yosemite, can only happen in Yosemite because of its military history. African-American troops of the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry, protected both Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in 1899, 1903, and 1904. From 1943-1945 the Ahwahnee Hotel became a United States Naval Special Hospital for the treatment of mentally traumatized sailors and marines, what we now call PTSD. Today, veteran Dave Henderson is Yosemite’s Veterans’ liaison, who is committed to helping vets transition to a new task and purpose by pursuing a new service with the US National Parks. Being in Yosemite with veterans on 9/11, climbing seemingly insurmountable mountains together, infused us all with an appreciation of the lineage of military service there.
Military culture is the foundation of the Paradox Sports Yosemite community. Because the vets make up the majority of participants, they have a “critical mass.” When people belong to a group that has a critical mass, they don’t feel like outsiders, even if they aren’t the majority in society at large. At the Paradox Sports program they can be themselves and don’t need to assimilate.
Even though, “It takes a vet to know a vet,” civilians get to know parts of veterans in casual interaction at camp. They are not excluded because they haven’t served, but are included because they climbed. They are brothers and sisters in meals, campfire silliness and military humor.
Civilians don’t have to worry about getting things wrong. The veterans’ culture is so strong and clear that they don’t have to figure out anything. Civilians are part of the plan, head count, debrief and expectations for behavior that carries over to climbing together.
Climbing culture, and the act of climbing, provides an opportunity for vets to “tie-in” with all the other climbers, which creates camaraderie that enables vets to face their fears or perceived limitations, and accomplish their goals. They take that feeling home and use it to deal with other challenges.
We all learned we can do things beyond what others imagine and beyond what we can do by ourselves. Complete self-sufficiency is a myth. Everyone needs other people to thrive. Veterans are expert team members. For me, climbing with veterans was even more bonding than with most civilian climbers because it’s in the blood of all the vets to pay attention to each team member’s efforts and achievements as though they were their own, because, to them, they ARE.
Soldier-civilian bonds are pools of trust formed drop by drop. It can seem like forever to feel like family with civilian climbing friends. “You might have to go to several single-day climbing events, be engaged over weeks. You’re not gonna get trust overnight, unless it’s on a three or four night Paradox trip. We’re immersed and everyone becomes a team, and then you start climbing, which is super team focused, and you’re trusting each other, that makes the trust factor come faster. Paradox [Sports] helps veterans better trust, understand and respect civilians. It helps us find other people who have been through the same s–t, to find a sense of confidence, to realize we can be part of a team again. We discover a new task, another purpose, another sense of community. At the end, it’s like leaving church camp, you don’t wanna go.” – Rex Laceby
After tying-in with vets on 9/11 in Yosemite, Paradox has transformed them from men and women in uniform into my brothers and sisters, whom I will never leave behind.