This article was published in the Summit Daily News.
Climbing challenging mountains is nothing new to adventurer and filmmaker Michael Brown. He’s successfully summited Mt. Everest five times, one of which was with blind climber Erik Weihenmayer in 2001. It was the first time a blind person had achieved the feat.
As the 10-year anniversary of that climb approached, Brown, Weihenmayer and the team thought about ways to do something similar to celebrate their past experience as a team once again.
“It kind of made sense to come up with something meaningful that we could do that would be appropriate — and not just a get-together for a party or something, but to actually do something meaningful,” Brown said.
They connected with the nonprofit organization Soldiers to Summits — now merged with another nonprofit and under the name No Barriers Warriors — and decided on an ambitious project. They would take 11 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan on an emotional and healing trek into the mountains and film the whole thing.
That film is called “High Ground,” and it will be showing at the Finkel auditorium at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge on Friday, July 17. The screening will benefit a local nonprofit dedicated to helping wounded warriors and their families — Wounded Warriors Family Adventures.
CONNECTING WITH THE CHARACTERS
The 11 veterans in “High Ground” represent a spectrum of experiences in coming back from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Four are women, one of whom is a “Gold Star mother,” meaning a mother who has lost a son or daughter in combat. The veterans all experienced some form of trauma, physical or psychological — often both.
In all, from veterans and filmmakers to trekkers and Sherpas, the team consisted of about 25 people.
The chosen mountain was Lobuche Peak in Nepal. With Mt. Everest in viewing distance, Lobuche Peak stretches to 20,075 feet, which Brown calls “plenty high.”
The entire trip, from beginning to end, took about one month.
While the veterans endured challenges and changes along the way, all documented in the film, Brown and the other filmmakers were also affected.
“As we went, just to kind of get into these characters and get to know them was really fun,” he said. “Filmmaking is a really interesting thing that way — it requires that you put a lot of yourself into those connections with people and in that process; it’s a gift, and you learn a lot about yourself and the people you’re working with. So, that was hugely rewarding in that sense. “
THE CHALLENGE OF THE MOUNTAIN
Making a film is no easy task, much less making one on the side of a 20,000-foot mountain peak. But, that’s the type of challenge Brown is happy to tackle and makes the characters’ journey that much more incredible.
“There was an interesting thing about the mountaineering aspect as the analog to combat,” he said. “One is super destructive, but they’re both things that you can do where you can push yourself, and you can put yourself in the risky enough situation that a lot of the more primal instincts start to come out. And, I think that for combat veterans, often they sort of miss that when they come home.”
Using activities in the outdoors as healing moments for veterans is a popular concept, as evidenced by many nonprofits that strive to do just that. The results speak for themselves.
The mountain was also useful from a filmmaking perspective.
“Mountains are great storytelling devices because of the very nature of a mountain as you’re going for this goal that is the summit,” said Brown. “It’s a very predictable kind of series of events — you go out and you approach the mountain, and then you attempt to climb it and whether you make it to the top or not, it’s the outcome. It gets you to a high point, and then you come down again. For a storyteller, it’s a nice device.”
The month spent climbing the mountain served as a connection between him, the filmmakers and the veterans. Sharing the experience deepened their relationship, which he drew on for the rest of the film.
After the mountain trip, he traveled around the country to each of the veterans’ homes and interviewed them about their experiences in the war. The results were powerful.
“The stories that the veterans reveal took a lot of trust,” he said.
He himself was affected by the experience.
“Getting into these personal stories, it’s mind blowing stuff,” he said. Often during an interview, “you get outside of yourself, and you forget the cameras are even there. It’s unbelievable.”
He was also able to procure actual war footage, some of which includes several of the veterans featured in the film.
Brown said that there is something for everyone in his film, whether the viewers are veterans themselves, family members of veterans or civilians.
For veterans, he said, “What the film does is helps them to see that some of the things they’re struggling with are, they’re not alone, so it gives them a sense of kinship and camaraderie.”
For family members, the film acts as an opening to reconnect with a veteran who may have returned home changed or alienated.
“I think that’s just incredibly powerful and one of the most beautiful aspects of the film itself, is allowing people to reconnect,” he said.
For the rest of the audience, Brown hopes the film enlightens them on veterans’ struggles and “demystifies the veteran and allows us to approach them and make an effort.”
Jules Stennes has been working with Wounded Warriors Family Adventures for less than a year, but she’s passionate about the organization. The local nonprofit brings wounded veterans and their families to Summit County free of cost and not only provides transportation, food and lodging, but also activities like learning adaptive sports, as well as professional counseling sessions.
“One of the things that brought us into the program is it’s unique, really,” she said, of herself and her co-chair for the summer program, Michael “Patch” Doyle. “This program is unique because it’s reaching warriors and their families.”
She saw “High Ground” not long after it debuted in 2012, and the memory stuck with her, particularly when she started working with WWFA.
“This is an incredible film, very moving,” she said.
When she reached out to Brown, she had no trouble convincing him that their missions aligned.
The event in Breckenridge will begin at 5 p.m. with a cash bar, light appetizers and a silent auction, with donated items such as local restaurant gift certificates, spa packages and more.
All proceeds will go toward the WWFA summer program, which happens in September, called Wounded Warriors Family Mountain Experience. It is the seasonal counterpart to the winter program called Wounded Warriors Family Ski Week, that usually takes place in December.
Brown will also be at the screening, an experience he always enjoys. He will field a question-and-answer session after the film.
“I’m looking forward to reconnecting with that story. As a filmmaker, sitting in an audience and watching a film with a group of people is maybe the most powerful experience you can have as a filmmaker, and, really, the reason to do it,” he said.
His favorite part isn’t at the end, but rather the middle: “It’s in the middle when you can feel the energy in a room ,and you know that people are connecting with your characters and really feeling something.”