One step at a time: Reaching the summit of Mt. Elbert
Assaf Dory’s voice rang out in the darkness, cutting through the tent fabric and waking up the rest of the team before 5 a.m. accompanied by speakers blaring a song by The 5th Dimension.
Although he didn’t sleep the night before due to pain from his first day of hiking, Assaf’s excitement to summit Mount Elbert kept him in his usual intoxicating cheerful demeanor. The dozens of people who gathered to celebrate this astounding accomplishment – including Assaf, fellow military veterans facing injuries and chronic pain, and their friends – filed out of their tents to eat oatmeal and chug instant coffee around the fire that was still burning from the night before. At approximately 5:30 a.m., the team pulled on their packs and filed into line as they began the second half of the hike to the top of the tallest mountain in Colorado.
The Mt. Elbert Challenge all started with Assaf. He first brought in his friend Steven Fotion and then he picked up the phone and made a call to another friend and fellow veteran, Dash Wong.
“I have a stupid idea,” he told Dash.
“I’m in,” replied Dash before Assaf even had the chance to tell him more.
The three friends grew their crew to four and brought in fellow injured veteran Shannon von Driska, the only woman on the team and the only person from outside of Colorado, to climb Mount Elbert to raise awareness for suicide prevention and raise money for Challenge America. Over the course of several months, the team trained for the feat but had never reached the 14,000 feet of elevation that they planned to encounter for their main challenge. This would also be all four of their first 14ers, an accomplishment that they all relished.
Each with their own challenge to face, the foursome had no doubt that they would be summiting on Sept. 15.
Assaf was injured in the line of duty as a Florida deputy sheriff 17 years prior that resulted in amputation of his right leg. What came next was worse: the Complex Regional Pain Syndrome that both Assaf and Shannon live with. It is also known as “the suicide disease,” because the only known way out of the pain is to end your life.
For Shannon and Assaf, the mutual understanding of the pain and mental struggle brought them together through an online support group for those living with CRPS. Shannon was diagnosed with the disease in 2019 following multiple surgeries for her broken leg and ankle suffered while training to be a U.S. Army medic in 2007. Although Dash and Steven do not live with CRPS, the two face their own debilitating physical maladies. Dash served in the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen command team and in 2017 had his right lung removed due to adenocarcinoma. Then, earlier in March 2019, Dash contracted COVID-19 which left him with 40% scar tissue on his remaining lung. Steven is a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves and competes in both strongman and bodybuilding competitions. He suffered catastrophic failure to both quadriceps tendons that he’s still recovering from.
“I don’t know if I’m stupid or stubborn,” said Assaf multiple times as he continued up the rocky trail on the East Ridge of Mount Elbert.
The team had broken up the 10.5 mile out-and-back trek into two parts. On Tuesday, they hiked in approximately two miles to tree line and set up camp where they recovered from the initial elevation gain and then continued on the next morning to reach their goal at the summit. For Assaf and Shannon, the real challenge was the technical rock stairs and loose dirt that made it difficult to navigate on crutches. Both of them had to rely on their arm muscles to hold themselves up and push themselves over the obstacles, even taking to crawling over some of the larger rock steps.
By the second morning, Shannon’s left leg was no longer cooperating with her. She was having trouble with it responding to her orders to step forward or hold weight. For Assaf, the burning feeling that the CRPS brings on was spreading. And although Dash maintained his big smiles and never failed to share one of his famous “dad jokes,” he would stop to check his oxygen levels and take a breather. By the second morning, Dash left his oxygen on for the majority of the hike as he increased in nearly 3,000 feet of elevation. For Steven, the real difficulty came after the summit. Navigating the rocky downhill grade can be extremely painful on his knees.
The team knew what to expect and anticipated the pain of the hike and what would come after. For Shannon and Assaf, the worst was yet to come when their bodies settled in from the adrenaline and the pain left them bedridden for days on end and in a state of depression after the goal was met. The Mount Elbert Challenge is what has kept them going over the past few months, they said. It gave them a goal, a sense of community, and an ability to tell their stories to let others know that they are not suffering alone.
After six and a half hours, each teammate summited: Shannon in the lead, as Assaf had insisted, followed by Assaf, Dash and then Steven. Tears were shed as each teammate hugged one another in gratitude for lifting each other up – physically and emotionally – and pushing each other forward during the entire process and to the peak.
In the end, it was a team effort. Packs were passed around, water was shared, hands were held and words of encouragement were handed out freely. The summit was only part of the story. As the team discussed future plans, such as swimming with manatees in Florida and a 10-day hut trip in the Swiss Alps, they turned around to head back down the mountain, together, one step at a time.