Sergeant Chris Drewes was a member of the soldier team climbing Nepal's Island Peak with the March to the Top expedition. His extraordinary journey began last October when he boarded a tiny Twin Otter plane that flew from Kathmandu into Lukla, Nepal – a place famed for having one of the world's most dangerous landing strips.
In his everyday life, 26-year-old Drewes is a Lakehead University political science student and a soldier who served six years with Canada's regular forces. He is now an army reservist in the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment in his hometown of Thunder Bay, and his work teaching new recruits is helping pay for his education. His father, Jack, is an electrician at the University. Drewes is fascinated by the worlds of law and politics because, he says, "It touches every aspect of society." He's even considering applying to Lakehead's Faculty of Law when he finishes his degree.
The leap from student life to climbing a 6,189 m (20,305 ft.) summit in the Himalayas would have most people worried but as Drewes points out, "this experience is far from the most dangerous thing I've done."
He served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. On his last tour in 2010, the foot patrol he was leading was ambushed by Taliban insurgents. They detonated an improvised explosive device that injured Drewes's shoulder and killed his radio operator and friend, Private Tyler Todd. Although Drewes was bleeding heavily and had to be medevacked out, his first concern was for his fellow soldiers. In the aftermath of the blast, he led the rest of his unit to safety, avoiding any secondary bombs. His ability to stay calm under pressure and put others before himself earned Drewes a Chief of Defence Staff Commendation.
So it was not surprising that when he received an email seeking participants for the March to the Top expedition, Drewes saw it, "as an opportunity to help people who are in worse situations than me. The whole reason we climbed was to raise awareness and funds for programs that help veterans."
He also saw it as a way to push his boundaries. Drewes, like many of his teammates, took on the ascension of this towering mountain with less than a week of training.
Chris Drewes proudly displays his Lakehead gear at the Island Peak Base Camp
"The climb was tough," he says. "You're scrambling up trails, bridges, and glaciers at progressively higher altitudes." And the expedition set a punishing pace. "Most days we climbed an average of eight hours and slept ten hours," Drewes says, "It's dark at 6:30 pm and you need more sleep because you're not getting enough oxygen." For every 600 m they went up in elevation, the team took a rest day to become acclimatized. But even with these precautions, Drewes suffered from stomach-churning nausea most of the time.
It was a two-week hike to the Mount Everest Base Camp before heading to the Island Peak Base Camp for the final ascent. The vegetation disappeared and the team encountered a barren landscape of rocks and ice. Soon, the only living things were the yaks carrying people and supplies and the tenacious goats that roamed the mountainside.
On October 27, the soldiers arrived at the 80° vertical head wall they had to scale to get to the summit ridge. For Drewes, the demands of this technical climbing were magnified by a nasty gastrointestinal bug he had contracted the day before.
"It took an hour and a half to do the final 100 m – that was the hardest part. At that point I felt like I was dying," he says, "I would take three steps and then I'd put my head down and take 10 seconds and then go another three steps."
When he reached the peak, Drewes was on his hands and knees trying to catch his breath and throwing up. "Our guide," he reports, "told me, 'You need to go down right now,' because if anything goes wrong at that altitude, you're going to deteriorate fast."
Despite the hardships of this alpine odyssey, the chance to represent veterans who risked their lives for their country made it worthwhile. And through his act of support and solidarity, Sergeant Chris Drewes conquered a challenge that few would even dream of attempting even though, he explains, "I'm not even a mountaineer."
The journey of the soldier team was captured for the CBC documentary March to the Top. To learn more about the documentary, visit http://truepatriotlove.com/