Published DateFor many, Sept. 11 is a somber day. It is a day for remembrances and mourning, a time to honor those killed in New York and Washington D.C., those who died aboard United flight 93 when it crashed in a Pennsylvania field, those who rushed into the burning Twin Towers to assist others, and those who served our country before and since.
But for some, Sept. 11 is also a day for celebration. It is a day to rejoice the richness of life, particularly for those with direct ties to the attacks and their aftermath. There is room for mourning, but smiles accompany the tears.
At 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Nick Watson, Steve Arsenault and Tommy Carroll packed backpacks on a picnic table at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at the base of Mount Washington. They were surrounded by a handful of other hikers preparing for a day out. At first glance it looked like any group preparing for a day in the mountains, but when Tommy pulled up his left pant leg it became clear this was no average hike. Instead of exposing a lower leg and foot, Carroll had a limb of aluminum and steel.
Tommy sets a fast pace, Watson told the group, but we are going to stick together. The goal is to reach the summit at 1 p.m.
Watson's right hand ended almost at the palm. His pinky, ring and middle fingers were gone, and his index finger was half its original length.
Arsenault, meanwhile, pointed to a scar on his right ankle. "There are hundreds of pieces of metal in there," he said. "Every once in a while a piece comes to the surface."
All three men are U.S. military veterans. Arsenault did two tours in Vietnam and earned two purple hearts (in addition to the shrapnel in his ankle, a sniper bullet grazed his head). Watson served as an Army Ranger from 1991 to 1995 and did "numerous international deployments," although he does not specify where. Carroll was in the army from 1985 to 1987. He lost his leg after he was out of the service.
All three men came to Mount Washington 11 years to the day after the 9/11 attacks determined to reach the summit. For Arsenault, who lives locally and climbs the mountain almost weekly, it was a chance to connect with other veterans. For Watson, who grew up hiking the White Mountains, it was both work and a homecoming. He grew up and Massachusetts and went to college in Vermont, so the White Mountains were a favorite place to hike. Now he works with a group called Veterans Expeditions, which is a group run by veterans that leads veteran trips into the outdoors, including those with disabilities. They were one of the climb's sponsors, alongside the American Alpine Club, which supports climbing and mountaineering activities nationwide.
For Carroll the climb was both a personal challenge and training for adventures to come. He hopes to climb Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, this November, and Cotopaxi, a 19,347-foot peak in Ecuador, this December.
The three were joined by friends and family members, plus others hiking in honor of soldiers and victims of 9/11. They were also joined in spirit by veterans hiking to summits in Colorado, Washington and Wyoming at the same time.
The effort to get veterans into the mountains on Sept. 11 began two years ago when Veterans Expeditions took 11 veterans up Longs Peak in Colorado. Last year Veterans Expeditions partnered with the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors program, which focuses on ensuring soldiers experience the freedom they fought to protect, to climb the Grand Teton in Wyoming.
This year the two groups were back at it, along with the American Alpine Club, an organization called Paradox Sports that gets people with disabilities outside, and Big City Mountaineers, which also works to get people to experience the outdoors.
"These climbs are an opportunity to spend time outdoors, celebrate our public lands and honor those who risk their lives defending our country," Iraq War veteran Stacy Bare, who works with the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors, said in a statement. These climbs are an "outlet for the warrior spirit," he said.
That warrior spirit was on display on Mount Washington on Tuesday. Carroll, with a pair of trekking poles in hand, launched for the summit via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Watson was never far from his side, always ready to catch Carroll if his balance faltered. The rocky terrain proved awkward for his prosthetic limb, but Carroll kept moving forward despite the difficulties.
The first section of the trail went quickly. Watson was right, Tommy did set a brisk pace. His trekking poles clicked along the trail as he bounded up the trail. Others talked and laughed as they hiked, but Carroll's attention was unwavering from the task at hand.
The soldiers weren't the only people out on Mount Washington in celebration of life. About halfway to the base of Tuckerman Ravine the former soldiers met a former NYPD officer.
John Brown was a New York policeman for 22 years. He was working when the planes hit the towers 11 years ago. He responded "the first day," he said. He was told he would likely suffer health consequences from working among the wreckage of the Twin Towers, but he didn't have any symptoms yet. Every Sept. 11 since he has climbed Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York, but this year he set his sights on Mount Washington. A large man, he was sweating in the cool morning air. "I'm going to get up to the top of this thing if it kills me," he said.
The defenders of American security abroad shook hands with the protector of American safety at home, bid each other thanks, and returned to their separate but shared pilgrimages.
For Carroll that journey was about to get tougher. The terrain steepened on the Tuckerman headwall and in places he was forced to crawl, but he didn't give up. Watson was constantly at his side ready to brace a shoe, take his trekking poles or catch him if he stumbled. The miles slowly receded, and soon the top was in view.
When they reached the summit parking lot, Carroll dropped his poles and pack. "I've got to remember some people," he said as he stumbled off by himself to gaze toward the ocean. People stopped, stared and pointed. A young woman came up to Carroll as he approached the summit cone. "You're amazing," she said. "We were behind you coming up."
"Thank you," he said with a smile that showed he was not accustomed to the attention.
Carroll, Watson and Arsenault climbed to the 6,288-foot summit sign with their friends, family and supporters, where they met another veteran, D.J. Westley, who was traversing the entire Presidential Range and coordinated to meet the Veteran Expeditions group on the summit. The four men shook hands and flashed broad smiles as they unfurled an American flag, one of several veterans would wave on summits around the country that day.
As they laughed and joked at the summit, it was clear that Sept. 11 means many things. It is a day for remembrance, but for these soldiers it was a day for celebration too.