Steamboat doctor helps veteran summit the tallest mountains in the world
January 2018 found Dr. Bryan Scheer shivering in a tent more than 20,000 feet above sea level, perched on the side of the highest peak in the Western and Southern hemispheres.
His every muscle ached. He gasped for air. He wanted to numb the pain with sleep, but it felt like he was suffocating.
Scheer, a longtime Steamboat Springs orthopedic surgeon, knew that he was not, in fact, dying. It was just the altitude playing tricks on his brain.
But a sudden realization struck him like an avalanche. Many people who summit Argentina’s 22,841-foot Aconcagua have decades of mountaineering experience under their belt. Climbers, even professional ones, perish on the mountain every year.
Until two years ago, Scheer had never even donned a pair of crampons. As he described it, “I’m just a guy off the street who has a nice pair of climbing boots.”
Scheer’s life took a turn for the extreme when he met Ben Breckheimer, a U.S. Army veteran who is trying to become the first combat-wounded warrior to summit the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.
It is called the Seven Summit Challenge, which includes Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Mount Elbrus in Europe, Carstensz Pyramid in Oceana, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Vinson in Antarctica and, to top them all, Everest in Asia.
Breckheimer has summited six of these seven giants, with only Denali remaining. Scheer has accompanied him on three of the climbs, all last year, and plans to be there for the Denali expedition in May.
Scheer met Breckheimer in 2017 during a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, a volcano in Tanzania and the highest peak in Africa. The excursion was sponsored by American300, an organization that connects American veterans with mentors.
Breckheimer previously had attempted to summit Kilimanjaro on his own but got sick and had to turn around.
“I beat myself up over it, so I had my own team with me this time,” he said.
A team of 18, including Scheer, acted as a support group for Breckheimer as they scaled more than 16,000 feet to its summit. The two men talked along the way, recounting the threads of their lives that had led them here and brought them together.
An Army staff sergeant, Breckheimer deployed to Afghanistan as a cavalry scout for the Second Infantry Division in 2009. Three months later, in September, his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
Breckheimer nearly lost his right leg in the blast, which caused a traumatic brain injury and multiple pelvic and femur fractures. After emergency surgeries in Afghanistan and Germany, he returned to the U.S., where doctors were able to save his leg and start him on a long, arduous road to recovery.
Breckheimer’s story resonated with Scheer, who has devoted his career to helping patients recover from physical injuries. When they met in Tanzania, Scheer noticed the scars, physical and emotional, the war had left on Breckheimer. The veteran even confided some of his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which shadowed his life after the explosion.
“When I met Ben, he was emerging from all that,” Scheer said.
During that encounter, he saw firsthand how climbing had become Breckheimer’s therapy, a way to overcome his pain.
“Just in the 10 days I spent with him, he was healing,” Scheer said.
The two bonded so quickly, they were already planning their next expedition together on the way down from Kilimanjaro.
Since then, they have acted as each other’s support system as they endure some of the most grueling challenges of their lives on the world’s tallest peaks. As Scheer explains, no amount of physical training can prepare someone to survive in such extreme conditions.
“You can’t condition to be frozen, scared and lonely,” he said. “That’s all mental.”
That Breckheimer must climb with a fused ankle from the explosion makes every step its own mountain.
“There are moments when I question if I can really do this,” Breckheimer said. “That’s why it’s good to have Bryan along.”
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Having a doctor as a climbing companion is reassuring to someone with such extensive injuries. Scheer realizes his partner’s pain and knows how to, at the very least, mitigate it.
Mountaineering necessitates self-care, which is also one of the cornerstones of orthopedic medicine. Discomfort, left unattended, will only lead to more serious problems up the trail.
“If you’re tired, you need to sleep. If you’re cold, you need to get warm,” Scheer said.
After surviving altitude sickness, avalanches and frostbite, he has noticed a metamorphosis in Breckheimer.
“Every time I see Ben, he is a little more positive, more driven, more encouraged,” Scheer said.
Only one more mountain stands between Breckheimer and climbing history. Denali is, by many accounts, the hardest of the Seven Summits. But with Scheer by his side, the veteran feels ready.
“Every success that we’ve had on the mountains has helped build my confidence up,” Breckheimer said.
Climbers can seldom explain why they risk life and limb. The urge is ineffable, which only strengthens it. Scheer, in helping Breckheimer achieve his dream, has become part of something larger than himself.
It looms ahead, calling to be conquered. The mountain can take everything, even his very breath. But for those who endure, it gives life.
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