Mt. Baker Black Diamond
Retired Marine Corporal Todd Love, became a triple amputee when he stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan, in 2010. He fought alongside the men of 1st Recon Battalion, Bravo Company, 1st Platoon. At the end of that deployment 46 men were wounded in action, to include double and triple amputees like Todd. Members of Bravo 1 have reunited every year for the last decade to celebrate life, and at times, face physical challenges together. Although most of them have left active duty, they continue to live by a creed. Their commitment to each other does not end.
In June of 2019, they climbed Mount Baker in Washington State with their wounded. Andrew Dyer led the expedition. He’s a highly experienced mountain guide. And, as a corporal, he was the point man for his element in Bravo 1. He said the fighting they experienced in the first part of their deployment was very different from what they would see later. “We were in gunfights in the morning and at night, we called them Tic Times, but honestly it was kind of fun. Nobody was getting hurt.”
He said they got into a rhythm and knew what to expect, but the second part of their deployment was in the deadly province of Sangin. He considered their initial fighting to be the best preparation for what would come. “If we would have gone straight into Sangin, I think half of us would have died for sure,” said Andrew.
The men of 1st Recon Battalion, Bravo Company, 1st Platoon. (Photo courtesy of GySgt William Faffler).
Their first firefight in Sangin was an eye-opening experience. “That was the first time I heard an RPG come screaming overhead.” He quickly realized that the enemy in Sangin were prepared and they wanted to fight. “It’s 2010, all the dumb Taliban were dead, these guys knew what they were doing,” he said. Even now, ten years later, he’s almost dumbfounded at the amount of improvised explosive devices they faced. “You walk enough in Sangin you’re going to step on an IED because they were everywhere.”
The men are located throughout the United States, but they have coordinated with each other, spending months training for the climb. They eventually convene at a house near Mount Baker for final preparations. For them, it’s kind of like getting ready for a patrol. Retired Corporal Kyle Thompson is originally from Coos Bay, Oregon. He’s quiet and reserved, and he recalls the moment his team got hit in a subdued tone. “It took me a minute to figure out what happened, I didn’t even get knocked down. Todd took most of it, and all of a sudden, I just couldn’t see. It was like you have dirt in your eyes. Then my mouth started to hurt real bad because I busted my jaw and all my teeth.” He calmly retrieved an epinephrine pen in his sleeve pocket, stuck himself and took a knee. He was completely blind, most of his teeth were blown back into his mouth or gone and his tongue was shredded.
Kyle’s great grandfather was a Marine who was wounded at the Battle of Belleau Wood. And, his grandfather fought as a Marine in World War II and was wounded on Saipan. He offered Kyle sage advice about combat. “He told me when stuff starts to happen, you can’t sit behind a rock and freak out because you’re just going to end up dying.”
With Mount Baker in the background, the men being their climb. Dave Jarvis carries Todd Love as Andrew Dyer leads the team.
To ascend Mount Baker, Kyle and the rest of the men took turns carrying Todd on their back or dragging him in a sled behind them. They also had to bring enough gear and supplies to sustain themselves for up to five days. That meant initially carrying what they could to the snowline and then half the climbers went back to the starting point to get the rest of their gear and extra food. Once they were on the snow, Todd was dragged in a sled as much as possible.
The climbers used a sled to drag Todd Love behind them whenever they were on snow.
Todd Love is funny and disarming. His favorite pastime is playing pool and he can run a table against the best. He’s very approachable and people just gravitate towards him. During a practice climb in the Pacific Northwest, Todd was at a restaurant with his brothers-in-arms when an older couple stopped to talk to him on their way out. They thanked him for his service and left him a quick note. It was a story about someone they knew who had become an amputee and they were pouring out their grief and sympathy on a bar napkin to Todd. “I get that a lot,” he said amicably. He can talk about war or God in the same instant and then quickly crack a dirty joke with his brothers, all while devouring a pub burger. His demeaner epitomizes the concept that life is for living.
His honesty and earnestness shine through, even when he talks about being blown nearly in half at the age of twenty. “I couldn’t imagine at that time in my life, stepping on bomb and surviving it.” Todd was the point man in his element for Bravo 1. He explained that in Sangin, every single step just might be the last one. “IEDS, the guys who make them know what they’re doing,” said Todd. “They put them in places you have to walk through to get to where they are.” He added, “Maybe I’m in an open field and the translator is behind me on the radio and he’s saying, ‘they’re trying to decide who wants to shoot first.’ I don’t have time to stop every time my metal detector goes off, especially if it’s going off every five feet.”
He is incredibly aware of the blind faith he had as a young Marine and how much he’s changed in the last decade. He is contemplative, but not bitter when he says, “It was a commitment, a delusional one. I think my youth helped me to do that.” Service runs in the family for Todd. “I joined the Marine Corps because of my dad,” he said. Todd’s grandfather was also a Marine. But, he clarified, he also joined because he trusted his country. “I really trusted that the things we were doing as a country were very well intended.”
Brotherhood is defined by actions. In the midst of chaos, the ones to the left and right are all that matters. And, to know that you are not alone is everything. Amongst the men of Bravo 1, brotherhood has continued. Climbing Mount Baker is not their first challenging experience as a team. They have competed, as a group, in various races and events throughout the last ten years to include the grueling Recon Challenge at Camp Pendleton in California. Todd and Andrew have wanted to do this climb for a long time. They simply enjoy being with their brothers as they push themselves into the breach of uncertainty and achieve something great. Their collective bond and unyielding commitment to each other is a powerful reminder that warriors do not stop being who they are when their service ends.
On day one, the men climb from dawn to dusk to reach their base camp at 6,000 feet. Former sergeant Damien Descant slowly inspects the Silver-dollar-sized blisters that have formed on the bottom of his feet and says, “That sucks” with a crooked smile. Damien was at the back of the patrol when Kyle and Todd got hit.
“I had a baby on the way,” Damien said. “I didn’t know if I would get to see my child, but the fear of failing my guys was overwhelming.” Enemy gunfire continued to erupt as Damien helped the platoon corpsman asses and stabilize Todd and Kyle. Damien’s eyes widen slightly when he remembers walking up to Todd. “I thought Love was dead. His amputations were so high, I thought he was blown in half.” The platoon corpsman worked on Todd while Damien assisted Kyle. Damien attempted to give Kyle morphine and accidently injected himself in the process. Kyle laughs a little as he remembers. “There’s black end and red end, Damien put his thumb on the red end and jabbed himself with 15 milligrams of morphine, it was pretty funny,” Kyle said.
Damien chalks it up to the confusion of war. “When I switched my hands, I must have rotated it, and it’s dusty and hard to see. As soon as I did it, I pulled it out of my thumb and stuck the rest in Kyle, then gave him another one.” Soon after that, Damien began to lose feeling in his left hand, which complicated his ability to help with the wounded. The men quickly realized Todd had a faint pulse and they scrambled to get a tourniquet on him. His injuries were so severe that a normal tourniquet would not work. So, they improvised with a belt and the upper receiver of a weapon.
Todd started to regain consciousness, but he still couldn’t see because of shock and blood loss. He said his legs hurt and Damien told him, “It just means everything’s working.” Damien inherently understood the gravity of the situation and what he had to do to keep his brothers alive. “It’s mental at that point,” he said. “We’ve got to lie to him because we don’t want him to circle the drain.” Damien confides, “I’m not going to lie though, the first thing that popped in my head was, ‘but Lieutenant Dan, you ain’t got no legs.’” He stifles his laughter and continues, “I had to fight the urge not to say it,” he said.
Kyle was also blind. He asked Damien if he still had a face, and Damien told him he looked fine, even though, as Damien succinctly put it, “Kyle’s face looked like swiss cheese.” Todd and Kyle had a groggy conversation with each other, dripping with gallows humor, as bullets cracked overhead. They could barely talk and basically grunted at each other, but at some point, Todd said to Kyle, “Sucks to be you.” Damien smiles when he thinks back to that moment. “It helped make the reality not so nightmarish,” he said. The men moved their wounded, under fire, into a nearby compound. They were keenly aware of something called the Golden Hour. A severely wounded service member consistently had a much better chance of surviving if they could make it to a battlefield hospital within one hour of getting wounded.
A Marine with 1st Recon Battalion keeps watches in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy of William Faffler).
Retired Marine Master Sergeant Dave Jarvis was Bravo 1’s platoon sergeant. He says the Taliban knew their tactics well, and they also knew a medevac bird would come for the men.
As soon as the valley filled with the noise of spinning rotors, enemy RPG and automatic fire increased to a loud crescendo. Dave said, “Now you got this diamond in the sky if they can take out a helicopter.” Damien recalls that the volume of fire was so bad that he didn’t think the bird would land. “I thought Todd was screwed. It was a British unit; ‘Trixie’ was their callsign.” He’s still surprised when he thinks back to that moment. “They came in.” His eyes widen and his forehead crinkles in disbelief as he remembers that he blurted out, “We’re doing this,” and they started to move their wounded to the helicopter.
Kyle was told to grab onto the back of a team member and he blindly stumbled along as rounds cracked all around. They had to climb up walls and go over berms and Kyle fell multiple times. “I kept hearing the snaps,” said Kyle. The men got Todd loaded on the bird, but Kyle was confused by his blindness and he stayed on the ramp. He was in a haze and he thought he was sitting near on open side-door of the helicopter. He staunchly refused to move. In reality, he was sitting exposed on the open ramp of the bird while the enemy poured fire into their position. The wounded eventually made it to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Kyle’s left eye was destroyed, and he suddenly had to face the uncertainty of remaining blind in his right eye. “Being blind was not something I ever mentally prepared myself for,” Kyle said. He would eventually gain eyesight back in his right eye, but he has complications and cannot see well at night.
The sun starts to fade over base camp, and the men begin setting up their tents and cooking their first meal on the mountain. Retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Brian Yarolem was the battalion operations chief for Bravo 1, and he is also part of the climb. He spent most of his 30-year career as a Recon Marine. He has multiple combat tours and still has shrapnel in his leg from the battle of Najaf in Iraq.
“I told Dave and all the platoon sergeants I will always back you up and I will be standing there for you.” Brian is a living-legend in the Recon community and his strength is almost unbelievable. He has often been described as machine-like in his ability to endure. Incredibly, he also graduated from the Army Special Forces Qualification Course and he was the honor graduate of The British Special Air Services (SAS) Course.
The men train in a storm, as they prepare to summit Mount Baker.
The men spend the next couple days practicing their mountaineering skills and adjusting to the altitude difference. They work together seamlessly, just like they were back on patrol. The grind of sustained combat has a way ageing people overnight. You carry gear so heavy that it digs permanent scars. You are constantly on patrol or on watch and existing on a few restless minutes of sleep for months on end, in the worst possible conditions. You can be so completely exhausted that you fall asleep standing up and don’t even realize it. Your eyes snap open, adrenalin races, and you quickly wonder how long you were out. You scan with a hyper-awareness, looking for the smallest change in detail of the ever-shifting battlefield. Always grateful for your brothers-in-arms.
Bravo 1 fought in the Taliban’s backyard and the enemy had years to prepare their defenses. Andrew and Todd both recall what it was like to walk point in Sangin. “I’ve looked at my legs and audibly said goodbye before,” said Andrew. “The only place you could really walk and not be terrified was in wide-open cornfields.” His voice raises slightly. “But, you can’t just walk through cornfields, you have to cross paths and canals and bridges, and you have to go through doorways and up staircases and over walls.”
When Todd was asked what it was like to walk point, he looked down and soberly said, “I had a lot of moments where I knew that my luck and my ability to avoid the inevitable was coming to an end,” he said. “I was expecting it; at 20-years-old, I was content with dying.”
Andrew put it bluntly, “It was acceptance is really what it was. We’re going to get up, we’re going to go on patrol; somebody may die. If that happens, we’re going to go back and smoke a cigarette and get up again and do it again the next day. And we’re going to do that day in and day out until somebody tells us to go home.”
The Taliban constantly adjusted their tactics. Climb team member Darren Korthuis was a sergeant and a machine gunner with Bravo 1. The Lynden, Washington native said the Taliban tried to anticipate how the Marines would react in a fire fight. “They started setting up IEDS where we moved to after we took contact,” said Darren. “There were situations where we were taking semi-accurate fire and we were taking a knee and not moving because it was worse to move to an IED.”
Marine Chief Warrant Officer Sam Shin is still on active duty, but he was able to make the climb. He was a staff sergeant with Bravo 1 and an assistant team leader. He said the Taliban knew them well. “They would call us the Black Diamonds. When they would come over the chatter, we knew they were talking about us.” He pauses, then exhales deeply and smiles mischievously. “I took a guilty pleasure from that.”
Carrying Todd up steep terrain efficiently, will depend on how fast the team will be able to rotate carriers. The men develop a system that works well, and they train for every scenario imaginable, trying to anticipate what they might deal with as they climb. Mount Baker is heavily glaciated, and dangerous crevasses are everywhere. If somebody falls into a crevasse, the remaining team members must be able to rescue them. The situation becomes even more complicated with Todd on someone’s back.
Climb team member GySgt Jake Edmonson is still on active duty as well. Kyle is like a brother to him and Jake remembers how he felt the day Kyle and Todd were wounded. “The radio was going crazy and I was just watching the smoke cloud, just sitting their worried about what had happened.” He adjusts his ballcap and continues. “Maybe it’s the way I remember it, or somebody said something over the radio that Kyle’s face was gone.”
GySgt Jake Edmonson carries Todd Love as Andrew Dyer helps and Darren Korthuis looks on.
Weather conditions constantly change on the mountain. On the morning of their planned summit, more than a foot of snow has fallen in a matter of hours and the forecast is not good. With so much snow and bad weather, the possibility of an avalanche on the steep Roman Wall is very real. The Roman Wall is close to the top of the mountain, and parts of it are nearly vertical. The men have crowded in their cooking tent, and they sip on Nalgene bottles, listening quietly as Andrew briefs them. “We do not have the gear or the skills to rescue anybody from an avalanche,” he says. Andrew makes the call to wait and watch the weather. Adding an extra day will stretch their food resources. The men continue with their rehearsals, and the weather changes by the minute.
The next morning around 3 am, it’s pitch-black and snowing as they step off. A new storm has rolled in as the men trudge silently through the darkness; their breath visible against the light of their headlamps. As dawn arrives, there is still no visibility. The new snowfall has covered every crevasse, and Andrew methodically searches for and marks each one with small wire stakes he carries on his pack. The men follow in each other’s footsteps, just like they did when they were on patrol. Suddenly, Jake, the lead man in Todd’s rope team, falls through a snow bridge up to his waist and he’s hanging on a small ice ledge. The rope team follows the procedures they have practiced the last few days. After a tense few seconds, Jake gets his footing and climbs out on his own. As they continue to climb, the weather gets worse.
Other climbers also punch through snow bridges, and their progress is tedious and slow. By mid-morning the sun breaks through, revealing a massive crevasse nearby. The giant crystalline ice is baby-blue in color and kind of looks like somebody took a big chunk of a gorgeous South Pacific Ocean, then froze it and plopped it on the mountain for the men to gaze at. As the men take a break and sit on their packs, the weather begins to clear. And when they step off, Mount Baker offers a glimpse of its beauty.
The weather clears slightly revealing a glimpse of Mount Baker’s beauty.
It’s somewhat other-worldly and incredibly quite except for the constant drag-and-step rhythm of each man’s crampons digging into the snow as they walk. The men climb for more than eight hours, making it to a place known as Crater Rim, where volcanic steam constantly rises. They still have more than a thousand feet to go, and their greatest challenge will be ascending the Roman Wall with Todd. But the weather stays clear.
Volcanic steam rises in the background as the men take a break at Crater Rim.
They are above the cloud line and a blue sky stretches out before them. Cotton candy-like clouds hang below them on the horizon. Dave Jarvis is covered in sunblock and nibbling on food as steam from Crater Rim drifts behind him. He says, “The last 500 yards was a smoke check.” Sam Shin adds, “Yeah, that last part was brutal.” They are tired, but they have made a lot of progress. Andrew has climbed this mountain many times. He notes that they are slightly ahead of schedule and the weather has shifted considerably in their favor. He enthusiastically says, “We’re going to make it.”
At Crater Rim, the men are above the cloud line and Andrew tells them they are doing well.
They re-adjust their gear and prepare for the final push to the summit. Todd must be carried on someone’s back from this point forward. It’s too steep to use a sled.
After Crater Rim, Todd must be carried on someone’s back. (Photo courtesy of Brian Yarolem).
Once they are back in the rhythm of quietly climbing, they start to hit the Roman Wall and it gets steep quickly. Dave jokes out loud, “You don’t want to look down too much, kind of makes you wobbly.” He laughs good-naturedly and takes in the view. He grew up in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, the son of a lumberjack. He came up the ranks in the grunts and crossed over to the Recon community as a corporal. He’s incredibly strong and he has energy for days. The men jokingly refer to him as “The Clydesdale.” He’s regarded as a solid no-nonsense leader within the Recon community through plenty of first-hand accounts and stories from the men he led. For his actions in Afghanistan he was awarded both the Silver Star and a Bronze Star (W/V).
Shaking his hand is like getting clamped in a Vice-Grip.
At 10,000 feet, the men are on the steepest part of the Roman Wall.
At ten thousand feet, the lead rope team is on the steepest part of the Roman Wall. It’s very slippery and they have almost no grip with their pickaxes and crampons. If anybody loses their footing, that team runs the risk of falling into a large partially hidden crevasse on their left. Dave is skeptical and calls down to Andrew. “I think you should think twice about bringing Todd on this route, there’s not much bite in the dirt. It’s all rock and bad footing.”
The men only have a finite amount of time to reach the summit and get back to base camp before it gets dark. Andrew decides to take the difficult route and as they climb, bad weather rolls in quickly, making things worse. Visibility quickly drops to almost nothing and the wind picks up. Andrew stays laser-focused and undeterred as he digs in his pickaxe and slowly claws his way up the Roman Wall with Todd on his back. Todd’s arms are stretched wide to try and help balance his weight for Andrew. Nobody talks; everyone knows how dangerous it is.
Todd tries to help balance his weight as Andrew digs in and climbs the Roman Wall (Photo courtesy of Brian Yarolem).
They make it past the Roman Wall, but still have about 700 feet to go. Blistering winds and deep snow make them earn every step. The weather starts to clear slightly, and the summit comes into view. After everything they have struggled through, it is almost a collective surprise when they finally make it to the summit. The last 100 yards is a visible testament to the character of these men. Todd makes his own way, putting his arms in front of him and propelling his torso forward in slight hops. He falters in the slippery snow as his brothers walk by his side, encouraging him. It’s understood that this moment belongs to him.
Todd Love climbs the last few yards to the summit as the team walks with him.
As they reach the final summit, the sun breaks through and it’s almost as if the mountain is welcoming them. They shake hands and pause to take a group photo. Each climber has carried a set of dog tags with the name of a fallen service member who inspired them. The tags will go to family members of the fallen.
Each climber has carried a set of dog tags with the name of a fallen service member who inspired them.
They don’t stay long and within minutes, they begin their long decent back to base camp. They pause in another storm at Crater Rim. Andrew tells the men, “All we’ve got to do now is not go in a hole; that’s it.”
When they get back to base camp, they’re greeted with clear skies. After nearly 15 hours of climbing, they are completely exhausted. The next morning, they make their way back down the mountain. They pass a large group of climbers who stop what they are doing and give the men a standing ovation. They had climbed, with their wounded, through some of the worst weather Andrew had ever seen on Mount Baker; rain, snow, hail and strong winds; with nearly every climber punching through a snow bridge at some point.
The entire climb was funded through donations and the team spent nearly eight months conducting fundraisers. After the climb, more than seventy thousand dollars was donated to the Force Recon Foundation to help service members and their families.
On the summit of Mount Baker, June 2019.
Every reunion ends with friends and family getting together to celebrate life. They catch up and make plans for the next year. Then they gather by the fire to trade stories.
Courage is the acknowledgment of fear. And, true bravery is demonstrated by doing what needs to be done with complete understanding of the danger ahead. By their actions, these men remain devoted to something greater than themselves. And, each man will never let their brothers down for as long as they walk this Earth. Like so many veterans before them, they’ve discovered a powerful truth; they’re stronger together.