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Homefront Group Highlight: Disabled Sports USA

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Birdies for the Brave® Supports Wounded Heroes’ Dreams

“I never thought I’d take another step,” says Marine Corps Lance Corporal Colton Carlson, who stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in May 2012 during a tour in Afghanistan, resulting in the loss of both legs.

Walking for the first time with two artificial legs from physical therapy to his room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – just a 150-yard trip – left him winded, sore, and bleeding.  He describes the experience as one of the lowest points of his life.

Colton grew up in Colorado, hiking its tallest 14,000-foot peaks with his father and brother. He thought his chance to do that ever again was gone.  However, the Warfighter Sports program, part of Disabled Sports USA – a Birdies for the Brave Homefront Group – gave him hope.  Sports not only improved his fitness, but also helped to increase his confidence and motivation; and gave him a reason to push forward with his therapy.

In December 2013, Colton heard about a big mountain climb that Warfighter Sports was planning on one of the “Seven Summits.”  For world-class mountain climbers, “The Seven Summits” are prized challenges, as they are the tallest mountains in each of the world’s seven continents – the most famous of which is Mt. Everest.  In this case, the climb would be Aconcagua in the Andes of South America.  At an elevation of nearly 23,000 feet, Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in the world outside Asia.

Colton decided to attempt this improbable feat and asked to be considered for a spot on the team. This began a year of extreme training with Warfighter Sports, including finishing the “Bataan Memorial Death March,” a 26-mile one-day hike in the high deserts of New Mexico with a backpack; climbing 14,000-foot mountains again in Colorado; and training and  re-learning to use his artificial legs during rock climbing with ropes and other technical training.

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Colton accomplished all of these challenges and on January 17, 2015, Colton and three other severely injured veterans set out to summit Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina.

For climb leader Disabled Sports USA Executive Director Kirk Bauer, 67, a retired U.S. Army Sergeant, the journey began in 1969 after he lost his left leg above the knee in Vietnam and discovered the power of adaptive sports. This climb would be a continuation of his lifelong mission to lead by example and show others what is possible.  Along with Colton and Kirk, two injured Marines also participated in the attempt to summit the 23,000-foot vertical climb.

The nearly 23,000 vertical feet of climbing to reach the summit of Aconcagua would be a major achievement in the long road to recovery.

Much of mountain climbing involves resting at camps set up at various stages up the mountain and acclimating to the high altitudes. At higher altitudes, the body processes oxygen in different ways, which can lead to severe physical issues if the climber tries to summit too quickly. Given the extra exertion put forth by the amputees on the team, the guide crew decided to build in extra rest days at each camp to help put the team at a higher chance for a successful summit.

After a three-day hike, including a 15-hour day of hiking, the team reached Base Camp at 13,000 feet. After a two-day rest, the team began the arduous climb up Aconcagua. After a number of tough seven-hour climb days, the team reached Nido de Condores (17,000-foot  elevation); and suffered their first setback: a team member who was dealing with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from his service in the Marines in Afghanistan began showing signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), a condition that affects many climbers due to the reduced air pressure and high altitude, and causes severe headaches, nausea and confusion.  After two days of the team doctor attempting to stabilize the Marine’s condition, it was determined he would have to return to base camp to get his oxygen levels up.

At the final camp before the summit, Camp Colera at 19,258 feet, the team lost two of the remaining three wounded hero climbers, including Bauer. Bauer was told by the guides that despite their attempt to get him slightly closer to the summit for the final push, he was not moving fast enough to be able to safely summit and get back to camp in one day. After getting within a few thousand feet of the summit, Bauer would not be making a summit attempt.

This meant all eyes were on Colton to reach the summit and make the team’s effort a success. At 4 a.m. on January 29, Colton headed for the summit of Aconcagua with a South American guide and Sherpa guide. At approximately 1 p.m., after nine hours of climbing, Carlson reached the summit. As he sat atop Aconcagua, at 22,837 feet, he couldn’t help but think back to the first steps he ever took on his prosthetic legs.

All in all, it would take Colton 19 hours to reach the summit and return to high camp at 20,000 feet. “It was the most superhuman feat I’d ever seen,” Bauer said. For Bauer, Colton’s summit was the epitome of rehabilitation, and helped inspire other warriors that they could achieve anything they set their minds to.

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Bauer concluded, “I love to see what for me is a model for life. If you set goals and prepare the best you can, and then are willing to take thousands of small steps to achieve your goals, then I believe most of the time you can achieve those goals. Severely wounded heroes can literally climb the tallest mountains in the world; they can challenge themselves and inspire others to become active and reach their goals and dreams in life.”


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