GRAND LAKE - It was training camp at the Grand Lake Nordic Center when six injured veterans took to the trails in preparation for an excursion in Antarctica at the end of the year.
The team, of which four will actually advance to the South Pole, will be joining two other teams from England and the Commonwealth of Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as part of the Fort Collins-based Soldiers to Summits program, with the mission of helping veterans with disabilities to transition to civilian life by finding they can overcome physical and mental obstacles.
The three teams of the "race" in the South Pole may be joined by Prince Harry during their Antarctic excursion, and a film crew has committed to filming a documentary of the trip.
"Mountains are the ultimate metaphor about anything in life," said Program Director Charley Mace, who said he has been visiting Grand Lake for 30 years.
The ascent and summit of a mountain can represent overcoming adversities, such as marriage problems, addictions, physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
By conquering the challenge of climbing a mountain or pulling 150-pound sleds 208 miles in 50 below zero Antarctica as an amputee, or blind, or burn sufferer - or dealing with the mental anguish from the traumas of war - veterans take hold of their lives in the face of "a certain past and an uncertain future," says the Soldiers to Summits website.
On a first excursion in 2010 through the program, veterans climbed the Himalayan peak Lobuche in Nepal. The next year others climbed the Andean peak, Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
The transformational journeys are meant to establish a "no barriers mindset," Mace said, as these service men and women integrate back into society during rehabilitation.
Grand Lake training
The Grand Lake Nordic Center was the first training ground for the 2013 team, with another training in Iceland in two weeks.
The Nordic Center donated full use of its facility and equipment for the three-day training Feb. 8-10 and supplied the team members with soup and chili each day.
"We tried to do everything we can for those guys," said Aurel Burtis of the Grand Lake Nordic Center, saying seeing them train was "inspiring."
Some pulled tires by way of ropes and harnesses wrapped around their waists to prepare for pulling sleds through the subzero landscape of the South Pole. Some pulled the tires from the Nordic Center to their cabin near the Winding River Ranch at the end of the day, a six-mile journey.
Touted by one team member on Facebook as a "bunch of beat-up soldiers" who weren't quite "pros" cross-country skiing on the Rocky Mountain terrain, but improving each day, the group of one woman and five men were led by polar explorer Inge Solheim.
"I am still amazed at the heart and drive of the team," wrote U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Wintterle, on Facebook, following the Grand Lake training, "doing stuff that most people out there could not do at 100 percent healthy." The Marine from Missouri suffered blast injuries in Afghanistan and deals with PTSD, according to Mace.
"I'm sure we are all questioning our levels of fitness, mental determination and ability to tolerate the unrelenting elements of cold," wrote U.S. Army Cpt. Mark Wise of Virginia. From an explosion during his service, Wise suffered burns on 80 percent of his body.
"I am excited to represent the other veterans who continue to face life's challenges."
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603