A Climber in Iraq
His fingers curl over the crimpy hold as his left hand reaches for a sweat slick sloper. Every muscle on his back pops out, resembling mountain ranges on a three-dimensional map. He ascends the wall, ignoring the hum of the air-conditioner, the aggressive flies, the fluorescent lights, the heat and drafts of dust. At the top he hangs for a moment on the two-by-four plank and then drops to the worn padding of blue mats and grey-yellow mattresses. Outside the roar of a Blackhawk’s rotor blades and engines ruffles the tent’s ceiling over the climber’s head, but after nine months in country he hardly notices these sounds anymore.
Ten months ago…
“I just don’t get why people do stuff [rock climbing] like that,” says a soldier in Kuwait as he and crew chief Sgt. Darrell Cornick, 39, of Corvallis, Ore., prepare a UH-60 Blackhawk for flight. In a few days they will fly to Iraq and begin their deployment in the dusty desert. “Its funny that people in this unit, who are flying Blackhawks into war say that,” says Cornick, who rates himself as a V 4/5, 5.12 a/b max climber. He plans to build a bouldering wall once he gets in country. Cornick, along with nearly 100 soldiers, is part of Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac unit stationed out of Salem, Ore., destined for a yearlong deployment. In Kuwait, soldiers are still cheerful, excited to leave the confines of their stay at Ft. Sill, Okla., a place many compare to prison. For nearly three months they are unable to leave their barracks even for a steak dinner or a single glass of beer, in the town nearby. So now Iraq seems like an adventure, a great unknown lies ahead and if they expect the worst, horrific events lie in that future, explosions, fire fights and dismantled body parts are all possibilities. For soldiers, like Cornick, previously deployed to Afghanistan, a different war, the thrill of the trip is somewhat diminished. He knows the war is dying down and that the possibilities of long, uneventful days in the desert lie before him.
In May, Cornick is stationed in a small base about thirty miles from Iran. He constructs a campus board, a seven-foot wood wall with crimpy holds, to keep his fingers strong. He climbs without footholds to the sounds of Nina Simone. “Typically a hundred degrees is not the best time [for climbing], but you get what you get,” says Cornick with a sigh. He often tries to get up at 3 am and climb outside before the skin burning sun rises.
Several months later, Cornick moves to a larger base in Balad, Iraq. In an air-conditioned hangar near the airfield, Cornick finds space to build a bouldering wall. He says, with a laugh, that his main motivation for the wall in Iraq is so that his girlfriend at the time, also an avid climber, will not be stronger than him when he returns home. But Cornick admits another truth. “I fell in love with climbing because I enjoy different gymnastic moves and the aesthetics of movement,” says Cornick. “When you get to recreate that somewhere else it brings back happy memories.”
In the desolation of Balad, a base of high concrete walls and gravel, soldiers need an escape. There is boredom, though Cornick subscribes to the notion that, “If you’re bored then you’re boring,” but as far as Medevac missions go, there are many days when the helicopters don’t leave the ground. Early on, Cornick was on duty for what soldiers call, no-shit missions. On one flight, Cornick and a crew of two pilots and a medic made a landing in the dust near a Stryker set ablaze in a black night. Cornick’s job as a crew chief was to stand outside the helicopter, providing security with his M4 rifle as the medic retrieved patients. These types of missions, also called point of injury, pretty much diminished after the June 30th combat troop pullout out of Iraq’s cities.
Cornick doesn’t complain about the free time, which enables him to look for large ply wood boards and old mattresses for crash pads. Several other soldiers from his unit help him saw and drill boards and screw in climbing holds. “The hardest part [in building] is that I’m a climber not a carpenter, which is funny because half of all climbers are carpenters,” he says. Despite his building skills, Cornick is at least somewhat satisfied with the finished product.
In a few days the two 16-foot walls are ready to be climbed. On one of his first nights on the wall, Cornick pulls off his shirt. “It feels strange not wearing my shirt,” he says. “At home it wouldn’t feel strange, but here it feels strange.” The Army is built on unity and when soldiers roll their cuffs or rest sunglasses on their heads in the chow hall they are reprimanded. At night in the hanger no one is around: Cornick scales his wall with shorts and a bare chest. He is not just a soldier in the Army, but a guy with chalk on his fingertips and sweat on his crinkled brow with beats from Oregon bands on his boom box and a UH-60 Blackhawk parked behind him.
Cornick joined the Army 16 years ago and began climbing 14 years ago. Soldiers introduced him to the concept, but Cornick was mainly self-taught through books and practice. He has a friendly, smiling face and a bounce in his step, it is hard to imagine him unhappy, but he attributes at least part of his good nature to his love of climbing. “I found focus, first you find focus then you find the happiness,” says Cornick. “When you’re in the middle of a difficult sequence when consequences are severe, everything else falls away. That’s it.” But while in Iraq, it’s not climbing as much as the people he climbs with at home that he misses. “Climbers are very real people and a little more fun than most others,” he says.
After sundown, when the temperatures drop to a cool 100 degrees, a small crowd finds its way to the wall to watch or try something new. “Its fun to see people when they discover climbing, fun to see the energy,” says Cornick. Pilot Capt. Peter Emerson, 40, of Gresham, Ore., drops by most days with his newly purchased Scarpa climbing shoes he bought online. With a newly rigged slack line and Ping-Pong table soldiers can brush up on all sorts of skills.
Now, as the deployment is nearly over, Emerson rarely flies. Most of his time is spent behind his desk, pushing paper, answering his phone and making time for a daily shave. You can’t be in a war zone with two-day scruff. He also has to make frequent trips to the barber, making sure his hair is cut to regulation. “I can’t wait to go back to work,” says Emerson, who works for a private helicopter company, which flies contracts for US Geological Survey teams, the US Forest Service, the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He spent last summer in Alaska, working in the most extreme weather he has ever seen. “Some days there were 60- to 70-mile-per-hour winds and fog, but I had to get the work done,” says Emerson, who considers flying in a war zone much easier than his civilian job. Although some trips to Baghdad, when he was flying low over the city, made him nervous. “All it takes is one rocket and the aircraft would come crashing down,” he says.
Overall, this war is waning for self-proclaimed daredevils like Emerson.
For Cornick, he’ll continue teaching new comers in Iraq. He’ll have to wait several months before his deployment ends and his six-month climbing trip begins. He’ll have to wait for the real fear that comes when he's hundreds of feet off the ground, relying on his rubber soled feet, the feel of his tired torso and aching fingers. That feeling that makes him want to have another breath, just so he can reach for that next hold, a reason to reach up and risk everything just for the sensation that some part of you is still alive, still primordial, still awake and un-tormented by the daily grind of getting to work on time to sit and stare at a clock. Cornick knows the thrill of adventure is outside the concrete barriers of military bases and though never bored, he is neither challenged nor afraid of this war. Iraq has no magnificent rock walls, no grit in the teeth and no sweat on the back leaving him aching to get stronger, just to get to higher, better climbs.