Summiting for Soldiers

It's often said that the wilderness is a form of therapy, but for these veterans with PTSD, it's no joke. "Summit for Soldiers" was formed in 2009 to raise awareness of and share mental health resources for veterans and their families. With a focus on mentorship and a copy of Mountaineers' Freedom of the Hills in hand, veterans are led up to the top of mountains as "adven-therapy."
Lace Thornberg Lace Thornberg
November 08, 2016
by Lace Thornberg, DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS, Braided River - a Division of Mountaineers Books

For veterans Steve Redenbaugh and Michael Fairman, climbing together was a way to cope with their struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

In 2009, Steve and Michael started Summit for Soldiers to raise awareness about veteran suicide across the country and to make life easier for veterans and families coping with PTSD. They travel across the country meeting with veterans, sharing mental health resources, and encouraging organizations to work together. In each state they visit, they bring fellow veterans along on a trip up to the state’s high point.

Many veterans and families have joined them since their first state high point campaigns, and Summit for Soldiers officially incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in fall 2014, aiming to build on their awareness campaigns, and to work more directly with the nations veterans. 


Summit for Solidiers “adven-therapy” program provides a safe, nonjudgmental environment for veterans to “come hang out”
and hopefully, find a renewed purpose and mission. Think “outdoor VFW,” says Michael. They focus on mentorship — with more experienced climbers advising less experienced climbers, and with veterans helping fellow veterans to work through
shared struggles.

Here’s where Mountaineers Books comes into the story.

Michael reached out to Mountaineers Books to see if we’d be willing to donate a few copies of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills. Impressed with his organization’s mission and approach, we were more than happy to send the hard copies and electronic copies he’d requested free of charge. 

Michael, who “can’t imagine any climber who doesn’t have at least a few versions of Freedom of the Hills on their shelves,” assigns chapters to adven–therapy participants to be read before they practice climbing techniques together. He finds the classic approaches shared in Freedom to be “invaluable” teaching resources.

In June, Summit for Soliders’ adven-therapy participants will embark on their first climbing road trip, hitting all the state high points between Ohio and Colorado. They’ll cap the trip with a climb up Mt. Elbert which will also serve as a tribute to Maj. Chris Thomas, who perished in an avalanche last New Year’s Eve.

“Chris had already discovered the therapy through outdoor adventure, but we totally connected on the vision and purpose of what we were trying to do,” explained Michael. Thomas had climbed to several high points, including Mt. Rainier, with Summit for Soldiers, had become certified as a guide and was just about to establish a Colorado chapter. 

“He was a good friend and will be dearly missed, but he died doing what he loved best and not with a gun in his mouth.” 

Growing state by state 

Summit for Soldiers is most active in Ohio, and where Michael and Steve live. The participant roster is still small, but their aim is to grow not only in Ohio, but also by adding chapters state by state. 

Establishing a Washington chapter is top on their priority list. As Michael notes, “It doesn’t take much to get some veterans together and get them out in the hills, so I’m hoping we will find some veterans and/or climbers stepping forward to help us set this up.” 

In addition to working with current veterans, Summit for Soldiers also reaches out to potential future veterans by presenting to groups like the ROTC. Michael is convinced that the next generation of our military can “completely change the mindset on dealing with service-related mental health injuries,” if he can convince new recruits to accept the challenge.

Carrying the “Silently Fallen” flag

When I spoke with Michael, he was just a few days away from starting a trip up Denali. If he is successful, this will be his third continental highpoint. How was he feeling? “Nervous/Excited!”

Three key motivations lie behind Michael’s bid for the Seven Summits. The first is to lead by personal example. As a “dis”abled veteran becoming a “re”abled veteran by taking on great challenges, he hopes to encourage other veterans to do the same — “mountains optional.” 

Second, he uses the climbs to garner attention for the organization’s mission and messages about PTSD and veteran suicides. More than 8,000 U.S. veterans commit suicide each year. One in nine veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress.  

As much as Michael wants the public to pay attention to these numbers, he also wants veterans suffering from PTSD and their families to know that they are not alone, and that many resources are available to them. You’ll find these mantras on the Summit for Soldiers website: “Someone who suffers from PTSD is NOT abnormal; it is a natural response to a traumatic event.”

His third motivation is to carry a “Silently Fallen” flag bearing the names of soldiers lost to suicide. The most recent additions were the names of a brother and sister who took their lives together.

The flag, Michael says, “allows us to not only honor these men and women, but to give them a voice and to hopefully save many more.”

Michael has successfully summited Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro. He had also attempted Everest, but that bid was cut short with the 2014 avalanche that led to the tragic loss of 16 Sherpas.

Staying positive 

Summit for Soldiers is more than a project for Michael. 

“I have struggled daily, and have survived an attempted suicide,” he readily shares. “This has become my mission and purpose, and I will not fail it … as hard as it may get, I have an incredible support group around me…especially the wonderful families of the veterans represented on the flag.”

Michael is looking forward to a day when all veterans are active and healthy, and veteran suicides are dramatically decreased. He wants to see stigma eliminated, with service-members seeking treatment for PTSD without restraint or fear. Then, he says, “we will just go out and climb and give our thanks.”

Building a Better World through Books


In 2014, Mountaineers Books donated more than $8,000 worth of books to fellow non-profit organizations. Summit for Soldiers is just one of the 55 groups across the country to benefit from these donations. Other groups we contributed to include Rocky Mountain PBS, Northwest Association for Experimental Educators, Mount Shasta Avalanche Center and dozens of groups based in Washington state. These books are most often used as auction items and raffle prizes, which helps the group who requested the book to raise needed funds to support their programs. 

Like our “1% for Trails” program, our “Give Books” program is one way that we collaborate with other non-profit organizations that are working to get people outside, to lead healthy active lives and to protect the natural environment.   

GET BOOKS: If you work or volunteer for a non-profit organization that could put a selection of our titles to good use, please visit to apply. Please note that we receive more requests than we can fulfill and give priority to organizations whose missions are closely aligned with our own. 

GIVE BOOKS: Giving away $8,000 worth of books feels pretty good already, but we’d love to donate even more books this year and we’re looking for individuals who could help underwrite this program. If you’d like to help us out, please email Whether you want to contribute 5, 10 or 100 books, the impact of your gift with ripple out to help dozens of non-profit groups, including Mountaineers Books. 

This article originally appeared in our July/August 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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