When she reached the summit of Denali, Naomi Schware fell to her knees, caught her breath and began to cry.
The part-time Boulder resident reached the summit more than 20,000 feet in the Alaskan sky with climbing partner Amanda Burrill on May 22. Both are veterans — Schware of the Israeli military, Burrill of the U.S. Navy — and they hope their expedition will raise awareness about the issues women veterans face.
Schware said she had trouble reintegrating into American society, and Burrill said she faced a long recovery from injuries, including traumatic brain injuries that were initially misdiagnosed. Both found solace and healing in being outdoors, which they hope will help other women in similar situations.
On top of Denali, Schware stood and embraced Burrill, and Burrill kissed her on the forehead.
"It was this moment of, 'We did it, and we brought all women veterans and first responders up here with us,'" Schware said. "That was quite a moment."
The duo's adventure began about a year ago in Alaska, too.
Schware splits her time between Boulder and a tent in Alma, Colorado. Burrill lives in New York City. They met last year when they took a course through the Alaska Mountaineering School, and they began taking trips together, which helped them fine tune their skills and partnership before tackling Denali.
"We started feeling each other out and just got to realize that not only would we be able to climb Denali together, but we'd be able to do it without a guide," Burrill said.
They climbed Mount Elbrus, an 18,510-foot peak in Russia, last August. They took a 10-day winter camping trip through Colorado that included a summit of Mount Harvard after that. The month before their Denali expedition, they trained on Mount Rainier in Washington.
In late April, they traveled to Anchorage before borrowing a friend's Winnebago and driving to Talkeetna, Alaska, to prepare for the expedition. They were met by a vicious storm and had to wait in Talkeetna for nearly a week before the weather cleared enough that they could take a flight on a bush plane to the glacier.
"There was a big storm that wouldn't break," Schware said. "It was kind of this moment of... Welcome to Alaska. Welcome to the next three weeks of your life. It was very telling of what our experience was going to be like for the next few weeks."
On May 1, their 25-day expedition up and down Denali began.
They set up camps along the way and waited for storms to pass before traveling to the next camp. Sometimes, their wait lasted days.
They spent those days digging their tent out of snow drifts, doing camp chores and reading to one another. They read "The Long Walk," a 1956 account of World War II prisoners who escaped a Siberian prisoner camp and walked across the continent, and "The Rise of Superman," a book about human performance.
When the storms cleared, they continued upward. Finally, on May 22, they made a summit push that began at 10 a.m. They arrived at the top around 8 p.m., with the sun still in the sky.
Schware described it like standing on another planet.
"It's so high up, so high up," she said. "You look down and you can see the mountain that you're standing on, but then you can see clouds, and when the clouds part you can see the whole Alaska Range. They're decently high mountains, but they look like riverbeds. They're so far beneath you that they look like dried riverbeds and not mountains. It's a really, really phenomenal experience."
Standing there left them in awe, but the moment carried greater significance for them, too. They posed for a snapshot holding a flag for Valkyries of Valor, a meet-up group they helped found to bring together women veterans and first responders in the outdoors.
For both of them, getting outside and spending time in nature has helped them heal.
"On a bigger level, it is about the way we both have dealt with the aftermath of some of our issues," Burrill said. "We've both dealt with some of the stress that came from our service using the outdoors. The outdoors is a great healer."
For both of them, too, they had to work against the images of the male veteran and the male outdoorsman. They hope to bring together more women through Valkyries of Valor and provide them with support.
"We climbed for women veterans," Schware said. "We didn't climb for us."