Vail Veterans Program helps wounded warriors climb to new heights during its summer session

Carlos Garcia was among the injured combat veterans in town last week for the Vail Veterans Program's summer session.
Daniel Milchev|Special to the Daily |

About the Vail Veterans Program

The Vail Veterans Program provides rehabilitative sports programs to United States military personnel who have been severely injured while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and to the troops that support those efforts.

The program is open to wounded warriors and their families, building confidence and hope through skiing, snowboarding and outdoor summer recreational activities.

The Vail Veterans Program is a volunteer organization and hosts wounded warriors and their families free of charge.

Send donations or contact them at: P.O. Box 6473, Vail, Colorado 81658; 970-476-4906; email:

VAIL — Carlos Garcia climbed out of his wheelchair, looked up the sheer rock face and thought, “I’ve been through tougher things than this.”

Garcia did not climb, he ascended, as did the other injured combat veterans in town last week for a Vail Veterans Program summer session.

It’s important to be with people who know what it’s like, Garcia said.

“With programs like the Vail Valley Program, you’re around people who’ve been through what you’ve been through, and know what you’re going through,” he said. “Some people want to seclude themselves after their accident. This forces them to get out and be around other people.”

When he was in Vail he went climbing, rafting and mountain biking. Others went on ziplines, Jeep tours, fly-fishing and horseback riding.

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“For a lot of people it gives them their independence back. For some, it’s hard coming out of an accident and wondering, ‘What am I going to do now?’” he said.

If you’re Garcia, the next thing you do is rock climbing.

His recreation therapist asked if he wanted to do it. He said “yes,” in a shorter measurable expanse of time in anything this side of a theoretical physics experiment. He’s not thrilled with flying, so he brought his wife.

Garcia had climbed once before in Telluride, scaling a sheer cliff by doing pull-ups all the way up. This was better, he said.

“I was actually climbing,” Garcia said.

Fundamentals are fun

Climbing fundamentals don’t change, but they do get altered, said Steve Smith, with Apex Mountain School. Apex and Paragon Guides took the wounded warriors climbing.

When guides teach climbing techniques, the clients learn to drive up the rock with their legs and not pull with their arms.

“The legs are what push you up the rock,” Smith said.

Keep your hips in over your feet, in kind of a plumb line. Keep your shoulders out and your body relaxed.

“The spine should be erect, like you were standing on the ground. That way I can see where I place my feet,” Smith said.

Climbers made their way up the rock.

“After you drive up the rock, you’re back in that standing position. Rest, step your feet up, and drive yourself up into that standing/resting position,” Smith said.

And that’s how it works, except when it doesn’t.

Vail Veterans Program climbers bring all sorts of new challenges to the rock face. Some have PTSD, some are amputees … the list of both challenges and champions goes on and on.

“The principle is the same as it is with any client. Meet them where they are and help them achieve their goal,” Smith said.

One Vail Veterans Program climber last week had two prosthetic legs, was missing one arm from the elbow down, and the other arm was severely burned and still recovering, with significant finger and arm nerve damage.

“This guy wanted to go to the top,” Smith said. Of course he did.

And that’s what he did.

They used a technique called aid climbing, or jugging.

In other words, when you come to an obstacle, you figure out ways to overcome it.

When you come to a spot in a rock where vertical cracks no longer exist, a lead climber hangs things like hooks, ropes and other climbing gear in a horizontal crack. The second person can climb that rope. It’s called jugging that line. People have ascended 3,000 foot faces in Yosemite by jugging, Smith said.

“This guy learned to climb that line in about 15 feet. By the time he got to the top he was getting proficient,” Smith said. “This guy was not going to give up and I could tell that as soon as I put him on the rope.”

Smith has spent decades teaching people to climb. They’re all a thrill, but not like this, he said.

“I was fortunate to have experienced it,” Smith said. “It’s a blessing to be able to participate.”

Every group and every climber is different and needs different gear and techniques, Smith said. The end goal is the same, though.

“As facilitators it’s our goal to help them, whether they want to go 100 feet off the ground or 4 feet off the ground.”

Life and living

Garcia landed in Afghanistan on Sept. 24, 2010. He was hit about three months later in Sangin, Afghanistan, on Nov. 20, 2010, his Alive Day — the day he was hit and didn’t die.

They were on a two-day mission in an area they patrolled before — a known area.

Garcia was a combat engineer — the guy in the front of the patrol looking for explosives and bombs. He found one.

He spotted a path, and for engineers the path of least resistance is where you’re most likely to find an explosive device. He cautiously followed the path.

“I was a little hesitant, but my metal detector didn’t go off,” Garcia said.

His metal detector didn’t go off because the enemy is getting smarter about bomb building, he said.

Inside a battery there’s a carbon rod. Even though it conducts electricity, it’s not metal, so it doesn’t set off a metal detector.

“The pressure plate I stepped on was made of a carbon rod and the metal detector didn’t pick it up,” Garcia said. “I jumped into the berm and from there it was lights out.”

The helicopter took about 30 minutes to get him back to the base. From there it was hospital and operations that left him with both legs amputated.

After he was hit he actually called his sister first, before his wife.

“I was under so much medication, that was the only number I could remember,” Garcia said.

His wife was scared at first. When she walked into his hospital room the first time, his mom and dad were crying.

She asked him, “How do you feel?”

“You know, I feel a kick every now and again,” Carlos answered.

He’s naturally funny and outgoing, so if he was cracking jokes she knew he’d be fine.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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