In August 2009, Jim Stanek Jr. came home after over six years in Iraq, like many veterans, feeling out of place. Having suffered a traumatic brain injury in his time in the military, Stanek had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and spent his days battling depression as he dealt with what he calls “hell on earth” attempting to transition to civilian life.
All of that changed last month, however, when Stanek found a new love: mountain climbing.
“Mountain climbing taught me a lot about facing my own fears and confronting some of the emotions I had bottled up deep down inside me,” the 35-year-old told GrindTV. “All of those emotions have nowhere to go when you’re out on the mountain just trying to get to the top. You have to face your own insecurities.”
For Stanek, finding salvation in mountain climbing wasn’t a natural progression.
Stanek was an ironworker and fireman when the Twin Towers came down in 2001. As a first responder, he aided in the recovery and cleanup efforts at Ground Zero before shipping off for three combat tours in Iraq.
When he returned home with a brain injury after being involved in multiple firefights and IED explosions, he was looking for a new start.
“There were days I prayed to be back in a firefight,” Stanek told GrindTV. “Dealing with a mental disability, and not knowing how to cope with it was hellish. You know, how do I communicate with family after Iraq? How do I talk with my friends?”
That changed after an adaptive ski trip to Winter Park, Colorado, when he met members of the No Barriers nonprofit. They told Stanek about the prospect of summiting Gannett Peak in Wyoming on Sept. 11 with a group of fellow veterans.
And, despite his only climbing experience being “climbing into bunk beds,” Stanek committed to summiting the 13,809-foot peak.
Starting in February, Stanek trained six days a week at the gym, learning the basics of mountain climbing. From training with ropes teams to learning how to climb with crampons and ice axes, Stanek got a crash course in preparation for the 56-mile roundtrip trek with a dozen other veterans.
When the climb began, Stanek said he was surprised how familiar it felt.
“Putting on all the climbing equipment and following a strict schedule now after being out of the services for a while was nice,” said Stanek. “It was like putting on a nice old warm sweatshirt that was in the bottom of your closet. It felt comfortable.”
Ultimately, Stanek and his fellow veterans were able to make it within 800 feet of the peak, at which point hazardous ice conditions made it impossible for any of the group to finish the climb.
“This is going to sound so egotistical, but more than anything the climb proved to me that I still got it,” said Stanek. “You know, I’m not some piece of broken equipment. I’m just a guy trying to learn to live with disabilities.”
Stanek says the confidence his mountain climbing experience instilled in him has made him a happier, easier person to be around and, more importantly, has him hooked on climbing.
“You could say I’m a junkie at this point,” said Stanek, who now hopes to one day climb Mount Everest. “I don't care how big or how tall it is, if there’s a mountain to climb I’m like, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m just looking to get out and climb my little tailpipe off.”
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