2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part III)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. The expedition team is led by Elyse Ping Medvigy, a prior active duty soldier who is currently a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Here’s her story:

The afternoon sun beat through the open window of my apartment, washing over the neat piles of down parkas and wool hats covering the living room rug. Summer was coming to Washington DC and already the last hint of cherry blossom fragrance faded from the breeze wafting through the apartment as the city warmed. Outside, the clatter of high heels on the sidewalk, colorful sundresses with dangerous hemlines, and gossip over the latest scandal in politics joined the cherry blossoms. I folded the last of my base layers, marveling at the paradox between careless chatter on a leisurely Saturday afternoon and the icy hell we were about to endure.

Denali is unforgiving, the “Great One” as she was dubbed by the first to lay eyes on her frozen slopes and bottomless crevasses, with craters that would later serve as the graves for those of us who lost the ‘Russian roulette’ that is mountaineering. Here, we let the mountains serve as our judge, our years of training and technical expertise no match for the fracture of a cornice or fall of a loaded slope. The deafening roar of an avalanche reinforces our transient status, a reminder that the human body is utterly vulnerable to the whims of these beasts. Yet every summer without fail, throngs of climbers leave the warm comfort of their family and friends for voluntary self-deprivation, the mesmerizing glory of a potential summit overpowering common sense.

Mountaineering is a sport of tremendous contradiction: the solace we find escaping our inner demons, the pain of frost-nipped fingers and aching feet, the adrenaline of treacherous ascents, the fear of facing our own mortality, and the pride of recounting our successes. But moreover, it is a sport of obstinacy, for in these austere conditions it is not our fellow climbers nor the mountains we are competing against but ourselves. The resilience necessary to endure weeks of isolation from all familiarity is consistently challenged by the physical and mental exhaustion that hours of steep pitches with a heavy pack and formidable conditions present on our wellbeing.

Mountaineers are truly resilient, and it is these qualities that so well parallel the attributes of our servicemen and women. The allure of accomplishing an endeavor far greater than ourselves is a pull to which mountaineers and our military can both attest. The unwavering loyalty to our team in getting all members up a peak or through a deployment safely while ignoring the ever-encroaching temptation to give up is what unifies the heart of both demographics. We embrace these challenges, for it is in our darkest hours that our struggle defines the pinnacle of our character.

If summer finds us battling the limits of the human body and challenging the uncertain nature of our existence, I hope our endeavors inspire. I hope the enigma surrounding the human pursuit toward the extraordinary entices each of us to look within ourselves and face the demons holding us back from our optimal wellbeing. As USX navigates the most inhospitable climates on earth, each of our team members carries a weight on our shoulders far greater than the burden in our packs. Each of us has been challenged and overcome immeasurable obstacles to our physical, mental, and spiritual prosperity that span past our military careers, and all of us have done so in relative silence. ‘Through the fog,’ a clarity to our own suffering can be reached, a journey towards awareness not obtainable without the self-deprivation of scaling the highest mountain in North America.