Many mountainfolk will tell you they love the alpine for the singular way in which it strips you down to your simplest self. Genuine fear, bone-deep fatigue, risk management with all-too-real consequences, the single-minded rhythm you fall into after a few days in the backcountry: all of these emotions and physical and mental states are rare in day-to-day western life. It’s therapeutic to escape into a simpler way of existing, one defined by physical needs and goals and free of the white noise and constant stress brought on by work, technology, maintaining a social life, even reading the news. Success and failure are cut-and-dry, defined by summits and crux moves.
For those suffering from more than the everyday anxiety pursuant to being alive in 2017, the effect can be even more profound. Take Stacy Bare, a veteran who served in Iraq. Bare came home with a head injury and a substance abuse problem, and struggled to cope with the trauma of what he had witnessed at war. For a while, he grappled with suicidal thoughts almost daily. Then, he started climbing.
“Now [suicidal thoughts are] something that happens once a week or a month,” Bare told National Geographic. “Those thoughts are now framed by images of laughing with partners around frozen waterfalls, mountaintops, and crags. It feels like that hopelessness, that desire to end it all, just gets overwhelmed by all these other images and memories and people.”
Bare went on to become a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, director of the Sierra Club Outdoors, and founder of Veterans Expeditions, a non-profit that helps veterans get into the outdoors and, Bare hopes, experience the same natural therapy he did. Recently, he founded the initiative Adventure Not War, which seeks to bring veterans back to the places they served.
“I came home from war. War never really left me. Some of my friends came back in boxes. Others filled those boxes Stateside. Climbing and skiing kept me out of the grave. In order to come all the way home and to leave war behind, I’m going back to ski and climb with a few friends. More importantly, I want to show America places and people missed in normal war reporting,” Bare says. “My goal is to highlight the shared humanity between those of us who fight wars and the people who live in the places where we’ve been. Responsible, global adventure is a key part of achieving global peace and understanding. As part of this mission in partnership with friends and fellow veterans Robin Brown and Matthew ‘Griff’ Griffin, I went back to Iraq to visit Zack Bazzi and his work promoting education in refugee camps and to make a first ski ascent and descent of Mt. Halgurd, the highest mountain fully in Iraq.”
In the inaugural trip, documented in this short film, he and two other veterans, Robin Brown and Matthew Griffin, returned to Iraq to climb and ski Mt. Halgurd, an 11,834-foot peak in the Zagros range. It was an effort to rewrite their memories of the place and build an understanding of and relationship to Iraq not on antagonism and fear, but on adventure and, as Bare puts it, love. This film follows their emotional journey, which includes volunteer work in Kurdish refugee camps and an earnest effort to connect with Iraqis in addition to ski mountaineering. In revisiting old wounds with open hearts, the veterans find a bit of healing.
Photo by Max Lowe