Hiking for hope: Basalt man pursues ambitious goal to raise funds, awareness for mental health issues
Assaf Dory and three friends dealing with major medical issues will hike Mt. Elbert
Basalt resident Assaf Dory isn’t going to let the loss of a leg prevent him from climbing Colorado’s highest peak.
Dory will team with three other military veterans who are facing severe injuries to climb Mt. Elbert in September to raise funds for Challenge America and build awareness for mental health issues, particularly among military veterans, first responders and people dealing with social isolation.
Dory is well known in Basalt for his positive attitude and involvement in civic issues. He is easily recognizable because he is a big, strong fella with an easy smile who is often seen around town in a wheelchair or walking with crutches.
Given his affable nature and positive attitude, it was a bombshell Tuesday when he revealed to the Basalt Town Council the severity of issues he is facing from his leg injury. The topic came about while he was outlining the Mt. Elbert fundraiser.
Dory, 50, said he has endured 45 surgeries on his leg after suffering an injury while on duty as a deputy sheriff in Florida 17 years ago. He is suffering from complex regional pain syndrome, a rare disorder of the nervous system as a result of the trauma to the leg.
“There’s nothing you can really do about this disease,” Dory told the council. “It’s known as the suicide disease. I’ve been dealing with it for a long time.
“I’ve been dealing with suicidal thoughts and how to battle that. I’m blessed to have a daughter that’s 12 years old. All this time dealing with 45 surgeries, I’ve been focused on my daughter and to be able to walk with her hand in hand. I was able to do that about three months ago and I found myself crying.”
A couple of days later, he said, he asked himself what was the next big goal in his life. He came up with the idea of the Mt. Elbert Challenge. He aims to hike the 4.3-mile North Elbert Trail that has an elevation gain of 4,400 to the summit of 14,433. He will be joined by Shannon von Driska, Steven Fotion and Dash Wong.
Their goal, Dory said, is to show “with friends and family, we can overcome any mountain.”
Von Driska, 33, broke her ankle and leg in 2007 while training to be a U.S. Army medic. After a fourth surgery, which was supposed to be routine, she was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome. She said she faces prolonged physical and mental health issues from the cumulative impact of her experiences in the military. She is a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, and befriended Dory through an online support group for people battling CRPS.
Wong is a former Navy SEAL who served on multiple combat deployments. He retired from the military after 16 years after losing his right lung to cancer. The Roaring Fork Valley resident was diagnosed earlier this year with COVID-19 and suffered 40 percent scar tissue damage to his remaining lung.
Fotion, a general contractor in the valley, is also a competitive strongman and bodybuilder as well as a personal trainer who has taken a particular interest in working with people with disabilities. Fotion, who spent six years in the U.S. Army Reserve, is a friend and trainer of Dory. Fotion gained a new perspective on dealing with disabilities in January when he suffered a catastrophic injury to both quadriceps tendons during a competition. He is slowly recovering from the muscle detachments.
Von Driska has the challenge of not only dealing with CRPS but also acclimating so she can undertake the climb at high elevation. She’s undaunted. She said she signed up as soon as Dory told her about it. She wants to build awareness of the mental issues that military veterans face, often because of post-traumatic stress disorder. She wants to build awareness among vets that it is acceptable and beneficial to seek help. The Mountain Elbert Challenge can bring the issues to light.
“It will show that when you work together, you can accomplish anything,” she said.
Dory also has an interest in helping veterans. He was born and raised in Israel and served as a staff sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces during the first Gulf War. He moved to the United States in 1992 and was injured in the line of duty.
Dory said he and von Driska know they will pay a particular price climbing to Mt. Elbert.
“For a week we will be bedridden. That’s the price we will pay,” he said.
His right leg was amputated above the knee. He is one of the first civilians to have gone through a procedure that directly connects the prosthetic to his endoskeletal system. Von Driska asked him about having her injured leg amputated to try to ease the CRPS she endures. She decided against it.
“It’s living with nonstop pain,” she said. “Yes, it’s rare but it’s a killer. That’s why it’s called the suicide disease.”
After her final surgery, she said, it felt like her ankle was going to explode. The procedure triggered the malfunction of her nervous system. It extends beyond her damaged limb.
“If the wind goes against your skin, it’s excruciating,” von Driska said. “It’s a daily battle.”
It is hard for family and friends to understand what’s going on because it is a mostly invisible problem, she said. She is often bedridden.
Dory said he has had stimulators installed in his body to block nerve signals from his “stump” to his brain. Nevertheless, he regularly is affected by “flares” that spread beyond his phantom limb. At times, he explained, it might feel like somebody through acid on his face. He also experiences convulsions, sores and period where he cannot see or hear.
On Thursday, he was relieved to have slept six hours the night before. Prior to that, he had gone 60 hours without sleep because of the pain.
So what constitutes a good day?
“I’m very big about the little things,” von Driska said. Being able to do the laundry or take a walk is huge.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Driska said. “If we sleep, that’s the best f—ing day ever.”
Dory added, “Shannon nailed it — the small stuff.”
He stressed they don’t want pity, just awareness and understanding. Von Driska said she has lost of lot of friends from the military to suicide. Experiencing CRPS and PTSD has given her insights into their experiences. She is determined to do what she can to promote greater understanding of mental health issues and getting over the shame of stigma of seeking help.
“You can be hardcore and still talk about mental health,” she said.
Fotion said he cannot fathom the issues his three hiking colleagues are facing. He finds them inspiring, so he wanted to show his support by accompanying them on the Mt. Elbert Challenge.
They will train throughout the summer, increasing the distances and difficulty of hikes. They have hired Aspen Mountain Guides for help in training and on the challenge. They are also relying on numerous friends and supporters as “Sherpa” to haul food and gear up Mt. Elbert for them. The helpers include Chief Greg Knott and Lt. Aaron Munch of Basalt Police Department and division chief Richard Cornelius of Roaring Fork Fire Rescue.
Dory said it will require about $30,000 for training and the challenge itself. They set a goal to raise at least $118,000. The balance will go to Challenge America, where Dory volunteers. (See the fact box on how to contribute.)
Challenge America is a Basalt-based nonprofit organization that utilizes technology and creative arts to improve the lives of veterans and their families. Dory said it is a particularly effective organization because 83 cents of every $1 donation goes to programs.
For all four climbers, Sept. 15 is a special goal that they cannot wait to tackle.
“I needed that goal. I need something,” von Driska said.
When asked how they will accomplish that goal given their physical injuries, Dory said, “One step at a time. We’re going to crush it.”
The Mt. Elbert Challenge is off to a good start for fundraising. So far, 17 donors have contributed nearly $8,200. The goal is at least $118,000.
Learn more about the Mt. Elbert Project and donate at https://mtelbert.funraise.org/.
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Join us on this episode of The Drop-In as we make the most of the warm, sunny weather with top-to-bottom laps on Aspen Mountain.