BY RICHARD RHINEHART
Boulder, Colorado, February 20, 2012 – At the February 18 Boulder International Film Festival premiere of “High Ground,” the capacity audience showed their appreciation of the moving and emotional documentary. Following the screening, the audience stood and applauded filmmaker Michael Brown and the wounded warriors who participated in World T.E.A.M. Sports’ October 2010 Soldiers to the Summit climb of 20,075-foot Lobuche East.
Winner of the 36-film Festival’s Audience Favorite Award and the “Call to Action” Award, “High Ground” played to a sold-out Boulder Theater, the distinctive 975-seat art deco theater in downtown Boulder, Colorado. Lines began to form well in advance of the screening, and wrapped around the block in the chilly Colorado sunshine.
Following the conclusion of the 90-minute film, Brown and seven attending wounded warriors from the expedition – Katherine Ragazzino, Ashley Crandall, Chad Stone, Chad Jukes, Steve Baskis, Cody Miranda and Nicolette Maroulis – were honored by the audience with an enthusiastic ovation and with a public question and answer session that lasted beyond the festival’s allotted time.
The result of a collaborative partnership between World T.E.A.M. Sports, the climbing team that led blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer to Mount Everest’s summit in 2001, and Brown’s Serac Adventure Films, the documentary shows that disabilities both physical and mental can be overcome through determination and teamwork. Ascending to the summit of the high alpine peak near Everest, the disabled veterans discovered that the camaraderie of outdoor sporting activities can begin to replicate the close personal relationships they appreciated in the military.
For many of the 11-member team of wounded warriors, their departure from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan owing to disabilities they sustained meant a radical change in lifestyle. Returning home, they struggled with accepting and moving beyond the intense memories of their service, learning to live again in an American society that seemed almost foreign.
As chronicled by Brown and his Outside Adventure Film School team, the warriors discovered that America can be supportive, but not completely understanding of the complex issues they face following their war experience. For Maroulis, her participation in the Soldiers to the Summit climb helped her regain an identity beyond being the “Navy girl in the wheelchair.” Crandall, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, found she can rise above cruel comments posted to websites reporting her story to effectively manage her conflicting emotions.
Baskis, blinded in a massive May 2008 roadside bomb blast in Baghdad, finds happiness in true love during his recovery, yet struggles with being able to only touch his wife and not see her. During his journey in Nepal, he appreciates the dramatic Himalayan scenery through descriptions by his colleagues and the innovative practice of pointing and having his arm moved to illustrate spatially the height of the surrounding mountains.
Following Colorado training expeditions in the spring and summer of 2010, the team travels to Nepal in October, where they begin the several day hike to Lobuche East. Trekking along ancient trails that carry commerce to and from secluded mountain villages and monasteries, the team joins together in resolving challenges and assisting each other as they cross streams and rivers, ascend switchbacks and gain altitude. Following a blessing at a peaceful Buddhist Monastery, the team ascends into the high glacial valleys with cloud-shrouded summits that hold the Everest Base Camp. Acclimation helps the team with the thin alpine air before the summit team begins their climb in the dark of night. Leaving camp after an impromptu, emotional meeting with colleagues who decide to not undertake the difficult climb, the soldiers scramble over steep rock outcroppings before reaching a ridge of snow and ice. It is this ridge that leads to the summit; a slow, exposed ascent that challenges every veteran and brings into focus what it means to be alive.
Featuring outstanding cinematography and a pleasing original score by composer Chris Bacon, “High Ground” is not a typical mountaineering film. It is a celebration of the ability of man to work together through cooperation to resolve challenges and reach a common goal. Like all World T.E.A.M. Sports events, the Soldiers to the Summit climb provided an opportunity for these wounded warriors to move beyond their shared war experience to understand they can participate and excel in outdoor activities. Brown and his Outside Adventure Film School’s team documentation of this beautiful and often dramatic climb allow the audience to fully share in this journey of discovery.
Stone Circle Pictures and Serac Adventure Films report “High Ground” will now travel to other film festivals nationally, and may have a limited theatrical release in selected markets. For the expedition partners, each is moving to new challenges and opportunities – World T.E.A.M. Sports is hosting a late February Soldiers to the Summit winter event in Snowbird with a new group of veterans. No Barriers USA is hosting a climb of a high Ecuadorian peak in December 2012 for another team of wounded warriors. For the soldiers of the 2010 expedition, they will build upon their shared experience in reaching Lobuche East’s snowy summit and learning they are not defined by war, but by who they are as individuals. Their confidence in success will help change the lives of many.