When most college students report back to campus in the fall, they have interesting tales to tell of their summer exploits. Some will talk of the concerts they went to, or the vacation they went on, and most will recall seeing their family friends and the time spent with them. Few will have as unique a story as Ethan Burke.
What makes Ethan's summer adventure even more interesting, is that the story starts with another person, and another story that started long before the summer of 2015. Dr. Jacquelyn Lowman, an Associate Professor of Professional Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, has overcome a lot of obstacles in her life. "As a person with congenital disabilities, I was always different, did not fit in, and heard a lot of 'can't' in my life," recalls Lowman. "But I was always lucky: there was always someone in my life who believed in me. That was mostly my Dad, who told me I could achieve whatever I set my mind to…so after having a near fatal burst artery, I was eager to come home and make a difference." With those thoughts in mind, Dr. J (as she is affectionately called by her students) observed Mt. Katahdin from a distance, and decided the pictures she had seen of it just weren't enough for her. She was going to climb Mt. Katahdin.
Being the first paraplegic to scale the mountain was no small task. It would take planning. It would take preparation. It would take a team full of selfless individuals that would have to come together and learn to trust each other. Ethan, a three-year member of the UMPI Owls Nordic Ski Team, was the first to join the team as a "sherpa". When he was approached in September of 2014, Ethan did not hesitate to join, despite not really knowing Dr. Lowman or anyone else that would be involved in the climb.
It started out as a group of people that hadn't had much time together, but it was essential for them to grow together quickly. ""The training which I felt was especially important was regarding communication and trust between all the sherpas and Jacqui," said Burke. "At first I virtually didn't know anybody, but as the meetings and training sessions progressed I became well acquainted with my teammates and vice versa. This was so important because the trip demanded that everybody trusted one another and be able to get along with one another." The training sessions proved crucial in many aspects. Not only did the group have to work as a team, they needed the right equipment for the journey. After trying out many devices that looked promising and failing, they finally found the piece that would make the trip possible, a backpack apparatus that would be used to carry Dr. Lowman.
For Jacqui, it was more than a piggyback ride to the top, "I worked out every day to get my upper body strength. I needed to be able to move with the sherpas and not throw them off. I also needed to be away from my wheelchair, which is a rehab chair to compensate for severe disabilities, for three days."
As time grew closer, the group grew together and the equipment was set. A practice run was set up by the sherpas a few weeks before the scheduled trip. The six men came back with doubts about the trip. The terrain was just too challenging and were convinced that reaching the summit would be too dangerous.
Dr. Lowman, the six sherpas, the porters ("a group of primarily women who lugged in heavy packs of our food, clothing, and supplies, without any glory or recognition" as described by Dr. Lowman), a cook, a rigger, a documentarian, and last but certainly not least, Saint Lowman, Jacqui's loyal companion and service dog, set out as planned on the morning of July 13th, uncertain of the final destination. The plan seemed simple, each sherpa was to carry Lowman for ten minutes, and then the group would switch duties, keeping everyone fresh for the grueling trek ahead. The first day was a 3.3 mile hike to Chimney Pond, the base camp for this excursion. The first day went so well, that after a good meal, and a good night's rest, a sense of optimism came upon the group as a whole. That positive feeling grew stronger throughout the second day, and the decision was made half way through, that they were going to attempt to summit Mt. Katahdin. The group reached the treacherous "rock slide" portion of the trail, a section of gravel and loose rocks. Ethan had the important task of carrying Dr. Lowman up the last stretch of that dangerous portion.
Despite the predictions and worries before the trip started, the group made the summit of Mt. Katahdin on July 14th. "I was overcame when we made it to the summit," said Lowman. "I thought about my Dad and the faith he had in me. I thought about how I have always been the luckiest person alive. I thought about the hope that this would give others. I thought about how a group of disparate people can come together and do the impossible through creativity, problem-solving, perseverance, love, faith, trust-and a bit of luck. It was a profoundly peaceful feeling."
Ethan recalls that moment as well, "When we got to the summit it was kind of surreal. I've been up there so many times I've become somewhat desensitized to the experience, but when the gravity of what we had just accomplished began to sing in, it was pretty amazing. I felt so happy that we had got her to the top and knew it was something I'll never forget." After spending some time taking in the scenery, posing for pictures, and enjoying their accomplishment, Ethan and the others started wrapping their heads around the fact that their trip was not over. "The fact that we were only half way was also floating around in my head. As difficult as the ascent had been I knew the challenges we faced on the descent could be even more severe…"
Dr. Lowman recalled the descent, "Coming down the slide was even more amazing. The boulders are enormous and at times the climb is quite vertical. How the guys managed to get us down that slide without using ropes astounds us all. Those six men worked as one, so in tune they often didn't need to speak. As we came down the slide, there would be two sherpas in front so that the sherpa carrying me could reach out to steady us. There would be a sherpa on either side of us. And the last sherpa would be in back to steady the piggyback pack and keep us from falling. They rotated through the positions seamlessly, scouting out the best paths."
"I can't imagine that this could have gone any better. It exceeded my wildest dreams and fondest hopes. All 16 of us came through with only a few scrapes and bruises—extraordinary for an endeavor that many said was impossible. We learned so much about ourselves and the human spirit through this. I am enormously humbled and grateful to know these exceptional people and all that they gave up to do this."
"Personally, I think Katahdin is the most beautiful place in Maine," said Burke, "and it's simply amazing to have the opportunity to help somebody experience it the way I have dozens of times. The trip was easily the largest team effort I have ever been a part of, and even if we weren't successful it would have been incredibly fulfilling to just to be involved. The fact that we did make it and were successful is still kind of surreal. Ultimately, it couldn't have been done without a strong, stable team, which is precisely what we were."
Dr. Lowman is the founder of the non-profit organization BEYOND LIMITS, whose goal is to help people undertake and overcome challenges in a supportive environment through recreation, team-building, problem-solving, communication, and other activities. "I have a theory that if you can create a vision and get people to buy into it—and let them know that you trust them to achieve it—you'll be amazed at what they accomplish. I put my life on these men's backs. We figured if that if someone fell, he would take me with him and probably fall on me probably go over backward and I would hit first and get killed or more disabled. But I trusted them completely to do the best that they could—no regrets. Katahdin is a very tangible, concrete mountain. But we all have inner mountains. We want to demonstrate that with perseverance, love, trust, faith—and a bit of luck—anything is possible. Ethan is the perfect person to go BEYOND LIMITS with. He is humble, devoted, committed, courageous, smart, strong, kind. With the right team, we can all go BEYOND LIMITS. Just try—you may not reach the stars, but you'll come much closer than if you never make the attempt."
To learn more about BEYOND LIMITS, visit the webpage: www.beyondlimitsawaken.org. There will also be a public talk, showing of a documentary made of the trip, and a sharing of photos and reflections as well as a question and answer on Wednesday, September 30th at 7 P.M. in the MPR.
[Photo Credit: Lenny Cole]