High up in Iraq’s Zagros Mountains, on the country’s northern border, six of us hike slowly into the growing light of day. As we walk in silence, each of us focused on the narrow beam of light from our headlamp, I decide to lighten the mood.
“Come on,” I say to Robin Brown and Matthew “Griff” Griffin, two Iraq War vets following me up the icy slope. “All we have to worry about is losing a limb or two.”
It’s cold, but it’s not frostbite or avalanches that have us concerned—at least not at the moment. A saw-toothed ridgeline to our east was sporadically topped with glimmering lights, each marking the location of an Iranian border-defense tower. It’s a stark physical reminder that these mountains are littered with land mines left over from Saddam Hussein’s nearly decade-long war with Iran. So here, in northern Iraq, in addition to all the other objective hazards you encounter as a climber and skier, you need to add unexploded ordnance to the list.
As we trudge upward, our local guide, Reband Ibrahim, begins to get ahead of us, so I yell for him to slow down, not wanting anyone to veer off trail. Eventually, we reach a steep headwall, where we don crampons for the final push to the summit of Mount Halgurd, at 11,834 feet, the second-highest in Iraq. Climbing up and skiing down this peak had been a longtime dream of mine—so long, in fact, that it’s hard to believe I’m really here, back in a country I never expected to return to.
I am a child of the Cold War and grew up an unabashed patriot. Serving in uniform was something I’d dreamed of since I was 5 years old, and in 1996, I signed my life away to the United States Army with an ROTC scholarship at the University of Mississippi. After a tour in Bosnia in 2004, and stints as a civilian in Georgia and Angola, clearing land mines, I was recalled to the Army at the end of 2005 and deployed to Iraq. I found myself a civil affairs team leader in Baghdad. Our job was to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Day to day, this meant helping rebuild the city by doing everything from supporting trash collecting to helping neighborhood council meetings to setting up free health clinics. This was not frontline work, and we weren’t supposed to be in combat, but mortar fire, shots from snipers, roadside IEDs, and coordinated small-arms attacks routinely targeted our patrols. In short, it was war—and it was both overwhelming and intoxicating.
The sense of purpose I felt serving alongside my fellow soldiers was addictive. Life, distilled daily into decisions that would either get you killed or not, was strangely simple. Liberating even. The key was not to think too much.
While working in Baghdad, I got to know many of the locals on a deeply personal level, and I heard stories of summer vacations to the snowcapped mountains in the north. On patrol in full body armor, baking under the hot Iraqi sun, I daydreamed about hiking those peaks, cooling off in the snowfields. I never saw the mountains during my tour, and when I left the country, in 2007, I never imagined I’d go back.
When I returned to the States, though, I quickly found myself in a downward spiral. I hadn’t told my family I was coming home, so no one met me when I stepped off the military transport plane at Pope Air Force Base, in North Carolina. After a few dark nights in bars and strip clubs, I caught a cab to the airport to head home to Connecticut, stopping to throw a bag of uniforms in a dumpster behind a convenience store.
I figured I hadn’t experienced enough trauma to have post-traumatic stress disorder. But little things bothered me, like walking into a grocery store and feeling enraged by the abundance of crap we Americans consume. A month or two after returning home, I started playing with big lines of cocaine and turning volume up on the alcohol. I lit my head on fire at parties for a rise—a benefit of being bald.
I quickly found myself at a dead end, and I believed I had only two options: reenlist or take my life. I was leaning toward the latter option when a friend from Boulder, CO, where I eventually landed, dragged me out one morning to climb in the Flatirons. The familiar hit of adrenaline and focus I experienced that day ignited something inside me. I loved climbing, and felt a sense of camaraderie in being out in the mountains with friends, similar to what I felt while on missions with my brothers and sisters in arms. It was that sense of purpose—and peace—that eventually helped me break free from the bonds of PTSD.
Not long after, I began considering what it would be like to return to the places where I had been deployed—but as a climber instead of a soldier. The idea eventually grew into the nonprofit Adventure Not War (ANW), a project that allows veterans to re-experience the places in which they served, but through a civilian’s viewpoint rather than a soldier’s, which can often be terribly skewed.
In fall 2015, I embarked on my first successful expedition under ANW, traveling with climber Alex Honnold to explore new routes in a region of Angola I had worked in years before. With that trip behind me, the idea of climbing and skiing the mountains of northern Iraq emerged, and with the help of a few friends and sponsors, it quickly came together.
In addition to Robin and Griff, my team would include two filmmakers, Max Lowe and Mackenzie Fisher. Robin had been the commander of an attack helicopter wing in the 82nd Airborne Division and had been shot down over Fallujah in 2003. Griff served in the early battles for Mosul as an Army Ranger. Neither had stepped foot in the country since departing in uniform several years earlier.
After landing in Erbil, we visit a small refugee community—an American friend doing aid work in the city had organized a small service project for us—and, as we walk between the lines of dusty tents, I feel a similar sense of unease. My body tenses up, and I force myself to relax, to exhale.
Just like before, the kids come running out when they see us, laughing and smiling. Just like before, a raggedy soccer ball appears and we run around kicking it between us. Griff and Robin show a gaggle of smaller children magic tricks. This time, though, I don’t have to worry about my presence being a liability. I don’t have to worry about the Iraqi children around me getting hurt because a sniper wants to send a message. I don’t have to worry about the security perimeter or my body armor. In short, I don’t have to check my humanity when I walk the streets.
We wake early the following day and set off for the small border settlement of Choman. Driving up rutted roads in Land Rovers, the morning light reveals the southern massif of Halgurd, dusted in a fresh covering of snow. When the trucks can go no farther, we break out our sleds and shoulder packs with gear for six days on the mountain, then begin the slog upward, racing to beat an approaching storm.
This climb is the first time Robin or Griff have used an ice ax or crampons, and we had planned on a full day of reconnaissance and instruction on how to use them. But we have to scrap that plan due to the weather. The 60-degree headwall, which our guide outpaces us to by 300 yards, proves difficult, but both Robin and Griff are able to get up without incident. It’s there, stepping up onto an outcrop, that Robin slips and nearly tumbles a thousand feet down into an icy couloir. Thankfully, she catches herself with her ax, shaken but fine.
When we finally gain the summit, with all of northwestern Iraq pouring into the horizon, we look out over a country that, up until that point, had been shrouded in a dark shadow of pain and resentment for me. Tears of joy, relief, and regret begin to flow. Sobs rip through my chest. It’s only now that I realize how much weight I have still been carrying from my year in Iraq.
With the storm approaching, we have time for only a few photos, and then clip into our skis for the ride back down. I eat shit hard three or four times making turns on the icy snow. I laugh every time. Robin side slips most of the way down. Griff skis it solidly. We all hoot and holler the entire way. We are the first team, as far as we know, to ski from the top of Mount Halgurd.
Two nights later, we hole up in a tiny backcountry cabin across the valley with our Kurdish-Iraqi hosts and friends. We sing, dance, and laugh the night away in a haze of hookah smoke. The chasm between our cultures—and the lingering tension from America’s war and uneasy peace—has melted away. Excusing myself from the smoke-filled room, I step out onto the porch into the quiet of the night. Suddenly from the silence, I hear wolves across the valley. It’s a pack on a kill, howling and yipping in the wild joy of the chase. Iraq, I realize then, is still a wild place, despite the war and the political turmoil. Nature still holds sway, the same as it does in the U.S.
It’s then, in that moment, that I finally relax, maybe for the first time since I deployed. Listening to the wolves, I feel a guttural desire to join them—run with them, yip with them. That bit of wildness, I think, more than anything, is something we all share—and something we all need to feel human. I howl into the night, then head back inside to celebrate our shared summit.