Wounded soldiers to climb mountain near Everest this fall
A climber hangs a giant Canadian flag from the summit of Ha Ling Peak July 18 as part of a climb undertaken by 14 Canadian Forces soldiers training to climb Island Peak, a 6,189-metre mountain in Nepal.
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For wounded Canadian soldier Dave Macdonald, events over the next four months may be the proudest of his life.
Having arrived in Canmore on July 15, Macdonald is part of a 14-person team of retired and reserve Canadian Forces members participating in a training program that will eventually see them tackle the 6,189-metre summit of Island Peak near Mount Everest in Nepal.
"I wanted the opportunity to be part of this team and be able to tell my story," Macdonald said at a press conference for the training mission held at Silvertip Golf Course last Wednesday (July 18).
"Hopefully by telling my story and doing the climb we can inspire other soldiers who have been hurt or wounded and tell them that just because you're hurt, doesn't mean your life has to end."
Organized by the True Patriot Love Foundation in partnership with the CBC and the Documentary channel, the "March To The Top Expedition" this October gives soldiers and reserve members a new positive challenge after suffering physical and mental injuries during active duty.
The entire journey, from training mission to the actual climb in the Himalayas, is being captured on film for a documentary that will air across the country at the beginning of next year. According to Tim Hodgson, co-chair of the expedition, the adventure is meant to create awareness about injured soldiers and help them get back on their feet and into the workforce.
"With these soldiers, in my opinion, their country has asked them to do something and they've risen to the challenge," Hodgson said. "When they volunteer and then get injured, as a society we owe it to them to make sure we get them functioning again and that's the real challenge.
"I think it's really important to say we haven't forgotten about you, we know you made a sacrifice and we're going to be there with you to help you make things right again," he added.
The 14 participants who took part in the Canmore training mission worked with professional mountaineers that were both teaching and evaluating them to ensure they'll be able to handle the climb on Island Peak safely. Part of the training was on the Columbia Icefield between Banff and Jasper National Parks to emulate the setting in Nepal.
"This is about helping them with their rehabilitation and giving them an interesting and exciting challenge," he said. "It's also about making sure we use this as a platform to raise awareness and do it in a safe way. One of the key parts of the week is to make sure everyone is able to handle 21,000 feet."
During the expedition's planning stages, the True Patriot Love Foundation received over 100 applications from eager participants recovering from physical and mental wounds sustained during service. Out of the 14 present for the training last week, only 10 will be selected to scale Island Peak.
"We wanted to make sure the group was representative, so when you look at the applicants they're from every region in Canada," Hodgson explained about the selection process. "You'll also see that there are male and female soldiers and there's a combination of mental and physical injuries.
"Paramount through all of that is picking a group that can safely do this," he continued. "Helping them with their rehabilitation and helping them move on to the next part of their life."
Providing services and initiatives for Canadian Forces members returning from duty is something the federal government has prioritized, said Westlock-St. Paul MP Brian Storseth, who was present at the press conference.
Programs such as Helmets to Hardhats, which places members from the armed forces into building and construction careers, have helped former soldiers become very successful members of society, he said.
"It's the inspiration that it's going to bring to thousands of Canadians as they watch what these men and women go through, the obstacles they overcome and the determination they have," Storseth said about the eventual documentary.
"In Canada, we're blessed with natural resources, but one of the things we sometimes forget is our best natural resources is the people in Canada and the Canadian Forces certainly represent the best of the best," he added.
Town of Canmore Councillor Jim Ridley said he was pleased the expedition chose Canmore as its training ground as well as with the program's goal of helping integrate wounded soldiers into the community.
"It's worrying every time we send soldiers into harm's way," Ridley said. "It's great to know there are people that are thinking about what some of the charitable outcomes could be and how we can deal with that after the fact. Obviously, from the sponsors and the comments from the MP, the government is stepping up to recognize that these are real issues that we need to be aware of and deal with."
After spending nearly eight years in the forces and serving overseas in places like Afghanistan, Macdonald is extremely happy to participate in the training mission and is grateful of the experience, whether he is selected as one of the final team members or not.
"It's been a nice experience for me in more than one way," Macdonald said. "It's made me find some clarity and helped me think clearly since my injury. Even though I still have some lingering effects, nothing is slowing me down. I'm going to scale that mountain and get ahead no matter how slow or how long it takes for me."
Macdonald, a corporal in the Royal Regiment of Canada, has a strong military background in his family, with his grandfather and great-grandfather being honoured by the King of England for their services in World War I and II.
This new challenge, which Macdonald also says is about encouraging those suffering in silence from mental and physical injuries from war to seek help, may prove to be more rewarding for him then his own brush with British royalty when he met Prince Charles and Camilla during a commemoration ceremony in Afghanistan last year.
"Next to that, this is probably one of the proudest moments of my life," he said. "Getting up to that mountain might surpass that. It's going to add a whole new chapter to my family's tradition.
"My goal in the whole program is to obviously get to the top, but if I can inspire just one person to rise above it, my job is complete."