Disabled vet from Dahlonega hikes up Grand Teton

For Andrew Sullens, commemorating Sept. 11 is about dealing with a tough break, and getting over it.

As a National Guardsman in Afghanistan, the Dahlonega native lost part of his right leg to injuries from an improvised bomb that totalled his Humvee in May 2009.

He not only learned how to live with a prosthetic device, he took up kayaking and climbing and other burly outdoor sports, and underwent training to become a member of the SWAT team with the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Department. Sullens wasn’t interested in a desk job.

Today he sets his goals higher. Sullens, 29, joins a team of disabled veterans in a hike up the 14,000-foot Grand Teton, the second highest peak in Wyoming and a climb with significant challenges. “There are five pitches of technical climbing,” said Eric Gray, of Atlanta-based Catalyst Sports, a nonproft that helps injured vets and others with disabilities enjoy outdoor sports, and a member of the expedition.

Said David Gonzales, a photographer based in Jackson, Wyoming who will also be joining the team, “they are going to be doing real moves over a void that is more than 1,000 to 2,000 feet — and there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to get really chilly.”

The team also includes a Texas woman who was a Navy dog handler when she was injured by an IED, and a Utah climber and veteran who lost part of his right leg in Iraq.

Climbing the mountain is a reminder to himself — and to others who might be watching online at mybrightmountain.com — that obstacles invite solutions, Sullens said. The mountain represents some of the trouble that has blocked his way but hasn’t stopped him, in the same way that the attacks of 9/11 have hampered but not stymied the U.S.

“It’s like a physical manifestation of the adversity I’ve had to deal with over the last few years,” said Sullens. “I’m challenging myslf to empower other people. I don’t have to choose defeat.”

He added that it’s particularly rewarding to make the climb with “people who are likeminded spirits.” The trip is co-sponsored by Exum Mountain Guides and Paradox Sports, an adaptive sports outfit based in Wyoming.

Sullens served four years in the Navy and three years with the National Guard. He had been in Afghanistan just a month, serving as a turret gunner, when his combat convoy ran over a bomb hidden in a culvert. The explosion blew him out of the turret and 25 feet from the vehicle, fracturing his pelvis, crushing his leg and peppering him with shrapnel.

During his recovery, part of which was in Augusta, he met Gray, and the two began biking and kayaking together. Gray and Sullens trained for today’s climb at Mt. Yonah in North Georgia and at an indoor climbing gym in Atlanta.

The climbing team planned to hike in to the Teton range Monday, camping on a saddle at 11,600 feet. Then, rising at 3 a.m. today, were planning to make their way to the summit and back down again in the next 16 hours.

“I didn’t do this on my own,” said Sullens, who is married to Jill Sullens and is currently a student at North Georgia College and State University. “I’ve had a lot of backup, a lot of guys like Eric in my life to help me.”

He said that assistance helped turn his life in a postitive direction. “Everybody’s heard the story about the angry vet that ends up [ticked] off at the world,” he said, “but I didn’t want my story to be like that.”