“In the military, you’re focused on staying alive. You come out here, you can enjoy the scenery,” U.S. Army Sgt. Wynnston Hall said during a Nov. 16 event at Chimney Rock State Park. Since returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2017, he’s been stationed at Fort Bragg in eastern North Carolina.
Rock climbing, says Hall, is a way for him to recapture the excitement and camaraderie of deployment without the anxiety of working in a combat zone. “The adrenaline was awesome, and then when I got better at it, [I found] calmness while doing it,” he says.
Hall was one of a group of Fort Bragg personnel who came to the park to take part in the American Alpine Club’s new Hill to Crag initiative.
Army Maj. Byron Harvison, who chairs the club’s Salt Lake chapter, helped organize the new program. He was joined by Strategic Communications Director Ron Funderburke, a former North Carolinian who has history with the park.
“I was a guide and did a lot of work here at Chimney Rock for over a decade,” he explains. “This is a great homecoming for me and a great chance to show off some of the places that I always treasured when I was here.”
The two men have been traveling across the United States recently, hosting free climbing events for veterans and active military personnel of all experience levels, giving them a chance to get outside and up on some rocks. Chimney Rock was this year’s fourth and final Hill to Crag event, and with 24 people in attendance, Harvison considers it the most successful one so far.
“We just started this last month,” he notes. “This North Carolina event has been our best attendance. We’ve been averaging somewhere around 12-15 people participating, but this one has blown it out of the water.” The previous climbs took place in Golden, Colo., the Vedauwoo Recreation Area in Wyoming and Joe’s Valley, Utah.
A pressing issue
Many veterans, says Harvison, find that after returning from deployment they get not only physical but also emotional enjoyment from being outdoors. That’s important, he points out, because the statistics regarding American veterans’ mental health are increasingly concerning.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 20.4 million veterans in the United States in 2016. Various studies, Harvison says, indicate that “3-10 percent of those veterans suffer from PTSD or some kind of post-service emotional or behavioral health issue.”
That means, he continues, as many as 2 million veterans are experiencing psychological ailments, and as many of half of those are not seeking treatment or have dropped out of treatment programs.
“I’m sure everybody here knows somebody who has either taken their own life or died due to the use of alcohol or drugs. They’ve lost their lives because they haven’t received proper treatment,” Harvison says. “There is a statistic out there that between 2009 and 2011 we were losing 22 veterans a day, and in my opinion that is unacceptable. We need to get those folks help.”
Studies by the American Institute of Stress, which publishes the quarterly Combat Stressmagazine, have shown that veterans who take part in outdoor recreational activities have a lower incidence of recidivism, Harvison says. Those results, he argues, demonstrates the need for greater efforts to make veterans aware of programs like the Alpine Club’s initiative and other kinds of treatments that the Department of Veterans Affairs calls “complementary and alternative medicine.” The label also applies to such modalities as yoga, meditation and acupuncture.
“When they incorporate [those approaches] in with the traditional treatments, it is statistically much more successful than just going in, being medicated and sitting on a couch for treatment,” says Harvison. “Sometimes it is hard when you are going through counseling to relate to the counselor, because they don’t know what you’ve been through. A lot of us just met for the first time, but we share a common bond of experience. We have gone through a lot of the same things during deployment, plus we all have that love of the outdoors.”
A growing need
Harvison believes increasing wait times for treatment constitute a strong argument for the alternative approaches offered by the Alpine Club and other organizations. These programs, says Harvison, can help veterans while they wait for VA assistance and can also serve as a therapeutic supplement to conventional treatments.
“It’s good to be outside. Especially if you are experiencing a post-deployment issue, it is good for your body and mind, because climbing requires a certain type of focus. It makes everything else just fade into the background — you have to be present in the moment, and you can’t mess around. You have to be right there, and it helps dissipate some of the other issues you have in your life that you might be dealing with.”
To encourage veterans to explore the therapeutic options the Golden, Colo.-based nonprofit offers, it’s reducing their membership cost. “In January we’re releasing a special veterans membership,” Harvison reveals. “The membership will cost $50, the same as a student rate, and it will be available for active-duty and retired vets from all branches of the military.”
Connecting the dots
Another goal for the Hill to Crag initiative is to connect veterans with their government representatives, to help those elected officials appreciate the various benefits public lands can provide.
Jordan Barnes, the regional representative for Sen. Thom Tillis, attended the Chimney Rock event on behalf of Tillis, who was in Washington that day. “Sen. Tillis is a huge outdoorsman and a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee,” noted Barnes. “All of our regional reps do what we can to support our veterans, but anytime we get to come mountain climbing and rock climbing, we’re definitely going to do that too.”
Reaching new heights
For veterans like Hall, the teamwork and camaraderie required to have a safe and successful climb are what the Hill to Crag initiative is all about. Hall also says that for him, playing the support role is almost as much of a thrill as the climb itself. In the belay position (holding the rope to secure the climber from below, he explains), one has to understand the equipment and stay in constant communication with the person climbing, because their safety depends on it.
“You feel like you have another person’s life in your hands,” says Hall. “You have a very important role in that guy or lady’s safety. Same for the military: You have lives in your hands, and you’ve got to bring them home safely.”
Hall says he loves cheering someone on to succeed at something they may have thought was impossible, but for him, nothing compares with the thrill of being the one up on the side of a cliff face.
“You can’t experience this from a couch: You have to get out there and do it. You can literally feel like the only one in the world when you reach the top.”