Written by Seaman Sarah Wilson
The life of every Coast Guardsman is filled with hills to climb, whether leaving family behind to sail the seas, taking the notoriously difficult servicewide exam to achieve lifelong career goals or being first responder on scene after a natural disaster.
For a dedicated few, life comes with a few mountains too — like Petty Officer 2nd Class Nick DeBrum, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Griffin, Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Wingfield and Petty Officer 3rd class Adam Plourde, Coast Guardsmen from Sector Puget Sound in Seattle, who climbed Mount Rainier and proudly flew the Coast Guard ensign from its peak.
Of the 10,000 people who register each year to climb Rainier, the fifth tallest mountain in the continental U.S., fewer than 5,000 make it to the summit. It towers above the state at 14,410 feet, where oxygen thins to 12 percent and physical reactions vary from sweating and exhaustion to shivering with shortness of breath in a matter of minutes.
“We constantly reevaluated our personal condition and the condition of our surrounding environment,” said Wingfield, a marine science technician at the sector’s Incident Management Division. “The mountain has no feelings and it did not care if we made it to the top, got injured or killed. Those decisions lied solely on us, and we all determined together that the summit was optional – the parking lot was mandatory.”
That humility — plus eight months of physical and mental preparation — carried the four men up the 9,000-foot elevation gain from the Paradise Trailhead to Mount Rainier’s peak.
The group’s training process began in September 2015 and included everything from team meetings about expectations to local hikes and emergency preparedness classes. Their last stepping stone toward the big climb was the ascent of Mount Saint Helens in March, where each team member gave his equipment and his grit a final check.
On Mount Rainier, the group applied equal parts training and strategy to their climb, carefully assessing threats and mitigating each one as a team. By taking one step at a time, they made it just below the mountain’s summit in three days.
“We all set our packs on the ground near the summit and collapsed for a few minutes, exhausted,” said Plourde. “After we each had a snack and some water, we hiked up the last 50 yards to the true summit and had a big group hug. It was sublime, like we were standing on the roof of the Northwest.”
Eager to make it home safely, the team only spent about 10 minutes at the summit — just long enough to fly the Coast Guard flag and take in the view, an estimated 300-mile radius from Mount Baker in the north to Mount Jefferson in Oregon.
They returned to work Monday sore and tired, but with a new sense of brotherhood and pride knowing they had conquered a goal some die trying to achieve.
Coast Guardsmen from units around the world are upholding the Coast Guard’s highest traditions both in and out of uniform. But a courageous few – those who see life’s mountains as opportunities to test their physical, mental and spiritual boundaries — give new meaning to the term ‘above and beyond.’