Last week, servicemen and women came to Aspen to participate in the first-ever Military Ski Week. The non-profit Challenge America offered discounts on lift tickets and lodging for the military community — and some time to heal and reconnect.
Stacy Bare spends a lot of time in the mountains, but he said one day rises above the rest.
“You look out across the mountains and you can see into Iran, you can see almost all the way into Turkey, you can see back into Iraq,” said Bare, a veteran of the Iraq War who was in Aspen last week for Military Ski Week.
He didn’t want the war to be his only experience in Iraq. So last winter, he went back to summit and then ski Mt. Halgurd, the second highest peak in the country.
“I remember being up there, my mind’s blown, it’s so beautiful, it’s so amazing and it felt like there were hundreds of people on that mountaintop with me. Friends that had died in Iraq, friends that had died at home, people that didn’t serve but support me and love me, and it just felt like they were all there in a very real way," Bare said. "Getting to the top of Mt. Halgurd in Iraq was certainly one of the best moments I've had," he said.
But the trail to that high started in a deep valley. When Bare returned home from Iraq, he threw himself into graduate school and also drug addiction and alcoholism. He said he came home from war, but the war never really left him. That started to change when a friend got him out climbing.
"Time outside gives you a moment to live in the now, it gives you an opportunity to breathe fresh air, recognize what you fought for, see something that is beautiful, connect with other people,” Bare said.
Kelly Williams, a retired Navy chief, was also in Aspen last week. He agreed that time outside, especially skiing, is powerful.
"It is that state of flow,” Williams said. “It's kind of forgetting about everything else that's going on and just being able to relax into the moment.”
His wife Debbie Williams said she sees a dramatic change in Kelly Williams when he’s out here. Part of his work in the Navy was in psychological operations. Debbie Williams said he still dwells on that work, but not when he’s out in the mountains.
“It gets him out of his head,” she said. “It gets him focused on what he's doing at the moment.”
Bare worked with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley to create the Great Outdoors Lab, which studies the cognitive and physical benefits of time immersed in the natural world. They’ve found that moments of awe can pull people into immediate mindfulness, almost a meditative state. Bare said he feels it each time he drives into the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Every time I turn and see Mt Sopris — and I’ve seen that mountain hundreds of times — I’m just like woah, and I feel my body relax,” Bare said.
The research from the Great Outdoors Lab is now being peer-reviewed. It shows significant benefits from time in nature, including dramatic reductions in stress.
Dallas Blaney is director of operations for Challenge America, which is based in Basalt. He said this week can be a starting point for veterans to connect with nature and give back.
"Given that so many public lands are under threat again, we need that kind of a group, whose patriotism is unimpeachable, to stand up in defense of these natural places," Blaney said.
Blaney is a veteran himself and a champion of public lands. For many veterans, retirement from military service can mean a lost sense of purpose, but getting outside and reconnecting just may create a new spark.
"And that's what so many veterans need – they need a mission,” Blaney said. “Well, what better mission than to save nature? How cool is that?"
So when veterans are carving turns in Aspen, it’s about more than just a day of fresh air. It’s also about the values they fought for — freedom and liberty. Bare said this is exactly how a week of skiing in Aspen can have a lasting impact.
"Aspen ski week brings people together and says, ‘This is what you fought for. This country.’ These ideals are rooted in a physical place, and not just here in Aspen. But, enjoy this!” Bare said.
In the end, Bare and Blaney agree, it’s about getting more people outside to experience those moments of awe, whether it's climbing or skiing or finding any other way to take in a breath of fresh air.