Climbing mountains, real or perceived, tests Reservist's toughness, willpower

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Wendy Beauchaine
  • 446th Airlift Wing
Flying a flag above the clouds usually involves an American flag onboard an Air Force transport, like the C-17. On July 29, a 446th Maintenance Squadron Reservist traveled on foot to a summit above the clouds to fly his squadron's flag.
After 13 hours of grueling effort, Master Sgt. Darran Baggs, a fuel systems mechanic, conquered Mount Rainier's tallest peak, along with a team of other climbers and a distinguished guide, Dave Hahn.
"I was so happy I actually got to the top," he said. "It was very emotional, setting a big goal and getting there. I learned so much about my willpower and strength and I understand more about who I am."
Having climbed several mountains before, including two Ecuadorian peaks in 2004, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2002, and a climb to the base camp of Mount Everest in 2000, Sergeant Baggs is now a self-proclaimed adventure addict.
"Mountain climbing gets in your blood," he said. "Once you've climbed one, you think about what the next big goal can be."
Preparation for his ascent of Mount Rainier began eight months before the actual climb. After changing his diet and starting a vigorous exercise routine, he lost 40 pounds and gained the strength to tackle 14,410 feet of dormant fire and ice.
"I did a lot of hiking, running and used a stair stepper machine while wearing a 40-pound backpack," said Sergeant Baggs. "My longest training hike was 25 miles with an elevation gain of 4,500 feet."
The journey to the summit's nearly three vertical miles of climbing included conquering 26.2 horizontal miles when he ran the Ogden, Utah marathon, a physically as well as mentally demanding event.
"The mental aspects of training are as important, if not more important, than the physical prep," said Sergeant Baggs. "As we approached the top (of Mount Rainier), I started to get tired, but I kept thinking about the flag I was carrying. I knew I had to get the flag to the top of the mountain for the 446th. I kept thinking about the people I work with and how much effort it took to get this beautiful flag made. There was no way I was going to turn around before getting that flag up there."
That kind of determination is essential when you consider that Mount Rainier climbers have only a 50 percent success rate. On this day, seven members of the team did not make it to the summit.
"There are crevasses, falling ice and rocks, and up to 100-foot ice walls, so you have to move constantly and climb at night," said Sergeant Baggs. "As the sun starts warming everything up, ice falls and rocks pop out of the glacier, which can kill people who are below the wall."
Once at the top, the dangers didn't subside. The 45 mile per hour wind makes it difficult to hold the flag still. Temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees, with the wind chill, made it worse. Sergeant Baggs used every piece of clothing he brought - long johns, polypropylene insulation, a down coat - but he was still cold.
"Mountains are tough; they'll teach you how much toughness and willpower you have," he said. "You have to build up endurance, but you also have to wrap your brain around the belief you can do it."
Another nine hours later, Sergeant Baggs completed the most dangerous part of the journey, his descent.
"That's when most people get injured," he said. "I kept thinking about the letter I carried from my nine-year-old daughter. She wrote me a note and reminded me to come home safe for my 48th birthday the next day."
Famous climber George Mallory died while descending Mount Everest. Hahn, Sergeant Baggs' tour guide on the Mount Rainier climb, was on the team that located Mallory's remains.
"Mount Rainier isn't Everest," said Sergeant Baggs, "but it's still a tough climb. It requires ice axes and crampons, and many people have died while climbing it."
But the Reservist prevailed and the 446th MXS flag waved freely above the clouds.
"I recently began my Reserve time (at McChord) and we have a great view of the mountain," said Sergeant Baggs. "I'm reminded each drill weekend when I see (the mountain), of all the hard work and preparation it takes to achieve goals - whether it's climbing mountains or combating the global war on terrorism.
"Most of all," he added, "it reminds me that challenges are opportunities to break a big obstacle into smaller, attainable goals and in the end, the accomplishment is the sweetest reward." (Senior Airman Paul Haley, 446th AW Public Affairs, contributed to this story)