He is struggling. He is not stopping.
Salau and Smiley are not being offered up as pioneers: Blind climber Eric Weihenmayer summited Everest in 2001; double-amputee Mark Inglis in 2006. Rather, they are climbing to establish standards and realistic parameters for programs designed to serve a growing population of wounded vets. Each man has been asked to tell his story before–Smiley has addressed the United States men’s Olympic basketball team, has been the focus of several media profiles, and is often called on to speak about his experience. (A devout Christian, his first postwar public appearance was at his hometown church. “I basically bawled for 20 minutes,” he says. “That was my speech.”) Not everyone is inspired: Smiley’s appearance with the basketball team spawned essays on The Nation and Huffington Post websites decrying the use of injured soldiers as a source of motivation.
Salau is not conflicted. “Those of us who have been visibly wounded have a responsibility to garner as much public awareness as we can for the overall needs of those who can’t, or aren’t listened to,” he says. “Whether it’s making the government enact proper legislation or create regulations that serve wounded from this war or 20 years ago, people like Scott build the awareness. This isn’t just about taking guys waterskiing. I am proud of my country, but I am also proud of making sure it does right by its soldiers.”
Behind the climbers the clouds are closing, and when next they rest, they turn to see an otherworldly sight: a multimillion-acre comforter of spun sugar with Mt. Adams poking through like you could swim to it. Farther west, Mt. St. Helens is a collapsed trifle. The sun drops behind the peak of Rainier, and the air chills immediately. When the climb resumes, it’s just crunch and scuff–everybody working along, everyone in their own head. Time and altitude are adding up. The snow is dark blue.
The plan was to make Muir, but at the next rest stop Art points out the ridge that hides the basecamp. “Think you can make it?” Salau looks upslope, then back at Rausch.
The group bivouacs at the edge of a snowfield. Passing by Salau, Micah Clark asks, “How you doin’?” “This is why God made ski lifts!” says Salau. Then he slaps the thigh of his foreshortened leg. “Touch it! You know you want to!” He’s laughing and smartass-y, but his face is drawn. For his part, Smiley has been hiking right along, but when he takes a seat on his bedroll, it looks like he’s down for good.
The guides are prepping dinner, and Salau and Smiley are left alone together for the first time all day. They fall into conversation, their voices a murmur behind the hiss of the gas jets and the soft flap-flap of water boiling. They are talking about the war now. When Smiley came back from Iraq, he was afraid to go out in public. Scared of everyone and anyone, he says. When he thinks of the war, he thinks of the heat and stink, the grit, cars honking, the rattle of his Stryker vehicle, the sound of explosions and small arms fire incoming. He likes the quiet up here on the snowfield.
Ed Salau took his first camping trip as a Boy Scout. Ever since, he says, whenever I had a sleeping bag and a backpack, I also had a rifle. He feels like this trip is bringing him full circle. Camping–and no bad guys. It’s nice to just sit here, agrees Smiley, and not have to face outward.
The sunlight is all but gone, Rainier casting a final shadow across the clouds clear to Yakima. There was this little town, says Ed. Not a village, not quite a city. They had a two-story police station, and every day we made sure that the station wasn’t bothered. The police chief looked to us for security. He knew we had the big guns. We became friends with the people. Spent time in their homes. After I was stateside, they told me a tanker truck pulled up one day. Levelled the building.
We worked so hard, he says after a pause. We worked so hard to keep them safe.
The food is ready. The headlamps cluster, dipping over reconstituted spaghetti. Everyone eats gratefully, the way people do in the cold out of doors after a hard day’s slog.