A Denali memorial
LEADVILLE — On Memorial Day, when many others will be grilling out, spending time with family and friends, or simply enjoying a day off work, Army veteran and Leadville resident Margaux Mange will be observing the holiday in a vastly different way.
Mange and three other combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan hope to summit the 20,321 foot Denali on May 25, carrying an American flag inscribed with the names of hundreds who died serving the country.
“Every single one of us has lost someone incredibly important to us, and we’ll all be thinking of that when we climb,” said Mange, 29. “We’ve seen Memorial Day turn into this day of store sales, and we want to bring it back to the way it was and honor the people who have given their lives.”
A climb to remember
All four of the veterans attempting the climb have disabilities and injuries from their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. The team consists of expedition leader Josh Jespersen, a Navy SEAL; Nick Colgin, an Army Airborne combat medic; Mange, an Army military police member; and Brian McPherson, a Marine Infantryman. Despite their disabilities, they have climbed some of the tallest and most technical mountains in the world, including Cotopaxi (19,374 feet), Rainier (14,409 feet) and Nevado Mariposa (19,055 feet).
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But the way they see it, this climb isn’t for them — it’s for the fallen soldiers and their families. The group has been asking friends and family of those who died to submit the names, stories and memories of their loved ones at http://www.missionmemorialday.com.
“The idea is that we’re taking the memories of their lost ones to the summit,” said Mange.
At the moment the group has collected about 100 names, but they hope to have 300 by the time they start the expedition.
“Our goal is to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, serving those who wish to remember those they lost and helping America remember, while we bridge the military-civilian divide. This isn’t about a mountain or one day, this is about raising awareness and starting a national dialogue so our battle buddies are not forgotten,” said Jespersen.
Healing in the mountains
Mange caught the climbing bug after summiting Cotopaxi in Ecaudor with a veterans group in 2012. She met her Denali teammates on subsequent climbs and found such purpose on her excursions that she moved to Leadville to earn a degree in outdoor leadership.
The mountaineering has provided a way to heal and deal with her injuries as well. Mange served two tours in Baghdad and was involved in an explosion that left her with a traumatic brain injury that required surgery. She returned to the U.S. with post-traumatic stress disorder, unsure of what to do with her life next. She didn’t discover climbing until years later, but now finds solace in the mountains and especially in climbing with other soldiers facing similar challenges.
“I have major PTSD, but when I’m out there, I don’t even have to talk about it, and I know I’m in the same company,” she said. “It makes me focus on anything else besides my injury. Exercise and training is one of those things that gives me a goal everyday to get up off the couch. Climbing has kind of given me my life back.”
She adds that the training required for Denali — a three-week trip that will require expedition members to haul supply sleds and carry 60-pound packs — also gives her a challenging physical goal, not unlike those she faced in the Army.
Leadville has proven to be a good training ground for Mange. She’s already climbed Mt. Elbert twice this year and is on a grueling gym regimen to prepare for the trip. It will be the highest peak she’s ever attempted.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much so I don’t psych myself out,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind some pain and discomfort. “When you’re out there climbing with other injured people, you can go as slow as you want, but you’re still heading toward the end point. I can always take my pack off for 20 minutes to rest and then keep going. I can be in an excruciating amount of pain, and it just reminds me that I’m not dead. The pain of climbing keeps me alive.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.