Survivor Instinct

A Game of Healing

Survivor instinct

Survivor instinct

Published on March 6, 2015

With the Iditarod and Everest, Army vet seeks risky adventures to cope with his past

WASILLA, Alaska — Out here Steve Watkins is alone — alone with a past that haunts him and a future that drives him. But otherwise, as the frigid, muted morning slowly stirs to life and the layers of gray begin to separate, he’s alone.

Above: Steve Watkins runs part of his team on the original Iditarod trail as he prepares to compete in the famed race.

His dogs are especially eager to get going, leaping and barking and begging to be among the eight harnessed together to Watkins’s sled, the one outfitted in camouflage. Soon, they all pull away from the kennel and disappear into the snowy Alaskan wilderness.

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Watkins, 38, has spent the past year training for two perilous pursuits, exposing himself to risk that is both a seduction and a distraction for a military veteran in need of both.

This weekend, he will be perhaps the least likely musher in the famed Iditarod, which bills itself as the “last great race on Earth,” 1,000 raw and rugged miles from Anchorage to Nome. If all goes well, he’ll finish in 10 to 12 days.

Then, barely one week later, Watkins will board a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he’ll embark on an expedition to climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet. If Watkins’s body and mind hold up over two grueling months, he hopes to be standing on top of the world on or about May 20, the first person to complete — or even attempt — the Iditarod race and an Everest summit in the same year.

Watkins is an Army captain who served in Afghanistan and then spent parts of the next  10 years working as a civilian contractor there and in Iraq. There are addictive qualities to war, he says, and the adrenaline rush associated with danger. His current pursuits, he realizes, are attempts to scratch an itch that never seems to go away.

“I knew I needed to take on risk in order to feel happy and normal,” he said.

On the cold, quiet and impossibly pristine mornings, being alone on the sled or high on a mountain trail is all a form of therapy, a chance to wrestle with his thoughts and memories, the ones he wants to savor and the ones he wants to escape. He first received a diagnosis of  post-traumatic stress disorder nearly a decade ago. Since then, he tried shrinks, group therapy, even medication. Nothing worked.

“I realized that traditional recovery had its limitations,” he said.

Before too long, Watkins and his dogs emerge from a wooded area and begin circling a frozen lake. The soft blanket of snow sparkles, and the grays are replaced by silvers and white. There’s something about Alaska, Watkins says — “like you’re living inside of a National Geographic magazine. You can’t look everywhere fast enough.”

The scenery stretches forever, an intoxicating mixture of elements, equal parts beauty and peril. For Watkins, one amplifies the other. In his high-priced, high-stakes form of therapy, cheating death is akin to living life.

Watkins first received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder nearly a decade ago. 'Just like the military, sometimes you engage in operations that you don’t think will succeed. But you charge ahead anyway and do the best you can.'

‘I couldn’t get enough of it’

Watkins is shown on a street in Afghanistan during his deployment in 2004. He also worked as a civilian contractor there and in Iraq.(Courtesy of Steve Watkins)

Growing up in Topeka, Kan., Watkins collected goals like matchbooks, constantly seeking some sense of accomplishment. “Even in little Cub Scouts, he was always working on a badge,” says his mother, Barbara Watkins. “I’d beg him to take a 20-minute break before we started on the next badge.”

He was especially busy in high school — football, wrestling, track, student government, theater — and Barbara recalls having to make an awkward call to the wrestling coach, explaining that her son would miss practice because of a tap dance recital.

“He always wanted to do everything,” she said.

When Watkins was younger, he didn’t have career goals. He just wanted adventure. Back then, Alaska seemed like the furthest place possible from Kansas. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1999, attended Army Ranger School and reported to Fort Richardson, just outside of Anchorage, not long before Sept. 11, 2001. He was in charge of an engineer unit, which lacked some of the excitement he’d envisioned in a military career.

His five-year military obligation was about to expire when a spot opened up in Afghanistan, a platoon in need of an engineer captain. Watkins voluntarily extended his duty obligation and worked in engineer management at Forward Operating Base Salerno, near the Afghan city of Khost. The base was nicknamed “Rocket City” because it was so frequently the target of enemy attacks: rockets, car bombs, mortar fire.

A friend from Fort Richardson was also deployed at Salerno and routinely organized patrols through villages and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“Steve came to me and was like, ‘What are you guys doing tomorrow?’ ” said Reid “Huck” Finn, a platoon leader at the time. “ ‘Well, we’re doing a joint patrol with Afghan police.’ ‘Awesome, can I come along?’ Steve was just always looking for something more exciting and fun to do.”

That ever-present risk kept Watkins’s heart beating. For him, war was intoxicating: “like re-creating a new high that I’d never known before,” he said.

“I couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted more.”

Back in Kansas, his family avoided the nightly news, consumed by the fear that seemed to evade their son. Watkins vowed to remain in the Middle East until he physically couldn’t stay any longer. After nearly a year in Afghanistan, he learned about the pressing need for civilian engineers in Iraq. Watkins saw an opportunity to live amid the excitement and danger of a war zone, but without the constraints of the Army. He landed in Baghdad on Christmas Eve 2004 as a government contractor.

Grant stands up to greet Watkins as they get ready for a training run in the remote wilderness.

Alone, and with friends

Photo gallery

Watkins prepares for his first Iditarod race and his attempt to summit Mount Everest later this spring with a sprint along the Pioneer Ridge Trail. Click for more photos.

Not unlike an extended tour of duty, there is a solitary component to living and training in Alaska. It’s easy to get lost in one’s head. Today the smallest things can trigger paranoia or inspire obsessive behaviors. In a room or restaurant, he prefers his back to the wall, instinctively identifies exits and areas of regress and surveys everyone around him.

When he’s on the trail with the dogs or hiking up a mountain, the daily chatter in his head quiets. The unending horizon somehow allows him to narrow his scope. His senses are sharp, but the ride can be monotonous. Training runs typically last six or seven hours — a lot of time for thoughts, emotions and memories to come to life.

“It’s my time where I’m away from people — away from people who may judge me or I may feel uncomfortable around,” he said.

He’ll be on the sled at times in the middle of  nowhere, surrounded by his dogs, snow and little else, and Watkins will break down in tears. It happens to him sometimes on the mountain, too.

“There’s some gory scenes that I can travel back and see in my mind’s eye,” he said, “like it just happened.”

For the 2.7 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, studies suggest as many as one in five suffers from post-traumatic stress or major depression. More than nine in 10 troops deployed in Iraq encountered dead bodies, faced live fire and nearly as many knew someone killed or seriously wounded. A Washington Post poll last year found the wars caused mental and emotional health problems in one in three vets, and one in four reported feeling guilt over something they did in Iraq or Afghanistan. An Army-funded study published last month in Annals of Epidemiology revealed that veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars face a 41 to 61 percent higher risk of suicide compared with the general population.

Watkins doesn’t discuss details about the horrors that haunt him. He says he’s most bothered by memories of children suffering. He also grapples with survivor’s guilt. As a contractor, he was at times responsible for security and the logistics of moving others through combat zones. There were times, he said, those people perished, and still today he wonders what role he played, what decisions he could have made differently and whether his PTSD clouded his thinking.

He thinks about these things when he’s alone, remote and the world feels still. The isolation provides time for a dialogue, “a psychological process of trying to communicate with people who’ve died that I’ve known . . . kind of message I’d like to send to my dead friends,” he says. Watkins apologizes to them and tries to offer explanations, likening the dialogue to a conversation or a prayer.

Most days, he’ll return the dogs to the kennel and feel like a weight has lifted, similar, he says, to how someone might feel after attending church service.

A veteran finds healing on a dog sled

Veteran Steve Watkins, 38, is in pain from his service. Alaska is his comfort, the place he trains for two audacious goals.
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(Lee Powell)

‘Just a matter of time’

Working for Versar, a large government contractor based near Washington, Watkins’s duties in the Middle East were wide-ranging. There was engineering work, but he also searched for business opportunities and wrote proposals for the U.S. and Iraqi governments to consider. He managed security, trained employees, planned logistics, all while living and working in combat zones.

“He was willing to assume a lot more risk than most people would assume,” said Brian Arbuckle, who was stationed at Fort Richardson with Watkins and later became a vice president  at Versar. “He was comfortable enough in his abilities that if he ever got into a situation, he knew how he could get himself out.”

Watkins traveled all over Iraq and found the action to be even more exciting than in Afghanistan. The enemy felt more formidable and the dangers more ever-present. There were gun fights and explosions, and Watkins always had the sense each step could be his last.

“I thought it was just a matter of time until we all died,” he said, “and I was okay with that.”

He was no longer the Topeka kid dreaming of adventure. “It was everything I hoped my life would be,” he said.

When stress felt like too much, he took a break, going as far from war as possible. Watkins enrolled in an MIT graduate program, studying real estate. Academia was a welcomed respite. He exercised and even ran the Boston Marathon in 2010, but the study groups and classrooms couldn’t replace what he was missing most. Watkins submitted his thesis — “Frontier Market Analysis: A case study of Iraq’s real estate industry” — and less than a week later was on a plane back to Baghdad. He didn’t even stick around for graduation ceremonies.

He continued to bounce between combat zones, eventually ending up in Afghanistan. The effects of PTSD were more profound by this point, and Watkins felt himself physically and mentally deteriorating.

“I honestly thought I was on a downward trajectory and I was gonna crash,” he said recently. “Either I was gonna get myself killed or get so many other people killed that I should just not be there.”

He reached a breaking point in 2013. He can’t bring himself to discuss the details of his exit, but Watkins said he became too injured to remain in Afghanistan. He said he suffered a traumatic brain injury and returned to the United States for back surgery. Veterans Administration doctors have classified him as 90 percent disabled, he said, and every part of his day is accompanied by pain.

“It’s a blow to your physicality as well as — blow to my physicality as well as emotions, psychological well-being, sense of self-worth,” he said.

He got out of surgery in August 2013. Two months later, he was in Alaska. He did physical therapy but knew that to really get better, he needed more.

Something gnawed at him, too. For years he felt he was a part of something, doing work that was important, that would somehow be a part of history.

“And now that that’s over with, what now?” he said. “I want to feel normal, inspired, challenged. . . . Not in therapy — that didn’t work.”

As part of his Everest training, Watkins works the endless rope machine at the Alaska Club gym.

‘What am I doing here?’

Watkins sent out a few e-mails to established mushers, introducing himself. He mentioned his goal to race the Iditarod, shared his background, included photos and a video.

Ray Redington Jr., a veteran musher whose grandfather  helped found the Iditarod race, gets these solicitations regularly. They usually come from someone in the lower 48 who probably would be more comfortable on an Alaskan cruise ship.

“A lot of times I don’t mess with them,” Redington says.

But Redington saw something in Watkins’s pitch — he was impressed with his service, his ability to complete marathons, his familiarity with Alaska — and invited him to spend a month around the dogs and see if it stuck. Requiring balance, determination, patience and an attention to details, mushing is not an endeavor for short attention spans. Just 731 people have completed the Iditarod since the inaugural race in 1973. Of the 78 entrants in this year’s race, 20 are rookies, most from Alaska or cold-weather states.

“A lot of people get into this and don’t realize how much work it is,” Redington said. “You don’t want to invest that much time into somebody that you don’t think can make it.”

Watkins’s first time on a sled came in November 2013. He was just a few weeks removed from surgery. Redington pulled the sled with a snowmobile, and Watkins lost his balance and took a nasty spill.

“I remember just lying there,” Watkins recalled, “looking up at the Alaska sky, going, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

He got back on, finished the ride and eventually graduated to dogs. After a few weeks, Redington began to notice the way the dogs responded to Watkins, and the way Watkins responded to his own mistakes. He realized his heady student wasn’t going anywhere.

Watkins traveled the Iditarod course last year on a snowmobile, embedding himself with the mushers along the way. Similar to his military training, he likened the experience to recon work.

In order to enter the Iditarod, a musher must log at least 750 miles in qualifying races. Watkins has completed four races. The longest was the Copper Basin 300, a three-day race that isn’t even one-third as long as the Iditarod.

Historically, just about half of all Iditarod rookies make it to the finish in Nome. The others succumb to sleep deprivation, cold, lack of resolve — the same hardships that made the race so alluring to Watkins.

Watkins zips up his high-altitude training tent as the Everest climb approaches this spring.

‘Operations you don’t think will succeed’

Watkins wears an altitude mask as he works out.

The Pioneer Ridge Trail, just east of Wasilla near the Knik River, amounts to an icy, 41/2 -mile slide on the side of a mountain. Watkins parked his truck at the base, attached spiky crampons to his feet and began working his way up the steep climb.

Training for Everest is dramatically different from mushing. On a typical day, he’ll run the dogs for 30 to 60 miles. Usually eight to 10 dogs will pull his custom-made sled. After lunch, Watkins heads to the gym, where he’ll spend about three hours doing cardio work. He wears a backpack filled with weights, often drawing stares because his face is covered for much of the workout by a high-altitude mask. On the stair-climber, the entire room can hear his heavy breathing, not unlike Darth Vader gasping for air, over the sounds of the nearby treadmills and stationary bikes.

At 29,029 feet above sea level, Everest poses a unique challenge. Watkins’s home outside of Wasilla is barely 300 feet above sea level, so he sleeps in a high-altitude tent, which covers his bed and mimics conditions anywhere from 10,000 to 17,000 feet.

Racing Iditarod vs. climbing Everest

Iditarod Everest
Distance About 1,000 miles, or roughly the distance from the Washington Monument to Miami Beach. The course alternates every year between northern and southern routes. Odd years use the southern route. The trek on the most common route, South Col, requires 7.5 to 8.5 miles of hiking/climbing from Base Camp to the peak at 29,029 feet. But it’s not the miles, it’s the altitude. The 1.5 miles from Camp 4 to the summit usually take eight to 12 hours.
Days 9 to 17 56 to 63
Dangers Extreme cold (average temperature range is 25 degrees F to -30); wind/loss of visibility; darkness; treacherous climbs Altitude sickness; frostbite; temperatures that can vary in a day between 86 degrees F and -22 degrees F; avalanche
Cost The entry fee is $3,000, but the total cost to field a team is $12,000- $20,000 not counting leasing, buying or breeding and training the dogs. Adventure Consultants, the expedition Steve Watkins joined, charges $65,000, plus travel expenses such as airfare and hotels. This is in the typical range for a well-supported expedition.
Equipment Mushers must carry Arctic parka, sleeping bag, ax, snowshoes, booties for dogs' feet, pot and fuel for boiling water, cables and harnesses, emergency dog food and a medical record book. They can ship other supplies to checkpoints. Each climber carries a pack of 15-22 pounds; his or her Sherpa carries up to 60 pounds. Gear includes a down jacket and pants, cameras, high altitude mittens, spare gloves, food, water, glasses or goggles, hats, oxygen bottles for summit day.
Major muscles used Watkins says his back and legs get the most tired. Suze Kelly of Adventure Consultants says the most-worked muscle is the heart, which operates at near-maximum capacity at high altitude. All the major ones, according to Watkins, who compares the whole-body exhaustion to working construction.
Successes 731, with no deaths More than 4,000, with about 250 deaths
Prize First place is $70,000 and prizes go 30 deep. Additional finishers get $1,049 each. The last finisher gets a red lantern, a traditional symbol of persistence. For the rest of your life, you get to say you summited Everest.

Reporting by Bonnie Berkowitz
Sources: Steve Watkins; Adventure Consultants, Iditarod, MeteoTest, 8000ers.com; AlanArnette.com

[What's tougher: Climbing Everest or racing the Iditarod?]

He readily admits his mountaineering inexperience rivals that of his novice mushing career. He’d learned some orienteering in the military but enrolled in a local course last year and set his sights on nearby Mount McKinley, the famed 20,320-foot Denali peak. Watkins embarked on the tough climb last June and made it about 16,000 feet up before conditions became too difficult and his snowed-in group had to turn back.

Everest is even tougher and notably more dangerous. The mountain has seen more than 200 deaths in the last century, including 16 last year alone. Most are due to avalanches, falls or the physiological challenges of surviving where the air is too thin to breathe.

“Just like in a conflict environment, knowing you might not live where many others have died, that’s a motivator,” Watkins said.

Climbing Everest has evolved quite a bit since the days of George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner or even since Jon Krakauer famously summited and produced the 1997 best-seller “Into Thin Air.” Sherpas handle much of the heavy work, carrying gear and preparing the trail, and improved oxygen-delivery systems make it easier for climbers unaccustomed to high altitudes to summit.

“It’s not unusual these days for participants to come and attempt Everest and be successful with no previous mountaineering experience,” said Tim Rippel, a guide with Peak Freaks who has completed 12 Everest expeditions.

Standing 5 feet 9 1/2  and weighing 205 pounds, Watkins is not built like a typical mountaineer or any sort of endurance athlete. He has broad shoulders and a stocky frame. He feels he has survived enough to face just about any challenge but also understands the improbability of completing both undertakings.

“Just like the military, sometimes you engage in operations that you don’t think will succeed,” he says, “but you charge ahead anyway and do the best you can.”

Working as a contractor was lucrative and is helping finance these lofty pursuits. An Everest climb costs around $65,000, and Watkins says all of his Iditarod prep, which includes leasing the dogs from Redington, costs about the same. He views  it as an investment in his mental health and hopes other veterans might be inspired to create goals of their own.

Watkins doesn’t have designs on winning the Iditarod’s $70,000 first-place prize, and he’s certainly not looking to set any speed records on Everest. For him, both endeavors are about survival — processing what he’s been through and grounding him for what’s ahead.

If he makes it to the top of Everest and has to descend back to earth, he realizes everything won’t necessarily be different. But he also knows new challenges await.

High on the Pioneer Ridge Trail, Watkins reached the peak, a modest climb of about 5,000 vertical feet. He turned around and half-jogged down, keeping his heart pumping. He paused briefly, taken by an opening in the trees that provided a framed view of the river, the mountains and layer upon layer of Alaskan grays. Between where he stood and what lay below, there was no safety net.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.

This will be Watkins's first Iditarod. Historically, just about half of all Iditarod rookies make it to the finish in Nome

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